Detroit Public Schools fails students without standards for under-qualified teachers

Dennis Cotton
Dennis Cotton

Dennis Cotton’s teaching career began at Thurgood Marshall Elementary in Detroit. It also ended there.

In just four years, Mr. Cotton was transferred to seven different classrooms, the average stay lasting about a semester. During his last two assignments, he was forced to teach kindergarten and art despite having no experience with either.

“They set me up for failure,” said Mr. Cotton, whose bulk of experience was teaching third through fifth grade. “Textbooks say that in order for a teacher to become competent in their abilities, one has to be in place for a minimum of two to three years. I only had a few short months.”

Mr. Cotton, whose experience is all too common at the cash-strapped school district, said he repeatedly tried to get reassigned, but his complaints fell on deaf ears, leaving underserved students with a well-intentioned, but unqualified teacher.

In the kindergarten class, for example, Mr. Cotton was assigned to a reduced-sized classroom with at-risk students. According to the Michigan Department of Education, those classes are designed to be taught by “highly qualified teachers who adjust instructional strategies to fit reduced class size.”

Mr. Cotton, who had no training to handle a specialized class for at-risk children, was given 17 students and little instruction in an old science classroom.

No matter whom Mr. Cotton asked for help – the Detroit Federation of Teachers, Principal Sharon Lee – he got nowhere. In the past, he and other struggling teachers would have had access to Peer Assistance and Review (PAR), a popular nationwide program that draws on expert teachers to assist both new and under-qualified staff.

But DPS dismantled it, forcing teachers to navigate new assignments with little to no help.

President Obama was so impressed with PAR that he once said, “Now, if we do all this and find that there are teachers who are still struggling and underperforming, we should provide them with individual help and support. And if they’re still underperforming after that, we should find a quick and fair way to put another teacher in that classroom. … We owe our teachers that, and we owe our children that.”

DFT president Keith Johnson said the union is currently negotiating with DPS to reinstate PAR in the near future.

Mr. Cotton said he was the subject of ridicule because he couldn’t get help.

At one point, he said, the school’s Academic Achievement Officer, Ricky Jones, approached him: “(I) heard through the grapevine you can’t pull your weight” in the classroom.

In June 2013, Mr. Cotton braced for what he knew would be a poor year-end evaluation. Since a state law protects him from immediate termination, Principal Lee notified Mr. Cotton of his new assignment – teaching art to the entire student body, which included special education students, despite his lack of experience.

In the summer of 2013, Mr. Cotton made one last attempt to transfer to another school and attended a DPS Career Fair. He interviewed with principals from others schools, including places where he’d previously taught. He said he received positive feedback and was confident he’d receive an assignment at another school.

But he never got a response and is unsure why.

In September 2013, he reluctantly accepted the art teaching assignment.

Just before Christmas break, Mr. Cotton asked Principal Jones for guidance on helping a struggling student. He says the principal interrupted him about 57 “C” grades he’d given to his students.

“I’ll see you in January about these,” Cotton recalled her saying in front of everyone in the office, implying he raise all the grades he had given.

Ms. Lee didn’t respond to phone calls or e-mails for comment.

On January 10, 2014, Mr. Cotton made a final attempt to get help. He went to the office of Jack Martin, the current emergency manager of DPS, and spoke with his secretary. She took a statement and said someone would get back in touch with him shortly. No one ever did.

Feeling threatened and demoralized, Mr. Cotton voluntarily resigned on Jan. 24, 2014.

Today, Dennis Cotton is selling life insurance. He says he’ll likely never teach again, but is considering legal action because of his pitiful experience, which he says is not unique at DPS.

He told me he wants to help keep other teachers from going through the same demoralizing experience. He wants them to speak up and not be afraid to fight for better treatment.

For now, he’s left with the inexplicable dismantling of a career that ended where it began – in a classroom at Thurgood Marshall Elementary.

Tracey Morris

Tracey Morris is the author of, “You Said You Wanted to See Me Naked: An Autobiographical Poem Cycle.” Her work has recently been published by Rust Belt Chic Press, and she was a finalist in the 2013 Springfed Arts Writing Contest.

  • D. Cotton

    I’m not doing very well selling insurance!

  • easydude

    Ok, I am so tired of hearing its the teachers. The behavior of the students needs to be taken into account. Thus, 47% of new teachers leave the profession because of adminstration, students and parents. Let s look at the behavior of the students FIRST.

  • maggie williams

    Mr. Cotton was a victim in a system of incompetent people. That Sharon Lee is like the anti-Christ, and has no business being an administrator. I worked with her, and I speak from experience. She is a user and a coward, why should she make a comment? She has a PHD in treating staff members poorly. In many situations, the administration will use a person to the max, and then discard you like a old shoe!!!! This is DPS and the way that they operate!!!! Either you adapt to their environment or you leave!!!!

    • Tracey

      Ms. Williams, I’d love to talk to you about your experiences. If you’re interested, please inbox me via info@motorcitymuckraker.com.

