One week before his appointment as the new Emergency Manager for the Detroit Public Schools, Roy S. Roberts picked up a local newspaper with a glaring headline, “Nearly Half Of Detroiters Can’t Read.”
The Detroit Regional Workforce Fund’s controversial May 2011 report made national headlines and the story was another embarrassment to the Motor City’s battered image.
The report offered lurid visibility to the devastating consequences of a failed school system. The report revealed that 47 percent of Detroiters were functionally illiterate.
That meant nearly half of the city’s adult workforce was unable to complete a job application, read a prescription or execute rudimentary tasks requiring a minimal reading.
Roberts and everyone else knew the report implied DPS was producing generations of inadequately prepared young people.
The report followed another scandalously bad test performance by DPS students 18 months earlier.
District reading scores from the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress made national headlines when it reported a shocking 73 percent of fourth-graders and 60 percent of eighth-graders read below grade level.
In fact, they were the worst student scores in 18 large cities and the worst scores ever on a national exam. The devastating news underscored Robert’s sense of urgency.
As former Group Vice President for North American Vehicle Sales, Service and Marketing of General Motors Corporation, he knew such outcomes made Detroit a national metaphor for failed urban policy, and rendered the school district unsustainable and a threat to the region’s economic viability.
Born in Magnolia, Arkansas, the son of widowed a factory worker and the second-youngest of 10 children-who all earned at least a Bachelors Degree-Roberts knows if a child can’t read in 2012, then he or she can’t work as adult in a 21st century global economy.
Roberts, who rose from the rural south’s poverty and segregation to the inner sanctums of corporate America, is no stranger to challenges.
However, this was different. He had the future of an entire generation of innocent school children-who looked just like him-riding on every decision he would make and he was embarking on the most consequential assignment in his career.
Roberts took a “data driven” -but what union officials call ruthless-approach to education policies and budget priorities.
That meant assessing an employee’s work product against reasonable expectations for success. If the employee continually came up short, he or she was gone. No more excuses.
“We are saying mediocrity can not exist in Detroit and DPS anymore,” he said. “In the automobile industry, those who are on top are able to produce an outstanding product. In this line of work, your goal is to produce an outstanding product which is a [successful] student. If you deal with the data in both situations then you get to the right decision.”
Roberts first had to tackle the district’s finances. Facing a $327 million “legacy” budget deficit, he looked for places to cut. “When I arrived in this job 14 months ago, this district was a total disaster,” he said.
Thirty-one people were reporting to my position and two-thirds were contractors, some part-time. You couldn’t even hold a district meeting because some people were working in another city.”
“There was no organizational structure,” says Roberts, still flabbergasted about the state of the district he inherited from former Emergency Manager Robert C. Bobb.
“I had to double people up in jobs and do things no one would do. I just had to get all those contractors out of here and get people dedicated people to the kids and city of Detroit.”
After observing seven school superintendents in seven years try to navigate the byzantine world of Detroit Public Schools politics, labor relations and entrenched culture of academic under achievement, Roberts vowed he would not be the latest victim to be overwhelmed by fierce resistance by the school board, labor unions and various community interest groups.
So Roberts set about refinancing a series of long-term school bonds and agreed to transfer 15 schools with their 11,200 students on the state's Persistently Low Achieving List to the Education Achievement Authority (EAA); a new and independent state-run school district within the city.
He cancelled every contract DPS had with outside suppliers, cut hundreds of positions and imposed an austere contract on the DPS unions which continued the previously negotiated 10 percent across the board pay cut and which required employees pay 20 percent of their healthcare costs.
Most controversial was the requirement that every teacher in the district re-apply for their jobs and be subjected to an extensive teacher evaluation system where hiring decisions are no longer predicated upon seniority.
That outraged the teachers union, but Roberts cut $250 million dollars; or 25 percent from DPS expenditures and reduced the deficit to $72 million, allowing him to project that DPS would meet the state’s July 2016 deadline to a zero deficit.
“DPS had an operating surplus of $43.4 million in 2010-11, the first surplus since 2002,” Roberts said. “The district anticipates a second year of surplus for the just completed 2011-12 fiscal year, of 11.9 million.”
Stabilizing DPS finances set the predicate for the radical changes in the district’s academic plans including new “Self-Governing Schools.”
An office of Self-Governing Schools within DPS will manage the 26 self-governing schools which include 16 DPS authorized charters and 10 small high schools beginning next school year. Together, these schools will educate approximately 7,500-8,000students this fall.
Steve Wasko, spokesman for DPS said this initiative builds on the research that local school communities require consistency and stability for school improvements to truly take root.
“By shifting authority to make vital decisions to the school level, DPS offers schools both the ability to maintain consistency in their programs and the ability to make decisions that best serve the needs of their particular students.”
Closing in on two years as the Emergency Manager, Roberts believes he is making incremental, but steady progress. “
We cancelled every contract DPS had with outside suppliers and saved millions. We’re working to clean up the system by getting a process in place and finances in order to get an academic superintendent. We’ve had seven superintendents in seven years; there was no stability and the principals could not adjust, teachers could not adjust and were fighting for stability.”
Roberts said things are looking up for the beleaguered district. “We had a $1.2 billion business and educating great kids but no business model. Now we got everything in place and accountability.”
He proudly offers the December 2011 test results on the demanding National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) as a testament to the progress.
It unexpectedly revealed that DPS was one of only six districts nationally to show increases in student scores among the urban districts participating, many people were skeptical about its accuracy.
According to a Detroit News report the NAEP report showed:
- Detroit’s scores trended up in all grade levels on both subjects tested.
- Detroit exceeded the state of Michigan in gains in mathematics and reading.
- Detroit also had the highest gains in any city in any subject on mathematics.
While he praised students’ progress and Roberts for stabilizing the district, Robert Bobb, the former Emergency Manager, noted that he set in place many policies Roberts executed to stabilize the district.
Having spent much of his two-year tenure engaged in an intense legal battle with the DPS School Board over his authority to implement an academic plan, Bobb said he paved the way for much of Roberts’ success.
In fact, it wasn’t until after Bobb’s tenure expired last year that the state Legislature strengthened the Emergency Manger powers with the passage of Public Act 4 that gave them the option to ignore collective bargaining agreements impose a contracts on public employees.
Bobb also noted his administration spearheaded the passage of bonds for capital improvements, closed schools and crafted a robust academic plan that increased reading time and school hours and established a literacy corps to work with teachers to raise student reading levels.
Carol Goss, president and CEO of the Skillman Foundation, which has granted DPS more than $100 million in the past two decades, said Roberts has created the right conditions and culture for quality education.
“Roy is doing that,” she said. “He really is putting children first. And I’m probably more optimistic about public education in Detroit than in a really long time.”
Roberts is grateful things are looking up for DPS students. He realizes it will be a long and arduous process before most students become competitive with their suburban peers, but they are moving in the right direction.
Reflecting on the Detroit Regional Workforce Fund’s report, Roberts said adults must provide children with the education they deserve. We simple “owe it to the kids,” he said.
“I can’t always train all the adults who are illiterate, but we can concentrate on the 49,000 students.”
TREVOR W. COLEMAN IS A DETROIT JOURNALIST AND AUTHOR OF THE UPCOMING BIOGRAPHY OF FEDERAL JUDGE DAMON J. KEITH