A Recipe for Failing Schools

The Michigan Legislature is considering three proposals aimed at fixing failing Michigan schools. Rep. Timothy Melton, D-West Bloomfield, introduced House Bill 4879 in April; Sen. Wayne Kuipers, R-Holland, introduced Senate Bill 636 in June; and most recently Rep. Phil Pavlov, R-St. Clair, introduced House Bill 5238 earlier this month. All three of these bills deserve merit for recognizing some of the roadblocks standing in the way of effective school reform. Ultimately, though, these proposals are not an effective recipe for turning around failing schools.

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With details of the abysmal performance of Detroit Public Schools and other districts in the news every day, it's no wonder the Legislature is pondering programs aimed at improving failing schools. Although turnaround schools are a hot topic nationally, there is no comprehensive evidence on what works. School districts throughout the country, however, have tried similar plans to the ones being considered in Michigan and provide important lessons about turnaround programs.

Boston experimented with a "pilot" school program for five years. The program reorganized failing schools and gave certain liberties to reformers to try new structural and operational methods to increase student achievement. Advocating the "pilot" school program was the city's Democratic mayor, Tom Menino. The program eventually failed, and Menino, blaming Boston's teachers unions for blocking reforms, reversed his position and is now calling for enhanced school choice via a districtwide charter school system.

As exemplified in Boston, systematic change must take place if failing schools are to improve. Only comprehensive reform can improve the lot of failing schools. Unlike turnaround schools, evidence of schools raising student achievement in areas of seemingly inevitable failure through comprehensive school reform is substantial.

"No Excuses," a book written by Samuel Casey Carter that featured the successful Cornerstone Schools in Detroit, details 21 schools that bucked the trend of poor performing school districts. Most recently David Whitman, a long-time national analyst of education and social policy, wrote "Sweating the Small Stuff," in which he identifies urban schools where students greatly exceed expectations. Whitman's schools serve low-income communities and churn out high test scores and 90 percent graduation rates. Several common characteristics shared by these schools emerged from Whitman's work.

Whitman noticed that all of these schools practiced something he labeled as "new paternalism." The concept is effective in turning around schools. Under this type of system, administrators and teachers set high behavioral expectations for students and rigorously hold them accountable to those standards. There are no exceptions and no excuses. Students thrive in this predictable environment that many lack outside of school. High expectations and strict discipline can create an environment where students are more able, ready and willing to learn.

Schools successfully turning around failing performance also focus on core curriculum. The Knowledge Is Power Program, a network of college preparatory schools offering tuition-free and open enrollment, has for years used a curriculum centered on the basic skills of reading, writing, arithmetic and critical thinking. Many schools have moved away from a core curriculum to provide more "life experiences" for children, which leave students without the basic building blocks to further their learning. Michigan schools need to go back to the basics to address their failures.

Every school profiled by Whitman also realized the benefit of limiting the power of teachers unions, which consistently block reforms that can improve student performance. In order for failed schools to succeed, they must free themselves from the shackles of collective bargaining agreements. They must not allow the interests of teachers unions to trump the interests of students.

Instead, thriving schools empower effective administrators and give them the freedom to make tough decisions for the betterment of the school. Administrators need a high level of autonomy to ensure accountability of high expectations. Angus McBeath, who garnered worldwide attention for instituting reforms while he was superintendent of Edmonton Public Schools in Alberta, Canada, testifies that the best fiscal and academic accountability is realized when local administrators are able to operate autonomously within a decentralized school system.

For a more recent example of reform success, look to New Orleans. The once hurricane-ravaged city finds hope with the success of its schools. The district increased its standardized test scores by 10 points since 2005. Innovation generated by a charter school system and competition that provided parental choice are at the heart of New Orleans' success.

Most of the reforms needed to turn around failing schools are impossible in conventional school districts. The special interest groups within schools will cry that the sky is falling, but the fact is that only comprehensive school reforms will improve our government-run education system. Michigan can only turn around failed schools by following the models of schools that have succeeded at that very task.


Michael D. Van Beek is director of education policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.

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