Detroit school board leader can't write

A product of Detroit Public Schools now leads the school board that’s trying to raise worst-in-the-nation literacy scores.  Otis Mathis can’t write, reveals Detroit News columnist Laura Berman. The board president’s e-mails are notoriously garbled:

Do DPS control the Foundation or outside group? If an outside group control the foundation, then what is DPS Board row with selection of is director? Our we mixing DPS and None DPS row’s, and who is the watch dog?

In another e-mail:

If you saw Sunday’s Free Press that shown Robert Bobb the emergency financial manager for Detroit Public Schools, move Mark Twain to Boynton which have three times the number seats then students and was one of the reason’s he gave for closing school to many empty seats.

Mathis concedes, “I’m a horrible writer.” He was placed in special education in fourth grade and was “kicked out” of several high schools.

He graduated from Southwestern High School in 1973 with what he says was a 1.8 grade-point average but was previously reported as a .98 average. After serving in the Navy, Wayne State placed him in a special program to help academically unqualified students move forward, on the G.I. Bill.

He was unable to earn a degree because he couldn’t pass Wayne State’s English proficiency exam. Mathis sued unsuccessfully in 1992 to get the requirement dropped, saying repeated failure “made me feel stupid.”  The requirement was abolished in 2007; Mathis collected his degree the next year.

Mathis told Berman he can read, but “sometimes needs to read documents two or three times to fully comprehend their contents.”

After working as a counselor at Wayne State, Mathis worked as a substitute teacher in Detroit schools, ran a nonprofit and served on the Wayne County Commission. He is liked by colleagues, who elected him board president on a 10-1 vote.

Mathis and some of his supporters say he’s a role model, showing that it’s possible to succeed despite limitations. He understands the problems, backers say.

Berman asks:

About Joanne


  1. Cranberry says:

    Calling him a “horrible writer” understates the case. Why would the other board members elect him president? How literate are they?

  2. Math Teacher says:

    Judging someone’s writing skills by their emails is a bit heavy-handed. Granted, the guy admits his writing skills are poor, but who on earth revises and edits their emails? Emails are conversational dash-offs, and contain conversational elements generally not intended for public consumption.

    Please recall we had a president with atrocious verbal skills, but I suspect that because he was white, he was forgiven, day after day. I wonder what HIS emails were like…

  3. This is one of the reasons why government should not be involved in education. There is a functioning illiterate working as president of a school board of a major (formally major) city! This is embarrassing. What makes it most disturbing is his unwillingness to improve himself. Not once did he say he would take writing courses. Shouldn’t this be a warning to us all about the pernicious effects of government running schools. I’m 32 years old and I wonder what will our country look like 5, 10 or 20 years!?

  4. daveinboca says:

    Math Teacher You are perhaps referring to George W. Bush and are demonstrating your ignorance if you think ad lib verbal skills are the same as the ability to compose a basic English sentence. John Lewis Gaddis, whom an ignorant “math teacher” would never have heard of, told his students at Yale that George W. read and reviewed American history books which he then would recommend to JLG, his former history prof, for his class to consider reading. Bush is a better writer than you, and vastly more intelligent, as the body of your comment indicates you are a entitlement bigot and closet [“because he was white”] racist.

  5. Detroit students do need to read and write. I’m not sure what the school board president’s ability in reading and writing has to do with that in any direct sense. He’s not in the classroom and he doesn’t claim his skill level is good enough.

    It does, of course, point to some of the larger leadership issues faced by the district.

    (But go ahead and just fire all the teachers to fix everything.)

    And I’d go more for irony than absurdity.

  6. Cranberry says:

    If he’s illiterate, at best, the chances are very high that he’s innumerate, as well. It directly affects the students, because he and his fellow board members (education level unproven) make decisions on school policy and school finances. Do you think this man has the mental capacity to decide on the long term ramifications of a bond issue?

  7. Bravo, daveinboca.

    I also take umbrage with the idea that it is somehow a waste of time to revise and edit emails. If it is worth saying, it is worth saying correctly. Reading an email prior to sending it takes very little time. A person who cares so little that they can’t be bothered to do so has no business being in a position in which they can ask questions more complicated than “Do you want fries with that?”