  • 1Joshua

    Why Have School? http://www.counterpunch.org/2010/09/07/why-have-school/
    Why did the DFT allow every teacher-member be fired, then sue to continue to collect dues? http://www.counterpunch.org/2013/03/28/detroit-and-the-international-war-of-the-rich-on-the-poor/

  • D. Cotton

    I use to love teaching. Others use to love teaching. That love has been replaced with a caste system mentality. If you’re at the top of the caste system you get to call the shots, dictate decrees and sit in air conditioned offices while those at the bottom of the caste system, the teachers and students sweat it out. IF you’re at the bottom, you’re mandated to go to useless and unproductive workshops, forced to listen to authors, doctors of education and poets tell you what you’re notdoing, what you should be doing and allow them to inspire you with their emptyand meaningless words. All the while
    they’re making thousands of dollars in speaking fees while those at the bottomhave to eat box lunches. And do you really think Maya Angelou cares about the happenings in Detroit Public Schools? When she spoke back in August of 2013 she was paid $40,000. I wasn’t mad at her. I was mad at those who spent the money to get her here. That money could have been used to by several smart boards.

    I use to love teaching when teaching was about
    treating each other like we really were a family and not like you don’t belongin my caste. Another word you could use
    for caste would be “click.” The hierarchy of the Detroit Public Schools is divided into two parts of a caste system or click. There are those who are at the top who wastemillions. And there are those who are at the bottom who have to work in old outdated buildings with little or no technology and with kids who obviously need more help than they are
    getting.

    • Tracey

      I’m so sorry about what you’ve experienced. So many good teachers and DPS employees have been chased out of the system because of the very things you describe. I’d love to talk to you about your experiences. If you’re interested, please inbox me via info@motorcitymuckraker.com.

  • Tracey

    Good morning everyone. I have to tell you that, as a former DPS student and as someone who has friends with DPS connections, the story I filed is one I’ve heard and witnessed time and time again. I graduated from a DPS school nearly 30 years ago, and it’s stunning to me how this keeps occurring. The mismanagement, lack of concern for the student body, and depressed morale among the staff is incredibly deep rooted. I’m hoping that someone can help spearhead some real change in DPS because it’s long overdue. I can unequivocally say that if I were a parent, there’s no way I’d enroll my child in a DPS school based on the way things stand today and using my own personal experiences as a guide. I hope more DPS staff members – both rank and file and administrative – come forward to tell their stories. I think speaking openly and frankly about the way things truly run in DPS will be the only way positive change will come about.

  • Willy

    Well, everyone can complain about DPS all they want, blame the union, blame Detroit, but this is now a solely state sponsored debacle. The state of Michigan has run the district for five years, and it’s clear that they are just as clueless as the pathetic incompetents who preceded them.

    Of course, we can thank our teabagging Republican legislature and Governor for chopping education spending to give tax breaks to the oil industry and corporations.

    Who cares about the children of Detroit? Apparently, nobody.

    • Kelley Girlw

      The state did far more damage to an already damaged district than can be imagined. Heart breaking.

      • Dust Buster

        both liberal talking points. mea and teachers union and democrats have run detroit schools for decades and they have sucked for decades. get your blame snyder glasses off for a minute. “cash-strapped” is always the cry of democrat run urban schools. people think or want you to think rochester gets 20k per student and detroit gets 4k when in fact the funding is very close.

        the problem is what the liars, thieves, union slappies, administrators and vendors steal. what they cant steal they squander and mismanage. same song and dance. leave the union alone just give us more cash for the children. then if a conservative comes along tell them to mind their own business but keep the cash flowing.

        its like blaming the guy that ran alcatraz from 1940 to 1947 for the condition the place is in now.

        • Willy

          Forgive me. The Republican Governor and Legislature have run DPS since 2010, and it’s only gotten worse. Case closed.

          • Dust Buster

            oh willy willy willy

  • tb556

    Cash-strapped school district??? They get more money than anyone else in the STATE – $18,021.87 per pupil!!! http://www.michigan.gov/documents/mde/2013_NPEFSall_451677_7.pdf

    • Willy

      You sir, are an idiot. There’s more to it than just a dollar sign. F**king teabagger moron.

      • tb556

        Nice name calling, you must be well educated. Detroit spends more per student on instructional school supplies than Troy, Birmingham, Grand Rapids or Grosse Pointe, so stating they are cash strapped is a false narrative. They also spend over twice as much on textbooks. Maybe look at the facts? DPS is a poorly run institution that needs another administrative shake down.

        • muckraker_steve

          By no means is DPS flush with cash. It closed dozens of schools and has been under an emergency manager for several years because of rapidly declining enrollment. DPS is one of the poorest district’s in the state. That’s not a false narrative. But you are right that mismanagement had a lot to do with the problems.

          • Kelley Girlw

            Can someone explain why they aren’t using a school for central offices, using the Fischer Bldg and New Center still makes me angry? I mean, paying $5 or more to argue with HR or pick up a check that wasn’t distributed really stinks. And the rent they are paying… crazy!

