Means & Methods for Education in Detroit Public Schools

by David Rambeau

For the past few weeks the Financial Overseer of the Detroit Public School System has been implementing a volunteer Reading Corps which now numbers about 4,000 eager initiates. After a brief training period and background checks, they will be thrust into tutoring students up to the 3rd grade in reading for one hour per week with the goal of bringing the students to grade level by 2015, a full 5 years hence.

The development of this project has seen little, if any, input or comment from parents, teachers, students, or community. Nor has it received any critical analysis. Given this set of circumstances, let me be the first to analyze what is happening.

Grade level in the educational process is a useful fiction, in urban education it is frequently a fantasy. All students are at grade level, the place, which in the final analysis, in academic terms, rests in the student, not in the group (the class). Practice (study) is the key, not the "grade". The goal should not be the destination (the grade); the focus should be on the journey (the practice) Thus, the plan or concept is mis-shapen from the start, though with tutoring progress can occur. The principles of the Hawthorne Experiment are still viable.

Productively speaking, it is better to have upper level students and parents tutored and have the benefits trickle down to the very young. With the method the overseer is using, a whole generation of students from 4th grade to 12th grade is being written off. Not a good idea nor method.

Furthermore, the so-called lowest score ever, 199, was achieved in a math exam, not a reading test. To develop a reading corps in response is counter-intuitive, though not totally counter-productive. That is, some benefit will accrue, simply not in the supposed academic area, math, of greatest need.

Moreover, it is not a lack of reading skills that caused the unfortunate math scores. For several obvious reasons. The literary or reading challenge of math problems is at least two "grades" below the grade level being tested. The reading level of the 4th grade math test is 2nd grade; the reading level of the 8th grade math test is 6th grade. Reading the problem is not the problem. Understanding or decoding the math concepts and then manipulating them is the problem. To improve in math one must be taught math. This is so for any intellectual or physical activity. What the students need is practice, practice, math. Combine this with instruction, motivation, rewards, recognition, aptitude and discipline, and you'll get results.

You can read a math problem fluently, understand every word, and still not have the slightest clue of how to solve the problem. In fact, the math challenge can be stated quite simply, e.g. add, subtract, multiply, divide. Solve for x, or solve the problem. You can read it; you just can't do it. And then what happens when a student brings a real (i.e. difficult) math problem and asks one of these reading tutors for help, and the tutor has to tell the student, "I don't know any more math than you do." What will the student think then?

I suspect that Detroit's would-be academic overseer took the easy way out. I suggest a call for a volunteer Math Corps would have received perhaps a tenth or less of the response that the call for a Reading Corps received. To look good rather than respond to a specific need was the result. It is difficult for me to believe that Detroit Public School math teachers were consulted, and that they opined that developing a reading corps took precedence over developing a math corps, however small it would have been. If one wanted students to improve performance in math, I would have opted for a Chess Corps or a Music Theory Corps way ahead of a Reading Corps, but once again, the volunteers would have been few, though the results significant.

Tutoring at early grade levels (1st - 3rd) must be done in schools, whereas the best place for tutoring would be in a neighborhood library because that's where the books (and computers) are. Like Willie Sutton replied when asked, "Why do you rob banks? He answered, "Because that's where the money is." We need to develop in students and parents and tutors the practice of going where the books libraries. When the libraries are full, all intellectual pursuits will improve, and performance will improve, with or without tutors.

And now a little humor to leaven this script. Remember those supernumeraries in the photo when the Overseer made his announcement of the formation of the Reading Corps. I wonder how many of those sycophants are adroit at Algebra or the Calculus. Not likely we'll find that out any time soon.

And a word about these reading rallies. Reading and math are quiet disciplines, most often pursued in silence. Libraries, like chess matches, are quiet places. This raucous rally business of voluminous rhetoric is misplaced. School is not sport, though both are disciplined and intense.

About the math scores. Can anyone who has any familiarity with black communities or neighborhoods aver that they reflect a populace that possesses expertise in mathematics? When you look at eastside Detroit, would you suspect that its residents are proficient in math? So why would anybody who wasn't stupid or hypocritical be "shocked" at the math scores. Is it the math scores that need to be changed first, or is it the neighborhoods?

In sum, maybe there are no math teachers in Detroit's public schools. None of them have come forward. None have been called upon. Maybe all the math courses are taught by gym teachers, or janitors, or security guards. I don't know; do you? When the parent groups have indicted them for failure to teach, and they come to trial, maybe that is what we'll discover. The Detroit Public School System has no math teachers, so the scores the students got were actually excellent rather than "shocking". Of course, all of this is conjecture on my part, but do you have any evidence to the contrary? No, I didn't think so. Meanwhile, we'll stick with 199, the lowest math test score ever. It's as meaningless or meaningful as any other.

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Means & Methods for Education in Detroit Public Schools by David Rambeau

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