    Even worse is the revelation that he sued to eliminate a requirement he failed to pass. Let us leave aside the fact that a “program to help academically unqualified students move forward” makes a mockery of standards of any kind. This move tells me that he refuses to accept the consequences of his shortcomings. Some people will never be good athletes. Some people will never be good musicians. Some people will never be good cooks. Some people will never be able to earn a real college degree.

    A person must know and accept their limitations. Keep lifting those weights, but don’t go for the 400 lb bench press unless you can handle it. Don’t get up on a concert stage to perform Debussy if you’re still struggling with “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.”. And, for goodness sake, if you cannot handle basic literacy, stay the heck out of school administration.

  8. It is one thing to make the occasional spelling or grammar mistake in casual/non-work emails; I certainly have done that. It is quite another to display blatant incompetence in basic written English, which leads inevitably to the ideas that such incompetence extends far beyond English and that such people should not be running school districts (or anything else).

    There’s a vicious cycle in the urban areas, and likely in others; the awful public schools send unqualified graduates to weak-to-awful college ed schools, who then return unqualified teachers and administrators to the k-12 schools who originally failed to educate them and where they will perpetuate the cycle through subsequent generations.

  9. Math Teacher says:

    Don’t forget Mark Twain’s famous quote:

    “In the first place God made idiots. This was for practice. Then He made School Boards”

    And who says I was thinking of G.W. Bush?

    And thank you daveinboca, for your thoughtful, well written string of insults… they do so add to an intelligent debate. An intelligence to exceed that of G.W. Bush, I shouldn’t wonder.

  10. patricia says:

    Math Teacher, I ABSOLUTELY revise and edit my emails. I’m a transactional lawyer, and probably 90% of my business- hundreds of milliions of dollars a year- is done by email. I would be appalled if I wrote anything like this person in a professional setting. I’m even more appalled that this man is an educator. He may be a fine person- I cast no aspersions on his character- but he is absolutely unsuited to the job of teaching or administrating any schools. And your defense of him contributes to the perceptiion that teachers aren’t true professionals (an idead to which I do not subscribe, btw. Why in the world would any true professional think it is okay to write this way? Why would any true professional give another professional a pass for this? This is shocking to me.

  11. patricia says:

    Apologies for the typos, unclosed parentheses, etc. This is what dahsed off conversation from me looks like. 🙂

  12. Was there ever a golden era of American Education when EVERYONE learned to read, write and be “college or career ready”? I think not. We all have a place on the bell shaped curve.

    Regardless of this man’s illiteracy, he may have something to add to the education conversation.

  13. Cranberry says:

    “Regardless of this man’s illiteracy, he may have something to add to the education conversation.”

    But not as the head of the school board.

    Electing someone incapable of framing a simple written English sentence speaks volumes of the school board’s general level of (in)competence. That lack of competence has already led to the governor placing all financial control in the hands of the Emergency Financial Manager.

  14. Math Teacher says:

    I read the entire column and stand corrected. Mathis was sending emails to mass constituents. These were not personal emails in lieu of phone calls, which many emails are. And I agree, that professional and business emails should be concise and correct. I find it interesting that his supporters seem well aware of his writing errors, but are supportive of him nonetheless.

    That said, he writes using his vernacular dialect rather than standard written English, which appears to be more offensive to the readers here than just poor spelling and punctuation. And I agree with Katho that he may still have a great deal to add to the conversation, especially with experience in the very community he seeks to serve.

  15. I attended a small-town school which typically sent 2-3 kids to a 4-year college, 2-3 to a 2-year college and perhaps 4-6 to some kind of vocational program (OR tech, cosmetology etc), out of a class of 30-34. The remainder either went in the military or to work. Admittedly, the student population was stable, which was (and is) a big advantage, but the whole class had basic literacy and numeracy skills. The local groceries, gas stations, hardware store etc. all exhibited grammatically correct handwritten signs and notices, the cash registers didn’t calculate change due and both employers and customers demanded that change be counted back. I graduated in the mid 60s.

  16. SuperSub says:

    Well, if his only shortcoming is the inability to write, then I don’t see much of a problem.
    On the other hand, the more significant failing is not using someone to edit his writings. As school board president his writings reflect on the district as a whole.

