I am often asked what is the most important strategy that can be leveraged to improve Detroit Public Schools Community District, or public education in general.
My response is: make teaching and teachers the most important priority in educational reform. By doing so, you immediately improve the outcomes and experiences of all children, because teachers have the most consistent interaction with children outside of families.
As we know, for some children, this consistency is vital due to home life challenges.
Despite this reality, we often hear leaders and elected officials honor the hard work and sacrifice of teachers without emphasizing and prioritizing budgets and policy to enhance teacher status as one of the most important professions in our society. This is why we are seeing fewer undergraduates enter the teaching profession and others leaving it.
This country, despite its rhetoric for honoring teachers, does not respect traditional public education — including teachers and their students — enough to put their money where their mouths are. It’s empty talk.
As a result, our children, community, and the future of this country continue to suffer. We allow the ideology of choice, lower taxes and weak government to dictate elections and education policy. We ignore what works — best practice and research — for silver bullets and quick fixes. There are few examples that better reflect the disrespect toward traditional public education — and toward teachers and their students — than what occurred in Michigan, and namely in Detroit, through emergency management.
One example is the current state of our facilities. We have buildings that are in dire need of repair due to years of neglect. This would have never been tolerated in any of the surrounding suburbs but yet it became the status quo in Detroit under emergency management. Another is the lack of systems and processes that “normal” organizations have in place. Something as simple as a customer service response process was missing. Basic payroll systems, accountability metrics and inferior curriculum are just some of the basics that created the corrosion I witnessed when I first came to the district almost two years ago.
Let this low point in history always serve as the extreme governance model that should never be imposed again in any state or school district.
Over the past two years, we have worked deliberately to rebuild DPSCD from the debacle of emergency management while placing our focus on improving the conditions of teachers. We have not achieved victory but we are improving.
We have raised teacher salaries and are committed to doing so through reoccurring and one-time bonus increases in the future. We must put as much money in teachers pockets as our budget will allow while being fiscally responsible as a district under state financial review. We returned TIP funding to teachers before retirement. (Under emergency management, the incentive plan took money from teachers on a bi-weekly basis and held it to pay them when they left the district. There was doubt that this funding would be returned. Last year, we made an agreement with the union to pay the teachers back and we did that last year.) We have enhanced teacher voices through the selection of curriculum, reduced testing, lowered class sizes, revised the evaluation tool, and funded additional school-based positions to address chronic absenteeism, discipline, and academic intervention.
Additionally, we expanded paid professional development opportunities and provided a new career pathway for strong teachers through our master teacher role. We provided all teachers with a laptop and the opportunity to complete a survey about their experiences at their school.
The survey results are used as feedback to coach and develop principals as instructional leaders and talent managers. We are most excited about the opportunity to develop the next generation of teachers through our Marygrove initiative with the University of Michigan, where aspiring teachers will learn to teach before becoming the teacher of record.
No different than doctors, teachers must be given the time and resources to learn from veteran teachers before entering the classroom full time.
Despite this work, the legacy of our school board and my leadership will rest on making Detroit teachers the highest paid in the state and country. Detroit teachers deserve to be the highest paid because our children deserve the best teachers in each of the classrooms they enter and leave every day.
To accomplish this goal, we must demand equitable funding in Michigan where property tax revenue, which is included in the state’s foundation allowance along with state per pupil funding, does not imbalance the scales of equal opportunity for students.
On average, school districts in Grosse Pointe, Southfield and Farmington generate $130 million dollars more in annual revenue than DPSCD. This allows these districts and countless others to offer teacher salaries and school facilities that are superior to ours.
Although DPSCD typically receives more federal funding than many other districts due to the concentration of low income families, those funds are restricted and cannot be used at scale for districtwide salary increases, but instead for additional school-level support positions, creating more vacancies that are difficult to fill.
If we are truly committed to all children and we reject the notion that the greater likelihood of success is afforded to those in higher income zip codes, then we need to provide equitable public school funding. This will allow us to retain our veteran teachers and develop a new generation of teachers who will live in the city and see teaching as a career, not an experience. This is how we will rebuild the city, communities, and even our country.
Nikolai Vitti, Ed.D.
Detroit Public Schools Community District