Here are the Issues Facing Detroit Schools

Adding to the dialogue

Recent debates about whether persistently underperforming Detroit schools should be exempted from state closure laws prompted the Excellent Schools Detroit coalition to share some observations behind their gloomy outlook. People of good will want much better opportunities and outcomes for Detroit students, even as the path to that destination appears steep and foreboding.

Most of Excellent Schools’ broad points about the state of education in the Motor City and its future prospects (restated below in bold lettering) hold a great deal of truth and offer good starting points for conversation. The following additional key facts and insights need to be included in the policy discussion.

1. For Detroit families, the education system remains in crisis. The staggering share of poorly performing schools in the city is undeniable. The question is what truly promising “comprehensive” solution ought to be pursued, when the recently rechristened school district has seemed impervious to making needed changes. Given the dire situation, no quality educational option should be left off the table.

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2. The new Detroit Community School District Board (DCSD, formerly DPS) will have to move aggressively. Streamlining an oversized bureaucracy and rooting out the stench of corruption should be at the forefront of a new board’s agenda, as it seeks to regain public trust and redirect dollars to serve students directly in classrooms. Rethinking the role of the board and the central office to foster more local control ought to be a top priority.

3. Is the charter sector really ready to lead? The best available research shows Detroit charters on average add three months of learning each year in key subjects, but the bar does need to be raised higher. Excellent Schools is correct that too many Detroit area charters remain among the bottom 5 percent of the state’s Top-to-Bottom Rankings, though the number is far lower than the number of district schools.

But Michigan would be better off with a system that grades all schools — charter and district — not simply on raw achievement scores that tend to reflect the facts of student poverty. Excellent Schools Detroit’s local scorecard, which gives equal weight to academic proficiency and students’ progress compared to their peers, gives most schools serving the city’s students below-average marks. The result is most pronounced among DPS schools.

Excellent Schools specifically mentions two charter operators with “track records of low performance.” But directly taking into account student poverty rates, as our Context and Performance Report Cards do, tells a somewhat different story. The schools specifically cited earned twice as many A’s and B’s as D’s and F’s on the most recent editions of our report card. In other words, taking poverty into account provides for a fairer measurement of teachers and schools.

4A. The legal battle around closing schools is the predictable result of divisive, shortsighted legislating. The new Detroit reform legislation includes tougher provisions for automatically closing charter schools. It also closes the loophole on “authorizer shopping” by poor-performing charters seeking to escape sanction. But even before these changes, 21 struggling charters have been closed since 2010. No district school in Michigan has been shut down for chronic underperformance.

The new Detroit district published a legal brief arguing the law exempts its schools from closure for three years, but the attorney general since has issued a binding opinion that no such exemption exists. Wherever one wishes to assign blame for the public disagreement, everyone should agree on the need to create a level playing field for implementing high-stakes academic sanctions.

4B. Some schools should close, BUT closing schools alone won’t solve the problems. Yes, the evidence shows New York’s approach to school closures had measurably small benefits on the performance of local high schools. But there is no valid reason to put faith in this strategy alone. Any potential reforms for Detroit should be evaluated on the evidence of their costs and benefits. One reform that has not been enacted is to remake the city schools’ governance after Washington, D.C.

5. With or without closures, time to rethink special education. Following this undeniable point, Excellent Schools has recommended creating a task force “to consider citywide coordination and consolidation of special education and bilingual services.” The intermediate school district is a good place to start looking for reform opportunities. Wayne RESA oversees and funds a unique mandatory center-based program for more severely disabled students. The county’s conventional districts end up serving an unusually higher share of special-needs kids than charters do, when compared with the rest of the state.

6. Going beyond performance, Detroit increasingly has an equity problem. Excellent Schools accurately points out dramatic regional gaps in school quality. Schools in and around downtown tend to significantly outperform those in outlying neighborhoods. Easy solutions are not forthcoming. However, one short-term step to help reduce inequity for impoverished families would be to give families transportation vouchers they could use to get to better schools.

7. Which brings us to the last observation, poverty matters. While poverty ought not provide an excuse to abandon hope for the current generation of Detroit kids, it is quite reasonable to acknowledge the effects poverty tends to have on incoming students. Excellent Schools notes the Mackinac Center’s longstanding critique of Michigan’s school accountability rankings. Since many schools may be closed at the end of the current school year, that critique takes on more urgency.

As we seek to identify the worst schools, we should not discard achievement standards that fail to take student poverty into account. These raw measures must be balanced with measures of academic growth or comparisons based on student poverty. Detroit students, who already have few options for quality schools, cannot afford to see the wrong schools shut down.

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