high stakes

Are Detroit schools making progress towards state benchmarks? Either way, the stakes are rising

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder will decide whether dozens of Detroit schools could face closure.

Test results released on Tuesday suggest that 14 Detroit schools are not on track to meet student achievement targets set last year to spare them from closure by the state.

That news came on the same day as the Michigan Legislature’s latest attempt to ratchet up the consequences for schools that fail to meet those targets. The state budget sent to Gov. Rick Snyder’s desk on Tuesday would require the closure or “reconstitution” of schools that don’t fulfill their partnership agreements – spelling potentially dire consequences for dozens of schools in the Detroit Public Schools Community District. Under the “partnership” agreement, the district is required to make progress towards academic goals, measured at 18 months and 36 months. Principals have already begun buckling down.

But a document presented to the school board Tuesday night shows that 14 elementary and middle schools in the district are not on pace to meet those goals.

Midyear test results suggest that most of the schools saw “minimal growth” in math and reading, while only half of the schools saw improvements in third-grade reading, according to the document.

But those numbers don’t tell the whole story, said Randy Liepa, superintendent of the Wayne RESA, a countywide education agency that is helping the district meet state targets. He said a curriculum overhaul announced this year, one of several districtwide changes, won’t begin to pay off until next year.

“That’s what they’ve been about this year, is changing systems,” Liepa said, adding: “They have to implement things before they can see improvement.”

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti also noted that the test scores cited in Tuesday’s report don’t reflect schools’ ability to meet the benchmarks laid out in their partnership agreements.

Based on the data alone, “it would be inappropriate to signal success or failure of achieving the goals stated in the agreement,” he said in a statement. “We are confident in our partnership plans and believe that we will meet the academic goals set when the deadline arrives.”

The stakes for his district — already high — could rise further.

If Snyder approves the proposed budget, it would mark another twist in the debate over what to do about Michigan’s lowest-performing schools. It would be felt disproportionately by Detroit’s main district, where more than half of schools — 58 in all — are covered by partnership agreements, and thus could face closure within three years.

The agreements were championed by former state Superintendent Brian Whiston, who sought a compromise after a plan to close dozens of troubled schools was aborted in the face of lawsuits and political opposition. Whiston died last month.

The agreements didn’t clearly spell out the consequences of failure, angering Republican lawmakers who pointed to a clause in the state’s $617 million bailout mandating the closure of Detroit schools that ranked among the worst in the state for three years in a row. Now, pressure from those legislators threatens to cut into the time Vitti says he needs for a district turnaround.

Snyder could refuse to sign the budget in its current form. If he signs it, the ill-defined option of  “reconstitution” could still leave some wiggle room for schools that don’t meet the state-imposed benchmarks.

LaMar Lemmons, a Detroit board member, called the targets built into the district’s partnership agreement “subjective,” saying the future of the district’s struggling schools will depend on the Legislature, not on their academic performance.

“It all depends on the politics of Lansing,” Lemmons told Chalkbeat. He recently filed to run for state Senate.

School funding

Poll: Most residents want Michigan to change the way it funds schools

PHOTO: (Photo by Ariel Skelley via Getty Images)
Members of the School Finance Research Collaborative are calling for equitable school funding so all Michigan students get the education they deserve.

Most Michigan residents believe the state’s current method of funding schools is both insufficient and unfair.

Those were the findings of a new statewide poll that was conducted in June by the School Finance Research Collaborative, a prominent group of Michigan educators, policymakers, and business leaders that has called for major changes to the way schools are funded.

The poll of 600 Michigan residents found that 70 percent believe the state’s schools are underfunded, and 63 percent think they are not funded fairly.

“The results of the poll should really be a wake-up call for policymakers on both sides of the aisle, and to anyone seeking elected office,” said Wanda Cook-Robinson, a School Research Collaborative member and superintendent of Oakland Schools. “They need to listen to the Michiganders and use the school finance research collaborative study as a road map for a new, fair schools funding system.”

The poll follows a report the collaborative released in January, which recommended sweeping changes to the way schools in Michigan are funded. Instead of sending schools the same amount per student, the report recommended providing schools with additional funds for students who are learning English, living in poverty or facing other challenges.

The group spent nearly two years and about $900,000 producing the report but it did not get much immediate response from Lansing. The education budget signed by Gov. Rick Snyder this summer included increases to school funding, but made no changes to the funding formula.

Michael Addonizio, a professor of Education Policy Studies at Wayne State University and a member of the collaborative, said the poll offers another reason why lawmakers should pay attention to the issue.

“It’s time for a new school funding system that meets the unique, individual needs of all students, whether they are enrolled in special education, living in poverty, English language learners, and [whether] students attend school in geographically isolated areas of the state,” he said.

Details about the survey including the specific questions asked are below.

Timely Decision

Detroit school board approves 2018-19 academic calendar after union agrees to changes

PHOTO: Hero Images
Ivy Bailey, president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, said teachers agreed to calendar changes to do what's best for students.

The Detroit school board approved this year’s academic calendar Tuesday night, hours after Detroit’s main district and its largest teachers union settled a contract disagreement.

The calendar approval, which comes just three weeks before the first day of school, includes some changes to the original calendar spelled out in the teachers’ contract.  The new calendar was approved last week by a school board subcommittee without comment from the the Detroit Federation of Teachers, and it was on the agenda for tonight’s meeting of the full school board.

After discussion with the district, the union signed an agreement on the changes, known as a memorandum of understanding.

The calendar eliminates one-hour-early releases on Wednesdays and moves the teacher training that occurred during that time mostly to the beginning of the school year. It also will move spring break to April 1-5, 2019 — a few weeks earlier than the April 19-26 break specified in the contract.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said the situation was not ideal, and he realizes that some teachers may already have made plans for the week of April 19-26.

“Hopefully, our teachers realize they should be there,” he said. But if vacation plans were already made and can be changed, “that’s good.”

“We will be prepared as much as possible to have substitutes and even district staff, if it’s necessary,” he said.

Ivy Bailey, president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, said teachers aren’t pleased about the agreement.

“No, we were not happy with the change,” Bailey said.

Addressing a question from board member LaMar Lemmons, Bailey said the calendar changes “did constitute an unfair labor practice” because, among other reasons, teachers lost preparation days with the new calendar.

“We are not happy, but we are here for students,” Bailey said. “We understand this is what’s right for students. We put students first, and we are going to work it out.”

The earlier spring break is designed to avoid the testing window for the Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test, a college entrance exam commonly known as the PSAT.

Other changes to the calendar include eliminating scheduled parent-teacher conferences on October 31 because of the Halloween celebration.