Tag Archives: Detroit

All States Need to Shore Up Literacy Instruction After the Detroit Decision

There has been a lot written about the 6th Circuit’s decision in Detroit’s right-to-literacy case, the latest in a long line of lawsuits bringing state and federal constitutional challenges to the quality of education opportunities provided to public school students. The court held that the Constitution protects a right to a minimal education opportunity: the right to literacy. This decision is an unmistakable signal to schools and districts about the importance of meaningful literacy instruction. 

And although the facts in this case are specific to Detroit’s unique relationship with Michigan’s state government, that will not excuse another state or district from falling short in their obligation to provide an education that offers a genuine opportunity for literacy.

three young black girls and one black adult looking at a table of books, Knight Arts Challenge Detroit: Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History The Charles H. Wright will use the arts to foster an interest in reading by weaving interactive cultural experiences throughout the museum’s Children’s Book Fair.

Photo of Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History via Knight Foundation on Flickr

The path to good literacy instruction isn’t a mystery. There is relevant science and resources to help schools, districts, and states. Good instruction is described in a set of practice guides produced by the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences, which are based on reviews of research, the experiences of practitioners, and the expert opinions of a panel of nationally recognized experts. States and districts can encourage the use of these resources by administrators, teachers, school specialists, and families.

To identify which specific programs and interventions have been effective at improving student outcomes, state and district leaders can search the What Works Clearinghouse, with particular attention to programs that have been independently evaluated. Reading interventions may impact a variety of outcomes, including alphabetics, reading fluency, comprehension, and general reading achievement. Since some interventions may be more effective than others for certain types of literacy skills, states might encourage the use of needs assessments to better understand which interventions are the best fit for a school or district. Continue reading

Detroit Schools Bill Passes, Misses Huge Opportunity

Deflated balloon

Image via Pando.com

The Michigan legislature passed a bill last night that provides $617 million in debt relief and restructuring for Detroit Public Schools; calls for the creation of an A-F school grading system; prevents “authorizer shopping;” allows DPS to hire non-certified teachers; and includes penalties for teachers who engage in sickouts. Here’s a good Washington Post overview and two Detroit News write-up’s. The bill summary is here.

Notably, the Detroit Education Commission (see below), was not included in the bill. Instead of being a big step forward for Detroit, it’s a huge missed opportunity.

Here are my quick reactions:

  • Without the DEC to bring order to Detroit’s chaotic education landscape, the current bill falls WAY short of what’s necessary to improve options for all of the city’s families. While imperfect, the DEC was a good first step in modernizing Detroit’s education governance model. Detroit could have joined the ranks of DC, Denver, and New Orleans as cities taking proactive steps to manage their dynamic city-wide systems of schools. Instead, the idea of the DEC has been reduced to a toothless advisory council that produces one report per year on facilities, siting, and transportation. It’ll be part of the new DPS.
  • Read between the lines and you’ll see the empowerment of the State School Reform/Redesign Office (SRO), which was created when Michigan competed for Race to the Top funds but lay dormant while the precarious Education Achievement Authority (EAA) ran under-performing schools instead. The SRO will lead the A-F grading system and intervene when DPS  and authorizers fail to act on chronically under-performing schools. This is important because it signals a shift in power from the state board of education, the state superintendent, and the EAA to an office under the direct control of the governor — a good thing when difficult decisions have to be made quickly.
  • The politics behind the passage of this bill are ugly. I’m not on the ground in Michigan and I’m more interested in policy design and implementation, so I’m not going to get too far into it. But it seems like the bill — which had widespread bipartisan support, including Michigan’s republican governor, Detroit’s democratic mayor, and the Detroit Caucus — should have trumped the one bankrolled by two far-right special interest groups that put ideology over compromise and pragmatism.
  • Governor Snyder helped get the current bill passed by showing lawmakers how much a DPS bankruptcy would cost the state (and their home districts) should legislation fall apart, but one has to wonder why he didn’t take a more commanding posture to get his version of the bill passed by members of his own party.
  • Standing up an A-F grading system for Detroit schools and eventually the entire state is a good thing if designed well.
  • Preventing authorizing shopping is good, but the provision was used as a low-stakes bargaining chip for the far-right charter lobby. It could have been part of a more comprehensive charter law improvement bill that’s been discussed, but deprioritized in favor of this one.
  • The provisions around hiring non-certified teachers and penalizing teachers engaging in sickouts just seems like a stick-in-the-eye for Detroit democrats. Nothing more.

