Beating the Odds: Social Studies Education in Inner-City Detroit

Article excerpt


Despite the worsening financial crisis in the Detroit Public Schools, Cass Technical High School continues to be one of the highest achieving high schools in the state of Michigan. On social studies assessments, Cass students score significantly higher than the statewide average. While acknowledging that their courses are challenging, the students use words rarely associated with social studies classes: fun, interesting, and exciting. A unique teaching and learning environment has been created at the school by caring and motivated social studies educators who maintain high standards while using innovative methodologies. This study examines the social studies department at Cass Technical High School, offering the perspectives of both the students and the teachers.

With over 2,000 students, Cass Technical High School in downtown Detroit faces significant social and economic challenges. Once a thriving metropolis, Detroit has been impacted profoundly by the decline of the American automobile industry. An estimated one third of the residents of Detroit now live below the poverty line, and Detroit has the lowest median household income of any city in the country. (1) Forty one percent of the students at Cass are considered to be economically disadvantaged. (2) Nevertheless, they consistently outperform other students on state achievement tests; in social studies, their scores are significantly higher than the statewide average. This study examines the reasons, cited by students and teachers, at the school, for the enduring success.

The context

A reporter for Education Week described the Detroit Public Schools as "the nation's fastest-shrinking major urban school system," noting that enrollment has declined by 60,000 students in the last decade. (3) Dislocated workers have migrated with their children from the state in search of employment. Declining enrollment also owes to the decisions of parents to transfer their children to charter schools as well as public schools outside the district. (4) With a deficit of $408 million, the Detroit Public School District now faces the most serious financial crisis in its history. (5)

Cass Technical High School admits students based on grades in middle school and test scores. A college-preparatory curriculum is available to students in grades nine through twelve. Although most of its students are from Detroit, Cass Technical, a school of choice, admits students from other cities as well. Administrators and teachers have high standards and expectations. In reflecting on the success of social studies education at Cass Technical, one student acknowledged that the expectations of teachers were motivational: "My teacher ... is very experienced and shows high expectations for his students. These expectations push us to excel at any endeavor we go after."

The study

In this study, 85 students enrolled in social studies courses at Cass Technical High School completed anonymous surveys in 2008 on which they were asked to describe their social studies classes and to explain why they think that so many students at the school have had such high scores on achievement tests. They also were asked to comment on whether or not their social studies classes were interesting. On their surveys, students indicated the extent to which they use the Internet to complete research projects for social studies classes. They also reported the frequency of teachers' use of primary historical documents. In addition, three social studies teachers at Cass, Brian Diskin, Kathleen Frazier, and James O'Leary, were interviewed about their instructional methodologies. The evidence gathered for this study suggests that highly motivated and caring educators as well as innovative instructional techniques have increased the students' interest in and knowledge of social studies.

Humor, commitment, and diverse methodologies

When Roy Rosenzweig, Dave Thelen, and researchers at the Center for Survey Research at Indiana University interviewed over 1,400 Americans about their views and uses of the past in 1994, participants used the adjective "boring" to describe history classes in school more often than any other word. …