School Choice

Scores of Michigan schools to be shuttered based on test scores they were told wouldn’t count

PHOTO: Alan Petersime
Dozens of Michigan schools could get some tough news Friday as school closures loom

More than 100 low-scoring Michigan schools — including dozens in Detroit — could start classes next month likely doomed to close in June.

In a move that is bound to shock parents and educators across the state, the School Reform Office is moving ahead with an aggressive plan to close every school in the state that posted rock-bottom test scores for the last three years — even though Michigan’s education department promised schools that last year’s test scores wouldn’t be held against them.

Closing so many schools might not be popular, said Dan LaDue, assistant director for accountability for the School Reform Office, which Gov. Rick Snyder took over last year in an effort to increase pressure on low-performing schools.

But he says too many Michigan schools aren’t doing their jobs.

“Anytime you talk about closure, that’s going to upset people,” LaDue said. “But we’re not here to make everybody happy. We’re here to hold adults responsible for the performance of students.”

Read our latest story about the school closure plan. And sign up for our weekly newsletter to get more Detroit school news. 

LaDue says his office plans to give notice this fall to every Michigan school — district and charter — that ranked in the bottom 5 percent on state exams in 2014, 2015, and 2016. The schools will have close their doors in June, with exceptions granted only in circumstances where closing a school would pose an “unreasonable hardship” to students, such as if the school is in a neighborhood without better alternatives.

That sweeping closure plan will come as a surprise to many schools: The Michigan Department of Education said it would not use the results of the 2015 M-STEP to mete out serious consequences to schools.

Michigan changed the exam it gives to students in 2015 when it replaced the longstanding MEAP exam with the M-STEP, which is aligned with tougher new Common Core standards. Because of the nature of the new test, the department committed in an agreement with the U.S. Department of Education, to hold off on penalizing schools for poor results until at least 2016.

That’s why the state education department did not release its annual top-to-bottom schools ranking in 2015.

But the School Reform Office, where LaDue works, is no longer a part of the Michigan Department of Education. Snyder signed a controversial order in 2015 that yanked the reform office out of the education department, which is overseen by the state superintendent and state Board of Education, and put it under his own direct authority. The move was a strong signal that he didn’t think the education department had been assertive enough about holding schools accountable for poor performance.

So while the education department promised not to penalize schools for their 2015 exam results, LaDue says the School Reform Office is required by state law to release an annual list of the state’s lowest-performing schools.

In the next couple of weeks — “before or after Sept. 1,” LaDue said — the SRO plans to release a list of schools whose 2015 test scores put them in the bottom 5 percent of state schools. The SRO plans to use the same methodology for the 2015 list that the state education department has used for school rankings in the past, despite the test changes.

The department plans to release a top-to-bottom ranking for 2016 later this fall based on exams that were given last spring. Then, LaDue says the School Reform Office will identify schools that were in the bottom 5 percent for three years in row: on the last year of the MEAP and the first two years of the M-STEP.

Every school on all three lists will get letters telling them to plan for closure in June. They’ll stay open only if the “unreasonable hardship” exception kicks in.

Exactly how many schools will get these letters is unclear. But there were more than 100 schools on the bottom-five list in 2014, the last time it was published (see that list here). More than 40 were in Detroit.

Natasha Baker, the reform office director, told the Free Press that the total number of schools closed will ultimately be “nowhere near 100 schools” but that schools that have been identified for improvement for many years should not remain open. Read our story about why officials now say they won’t close as many schools as they could. 

“I’ll be very blunt here,” LaDue said. “Most of these schools that we’re looking at have been identified for improvement not just … two or three times but 8, 9, 10, 15 times.”

The state could give these schools more time to try to improve, LaDue said. “But how many more kids are going to be allowed to go through that school and graduate and that diploma really doesn’t mean anything?”

Part of the reason for the rapid closure timeline is a new law that Snyder signed in June as part of the $617 million rescue package for the Detroit Public Schools district.

The new law requires the reform office to develop an A-F school grading system that will eventually be used to close schools. But until that system is in place, the law requires the reform office to close all Detroit schools — including both district-run and charter schools — that are on the bottom-five list for three years in a row, except for those where closure would cause an unreasonable hardship.

