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Essay on Public Policy: Detroit Literacy

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Many people who live in Detroit are lacking even simple literacy skills. Children are not getting the education and assistance they need. Some people can’t fill out basic job applications or even read their prescription on their pill bottles. Detroit’s school system once served as a model for the nation during the 1920s and 1930s. As the years have gone on, this framework system has grown into something that holds some of the lowest literacy rates in the country. In this paper, I will discuss the fall of the system, the efforts to revitalize it, and where it stands today. I will also discuss the policies that have been put in place and their effectiveness thus far.

In the early 1900s Detroit’s population went from 285,704 to 993,675. This was caused by the rapid growth of the automobile industry. Starting in 1900, the number of kids attending school was 29,401 and by 1920 it had reached an astounding 115,389. This was due in large part to the amount of immigrants coming over to work in the auto factories. Detroit began having problems on how to accommodate these children so they started to go to school in basements or buildings that had been rented. A man named Wales Martindale become superintendent of the Detroit public schools in 1897 and served in his position for 15 years. While he served in his position, he administered important elements of the reformed educational program which included child-study, a curriculum centered towards the kids, a broadening of the secondary curriculum, professional education, and intelligence testing. He also added playgrounds, kindergarten classes, summer schools, a child study committee, annual age-grade surveys, and programs for the crippled, blind, and mentally retarded children.

By 1927, the system’s reputation was so phenomenal that the New Republic stated, “Detroit’s own coordinated school system is one of the finest in the world”. The superintendent during this time was Frank Cody. During his time, the Detroit schools made progress in raising teacher salaries, hiring new teachers, going through a zealous school construction program, and receiving a reputation for being one of the most progressive school systems in the nation with little controversy.

The school system began to fall in the 1930s when business leaders and their partners sought to slash school spending which helped turn educational politics into a major area of conflict. School leaders revised the curriculum in the high school because of the rush of poor and working-class students to the area, and in essence agreed with organized labor that the schools should serve as a mass custodial institution for adolescents, which created an increased inequality within education. Amid the Great Depression, groups that once supported the schools withdrew their support and redefined the schools as another un-useful public service whose maintenance kept taxes high and profits low.

During the 1950s there was a decade of prosperity in the auto industry. This decade was known as the ‘Golden Age of Capitalism’, or the Era of Prosperity. There also was a profound demographic transformation that led to African-American students to become the majority of schools in 1963. When Samuel Brownell became superintendent in 1956 it marked the beginning of major changes with the hiring of more black teachers, addressing the educational problems of black children, and spending large amounts of money for new buildings in predominately black neighborhoods.

For most of the past decade children in Detroit have had to deal with despicable conditions within their schools. Classroom temperatures exceeded 90 degrees during the spring and summer, and were nearly freezing during winters. Mold and other items like it were also found all over the walls. In one case in 2015, an eighth grader who had high math skills had to teach other students seventh and eighth grade math instead of a real teacher. Another case that is going on says that the state of Michigan shoved students and teachers into schools with environments that were not adequate in providing teachers a place to help benefit the children. Since the National Assessment for Educational Progress has been given beginning in 2009, Detroit fourth and eighth graders have placed last in the country when compared with students in other large cities. When the state decided to take over the schools and the cut the school board and other affiliates, the system began to fail. With so many third-graders not being at grade-level reading, a mind-blowing 86%, this can cause them to struggle academically in the future and throughout their entire lives. 47% of Detroiters are also labeled as ‘functionally illiterate’. Only 10% of people who have literacy problems have acted towards getting help to fix it. These are very low numbers and they need to be improved. Many organizations and policies have been put in place to try to help these people get a better education. They want to help others obtain a simple set of skills that will be helpful in the future.

In 2016, a report was filed against Detroit public schools about receiving inadequate learning skills and attending schools that were infested with rodents and did not provide certified teachers and up-to-date textbooks. A student can recall that while he was in eleventh and twelfth grade, he read books that were suited for third and fourth graders. The report also says that sometimes there wasn’t even funding to get necessary supplies to help the children learn. People are saying that the children of Detroit are getting an education so poor that they don’t have the necessary skill set needed to exercise their established constitutional rights, such as the right to vote and to participate in their nation’s democracy. This case is still ongoing and is still not clear if it will succeed or not.

