the hot seat

Five minutes in the hot seat: For Detroit school principals, there’s ‘nowhere to hide’ in new district data chats

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Detroit Schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti (center) has been summoning district principals to discuss their schools at "data chats" attended by their colleagues and bosses. "This is the work," Vitti said. “You’re constantly problem solving. You're surfacing issues … and you’re looking at data to make decisions.”

Taking her seat at the end of a long table, the leader of a Southwest Detroit elementary school was clearly rattled by the bad luck of having been called first.

“Good morning,” she said, as she glanced down at her notes, then up at the colleagues and bosses who stared back at her from around the hot and crowded room.

“Sorry, I’m very nervous,” she said through a shaky voice before launching into a list of facts about her school.

Enrollment is up and student behavior is trending in the right direction, she said. But reading scores are down and more than half of her students missed enough days of school last year to be considered “critically” absent.

Also, she said, the city’s teacher shortage had made it tough for her to fill three vacant teaching positions this year, and she had only found long-term substitutes for two of those jobs. That means that in addition to having far too many students with no access to a qualified teacher, she’d had classrooms with as many as 47 6th and 7th graders for months.

“We’re very happy that we are no longer parents’ last choice of where to put their child,” she said, referring to her school’s higher enrollment. “But I want to be able to provide the proper environment.”

Listening as she gave that assessment of her school’s challenges were more 30 other principals from the Detroit Public Schools Community District, most of the district’s top administrators, and a man, sitting on the opposite end of the table, who could fire her if he doesn’t like what he hears: Superintendent Nikolai Vitti.

Since taking over the Detroit schools in May, Vitti has been busy assembling a team of advisors, overseeing the creation of a strategic plan and trying to rebuild some of the operational systems that he says were dismantled during the years when the district was run by state-appointed emergency managers.

The principal sessions, which he calls data chats, are part of his first major effort to improve the quality of instruction in classrooms.

The goal, Vitti told the principals who, one by one, have taken a turn at the end of the table in recent weeks, is not to criticize school leaders, or to shame them over problems they can’t fully control.

The goal is to figure out what schools need — and find ways for the district to support them.

“I don’t want you to feel on any level that this is an ‘I got you,’ Vitti told a roomful of anxious principals before the start of a recent data chat. “This is another step in trying to improve the relationship between the school district and schools. This is about creating a culture with a focus on performance.”

And principals will not be the only ones on the hot seat. The data chats will take place several times a year, he said, sometimes with principals presenting and other times with district officials at the end of the table.

“No one is going to want to come into this room at the beginning of February and know that a principal asked for something and there was no response,” Vitti said.

The sessions, he said, are a way to sharpen the focus of everyone who has a hand in educating Detroit’s district students.

“This is the work,” Vitti said at the end of a marathon session earlier this month that began at 8 am in a 10th floor conference room in the district’s Fisher Building headquarters and didn’t end until long after the sun had set. “You’re constantly problem solving. You’re surfacing issues … and you’re looking at data to make decisions.”

Principals reported they were nervous before presenting data on their schools to a room crowded with district educators including Superintendent Nikolai Vitti (right). “It forces everyone to be honest about the work because everyone is in the room,” Vitti said.

***

Vitti used a version of data chats like these in Miami and Jacksonville, the two Florida school districts where he worked before coming to Detroit, he said.

The idea came initially from Rudy Crew, the superintendent Vitti worked for in Miami. Crew had been schools chancellor in New York City in the 1990s where he saw the police department use crime data to deploy resources through a program called CompStat.

CompStat, which is often credited with the steep decline in crime rates in New York that began in the 1990s, tracks surges in car thefts, assaults and other crimes by neighborhood, time of day and other factors. Police commanders from across the city are then summoned to regular CompStat meetings to explain what’s happening in their precincts and what they’re doing to respond.

Vitti said he worked with Crew to develop data chats in Miami, then brought the concept with him to Jacksonville when he became superintendent of the Duval County Public Schools.

As he starts them in Detroit, Vitti said, the chats looks somewhat different — at least for now.

While in Florida a complex school grading system based on multiple layers of test score data had forced principals to “become more savvy about student performance, analyzing data, talking through school improvement strategies,” Detroit principals aren’t as used to diving deeply into student data, Vitti said. The culture of “analyzing data, talking about your data,” he said, has not yet taken hold.