So what’s next? The difficult work of getting an accountability infrastructure in place and setting up a new district in Detroit will begin immediately. And I wouldn’t put it past Mayor Mike Duggan to keep pushing for the DEC or something like it when the timing is right. In the meantime, Detroit’s leaders should be thinking about what they can do on their own to rein in their charter sector’s authorizer environment and make sure the new DPS doesn’t look like the old DPS.

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The Detroit Education Commission: A Big Step For Motown Schools

The April bill paving the way for the transfer of schools from the Louisiana Recovery School District to the Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB) made the policy world sit up and take notice. It signaled the next chapter in America’s most ambitious education reform story. Most observers were glad to see the schools transferred back to local control but uneasy about OPSB taking the reins, with the exception of my colleague Andy Smarick who has pragmatic concerns about the policy mechanisms and would have voted against the move.

But policy analysts have given far less attention to a similar debate about the future governance of charter schools in Michigan, where a broad and diverse Detroit-based coalition, the Democratic mayor, Republican governor, and the state senate are supporting the creation of the Detroit Education Commission (DEC) through SB710.

[UPDATE: MI House passes DPS debt relief bill HB 5384 which does NOT include the DEC]

The DEC is important because it offers an entirely new governance model for urban education, which is sorely needed: Detroit Public Schools (DPS) is the worst large urban school district and is thirty days away from running out of money. The rest of the landscape is bedlam too. The DEC will accommodate multiple operators (a district, charters, and a state-run district), coordinate their efforts, and put them on a level playing field. To do this, the DEC would have four responsibilities:

  1. Develop and publish an annual supply-and-demand report to measure gaps in school services.
  2. Develop a single A-F accountability system for all public schools (DPS and charters) and publish the results widely.
  3. Allow any school that earns an A or B grade to replicate freely. All new schools or lower performing schools must earn approval from the DEC before opening or replicating (again, applies to DPS and charters).
  4. Require an authorizer (in the case of charters) or the state (in the case of DPS) to intervene in any school that earns an F grade (i.e., close or transform the school).

Importantly, the DEC wouldn’t run schools. It wouldn’t control budgets. By law, it would be restricted to those four functions listed above. The DEC’s siting and accountability plans must be approved by the state and shared broadly before any action can be taken. And any action the DEC takes can be appealed by schools to the state.

A recent meeting of city, district, and charter leaders improved upon the bill by adding three amendments to make city-owned facilities equally accessible to charters and district schools, apply standards for school openings and closings equally between district and charter schools, and decouple the financial condition of DPS and the DEC.

The legislation isn’t perfect. For instance, the DEC is supposed to operate on $1 million annually, which seems very lean for an agency that will require top talent, deep analysis, serious community engagement, and constant communication of important information.

On a more technical note, the relationship between the DEC and charter authorizers isn’t clear; it hasn’t been since Governor Rick Snyder’s initial proposal. When I read deeper into SB710, it was clear that things could get complicated if the DEC, an authorizer, the State School Reform Office, and the state superintendent disagree on whether a specific school should open in a specific location. The accountability lines aren’t as clean as I’d like them to be, but that’s a function of policy proposals going through the meat grinder of negotiations.

While it’s not the swift quantum leap that Louisiana took with the Recovery School District, it is a positive incremental step toward a modern urban school governance model. The DEC accomplishes the important tasks of providing local control, establishing an enforceable focus on quality, and matching schools to neighborhood need. Oh, and it’s supported by key constituencies: the state senate, the mayor, the governor, the DPS superintendent, many Detroit charter leaders, parents, and business leaders.

However, should the DEC be established, the risk of “Detroit fatigue” in Michigan’s capital of Lansing could mean lawmakers aren’t willing to do the kind of long-term shepherding that’s needed to improve on an important first step. Accountability lines should be clarified. Mid-course corrections will have to be made. In the unfortunate case that the DEC isn’t producing the results it’s supposed to within five years, the bill states that it must sunset — a prudent clause for a high-stakes new endeavor.