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The state of Michigan has put many policies in place to help ensure that children in Detroit get the education they need to ensure a good future. One of these states that the children of Detroit deserve and are entitled to a quality education. The State Board of Education agrees that stability and respect need to be instilled in the current school system. They welcome the public to address what they think needs to be implemented to make sure the educational outcomes are top notched (‘State Board of Education Statement on Detroit School Plans’). It goes on to talk about how they are waiting for the governor’s plan on how to put a framework into place and asking for the public’s help in this process. Regardless of economic status, disability, language barriers and other challenges, children deserve an education and the state wants to fix the quality of schools in the area for everyone (‘State Board of Education Statement on Detroit School Plans’). The policy report ends with them saying that they would also like to reduce debt and find a new source of governance for the schools.

Another policy put in place by the state says: “The Board does support the plan to address the Detroit Public Schools’ debt, but we also believe a plan for education needs to address the underlying structural causes of financial woes that have resulted in inadequate classroom funding needed to address the issues of the neediest children in Michigan” (‘State Board of Education Statement on Moratorium on Detroit School Closures’). It also states: “To address these concerns, the Board endorses implementation of the CFDS recommendations, particularly moving to a funding project based on the actual cost to educate children with different levels of need, with a three-year budget projection rather than unpredictable count-day totals each year, and increasing state funding to eliminate debt resulting under state emergency management” (‘State Board of Education Statement on Moratorium on Detroit School Closures’). “We also support immediately restoring a Detroit elected school board; and suggest that any Commission that is appointed to ensure quality in all schools and decide whether schools should stay open or close, has the powers to do this and is selected by a Detroit-elected body” (‘State Board of Education Statement on Moratorium on Detroit School Closures’). They also want standardized testing to play a bigger role in the schools.

Another program started in the schools is called ‘Me and the D.’. This is an education program associated with the arts that integrates graphics, critical literacy, and different projects into the syllabus, which hopes to fix tensions through reimagining the instruction of literacy and having students recreate relationships they built within their communities. This was a yearlong initiative centered around many different aspects to encourage students to look at how they might change themselves and their neighborhoods but also rethink their literacy abilities. (Filipiak and Miller). The curriculum featured anchor texts, media projects, media skills, and writing focus. This program paired themes like: discovering, creating, resisting, and transforming together with reflective questions centered around student experiences, which generated a dialect for students in which they acted and reflected on what mattered most in their lives.

The final program I will talk about is set for the state of Michigan as a whole. The program itself is installed by Michigan’s reading and retention law. “With this law in place, administrators gain the ability to hold back third graders starting in the spring if they score a low grade on the ELA test, which tests kids on reading, writing, listening and language” (Chambers). Instead, the state will use an exclusive structure to score and make decisions.

Public policy is what people that hold office within governments, and the citizens they speak for, decide what to do or not to do about public issues. They are supposed to fix problems that the people find unacceptable and therefore must be fixed. Policy refers to a course of action that someone or a group of people follow in dealing with an issue. Policies help regulate society and help channel human behavior properly. Policies are very important in finding order in a community. They can also help solve many problems.

Overall, I would say that the policies helped in some ways, but didn’t solve any issues in some cases. It’s great that they are trying to find ways to help the children, but sometimes we have to look at the bigger picture and ask ourselves, ‘Are they really helping?’. If you look at the results of students after the Michigan reading and retention law came into effect you will see this:

  • Reading proficiency scores fell for students in fifth and seventh grade to 46.2% and 42.7%. Scores improved in fourth and sixth grades by 0.8% and 0.3%.
  • Math scores rose by 1% t for 3rd and 0.5% for 5th and 6th. Scores declined 0.2% in 4th.
  • On the PSAT, 61.9% passed the reading section and 41.4% passed the math section.
  • The worst results came in social studies. Only 17.4% of 5th and 28% of 8th passed. 11th scored 46.6% (Chambers).

This law can be evaluated as being somewhat helpful. In most cases the law helped improve scores in every area. You do have the one case though where students still had score drops in social studies. Overall, I feel like this law was very effective and helped the state not have to hold so many kids back.

In the case of the ‘Me and the D’ program, many students gained confidence and came out with a stronger set of skills. The program was very helpful in integrating many parts of education to help children out. Working together with many different people, the program was able to build a classroom with students that wanted human relationships which believed to transform the classroom. Spaces that were to degrade the children would fail regardless of what materials or teachers students were given and the changes trying to be made would not be accomplished.

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Essay on Public Policy: Detroit Literacy. (2023, January 31). Edubirdie. Retrieved September 25, 2023, from
“Essay on Public Policy: Detroit Literacy.” Edubirdie, 31 Jan. 2023,
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