That was evident during a data chat session attended by Chalkbeat. Several principals said their schools had seen an increase in test scores this year when, in reality, their scores had climbed just one or two percentage points — a change so small it might not have much meaning.

“We have to be careful with that,” Vitti told one principal, stopping her presentation to address the room. “Sometimes when we see a 1 percentage point increase, a 2 percentage point increase, sometimes that’s not statistically significant.”

Since the students who took the third grade reading test last year are not the same kids who took it this year, “that can artificially change your increase or your decrease so we have to become more mindful of those factors,” Vitti said.

That doesn’t mean Vitti was critical of principals who made those claims.

“It’s really not fair to have a principal sit there and me grill them on very specific performance-related issues because the culture wasn’t established to build capacity and hold people accountable,” he said.

It also wouldn’t be fair to expose principals at their first data chats to public scrutiny, he said. That’s why Vitti set ground rules allowing this reporter to attend the chats only if she agreed not to identify principals in connection with their presentations.

Principals attending the session said they had been worried when they heard they would have to present in front of a room full of other principals.

“I have to admit I was nervous, you know having that dream where you’re coming in with bare feet,” said Gina Brown who leads the Ronald Brown Academy, an elementary-middle school on the city’s east side. “But I think it’s an excellent process because it gives me a chance as a principal to sit back and really learn something about what other schools are doing. I’ve been taking copious notes.”

The district had been led in recent years by five different emergency managers, including some Brown said she rarely heard from. She welcomed the chance to have an open discussion about her school.

“To have the deputy superintendent and the superintendent sitting right here is really helpful,” she said. “All the main players are sitting at the table.”  

And principals in the room could get immediate responses to some of their concerns — if not necessarily a swift resolution.

As school leaders mentioned problems — like one who said the hole in her school’s roof was threatening to damage computer equipment, and another who said her students were in “dire need” of workbooks in multiple subjects and grades — Vitti pressed the district officials charged with meeting those needs for a response.

“It is empowering, I think, for principals to be in a room with their peers but also to have the ear of the superintendent and the cabinet to say, ‘This is working, this isn’t working,’” Vitti said. “So it’s accountability on multiple levels … It forces everyone to be honest about the work because everyone is in the room.”

“In this room,” he told the principals at the start of the session, “there is nowhere to hide — for the principal and the cabinet.”

 

* * *

With so many school leaders in the room, Vitti used the opportunity to poll principals on a range of subjects.

He asked the heads of elementary-middle schools whether they want to continue serving kids in so many grades or if they’d prefer separate elementary or middle schools (most wanted to stay the way they are). He asked princals who mentioned high suspension rates if they’d want to create in-school suspension programs rather than send students home for poor behavior (most liked that idea). And he asked whether principals like requiring students to wear uniforms (most said they do).

Each principal officially had five minutes for his or her data chat — measured by a timer projected on a screen behind Vitti in the conference room — but the timer was paused whenever Vitti or other officials stopped to ask questions or make comments. That meant most principals presented for between 10 and 20 minutes.

Vitti asked principals what they’d like their schools to become — part of his push to give every school in the district a unique identity that could give families a reason to enroll.

Several said they wanted a science and technology focus. One principal asked for a focus on foreign languages, while some asked for arts programs.

“We could become the “Frida Kahlo School of the Arts,” said one principal who thought the name of that iconic Mexican painter would attract the Mexican families in his school’s neighborhood.  

Vitti questioned principals who had been successful in filling teacher vacancies about the tools they had used for recruiting (most said teacher word of mouth was their best bet). He asked a principal who had reduced chronic absences how she had done that. (She raised money for a washing machine so kids who had been staying home for want of a uniform would have something clean to wear to school).

And he noted that many princials had discovered the same thing in their testing data: that their scores on a test, called the MAP, which measures how well individual students are improving academically from one year to the next, had been going up, while their scores on the state’s standardized M-STEP, which determines whether kids are performing at grade level, had dropped.

“Like everyone else I’ve seen today, my scores are surprisingly low,” one principal said. “We seem to fare much better on the MAP in every subject area. Why there’s that disconnect, why they don’t do better on the M-STEP….”

