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Rudy Crew Speaks Out on Detroit Schools

Making Strategic Investments with Stimulus Dollars

In April 2009, Rudy Crew, AASA National Superintendent of the Year in 2008 and now professor of clinical education at USC’s Rossier School of Education, spoke with associate editor Don Parker-Burgard about Detroit Public Schools, mayoral control, and the best use of federal stimulus money in Detroit and elsewhere. Here are excerpts of what he had to say.

What’s the single thing that Detroit Public Schools could do with the stimulus money that would make the most difference in the long term?

To provide real support for teacher and principal development, specifically around literacy. The missing link in learning for many children in urban America is reading. Helping teachers to become stronger, more effective teachers and helping principals to organize around instruction, particularly literacy instruction, particularly around the arts [is key, as well as beginning] to explore and discuss an e-learning platform where children and members of the community and parents can have access to education as a natural part of how that system would interface with them. They can see education as sort of a 24/7 service that is available to them in their community. It means being able to create honors and AP classes in schools where they don’t have them or don’t have them in many sections and also gives a whole new dimension to the educational agenda. It forces the internal system, the conventional system, to revamp and revise how it delivers its own instruction. It shifts the conversation from supply to demand.

Can you say more about this e-learning platform?

This is a platform that gives rise to a whole new generation of learning possibilities and learning designs, some of that being in the form of virtual schools, some of it being in the form of online courses, like AP and honors and so forth, but also some of it being a platform that provides parent academy-type courses on how do you prepare your child for taking the SAT, here’s what is takes to be able to get into college, here are the scholarship possibilities that are available.

What you have right now is a need for information that is higher and more sophisticated and more in demand than the actual structure or delivery system that’s built into most public school systems. People want it in real time. They want it when they need it. They’re sitting at their table at night trying to figure out everything from how do I pay the rent, or the mortgage, to how do I get my kid into school, to what are the options of the various schools available to me in the course of the year. All of that ought to be available to parents on a 24/7 basis. And it ought to be interactive, meaning the system ought to be able to talk to parents and parents ought to be able to talk to the system. That platform doesn’t exist right now; it exists in paper form, it exists in lots of two-day, three-day, one-week, two-week intervals, it exists in the form of newsletters, but it is not what I think of as a service that’s available 24/7.

I think that the technology platform that I’m speaking of creates a new menu, and it gives parents a portion of that menu, it gives students a portion of that menu, and it clearly gives teachers a portion of that menu from the standpoint of professional development and learning opportunities that are available to them in their time and space needs. So supporting literacy instruction and supporting higher and more rigorous professional development for teachers--they want and need that. They’re not sitting there saying, “Hey, I want to fail.” They’re essentially saying, “I need to be supported in this work if I’m going to be good at it. But I can’t travel across the city to go to a one-day event; I can’t access this just on one afternoon a month or one faculty meeting a month.” What is helpful is an ongoing, embedded-in-their work professional development program that helps them stay current in the literature, current in the practice, and gives feedback on what they’re doing on a day-to-day basis. That is so much more available now, using a technology platform, than ever before.

Supporting literacy instruction and supporting higher and more rigorous professional development for teachers--they want and need that. They're not sitting there saying, 'Hey, I want to fail.

Both Arne Duncan and Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm have publicly supported mayoral control for Detroit Public Schools. Do you think that such a move could make a difference?

I think it is unfortunately going to be viewed as a silver bullet--if we get the governance question stabilized and we create an oversight structure, that that’s going to enhance the district. I don’t see the correlation between that and a third-grader trying to understand participles. In my mind, it’s one part of multiple strategy--I think it needs to be in tandem with a multiyear strategic plan as to how that stimulus money will be leveraged in the context of instruction and in the context of low-performing schools. I also think it needs to be put in the context of, beyond the strategic plan, a real operational year-by-year sort of accountability system that creates targets for individual schools so that people know how to keep score. And third, I think it has to be put in the context of an additional body of work--professional development, leadership training--but I think it also has to be put in the context of providing Detroit with a real, ongoing technical support team.

The problem is not such that the governance structure in and of itself can fix it. The governance structure has to preside over the right ideas.