If the only other option is a debt-free district with a sketchy track record and a Wild West charter sector, it seems like a risk worth taking.

Plans, Politics, and Potential for Detroit’s Schools

Empty lot in Detroit

via Detroit Future City

In the last two months, there’s been some seriously innovative proposals to revamp the school governance structure in Detroit. As an education professional focused on city-level reforms like this, analyzing the various plans has been incredibly interesting. As a native Michigander and close observer of all things Detroit, my fixation has reached a whole new level.

In both cases, I’m driven by the fact that academic achievement in Detroit is abysmal: only 3 percent of 8th graders scored proficient or above in math on the 2013 NAEP TUDA. Only 9 percent were proficient of above in reading. Achievement scores for the 51% of students that attend charter schools are better but have plenty of room for improvement.

The proposed reforms hold tremendous promise to improve the status quo. Here’s my take on the developments thus far.

Debt Isolation
A month ago, Governor Rick Snyder of Michigan proposed a bold plan to free Detroit’s public schools from the burden of the district’s $483 million operating debt. His OldCo/NewCo asset transfer strategy, modeled after the one that General Motors used in 2009, has received a lot of coverage and commentary (here, here).

But the debt-isolation strategy is only part of the story. Solving the district’s financial woes won’t necessarily produce the academic improvements Detroit’s students deserve. That will require more fundamental change to the city’s system of schools. Continue reading

Eight Questions for Rick Snyder About the Future of Detroit’s Schools

Michigan Governor Rick Snyder and Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan

Michigan Governor Rick Snyder and Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan (via time.com)

Tomorrow, Michigan’s Republican governor, Rick Snyder, plans to unveil a new plan for Detroit’s schools, which he previewed a week ago. The three-part plan is expected to call for significant changes to handle the Detroit Public Schools’ persistent $350 million debt load and, more importantly, revamp the governance and oversight model for the city’s schools.

[Update: Coverage of Snyder’s press conference here and here.]

The first part will call for a bankruptcy-management strategy (previously employed by General Motors) through which Detroit Public Schools would be divided into two entities. One would operate schools (the “new company”); the other would resolve the district’s debt (the “old company”).

The second part will call for the DPS school board to remain with the “old company.” The district is currently run by a state-appointed emergency financial manager, an arrangement that is likely to continue until the district is solvent, so any board’s role would be limited for the foreseeable future.

The third part would establish the Detroit Education Commission, a new body that would oversee Detroit’s portfolio of district and charter schools. Early reports indicate that the commissioners would be appointed by Governor Snyder and Detroit’s Mayor, Mike Duggan. The body would oversee city-wide education services such as a common enrollment system, a universal performance measure, and transportation. The idea was first introduced a month ago in a report by the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren.

We’ve been following the developments in Detroit closely for quite some time and are heartened to see proposals that get into the DNA of the system–changing decision-making authority and governance instead of just tinkering with the operations of the district. But there are still a number of important open questions. Here are eight that we hope Gov. Snyder’s announcement will answer, questions we believe are critical to creating a self-improving system of diverse, high-quality schools:

  1. Who will be ultimately accountable for the success of the city’s schools?
  2. What will the relationship be between the Detroit Education Commission and other oversight entities, such as charter school authorizers, the “new DPS” board, the Education Achievement Authority, and the state board of education?
  3. Will Detroit be converted to a “charter district,” similar to Muskegon Heights and Highland Park? If so, will the “new DPS” continue to authorize charter schools?
  4. Who will get control of facilities in the debt divide? Does the DEC manage them for the city’s portfolio or are they assets owned and controlled by the “old DPS”?
  5. Will Snyder address the fixes needed at the state level, like stronger charter authorizing practices, which have a significant influence on Detroit schools?
  6. When fully implemented, what mechanisms will there be for stakeholders like parents, students, and community members to exercise democratic control and have a local voice?
  7. How will private schools be incorporated into Detroit’s system of schools?
  8. How will the state ensure a smooth transition to a new governance model, and how long will it take?