Vitti cut her off.

“I’ll just tell you what the answer is,” he said. “The answer is that MAP is not aligned to the Common Core Standards at the highest level, which means it’s not aligned to the M-STEP… so MAP is giving you a false read.”

The fact that the district had been using MAP test results as a factor in teacher and principal evaluations in recent years could explain why so many schools had been struggling with the M-STEP, Vitti said.

Vitti encouraged principals to hold smaller-scale versions of these chats in their own schools.

“It’s a way to rally everyone around a common goal,” he said. “You then create a culture that’s focused on data. Everyone knows where individual children are … and everyone is rallying and being strategic.”

School leaders might be reluctant to put their teachers in the position of having to discuss their students in front of their peers.

But educators are all in the public eye and should know how to explain their work, he said.

“This may feel like you’re on the hot seat for five minutes but the reality is all of you are on the hot seat all the time,” Vitti told principals. “You are all dramatically responsible for what happens in your building every day. I’m on the hot seat all the time, whether that’s with the media, whether that’s parents at a community meeting, whether that’s board members, or the legislature, I’m constantly having to talk about what happened in the past, where we’re going, and what that looks like.”

The data chats, he said, are about about raising the standards for kids.

“This really is about 360 degrees of accountability,” Vitti said. “When we look at this data and we see where our children are at, we all know that they can do better. If we don’t start changing the way we operate and the way we work as schools, as a district … then why are we here?”

meet the candidates

These candidates are running for Detroit school board. Watch them introduce themselves.

Nine candidates are vying for two seats on Detroit's school board in November. Seven submitted photos.

One candidate tells of a childhood in a house without heat.

Another describes the two-hour commute he made to high school every day to build a future that would one day enable him to give back to Detroit.

A third says her work as a student activist inspired her to run for school board as a recent high school grad.

These candidates are among nine people vying for two seats up for grabs on Detroit’s seven-member school board on Nov. 6. That includes one incumbent and many graduates of the district.

Chalkbeat is partnering with Citizen Detroit to present a school board candidate forum Thursday, Sept. 20 from 5:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m., at IBEW Local 58, 1358 Abbott St., Detroit.

Participants will have the opportunity to meet each candidate and ask questions in a speed-dating format.

In anticipation of that event, Citizen Detroit invited each of the candidates to make a short video introducing themselves to voters. Seven candidates made videos.

Watch them here:

NEW DATA

Michigan’s ‘band-aid’ for filling teaching jobs is expanding. Here’s what you need to know.

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Teachers welcome students to the Southwest Detroit Community School on the first day of school. Seven of the charter's 31 educators last year entered the profession through a fast-track training program.

There aren’t enough qualified teachers to fill classrooms across Michigan — and especially in Detroit. That’s why state officials have opened the door to a controversial way of filling classrooms, loosening restrictions on so-called alternative certifications for educators.

In addition to Teachers of Tomorrow, a fast-track, for-profit teacher certification program that began placing teachers with virtually no classroom experience in schools this year, another for-profit company, #T.E.A.C.H., was recently approved to help expand the state’s teacher pipeline. They’ve joined long-running nonprofit programs like Teach for America, whose corps members typically get some in-classroom training and more hours of teaching classes.

If the expansion continues, it could change the face of schools across the state, in cities like Detroit most of all. In states like Texas — home to Teachers of Tomorrow — nearly half of new teachers take non-traditional routes to certification.

As policymakers gear up for a tug of war over teacher certification, Chalkbeat obtained last year’s teacher certification data for the entire state. The data, alongside interviews with experts in teacher training, painted a picture of where we are now — and where we might be headed.

It shows that teachers with alternative certification are concentrated in Detroit, largely at charter schools, and that they’re disproportionately at a handful of schools.

Scroll down for a list of schools in Michigan that employed at least one teacher with an interim certification last year.

But first — what is alternative certification, again?

In short, it’s an express lane into the teaching profession. Michigan teachers have traditionally attended teacher certification programs that require them to student teach in an actual classroom. By contrast, Michigan’s alternative certification route, which was created under former Gov. Jennifer Granholm, allows anyone with a bachelor’s degree and a 3.0 GPA to start teaching after taking a few courses online and passing a test in the subject they hope to teach. Unlike traditional teacher colleges, these programs don’t require any in-classroom training.