This is not a school district that is incapable of success. Some of this governance issue is not just stabilizing the governing body, but it is providing some ongoing, technical, on-the-ground support for the core mission of each and every school. I know that most districts struggle with having the capacity to do that, particularly because they’ve had these massive budget cuts in the last several months. The governance issue often gets identified as “Once we fix that, then we’ll be on surer footing.” The problem is not such that the governance structure in and of itself can fix it. The governance structure has to preside over the right ideas. It’s not just what’s the structure, but what structure is going to implement and monitor the implementation of the right ideas. The right ideas are ideas that have to do with engaging the community with providing greater and higher levels of math and literacy instruction. Providing the opportunities for children to see and experience language ? in the context of new learning environments like the museum, like the cultural arts, like the performing arts--these are ways by which children make sense out of their world, and literacy is a part of that, but we teach them in cells, so art is taught from 9 to 11 and language arts is taught from 1 to 3, and it’s as though we don’t see the nexus, we don’t see the connection between the two.

What steps could Detroit Public Schools take to ensure buy-in from teachers, parents, and taxpayers for new reforms and innovations made possible with stimulus funds?

Engage the rank and file--teachers--early and often. Talk with people. It’s not about closing a budget gap. People who think this about simply closing the budget that’s been created--they will blow this money. It’s the wrong message; it’s the wrong metaphor. This is about using that money to leverage new ideas and innovation. You need to engage the people who are sitting in front of these children on a day-by-day basis. And you have to be still for the conversation. You have to be mature enough and smart enough to go past the tension that will come in this conversation. There is always tension. People have to be mature enough to stand still and not run away and not force that to be kind of silent. It’s going to happen. People are annoyed, people are worried, people are upset. There are huge gaps in the opportunities for children that have existed for years and they’re very frustrated about that. But leaders can turn the conversation away from a perseveration over what didn’t happen to a creative tone of what could happen. And now with these stimulus dollars you get to go to the canvas and everybody has their own brush and paint, and they can paint a new picture.

What sort of a picture would you like to see painted in Detroit?

If I were still a superintendent, I would be trying to bring in and create networks of schools in my district. If I were in Detroit I would be looking to create networks of schools in Detroit and networks outside of Detroit--in other words, connecting Detroit to Toronto, for example. ? You need a technological platform for that, but the Chinese are doing it; the people in India are doing it. There’s no reason why we couldn’t do it in Detroit, for goodness’ sake. And the excitement and the endless possibilities that arise once you start seeing a pretty large canvas on which you can paint the possible--that becomes kind of a force multiplier of sorts. It becomes a way of people seeing that their energy is better spent in positive thrusts rather than these kinds of stutter starts and staggered starts of fits of anger. One can perseverate over who shot John, or you can go about the business of building a new system in Detroit.

I think that this money is a way to spearhead a whole new generation of thinking and a whole new lively debate and dialogue around what and how learning should now look in Detroit given the opportunity that comes with money. And that’s really, from my experience, where I think this conversation must go. Otherwise, it will just simply be trying to win the game from the 50-yard line. You simply can’t win it from there. In places like Detroit and where I’ve been, New York, and around urban America, you’re either going to be on the edge, and you’re going to lead from there, or you’re not going to lead at all. You’re playing a fool’s game of trying to stand still and give people the perception of motion.

How do you see the stimulus and the need for the United States to prepare students for a global economy coming together?

Giving kids something they might never ever get--that’s what this money really represents. This is our moment to create our own field of dreams. So I look at this stimulus conversation and I think to myself, the administration has to start pushing more than just topics. This has to be about strategies; this has to be about Monday morning, and next June, and at graduation: Here’s what children by June graduation of 2012--here’s what their standards will have been that they’ve met in order to satisfy a huge niche in the economy for globalists, for people who are thinkers in a global context.

In places like Detroit and where I've been, you're either going to be on the edge, and you're going to lead from there, or you're not going to lead at all.

So what I’m prescribing about a technology platform, I’m describing essentially what is happening around Detroit. It is happening in Toronto, it is happening in Beijing, it is happening in Singapore, it is happening in India. These are places, given what they’re doing now, that will be exporting education in a few years. Education will be an export; it will be a product. My worry is that while we’re sitting worrying about how much money did you get, and how many charter schools are coming up in your district, we ought to be worrying about how to put in place a set of global, internationally benchmarked standards that make sense for children about to walk out of Detroit and into a huge, technologically backboned world. If we’re not on that page pretty darn quickly, we will surrender our economic requirements to a workforce that will be elsewhere rather than in our own backyard. That’s my biggest worry right now.

Does the stimulus package represent a last chance to turn things around?

There won’t be another stimulus package. This is about strategic investments in these communities and in these schools. If superintendents and mayors and city council members don’t get together and build a governing entity where, however it’s structured, but where they actually take aim at very specific targets on a year-to-year basis and where they’re very strategic in how they use these new dollars, we will have missed this wonderful opportunity that’s been created by already an unprecedented amount of political will and risk that has entered into the American landscape. Who wants to squander that?