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Detroit's Education Manifesto

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Excellent Schools Detroit is a non-profit organization that supports the Excellent Schools Detroit coalition. The coalition includes leaders of Detroit's school systems, philanthropic partners, grassroots and civic organizations, as well as those in the business community.

Together we are pursuing an audacious goal of "90/90/90." The three 90s call for Detroit to be the first major U.S. city where 90 percent of students graduate from high school, 90 percent of those graduates enroll in college or a quality postsecondary training program, and 90 percent of those enrollees are prepared to succeed without remediation. Although those goals are focused on results at the end of schooling, to reach them our coalition works on issues impacting children from birth through adulthood.

We are pursuing that 90/90/90 goal in three ways.

Coordinating the System - We help coordinate the "institutional actors" in the city so that they work more effectively together. For example, many K-12 institutions have contributed to a shared definition of school quality that is the foundation of an annual school rating process we call the Report Card.

Gap Filling - We work with early childhood caregivers, K-12 educators, school districts and authorizing universities to identify gaps in Detroit's early childhood and K-12 educational landscape. Our coalition then fills those gaps with innovative solutions.

Engaging the Community - Our third function is to help organize effective ways for the Detroit community to support and demand this work. This requires that we tap into the way people in Detroit (and beyond) think about education and reframe that story.

Finally, throughout everything we do we consider the lens of race. Detroit's population is mainly black and brown. Therefore, for example, if we're talking about measures, we're also talking about how we measure in a culturally sensitive and competent way.

So far, our work has focused on three things: measures, talent and new schools, with another two growing in importance.

Measures - Our K-12 educational system in general and in Detroit in particular has gotten so complex, with so many actors, even those of us who are "in it" every day have trouble explaining it in a way that makes sense to others. When you have multiple governance systems in play as we do in Detroit (with the Education Achievement Authority, Detroit Public Schools and dozens of charter operators with many authorizers), how can we look at any given school and know how it measures up against any other? We do look at test scores, yes, and they are important. They help us understand how much a school's students know in comparison to others in the city, state and nation. But test scores don't tell you everything you need to know about how the school's environment promotes or works against student safety and
wellbeing. Like stock prices, they also don't help you figure out whether a school is likely to do better or worse in the future. That's why we think multiple measures are necessary for Detroit.

We also believe that the quality of a school's leadership and educators are important and measurable. Using tools like the 5Essentials from the University of Chicago, we can understand if a school is positioned to make progress. Qualitative measures like school appearance, safety and openness to parents and community are essential to any school becoming a neighborhood anchor and are also, quite measurable. Starting in 2011, Excellent Schools Detroit began
helping our community conduct school site reviews. Members of the community, including parents and caregivers, walk the halls of Detroit's schools, ask questions and together qualitatively assess each school. We put their thoughts into the report card, along with
the quantitative results from testing and other qualitative results, such as teacher and student surveys.

Simultaneously, we are very excited about the launch of a tiered quality rating and improvement system for early childhood educators across Michigan. This system will help parents choose high quality care for their children, and will help child care providers improve.

Talent - Can you think of the best teacher you ever had? Was he or she great because of what they taught or because of how they taught? We think the latter is an immutable imperative for great educations: educators that are excited to teach and rewarded for their passion. We
also know that the relationship between teachers and principals is an important one that needs mutual support but in our climate of blame, often doesn't get the time or attention it needs. Great teachers and school leaders need rewards and encouragement, and those with commitment and potential need the resources and support to become better. The rest need to find new careers. Our children deserve our best. We are committed to making Detroit an epicenter of education talent.

New Schools - With no cap on the number of charter schools in Michigan, there is now little need for us to encourage the creation of new schools. However, there is a huge need for new school models -- most charter schools in Detroit are simply tweaking and replicating what
already exists. Excellent Schools Detroit plays a role in helping the community understand which models are working and wants the community to exercise its voice about those that aren't.

Policy - There is also a tremendous need for education policy in Michigan that is focused on quality instead of governance. For too long our students have sailed into the headwind created by political parties more focused on school governance than school quality. The truth is that both charter and traditional schools can work, and both can fail. The most important policy consideration going forward must be the quality of the school regardless of the governance model.

Cradle to Career - We believe that a child's education starts before she is born and that the first few years of life will affect every succeeding year. They are so important, these first years of childhood, that they impact a child's lifetime potential. So why then, don't we as a city place more of our bets on early childhood? Here's a provocative question: is there any reason to think that money for 12th graders gets better results than investment in pre-kindergarten? Less
provocatively, but as importantly, we believe that if we were to simply invest the same amount in supporting high quality early childhood care as we do in high schools, we would see a chain
reaction: children will come to first grade better prepared to learn and will be more likely to make it to college or career training on time.

Dan Varner is the CEO of Excellent Schools Detroit. For more information, visit us at excellentschoolsdetroit.org, @ESDet or on Facebook.

Join panelist Dan Varner, Model D and HuffPost Detroit Wednesday, Aug. 29 at YouthVille Detroit for a free speaker series on Innovation in Education.