After three years on the job, teachers with alternative certifications can become fully certified if their principal signs off.

This fast-track arrangement is not unusual — almost every U.S. state offers an accelerated route into teaching. But some are much more widely used than others.

The vast majority of Michigan educators still come from traditional, four- or five-year teacher training programs.

It’s not even close. When the state Legislature allowed for an alternate route to teacher certification nearly a decade ago, the policy was billed as an important tool in the struggle to alleviate a statewide teacher shortage. But the 248 educators with “interim certifications” who were employed in Michigan last year amount to little more than a blip in a statewide teacher corps of about 100,000.

A few controversial for-profit certification programs, which were approved to operate in Michigan for the first time last year, hope to change that. Teachers of Tomorrow, whose graduates have begun finding work in Michigan schools, certifies tens of thousands of teachers in 12 states.  And in a promotional video on its website, #T.E.A.C.H, promises to help would-be educators “start teaching almost immediately.” It allows teachers to complete their online training after they have started working in the classroom.

Teachers who go through an alternative certification program are heavily concentrated in Detroit.

Research shows that poor students of color in the U.S. are more likely to be taught by a teacher with an alternative certification. That holds true in Michigan. Two-thirds of the teachers certified through a non-traditional program in the state teach in the city of Detroit, where most students are poor and black or Latino.

This may be because Detroit schools are more willing to hire them. Less than one-twentieth of Michigan’s more than 3,000 schools don’t employ a single teacher with an interim certification. About one-third of Detroit’s schools do.

To be sure, the statewide teacher shortage is particularly punishing in Detroit, where poverty and large class sizes make working in the classroom more difficult. Alternative certification programs have focused their recruiting efforts in the city in an attempt to help fill the gap.

Across the country, cities “are where it’s hardest to get conventional teachers,” said Chester Finn, a senior fellow at the Thomas Fordham Institute, a conservative think tank that has published studies of alternative certification. “Cities are also often where people from Teach for America and other idealistic programs are likely to want to teach.”

Critics say that lowering the barriers to entry into the teaching profession won’t address the deeper problems that plague Detroit schools. And they worry that this quick fix comes with unintended consequences.

“It’s really more like a band-aid, as opposed to addressing the larger issue,” said Christopher Crowley, a professor of teacher education at Wayne State University. “These are experiments, and they’re being tested on certain populations and not others.”

Teachers with alternative certifications can be effective.

It is very difficult to determine whether teachers who take this route perform any worse than their peers, partly because the accelerated programs vary widely in the amount of training and support they give new teachers. Armen Hratchian, director of Teach for America in Detroit, says its program allows teachers to be successful with fewer hours of in-classroom training — known as student teaching — that is common at traditional teacher colleges.

“To help meet the highest standard of teaching here in Michigan, TFA teachers spend over 400 pre-service hours training over the summer, continue to receive intensive coaching and development throughout their first two years, and are monitored and credentialed by the University of Michigan,” he said in an email.

But they are far more likely to leave the profession.

There’s little doubt that teachers who use alternative certification are more likely to leave the profession within a few years. Schools that fill vacancies with such teachers can find themselves in a “vicious cycle” of never-ending hiring, said Desiree Carver-Thomas, an education researcher at the non-partisan Learning Policy Institute, which last month published a list of best practices for combating teacher shortages that does not include alternative certification.

“Most states have been struggling to address teacher shortages for several years, often filling the vacuum with underprepared teachers,” the report reads.

Charter schools hire more teachers with alternative certifications than traditional schools.

Last year, 130 teachers with alternative certification were in charter schools compared with 105 at traditional schools in Michigan. A handful of charter schools have an especially high concentration of these teachers. At the Jalen Rose Leadership Academy, a tiny charter high school on the city’s northern border, nearly half of the 25 teachers at the school last year had not attended a traditional teaching program.

“As the teacher shortage continues to be an ongoing issue, I am always looking to find creative ways to find qualified candidates,” said Wendie Lewis, principal of the Jalen Rose Leadership Academy, in an email. In her experience, teachers who arrive at the school via programs like Teach for America are actually more apt to stay than traditionally certified teachers, perhaps because they promise at the outset to teach for two years.

