News Story

Detroit School Superintendent Mistaken On District's Pre-Charter Competition Greatness

60 years of headlines tell a different story

The Detroit Free Press reported that members of the Detroit school board didn’t want to release a map showing how the academic performance of its students compared to national standards because they were worried it would embarrass parents and pupils.

The date on that story was May 18, 1958, or nearly 60 years ago.

It’s old news, but still relevant today. In recent news reports, the current school superintendent claimed that Detroit’s public school system was once among the best in the country. He implied that the rise of charter schools in the city has led to the district’s collapse.

Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti made his comments at an education forum last week, according to The Detroit News. “Once upon a time DPS was one of the best urban school district in the country,” Vitti said.

It’s unclear how far Vitti wants to turn back the clock to support his claim. The district did not respond to an email asking for more information on the era he referred to.

Newspaper accounts going back many years paint Detroit public schools as struggling to raise the academic performance of its students.

That 1958 Detroit Free Press story said that the average score of the 35,000 Detroit school system students who were tested showed them to about one month behind the national standard in the fourth and sixth grades.

According to a June 24, 1970, Detroit Free Press article, the state held its first statewide assessment of Michigan schools in 1969. And Detroit’s public schools, which had 294,000 students in 1970, performed the worst.

A July 2, 1982, Detroit Free Press story listed the Detroit public school results on the California Achievement Tests administered from 1980 through 1982. Detroit students had mixed results those three years. Their best year was 1982, when five of the nine grades tested did slightly better than the national mean in reading and math. Three grades did slightly worse and one grade was right at the national mean.

A Detroit Free Press story on Feb. 14, 1987, stated that Detroit public schools ranked lower in academic achievement than national averages.

Two years later, most Detroit public school students were performing below grade level in reading and math on the California Achievement Test results, according to a June 22, 1989, Detroit Free Press story.

The first charter school in Michigan opened in 1994. The first three charter schools in Detroit opened the following year.

By that time, Detroit was already a troubled school district.

A May 27, 1994, Detroit Free Press article showed that Detroit public schools were among the worst in the state’s 1993 Michigan Educational Assessment Program testing. Among the reasons: The Detroit public schools were among the worst in grades seven, eight, and 10 in reading, math and science.

Another Free Press article from the same day reported that Detroit’s Finney High School was the lowest performing high school in the state on the MEAP test.

The Michigan Department of Education said its online data goes back to 2005. Department staffers said they weren’t sure data still existed from the 1990s and that it would be a “big project” to get it.

There is little debate that the Detroit public schools system has performed dismally academically during the past several years. The National Assessment of Educational Program has ranked urban school districts in the U.S. in 2009, 2011, 2013, 2015 and 2017. Detroit has scored last each time.

In 2017, Detroit Public Schools was compared against school districts in the following localities: Albuquerque, New Mexico; Atlanta; Austin, Texas; Baltimore; Boston; Charlotte, North Carolina; Chicago; Clark County, Nevada, home to Las Vegas; Cleveland, Ohio; Dallas; Denver; Washington, D.C.; Duval County, Florida, home to Jacksonville; Fort Worth, Texas; Fresno, California; Guilford County, North Carolina, home to Greensboro; Hillsborough County, Florida, home to Tampa; Houston; Jefferson County, Kentucky, home to Louisville; Los Angeles; Miami, Florida; Milwaukee; New York; Philadelphia; San Diego; and Shelby County, Tennessee, home to Memphis.


Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.