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Where politics and faith dance in the shadow of the windmill.

Exit, Voice, and Expectations

Dave Murray raises an important question: are we expecting the same from our inner city schools as from our elite suburban schools such as East Grand Rapids? The answer he provides is no. The bottom line, as Murray, explains is that

writing off a third-grader because of his parents, his home or his lack of abilities should be unacceptable.

Few would actually argue with that. Indeed, this is the core philosophy of public education — what distinguishes it from its private peers, a belief ingrained in our culture and our civic ideals. But the painful reality is that Detroit is not East Grand Rapids. Whether it’s pictures of Detroit classrooms abandoned with computers and books still inside, or simply the horrific test scores of so many urban schools, the necessity of reform bubbles up. While teacher unions in Michigan and elsewhere protest political attacks on their work conditions, who stands up for kids? Where’s the protest, the outrage asks Murray:

I’ve yet to hear about a protest in front of the district headquarters in Detroit – or any of our cities – demanding that educators find a way to improve those schools.

But that protest has been underway for some time. As A. O Hirschman pointed out years ago in Exit, Voice and Loyalty, the disgruntled have two options for bringing reform: voice, the giving of protest; and exit, the leaving of the system.  When it comes to the urban school and especially those of Detroit, the eople have registered their protest by walking. Enrollment in Detroit is projected to fall to 50,000 students by 2016; in 2000 it had 168,000 enrolled; meanwhile enrollment in charters tops 50,000. Clearly, parents have voted their feet. That the schools persist despite this decline suggests that the easy turn to exit strategies the Governor advances is simply mistaken. It’s not that people won’t vote with their feet, but rather that such exit does not function efficiently in the market-disciplining manner free marketers imagine. (This also was Hirschman’s point, as well).

Murray asks why failure on such a huge scale is accepted, suggesting that the fault lies with our expectations: we have simply not asked enough of the schools. It is a failure to adopt sufficiently rigorous standards with respect to the urban schools.

In a Michigan context this seems misplaced. One of the well-understood consequences of Michigan’s over-dependence on the auto industry was the notion that one did not need a strong education to get a good job. It is a persistent theme on the comment boards at MLive whenever the question of curriculum is raised.  It also lies at the hesitancy of communities and their legislators to support their schools. Instead of tackling this issue, we settle for the narratives that focus on the actions of administrators, a teaching community, of when all else fails, the presumed failing of the urban (a racial code word) c0mmunity.

If one is to ask for greater voice for high expectations in education — and you will get no objection here — then it is only appropriate that money meet mouth. Otherwise, the exit option will continue, of students from schools, graduates from the State, and of course, our long-term opportunity.

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