There are lots of other ways to fight the teacher shortage.

Experts recommend raising salaries, trying to coax retired teachers back onto the job, forgiving student loans for teachers, offering new teachers more mentorship — and the list goes on.

Local governments, philanthropies, and companies have also pitched in, sweetening the deal for teachers by offering discounts on houses and cars for educators in Detroit.

And school leaders in Detroit are already going to extraordinary lengths to fill their classrooms.

Most recently, the city’s main district announced a partnership with the University of Michigan and the Kresge Foundation to, among other things, build a new “cradle to career” school that will feature a beefed-up teacher training program. The idea, in part, is that better-trained, better-supported teachers are more likely to stay in the profession. The district has said it won’t rule out hiring teachers from alternative certification programs, but Superintendent Nikolai Vitti has made clear that he prefers teachers with more training.

“We have to get out of the days of taking any adult that has some education and some certification and placing them in a school, and go to a model where we actually teach teachers how to teach,” Vitti said as he announced the new school on Thursday.

Here’s a list of schools where teachers with alternative certifications were working in Michigan during the 2017-18 school year:

School # Teachers w/ Alt. Cert. Type of school City
Jalen Rose Leadership Academy 11 Charter Detroit
Central High School 9 Traditional Detroit
Voyageur College Prep 8 Charter Detroit
Denby High School 7 Traditional Detroit
Detroit Edison Public School Academy 7 Charter Detroit
MacDowell Preparatory Academy 7 Charter Detroit
Mumford High School 7 Traditional Detroit
Southwest Detroit Community School 7 Charter Detroit
Detroit Enterprise Academy 6 Charter Detroit
Henry Ford Academy: School for Creative Studies (PSAD) 6 Charter Detroit
Voyageur Academy 6 Charter Detroit
Henry Ford Academy: School for Creative Studies – Elementary 5 Charter Detroit
Burns Elementary-Middle School 4 Traditional Detroit
Law Elementary School 4 Traditional Detroit
Southeastern High School 4 Traditional Detroit
Cass Technical High School 3 Traditional Detroit
Cesar Chavez High School 3 Charter Detroit
Clippert Academy 3 Traditional Detroit
Detroit Innovation Academy 3 Charter Detroit
Detroit Leadership Academy Elementary 3 Charter Detroit
Detroit Leadership Academy Middle/High 3 Charter Detroit
Ford High School 3 Traditional Detroit
Pansophia Academy 3 Charter Coldwater
Washington-Parks Academy 3 Charter Redford
Beecher High School 2 Traditional Mount Morris
Benjamin Carson School for Science and Medicine 2 Traditional Detroit
Detroit City West Side Academy for Leadership Development 2 Traditional Detroit
Detroit Prep 2 Charter Detroit
Frontier International Academy 2 Charter Detroit
Linden Charter Academy 2 Charter Flint
New Paradigm Loving Academy 2 Charter Detroit
Nolan Elementary-Middle School 2 Traditional Detroit
Old Redford Academy – High 2 Charter Detroit
St. Catherine of Siena Academy 2 Private Wixom
Trix Academy 2 Charter Detroit
University Preparatory Academy (PSAD) – High School 2 Charter Detroit
University Preparatory Science and Math (PSAD) Middle School 2 Charter Detroit
Webberville High School 2 Traditional Webberville
Western International High School 2 Traditional Detroit
Academy for Business and Technology Elementary 1 Charter Dearborn
ACTech High School 1 Traditional Ypsilanti
Advanced Technology Academy 1 Charter Dearborn
All Saints Catholic School 1 Private Canton
Alternative Educational Academy of Iosco County 1 Charter East Tawas
Ann L. Dolsen Elementary School 1 Traditional New Hudson
Arno Elementary School 1 Traditional Allen Park
Avondale High School 1 Traditional Auburn Hills
Avondale Middle School 1 Traditional Rochester Hills
Bendle Middle School 1 Traditional Burton
