What urban school districts can learn from Detroit

A new chancellor takes a no-nonsense approach to education

I began visiting public schools in Detroit one year ago.

For the first several months, I saw things in those schools that I have never encountered before during too many urban school visits to remember.

The students were too beaten down to act out. They were mindlessly engaged in teacher directed activities that left little for the imagination. The level teachers were teaching to ignored reasonable grade level expectations.

Related: A three-year look at a school trying to turn around

Support staff thought their jobs were to protect students from their younger, whiter and more demanding teachers, many of whom came to the school through non-traditional routes such as Teach for America. Principals and assistant principals were doing their jobs as if there was no crisis in the school.

The Educational Achievement Authority was a so-called reform district that supposedly served these schools to little effect.

That changed in the middle of last year with the appointment of Veronica Conforme, a seasoned district leader from New York City who immediately took a no-nonsense approach.

Related: This is how you start a school

Conforme brought in new central office system leaders and reorganized how they worked with her, each other and the schools. She created a teachers council which revamped their own salary structure as their first act creating a scale based on accomplishment and work assumed, not tenure nor years in the position.

Schools were placed in networks and reported to the chancellor through network leaders. And perhaps most significantly, she replaced all of the principals in place when she got there. This year, Chancellor Conforme and her staff have implemented performance assessment for students and teachers. She has invited charter schools and other educational providers to support principals and their teachers.

The chancellor also created a leadership pipeline that is filling leadership positions and supporting these leaders to produce academic learning results for the students they serve. She and her staff practically live in their schools.

Related: At troubled Detroit schools, adjusting to more class time

Conforme isn’t waiting for America to end poverty before students can learn. She understands, as great school district leaders do, the need to educate all of our students to their highest abilities regardless of race, family income, and level of parental education.

She has committed to do so in one of the most challenging school districts in the country. From what I’ve seen, I have no doubt that she and her students will succeed.

Detroit can be viewed two ways. Some believe that it is the best example of urban America in decline.

Related: Can Detroit attract middle-class families to one of the worst school systems in the country?

From what I’ve seen in Chancellor Conforme’s schools, I would prefer to look at Detroit as the new urban frontier of our nation.

As Detroit’s schools go, so shall the city. Knowing that Veronica Conforme is at the helm of those schools inspires confidence in me and the community.

Beyond Detroit’s schools, urban schools superintendents need to take notice.

Eric Nadelstern is a professor of practice in educational leadership at Teachers College, Columbia University and former New York City deputy chancellor for school support and instruction under Bloomberg.


Eric Nadelstern

Eric Nadelstern a professor of practice in educational leadership at Teachers College, Columbia University and former New York City deputy chancellor for school support and… See Archive

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