And if the School Reform Office has to close schools in Detroit, LaDue said, it sees no reason to stop at the city’s borders. “We want to be fair to all districts and all kids,” he said.

But even in Detroit, the SRO’s rapid timeline is bound to stun communities and educators who thought they would have more time to turn their schools around. They note that the new law wasn’t specific about which three years should be used to make closure decisions and assumed, based in part on the education department’s promise, that closures would wait until Michigan has three years of data from the same exam.

“In such an important decision as closing schools, I would think we’d want to develop a coherent accountability system and assess schools on that system over a period of time before making that decision,” said Veronica Conforme, who heads the Education Achievement Authority, a state recovery district that took over 15 of Detroit’s lowest-performing schools in 2012.

Most of the schools in the EAA were on bottom-five list in 2014, the last time the list was published, including some of Detroit’s most storied high schools such as Mumford and Pershing.

Conforme says she believes the changes she made when she took over the EAA two years ago will boost scores with a little more time. But she might not get the chance to prove that.

“I think we’ve implemented a lot of positive strategies that I think will bear fruit this year and into next year,” Conforme said. “But … turnaround takes a long time.”

Chalkbeat reached out to the U.S. Department of Education to ask if using 2015 data to close schools would violate the state’s agreement with the federal government. A spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Education said the agreement expired earlier this month as the agency continues to shift away from the old No Child Left Behind Act and move toward the nation’s new education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act.

The Michigan Department of Education did not respond to a request for comment last week, but John Austin, the state board of Education President, said he has concerns about the way the reform office is proceeding.

For one thing, he said, it’s not wise to close schools unless “we’re creating high quality alternatives.” For now, he said, “the alternatives being offered by charter schools are not consistently high quality.”

Second, Austin said he’d rather see schools get some help turning things around than see them closed down.

“The SRO’s approach to date has not brought resources and real assistance to educators in schools that would give them a shot at being successful with their students,” Austin said. “To talk about shutting them down before having had the right support is certainly not the way to proceed.”

Next up: Here’s why Michigan is unlikely to close all of its lowest-performing schools this year

Five questions

Why this Memphis Republican supports school vouchers — but is concerned about accountability

PHOTO: TN.gov
From left: Rep. Mark White of Memphis speaks with Gov. Bill Haslam at a bill-signing ceremony at the State Capitol.

Only one school voucher bill remains under consideration in Tennessee, and it’s all about Memphis.

The proposal, which would pilot a voucher program exclusively for students in Shelby County Schools, is putting a spotlight on the 16 state lawmakers who represent Memphis and Shelby County, including Rep. Mark White.

White is one of only four from the county’s legislative delegation to pledge support for the bill, which would allow some Memphis parents to use public education funding to pay for private school tuition.

The East Memphis Republican, whose district includes Germantown, has long supported vouchers. But he’s also concerned about how private schools would be held accountable if they accept public money.

Chalkbeat spoke with White this week about the legislature’s last remaining voucher proposal, as well as a bill to give in-state tuition to Tennessee high school students who are undocumented immigrants.

If vouchers pass, what kinds of things would you look for to ensure they’re effective?

PHOTO: TN.gov
<strong>Rep. Mark White</strong>

Accountability is important. Five years ago, when we we first considered vouchers full force, I was in agreement totally with vouchers, with not a lot of limitations. But … if we’re going to hold our public schools accountable, we need to hold everyone accountable, and that’s why I want to get to the part about TNReady (testing).

Can the Department (of Education) and can (the Comptroller’s Office of Research and Education Accountability) manage what the bill is asking them to do? I want to answer those questions. If we want to ensure that a student taking a voucher takes the TNReady test, who is going to oversee that? Who is going to make that happen? That’s the part I think we still need to work out if it moves forward through the various committees. It’s not good to go to the floor without all of the answers.

Most elected officials in Memphis oppose vouchers and are also concerned that this bill goes against local control over education. How do you respond to that?

I’d rather it be statewide. But you know, they’ve tried that in the past. The reason it got to be Shelby County is because we had more low-performing schools in the bottom 5 percent. And so therefore the bill got tied to Shelby County. If it was more someplace else, it would have gone there.

