Robert Bobb Has His Hands Full Fixing Detroit Schools

Detroit's Public Schools have suffered from low attendance and thus low graduation rates for years. Host Michel Martin talks with Detroit Public Schools Emergency Financial Manager Robert Bobb about plans to get the city's schools back track.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

We continue our education coverage now with a newsmaker interview with the head of what has been one of the nation's worst-performing school systems.

According to a 2009 test administered to school districts nationwide, the city of Detroit came in last. In fact, the school system registered the lowest marks on record according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

So Robert Bobb, who is the emergency financial manager for the Detroit Public Schools, has administered an extreme makeover of the entire system. He has fired principals, revamped the curriculum and shut down many schools.

Now, we've been checking in with him from time to time to hear about his progress, and he's with us once again. Thanks so much for joining us once again.

Mr. ROBERT BOBB (Emergency Financial Manager, Detroit Public Schools): Thank you very much. I can tell you that the national assessment of the nation's report card was a real wake-up call for the Detroit Public Schools. And so what we've done is we've totally revamped our curriculum and put in place a five-year plan.

But our students this year, particularly the kindergarten through eighth grade, will receive two hours in reading and two hours in mathematics per day, as well as requiring pre-algebra for every student starting in seventh grade, which has not been the case in the Detroit Public Schools in the past.

MARTIN: Well, you know, I wanted to talk about that. You have set some very ambitious goals to meet in this five-year plan. The next five years, by 2015, you're setting out the goal of having 100 percent of students scoring advanced or proficient on reading and math, 98 percent graduation rate and 100 percent application and acceptance to post-secondary institutions.

And, you know, I look at that, and I think wow. You know, there are suburban school districts, affluent school districts, that would not be able to meet those goals. Do you really think you can get there? And second of all, are people in the community buying into these goals?

Mr. BOBB: Well, people in the community are buying into the goals I would say not universally. But we realize that in a city like Detroit, if we do not set high standards, we will stay where we are.

And while we've set these very high, ambitious goals, for example, 98 percent graduation rate, our graduation rate today is at 57 percent, 58 percent. But if by 2014, 2015 school year, we hit 80 percent, then we will be right there with the national average.

And what we're telling the community is that no one enters the Olympic competition without the goal of winning a gold medal.

MARTIN: One thing I want to mention for people who may not be aware of your background, you have a very deep experience in executive management and in city administration. You are a former city administrator and deputy mayor in Washington, D.C., and you've also been a city manager in Oakland.

Mr. BOBB: And I was also president of the D.C. school board.

MARTIN: Okay, well, that's where I was headed. In fact, there was a recent primarily election in Washington, D.C. that has gotten a lot of attention nationally.

The incumbent mayor, Adrian Fenty, who served, was extremely popular when elected four years ago, was soundly defeated by the city council president, Vince Gray.

And some people are looking at that election as a referendum on the ambitious agenda to turn around the schools, along with his hand-picked chancellor, Michelle Rhee. People say, well, they're just pushing too hard, too fast, and you just cannot get that kind of consensus around that kind of radical change.

And since you are doing something very similar in Detroit, I wanted to ask, do you think that that's true? Was this a referendum on school reform?

Mr. BOBB: I don't think it's a referendum on school reform at all. I mean, in Detroit, we're pushing extremely hard. And I can tell you, every major decision that I've made to improve the system, I've been sued.

Reform is very difficult. I mean, the good news for me is that I have the full support of Governor Granholm and the state superintendent of public instruction. You cannot reform these urban school districts without pushing extraordinarily hard.

In a city like D.C., of course, how one communicates those changes is critically important. It doesn't mean that you would not go forward with your plans, but how one communicates those plans is very critical.

MARTIN: So you're saying this was a referendum on personality, not on policy?

Mr. BOBB: I think it's a referendum more on personality than policy because D.C. has seen some remarkable gains on these national tests since, you know, the chancellor has been there, although she had the good fortune of having a blueprint that was put in place by the former chancellor or superintendent, Dr. Clifford Janey.

But the long and the short of it, she's made some remarkable efforts to reform that system with the focus like a laser beam on children, and that's what you have to do.

So I think it's more of a referendum on style, not a referendum on the results because the reforms that are in place in D.C. will go forward under the presumptive mayor, Vincent Gray, who cares passionately about the city, as well.

MARTIN: I would be remiss if I didn't ask if you have any interest in coming back to Washington, D.C. Your name has been mentioned.

Mr. BOBB: Well, you know, I'm a resident of D.C., so I'm a Washingtonian in that respect. So I'll always you know, my commitment right now is to finish the work that I have been contracted to do in Detroit. And my entire focus, laser focus, is on the Detroit Public School system.

MARTIN: But it sounds like you're not closing the door to coming back.

Mr. BOBB: Oh, one never closes the door.

MARTIN: Okay. And I do want to talk more about your efforts in Detroit, but I do want to ask about your reaction to a statement that seemed to rub some people the wrong way, especially in the Washington, D.C. area, but it got a lot of attention nationally.

Yesterday, President Obama was speaking on NBC's "Today Show" and was asked a question by an audience member named Kelly Burnett(ph) about whether or not D.C.'s public schools could provide the same level of education as the private school that the Obamas' daughters attend. And this is what he had to say.

President BARACK OBAMA: I'll be blunt with you, the answer is no right now. The D.C. public school systems are struggling. Now, they have made some important strides over the last several years to move in the direction of reform. There are some terrific individual schools in the D.C. system. And that's true, by the way, in every city across the country.

MARTIN: Now, he went on to say that he could probably game the system to find a great school for his daughters, but that's not an option that's available to every parent.

I would like to ask, how do you respond to the president's comments?

Mr. BOBB: Well, I actually saw the president's speech, I mean, his interview yesterday and heard those comments. And my reaction was that, wow, I mean, he's speaking the truth from a parent's standpoint. But I like the fact that he said that there are some tremendous schools within the D.C. school system because there are some tremendous schools.

When I was president of the school board, we had an open letter to the president when he was coming in, suggesting that his children attend D.C. public school. But, you know, he's speaking from a parent's standpoint.

I don't think he's condemning the D.C. public schools, but there are some challenges, and you can find excellent public schools in every urban school district. I mean, we have some of the top-performing schools in the nation in Detroit, and yet we have some schools that are some of the lowest-performing schools that you can find anywhere in the nation, and we're improving those schools.

MARTIN: Well, do keep in touch with us, if you would.

Mr. BOBB: Will do.

MARTIN: Robert Bobb is the emergency financial manager for the Detroit Public Schools. He was kind enough to join us on the phone from New York, where he's taking part in an education forum. Thanks so much for speaking with us.

Mr. BOBB: Thank you very much.

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