Botsford Elementary School 1 Traditional Livonia
Brenda Scott Academy for Theatre Arts 1 Traditional Detroit
Capstone Academy Charter School (SDA) – South Campus 1 Charter Detroit
Cesar Chavez Middle School 1 Charter Detroit
Chandler Park Academy – Middle School 1 Charter Harper Woods
Chelsea High School 1 Traditional Chelsea
Communication and Media Arts HS 1 Traditional Detroit
Conner Creek Academy East – Michigan Collegiate 1 Charter Warren
Crescent Academy Elementary 1 Charter Southfield
Crestwood High School 1 Traditional Dearborn Heights
Croswell-Lexington High School 1 Traditional Croswell
Dansville High School 1 Traditional Dansville
Dearborn High School 1 Traditional Dearborn
Detroit Achievement Academy 1 Charter Detroit
Detroit Collegiate High School 1 Charter Detroit
Detroit Delta Preparatory Academy for Social Justice 1 Charter Detroit
Detroit Edison Public School Academy – High School 1 Charter Detroit
Detroit Merit Charter Academy 1 Charter Detroit
Detroit School of Arts 1 Traditional Detroit
Dickinson East Elementary School 1 Traditional Hamtramck
East Arbor Charter Academy 1 Charter Ypsilanti
Eastpointe High School 1 Traditional Eastpointe
Ecorse Community High School 1 Traditional Ecorse
Escuela Avancemos 1 Charter Detroit
Fitzgerald Senior High School 1 Traditional Warren
George Washington Carver Elementary School 1 Charter Highland Park
Grand Ledge High School 1 Traditional Grand Ledge
Hamtramck High School 1 Traditional Hamtramck
Harrison High School 1 Traditional Farmington Hills
Henry Ford Academy 1 Charter Dearborn
Holy Family Regional School 1 Private Rochester
Hope of Detroit Academy – Elementary 1 Charter Detroit
Horizon High School 1 Traditional Hamtramck
Inkster Preparatory Academy 1 Charter Inkster
International Academy of Flint (K-12) 1 Charter Flint
Jackson Christian School 1 Private Jackson
Jackson ISD Local Based Special Education Programs 1 ISD School Jackson
Kensington Woods Schools 1 Charter Lakeland
Kosciuszko School 1 Traditional Hamtramck
Legacy Charter Academy 1 Charter Detroit
Lindemann Elementary School 1 Traditional Allen Park
Litchfield High School 1 Traditional Litchfield
Lowrey Middle School 1 Traditional Dearborn
Madison High School 1 Traditional Madison Heights
Mary McLeod Bethune Elementary-Middle School 1 Traditional Detroit
Maybury Elementary School 1 Traditional Detroit
Medicine and Community Health Academy at Cody 1 Traditional Detroit
Michigan Connections Academy 1 Charter Okemos
Multicultural Academy 1 Charter Ann Arbor
Munger Elementary-Middle School 1 Traditional Detroit
Murphy Academy 1 Charter Detroit
Noble Elementary-Middle School 1 Traditional Detroit
Northeast Elementary School 1 Traditional Jackson
Northridge Academy 1 Charter Flint
Novi High School 1 Traditional Novi
Novi Woods Elementary School 1 Traditional Novi
Osborn Academy of Mathematics 1 Traditional Detroit
Owosso High School 1 Traditional Owosso
Oxford Crossroads Day School 1 Traditional Oxford
Pershing High School 1 Traditional Detroit
Reach Charter Academy 1 Charter Roseville
Redford Service Learning Academy Campus 1 Charter Redford
Redford Union High School 1 Traditional Redford
Regent Park Scholars Charter Academy 1 Charter Detroit
Renaissance High School 1 Traditional Detroit
Royal Oak High School 1 Traditional Royal Oak
Salina Intermediate 4 – 8 1 Traditional Dearborn
Saline High School 1 Traditional Saline
South Lake High School 1 Traditional Saint Clair Shores
South Pointe Scholars Charter Academy 1 Charter Ypsilanti
Thornton Creek Elementary School 1 Traditional Novi
University Preparatory Academy (PSAD) – Elementary 1 Charter Detroit
University Preparatory Science and Math (PSAD) High School 1 Charter Detroit
University Yes Academy 1 Charter Detroit
Washtenaw International High School 1 ISD School Ypsilanti
Woodworth Middle School 1 Traditional Dearborn
Ypsilanti STEMM Middle College 1 Traditional Ypsilanti

Source: Michigan Department of Education