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Todd Farley

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7 Days in Detroit Public Schools

Posted: 03/15/11 01:44 PM ET

I had the goat.

That's what I remember about my travels to Detroit last year, while working as a test developer for an educational publishing company. I made two separate trips to Motown, spending seven total days in the Detroit Public Schools to get teacher approval on the K-12 assessments my company "developed" for them. While I have only vague recollections of the work those teachers and I did -- lots of indiscriminate arguing about whether some reading passage was too hard or too easy for their test and whether the correct answer to some question was B or C (or maybe D?) -- I do have a very clear memory of dinner one night.

It was at Roast, Iron Chef Michael Symon's signature restaurant, a swank and pricey eatery famous for its menu of meats. The night my colleagues and I visited, the daily special was goat, the whole animal skewered on a spit and roasting over an open flame. I happily gorged myself on a plateful of meat hacked off the roasting carcass, crispy skin included. It was all delectable, and while most of my colleagues opted not to dine on goat that evening, they nonetheless reveled in wine or cocktails and big, delicious steaks. For sure, it was a great night to work in standardized testing.

While my colleagues and I enjoyed other nice meals in Motown (a Polish feast in Hamtramck, platters of flaming cheese and souvlaki in Greektown), most of our time was less festive than those nights out.

Our troubles began the first morning of the first visit, when, pulling off the highway to look for the school administration building, we began to drive the forlorn streets of Detroit. Two carloads of out-of-towners we were, overwhelmingly white (with one Asian-American thrown in there for diversity's sake), in silence looking out our rental car windows at street after street of abandoned factories, boarded up houses, empty lots.

Shocked that a commercial strip could exist without a Starbucks, we stopped at a McDonald's for coffee instead. From the looks on the faces of the locals inside, the people in that establishment weren't much expecting us, a gaggle of white people (plus one Asian-American for diversity's sake) wearing suits and carrying laptops, all piling out of a couple of minivans and flooding their neighborhood Mickey D's.

Our reception at the administration building that morning wasn't very warm either, both because the heat wasn't turned on and because the Detroit teachers recruited to okay our assessments seemed cynical about our presence. There were nearly 20 of us standardized testers on site that day (test developers, senior test developers, supervisors, project managers, customer service reps), and one Detroit teacher wasn't very impressed that there were nearly twice as many of us as them.

"Who are all you people anyways?" she snarled. "And what do you think you are doing here?"

Her implication, of course, was that those of us who had jetted to Detroit from Chicago and New York (and Minneapolis and Missouri and New Mexico) had no idea what went on in the Detroit Public Schools and, frankly, that we had little to offer. When some of the teachers told us about the conditions they experienced each day (a lack of textbooks in classrooms but a surfeit of students, metal detectors at the front doors, cars stolen right out of school parking lots), it was hard to argue the point. What did those of us staying in the same downtown hotel as Hollywood stars like Samuel L. Jackson think we could do to help fix the Detroit Public Schools?

I asked myself that question at the time, and I ask it especially now, when I'm amazed to read about the "draconian" measures being taken by DPS Emergency Financial Manager Robert Bobb. While he concedes his plan makes neither financial nor academic sense, Bobb is nonetheless attempting to solve DPS's $327 million budget shortfall by closing nearly half of Detroit's schools and increasing class sizes in the remaining ones to as high as sixty. It seems an insane idea to me, especially since I feel responsible for a big chunk of that deficit.

The company I worked for, you see, is owned by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt just completed a 15-month contract with the Detroit Public Schools worth $39,859,925.00. That's right, almost forty million dollars, or more than 12 percent of DPS's entire budget shortfall, for HMH's "managed instruction" in reading and math. While I don't know exactly what forty million dollars of "managed instruction" looks like (who does?), I know some of those millions were used to pay for the tests I helped slap together (mostly recycling passages and questions from our item bank that had been used many times before) and to sponsor my travels to Detroit.

It all just gives me pause. While I'm no expert in education policy (Bill Gates I am not), I'm still hard-pressed to see the benefits of sending those millions to Boston to line the gilded coffers of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Seriously, wouldn't the city of Detroit have been better served by spending that money to keep open its schools or to hire teachers, coaches, staff, security? To improve facilities, add after-school programs, serve healthy lunches? Isn't all of that a better way to give the city's kids a chance to succeed than paying tens of millions for the "expertise" of a bunch of outsiders who will have no more than cursory interactions with the city of Detroit?

Wouldn't that money have been better spent on something other than buying me dinner? I have to say, notwithstanding that yummy goat at Roast, today the thought of my days in Detroit leaves nothing but a bad taste in my mouth.