Shelby County Schools has made major improvements, boosting its graduation rate and receiving national attention for its school turnaround program, the Innovation Zone. Would vouchers undermine those efforts by diverting students and funding from the district?

Go back to 2002. We were looking for answers, so we started pushing charters. Those who wanted to preserve public schools fought that tooth and nail. Then we went to the Achievement School District. As a result, Shelby County Schools has created the Innovation Zone. …  Memphis is now known as Teacher Town. We’ve brought so much competition into the market. It’s a place where the best teachers are in demand. That’s what you want in every industry.

A lot of good things have come about, and I think it’s because we have pushed the envelope. Is this voucher thing one thing that keeps pushing us forward? I like that it’s a pilot, and we can stop it if we see things that aren’t working. I think trying all of these things and putting competition into the market has made things improve.

Every Memphis parent, student, and teacher who testified this week before a House education committee opposed vouchers. You’ve been steadfast in your support of them. What do you take away from hearing those speakers?

Any time you talk about children, people get passionate, and that’s a good thing. Conflict can be a good thing, because then we can move to resolve it. If you have an issue, look at it head on and let’s talk about it. If you don’t agree with vouchers, if you do agree vouchers, let’s talk about ways we can stop failing our children.

I’ve heard from just as many on the other side; they just weren’t here (on Tuesday). I’ve had an office full of people just begging us to pass this. I’ve had people on all sides want this.

I think this bill still has a long way to fly. We’ll see where it goes. But I think the challenge is good for all of us. It makes us look at ourselves.

You’re the sponsor of another bill to provide in-state tuition to undocumented immigrant students. This is the third year you’ve filed the bill. Why is that issue important?

What I’m trying to do is fix a situation for people who want to get a higher education degree. They’re caught up in the political mess of 2017, and all we’re trying to do is say, ‘Hey, you were brought to this country, and now we want to help you realize your dreams.’ We’re not trying to address any federal immigration issue. Everyone deserves a chance for an education.

stacking up

Tennessee inches up in national ranking of charter school laws

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Students learn at Memphis Delta Preparatory, one of more than 100 charter schools in Tennessee.

While Tennessee’s charter school law moved up slightly in a state-by-state analysis, it still ranks in the bottom half of similar laws evaluated by the nation’s leading charter advocacy organization.

The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools ranked Tennessee 29th out of 44 in its eighth annual report based on the group’s version of an ideal charter law. That’s up from 34th in the 2016 rankings.

The report released Wednesday is the first since the alliance updated its rubric to focus more on holding underperforming schools accountable.

Among the biggest issues is money. The report says Tennessee charter schools don’t get enough and neither do their authorizers to effectively oversee them. The group also calls out the Volunteer State on transparency and a lack of clarity over performance-based evaluations.

A charter bill that would overhaul Tennessee’s 2002 charter law is making its way through the General Assembly and would address some of those issues. The proposal would require charter schools to pay a fee to districts — a change that school leaders in Memphis and Nashville have long clamored for. The bill also would require districts to create clear academic performance rubrics to assess existing charters and clarify application and closure procedures.

Tennessee’s charter law has changed little since the state first opened its doors to charters in 2003. The sector has grown to 107 across the state, 71 of which are in Memphis and authorized either by Shelby County Schools or the state-run Achievement School District.

The leader of the Tennessee Charter School Center said the state’s original law was the product of “significant forethought” and that the state diligently continues to evaluate its effectiveness.

PHOTO: Tennessee Charter School Center
Maya Bugg

“We have made great strides, and current legislation in the works takes a strong next step towards addressing some of the policy challenges and opportunities across our state’s charter sector,” CEO Maya Bugg said in a statement on Wednesday.

“Adding clarity around processes and protocol, establishing consistent authorizer performance frameworks, and dedicating funds for increased access to facilities are key initiatives that will, if passed, further strengthen our policies, schools and districts,” she said.

Despite its mediocre ranking, Tennessee was one the leading states in four out of 21 categories used by the national alliance to evaluate state laws: no limit on number of charter schools, autonomous charter boards, automatic exemption from district collective bargaining agreements, and allowing for a variety of charter schools such as new and conversion.