  17. Several things come to mind:
    1) True that emails tend to be sloppier in spelling and grammar than formal written letters, however, these were not personal notes. He needed a reader/editor to clean them up before sending, if his skill was not up to the job.
    2) Math Teacher – please don’t turn every comment into a snide comment about a “certain former President” and his supposed stupidity. Since the current occupant of the office has declined to release any evidence of his superior intellect, it would be churlish to take a cheap shot at his predecessors, simply because they were less secretive about their past.
    3) The problem isn’t non-Standard English – I have been known to slip into the vernacular, even in the classroom, to make a concept clearer. The problem appears to be in the inability to utilize Standard English when needed. Even if we accept that regional/ethnic dialects may be used for many of life’s activities, we are cheating our students if we allow them to use that spoken dialect in place of Standard English. To do so means that child won’t be able to move freely in the USA, due to inability to use the standard form of communication. Once outside of the community that speaks that same dialect, the student is at a severe disadvantage.
    In this aspect, we are superior to the rest of the world. We have a standard form for written, formal communication, that allows our countrymen to change residence, status, and every facet of their lives. We aren’t stuck in the same place and life position as our ancestors.
    So, yes, I correct my students when they say “What it is?” rather than “What is it?” – I did the same for my own children when they referred to “me and him”, or otherwise used non-Standard English. Like Marva Collins, I wanted to make them “citizens of the world”, not just a small corner of it.

  18. Someone with such atrocious language skills is not only unqualified to sit on (let alone lead) a school board, he should be considered unqualified for any sort of important work until he has extensive remediation.

    And under “important work” I include any sort of leadership role with children, especially parenthood.

  19. tim-10-ber says:

    I don’t believe his only problem is his inability to write. The only reason he received a college degree is his college – how many years after he did all he could – finally dropped the English proficiency test he could not pass more than a decade after he was to have received his degree. He obviously has some type of learning disability which is fine. However, if his disability center around reading and writing he should never be allowed to write for the public. He must know proper English (spoken and written) to be an example for the students in a very poor school district. Most people speak the way they write.

    Also, in response to another question I doubt he can understand financial documents necessary for bond issuances either…they are extremely complex.

  20. If you believe the purpose of the public schools is to transmit knowledge, then it’s important for a school board president to be able to write well. OTOH, if you believe the purpose of the public schools is:

    1)to provide employment for political allies of those in power, and

    2)to inculcate certain social and political beliefs,

    why, then, writing skills would seem much less important.

  21. On the email thing:

    Yes, if it is a personal email fired off late in the afternoon trying to get some friends together, who cares about punctuation, spelling, or odd grammar?

    But an email in a professional capacity? From his office and to…journalists? Schools? Other officials?

  22. No, no, say it ain’t so! The leader of a government school system can’t read and write? Why would ANYONE find this to be surprising?

  23. Amy in Texas says:

    The problem is that this person never learned standard English. He can understand it, but not produce it and doesn’t have an assistant to clean up his emails! He leaves off his final consonants in writing because he does this in speech. My high school principal does the same. It really has nothing to do with how he does his job, but it does mean he has not been rigorously educated.

  24. If you read articles that about Otis Mathis the illiterate president for the school board, think writing not many students and have pride for trying hard is one of the reason’s he become board of suxessful school district.

  25. I’m not sure if Mr. McNamar is a parody of a DHS graduate or the real thing.  Regardless, if the school system is to produce anything better than Otis Mathis, it will have to be led by better.

    Amy in Texas:  writing is not the same as spoken language, and learning the difference is part of the essence of learning to write.  Speaking a dialect which might as well not have a written form (because it is close to incomprehensible) just compounds the problem.  If there’s an argument against the tolerance of “Ebonics”, that’s a good part of it.

  26. Wow, this Otis Mathis situation is really sad.

    I grew up in Detroit and learned this “street” life lesson years ago. When a black confronts you with “you’re a racist” (at the time the slang was “honkey”) in this case Math Teacher’s “white” comment, it is simply that they have no real substance left as a base for their position.

    So what I observe in Math Teacher’s comments doesn’t surprise me, as does the pathetic situation with Detroit, and Math Teacher again exposes his real being in his second attempt when he admits, he did not even read the entire column, in any event he still took the “white” shot. To use Math Teacher’s akin to Mark Twain quotes, “A man’s character may be learned from the adjectives which he habitually uses in conversation.”

    One of the reasons I moved from Detroit was exactly because of people like Math Teacher, they did not look beyond my skin color, but focused a continued effort to look for points of contention to classify me as a racist.

    For the record, it wasn’t that difficult to grammar and spell tested these comments.


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