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.
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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.
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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.
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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.