Diving Deeper into Michigan Data in Betsy DeVos’ Confirmation Hearing Last Night

During her confirmation hearing last night, Betsy DeVos, Donald Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Education, fielded questions from members of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) committee. As we predicted, several committee members asked DeVos about her involvement in education policy and politics in her home state of Michigan and in Detroit Public Schools (DPS). In particular, Senator Bennet (D-CO) and Senator Whitehouse (D-RI) used Michigan and DPS data to press DeVos on accountability, charter school oversight, and school improvement.

In many cases, however, the questions and answers both misrepresented or oversimplified the data. To be fair, the time constraints and pressure of a confirmation hearing make it difficult to fully dig into the nuance of an entire state’s complex education history. To help analysts, journalists, policymakers, and practitioners accurately evaluate DeVos, we are releasing a fact-base about the education policy landscape in Michigan after the Inauguration. But until then, here are explanations for a few Michigan data points mentioned in last night’s hearing (note: all speakers’ talking points have been paraphrased for clarity):

  • Bennet: According to one analysis, in Detroit Public Schools nine percent of kids are proficient. Charter schools were a little better: 14 percent of the kids were proficient.
    • Our take: Like a lot of states, Michigan’s education report card website with data on school performance and student demographics is hard to navigate. The state also doesn’t report student assessment scores for the charter sector vs. traditional public schools. Bennet appears to be referring to proficiency on the state M-STEP assessments. While proficiency in Detroit is quite low in both charters and DPS, proficiency comparisons aren’t everything (as Senator Franken might explain). A widely cited study from CREDO compared Detroit charter students to demographically similar students from district schools and found a significant learning advantage for charter students — about 65 days of additional learning in Math and 50 in reading.       
  • Bennet: Nearly half of charter schools in Michigan ranked in the bottom quarter of all schools statewide.
    • Our take: There are a lot of ways to rank schools, but multiple analyses show that while a good number of Detroit charter schools rank in the low tiers of school performance, DPS schools rank even lower.
  • DeVos: I believe there has been a lot that has gone right in Detroit and in Michigan with regard to charter schools. The notion that there hasn’t been accountability is just wrong. It’s false news. It’s not correct at all. The reality is that charter schools in Michigan have been fully accountable to their overseeing bodies and to the state since the beginning of their history.
    • Our take: What constitutes real accountability can get messy: is accountability the real threat of closure for poor performance, or simply a ratings system that identifies who does better or worse? Under NCLB and ESEA waivers, both charter schools and traditional public schools were subject to ratings and school turnaround measures, though as in most states, few — if any — Michigan schools saw tangible consequences from those ratings. Charter schools are not only accountable to the state — they are also accountable to their authorizers. The high number of authorizers in Michigan (more than 40) decentralizes and complicates responsibility for charter schools. The state has only recently intensified oversight of authorizers for poor performance and put restrictions in place to prevent “authorizer shopping,” where would-be school founders try to find the authorizers with the most lax requirements.
  • Whitehouse: I have read that 80 percent of charter schools in Michigan are run by for-profit entities and most of them perform below the state average.
    • Our take: While every charter in Michigan reports to a nonprofit board of directors, Michigan has more charter schools operated by for-profit entities than any other state — about 70 percent of 300 charters contract with an education management organization (EMO) that manage more than one school. While many are below the state average, students at EMO-run charters actually perform better than non-EMO charters and far better than students at comparable district schools. 

After the Inauguration, Bellwether will release a complete fact-base on the Michigan education landscape to inform the ongoing conversation about DeVos. Check back for more and read our other writing on DeVos here.