          • Tracey

            I’m still trying to figure out why they sold an administrative building they owned outright in favor of leasing office buildings. I’m no math wiz, but I never bought the “we’ll save money” argument they floated when they made the move.

          • Kelley Girlw

            Exactly! Sold it for $1 to Wayne State. Shameful.

          • Tracey

            They sold it for a dollar? Oh my goodness, I never knew that. Yet another example of the complete lack of accountability and mismanagement in the system. How appalling.

          • javierjuanmanuel

            that could work out depending on operating costs and building upkeep. Some places are money pits, too old, treated poorly to long. I do not know the specifics in this case, but it could be legit.

            Why do you look into the claim above about the money spent per kid.

            I know as of just a few years ago, they were spending $15600 per kid per year in total spending. That is often 30-35 kids, and the teacher is there for 1180 hours.

            Shall i do the per hour math for you?
            Thats $462 per hour, for a often starting wage teacher making 29-35 to stand around for 6 hours per day in an old ass building with busted ass desks, no TP, poor lighting etc.

            Then compare that to say the outrage of people that the firm handling the bankruptsy was charging 275-300 per hour for people with masters degrees, getting detroit out of trouble.

            People think it costs what teachers pay check says. Teachers make about 3 times or more what their pay check says, they get 20k in insurance and by the time many retire they will be making 80-90k or more in todays dollars, and receive a pension for 40 years!

          • Tracey

            Thank you for your comment, javierjuanmanuel.

          • tb556

            DPS is not flush with cash due to their own incompetence and corruption – it is by no means a revenue issue. Look at the figures over the past 3 years and the spending. Their enrollment rates will continue to decline due to the lack of competent leadership throughout.

          • Dust Buster

            you are correct and dead on. its like a gambling addict that makes $200 k per year complaining that he is broke and must live a frugal life. one only needs to look at his atm receipts from greektown to solve the mystery

        • Gary

          Lamar Lemmons and the school board are the prime examples of corruption and complete incompetence. Those greedy crooks are to blame just as much as any other reason.

      • Dust Buster

        nice name calling and see how emotional and angry you got when presented with FACTS AND NUMBERS? now go get your tux out iris salters has the mea troll of the day award to present to you. you want/demand more funding then when someone lays the cold facts on you with decimal points you shift gears. use that tired vague well those funds dont match up in urban districts… we have at risk kids that need more… some kids are hungry…. we have older buildings… we dont have the same books.

        bottom line is democrat liberals and union school admins are legion with members that steal and are greedy. i can give you a hundred examples but you will just insult or bring up snyder.

        • Willy

          Welcome again to our favorite troll. Blah, blah, blah, blah. The fact is, as many others point out above, is that DPS is one of the poorest districts in the state. Just because they get $18k per kid doesn’t mean that dough translates into quality education. Get a clue.

          • Dust Buster

            get a clue? they get 18k per kid but that doesnt translate into a quality education? whats your plan? just throw a few ideas or theories out on why other districts do better with less? are you saying if we just “throw another 4 or 5k per student into dps you think that will be the solution? if not then what is the magic number? people that use your style of math and logic usually possess an infantile view on finance. i bet you think they should like spend like 49k for like every student and stuff. and give each kid like a badass ipad so they all will have the chance to like learn into like the 21st century like global economy and stuff

          • Willy

            I think this thread’s shelf life has expired, and you’re still an ignoramus. Keep on believin’, troll.

          • Dust Buster

            no prob. btw, your white thong makes an excellent surrender flag. dont have facts on your side….. exit stage left. but not before a you leave an insult on your way out.

        • Tracey

          Thank you for your comment, DustBuster.

    • RJCasey

      Your data is interesting, but you’ve reached the wrong conclusions by adding up numbers that aren’t comparible. The two major sources of funds for schools are state revenues and local property taxes – those are directly comparable. What Detroit gets from the state and from local property taxes is much less than the wealthiest districts in the state. Detroit gets $11,849.81 per pupil annually from a the state plus local property taxes. In comparison, Birmingham gets 15,582.08 cents from the state plus local property taxes. The additional funds that Detroit gets are largely due to the high numbers of students with disabilities, who require more resources, smaller classes, and closer supervision than regular students, thus getting additional funds as mandated by state and federal law. Birmingham, like many affluent school districts, has many fewer such special needs students, and so gets less for special education.

      • tb556

        Even if you were to take into consideration that special needs students take up about 18% of DPS and cost 1.5x of a normal student they would still be getting $16,533.58 per head.

  • Posey

    Good for him for sticking up for what he knows is right and not playing
    along. As a child of two former DPS teachers, the problems he dealt with are all too familiar.

  • bebow

    Educational genocide continues in Detroit, while those on the payroll play games with each other. Character defects are still in place, destroying the potential of another generation of “unselected” residents and laughing about it. This is how our own “caste system” is maintained. Dennis Cotton was correct to leave DPS. He didn’t belong there. It’s unfortunate the children aren’t as free. So, in light of this information, which some will seek to portray as a collection of isolated incidents, let’s entertain ourselves debating ACT test scores and U of M admission requirements.