Over the past decade, Detroit’s population has declined by 25 percent. Since its heyday in 1950, the city has contracted by about 40 percent. (It now sits at about 700,000, making it the 18th most populous city in the country.) Coupled with this exodus is a gang of usual social ills (some causes of the flight, others caused, or exacerbated, by it)—emptied buildings lead to urban decay, companies having difficulty attracting talent leave in search of stronger human-capital pipelines, idle and disaffected youth turn to street gangs for income and worth.
And the schools suffer. In Detroit (though this problem isn’t unique to Motown), school buildings are only filled to half-capacity. Parents who can have plucked up their children and quickly deposited them in neighboring suburban districts with more resources and better teachers.
Couple these general issues with the particulars that ravage Detroit Public Schools—a long history of corruption among city officials, abysmal student achievement (just look at the latest fourth-grade NAEP results), a steadfast and ridiculously antiquated system (including a hell-bent teacher union)—and you’ve got the ultimate dog’s breakfast.
And things just don’t seem to be getting better. Of course, this isn’t for a lack of trying. You’ve got to praise Teach For America, which has recently pushed its way back into Detroit after a union-forced seven year hiatus. Kudos should also go out to the work the Skillman Foundation is doing on the ground in the city, as well as to the initiatives of past and current emergency financial managers and to those behind the Excellent Schools Detroit initiative, as well as the recent Education Achievement System. But, though the spinning wheels of each of these reforms aren’t digging the district deeper into low-performance, they aren’t doing much to move the cart out of the mire.
It’s generally understood in reform circles that no reform will truly lock-in in Detroit until a strong human-capital pipeline can be ensured. (What good is it to embark on turnarounds of failing schools, if there are no strong candidates available to lead those schools? What good is it to convert schools to charters if there’s a lack of quality teachers to staff those charters?)
So here’s a radical idea*: Recruit a new demographic to the city. Instead of simply cauterizing the hemorrhaging Detroit population, try putting it on an IV as well. Pump new talent into the Motor City by recruiting a larger immigrant population. Currently, Michigan is home to 620,000 immigrants (about 6.2 percent of the state’s population, about half the national average). In Detroit, the immigrant population is one-and-a-half times more likely to possess a college degree than nonimmigrant Michiganians. When it comes to starting a business, they’re three times more likely to have done so. But it’s not just about economic growth (though that should help stop the brain drain from this once-great city). On an education front, recruit skilled teachers from outside our borders, interested in living in the U.S. Draw in school leaders and professional-development experts. Incentivize them to live in Detroit—just as small businesses and middle-class individuals are being incentivized through various tax break programs and housing initiatives.
Of course, major barriers to bringing these teachers in will surely emerge (Detroit’s teeth-grindingly self-interested teacher union is a big one that comes to mind). But, if these new teachers also mean an influx of students into DPS (and, too, if they aren’t coming with “TFA-like” stigmas of being privileged resume-builders—a clearly false assumption, but one that still permeates), then they should see more acceptance from Detroit’s adult interests. Though should, like hope, is a dangerous word.
* Note, I’m not the first to come up with this idea. Michael Bloomberg counseled Detroit to increase its immigrant population as a means of spurring economic development (well, he really told the federal government to mandate that immigrants move first to Detroit). The New Economy Initiative for Southeast Michigan has done Detroit-specific analyses on the benefits of an increased foreign-born population. This week, The Economist again reminded us of this strategy.