In Detroit, there is reason to expect success

Harold Brown is the President of EDWorks, a subsidiary of KnowledgeWorks.

by Harold D. Brown on April 6, 2012

Glenn Bar, the producer of WXYZ’s Detroit 2020, passed along an ocean-blue, Lance Armstrong-style bracelet that reflects the show’s intent: “Unify, Inspire, Act.” During its 5 p.m. newscast on Wednesday, Detroit 2020 featured my organization’s work in the state’s first high school, historic Detroit Central Collegiate Academy. Watch it online.

The summary is that EDWorks’ New Start high school approach is showing great promise at Central, but we know there is much work to be done – not just at Central, but in high schools just like it all over the United States. Meanwhile, we hope our work at Central continues to heed D2020’s call to “help inspire change and make Detroit a better place to live, work and raise families.” We are trying to do just that nationwide by applying lessons we’ve learned from a history of successful transformation work.

Former West Virginia Governor Bob Wise, now a passionate education reformer, likes to talk about how the current education system is offering an 8-track education in an iPod world. And in many ways, that’s true.

In schools all over the United States, we usher our kids into classrooms that closely resemble those common 50 years ago. We ask kids to memorize and regurgitate. And then we wonder why they don’t retain knowledge or why we don’t get the outcomes we expect. Success in today’s work place demands advanced skills in critical thinking and problem solving, as well as a kind of intellectual agility that enables learners to shift readily from one task to another. Those who have strong language and math skills, technological capabilities, and a capacity to work well in teams, are most likely to succeed.

Yes, today, only about seven out of 10 of students earn their high school diploma, which sets them up to do worse than their peers in today’s increasingly competitive global environment. By some estimates, high school dropouts cost between $320 billion and $350 billion annually in lost wages, taxable income, health, and welfare and incarceration costs. The National Center for Education Statistics said that a person who did not complete high school will earn about $630,000 less over their lifetime than someone who has earned at least a GED.

Clearly, those numbers are not acceptable, nor sustainable for the long-term success of our country. In fact, a recent Georgetown University study estimates that by 2018, 63 percent of available jobs will require some college education.

It’s no secret that in Detroit, education and economic woes are much worse that in most other areas of the country, and the root causes of those woes are well-documented.

However, I share a boundless optimism about the future of the region because I’m beginning to see positive changes in DPS. Test scores are on the rise, attendance is up, and a culture of excellence is taking root.

Detroit Central Collegiate Academy English Teacher Crystal Jackson recently noted the transformation. “Our test scores have increased, we have more teacher participation, we have more hands-on activity,” she said. “We are really becoming a technologically-driven school (with) different innovative and creative ideas and approaches to delivering academic instruction.”

In Ohio a few years back, we worked with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the U.S. Department of Education and others to take on the challenge of turning around the most persistently lowest performing schools. As we began the actual work, we found high-poverty, high-minority schools were disproportionately characterized by low expectations, unqualified, inexperienced, poorly prepared teachers, badly designed curriculum lacking in rigor and relevance. Those factors, when combined with a reliance on narrow definitions of success, played an enormous role in explaining why students in these schools were not achieving at high levels.

After six years of intensive and productive work, overall high school graduation rates in these schools increased by 32 percent from 2002 to 2008. During the same time period, the state graduation rate increased just more than 2 percent. And the graduation gap between our high schools and all Ohio high schools closed dramatically between 2002 and 2008 by more than 73 percent.

Nearly eight out of ten African-American students in these sites are graduating – a 29 percent increase from 2002 to 2008, surpassing the state’s 64 percent graduation rate for African-American students during the same period.

My optimism for DPS and school systems all over America is not blind.

It is rooted in the fact that I know positive results can be achieved if we are willing to do the hard work to get there and remain focused on long-term improvement over the long term.

Harold D. Brown is president of EDWorks, a high school turnaround and development organization that partners with schools, districts and states to provide effective, long-term solutions. EDWorks offers three different approaches to school design: New Start, Fast Track, and STEMLab high schools.

Harold D. Brown About Harold D. Brown
EDWorks President Harold Brown works hand-in-hand with leaders, building strong partnerships at the school, community, district and state levels to ensure all students reached their full potential and are prepared for success.

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