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

New Arrivals

Advocates decry Fariña’s explanation of low graduation rates among English learners

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Nancie Adolphe, a case manager at Flanbwayan, a group that helps young Haitian immigrants hosts a press conference on English Language Learner graduation rates.

When the head of New York City schools suggested that English Language Learners fail to graduate, in part, because they lack formal schooling and are “coming from the mountains,” advocates from a group that serves Haitian immigrants said she undoubtedly missed the point.

“We are insulted by her statement,” said Nancie Adolphe, a case manager at Flanbwayan, a group that helps young Haitian immigrants, during a Thursday press conference. “As a community of immigrants, of English learners, we care about what happens to each student, no matter where they come from.”

The city pointed out that combining current and former English Language Learner graduation rates, 57 more students graduated this year. Fariña also said that while she is working to help more English learners graduate, it is harder for students to earn a diploma if they start off years behind.

Members of Flanbwayan have a different explanation for the city’s 27 percent June graduation rate for English learners, a 9.6 percentage point decrease over the previous year. In their view, many ELL students face a huge disadvantage because of how the city’s high school admissions process treats newly arrived immigrants.

New York City’s admissions process, which allows students to apply to any high school throughout the city, is notoriously difficult even for students born and raised in New York. But for newly arrived immigrants, the process is even worse, said Darnell Benoit, director of Flanbwayan.

Students have years to wade through a thick directory of more than 400 high schools, tour the ones they like and apply for competitive programs. For new immigrants, that process is often replaced by a quick trip to an enrollment center. Many times the only seats left are at low-performing schools, and students often find they don’t have access to the language help they need, Benoit said.

“They don’t have a lot of time to fight for their lives,” said Alectus Nadjely, a Haitian immigrant who arrived in the United States when she was twelve and is now a senior in high school, about the process.

A student’s high school placement is directly connected to whether or not they will graduate on time, advocates said. When newly arrived immigrants enter the country, they have to move quickly to pass the state’s required exit exams in time for graduation — and they need all the support they can get, advocates said. Twenty-seven percent of English learners in New York City drop out before graduating, according to state data.

“If a student is not set up in the right placement from the start, the likelihood of being able to stay engaged, be on track for graduation and not drop out, all of that will be impacted,” said Abja Midha, a project director at Advocates for Children. “We really think the high school enrollment piece is a really critical point.”

Education department officials pointed out that the graduation rate for former English learners went up by more than five percentage points this year. They also noted that enrollment information is available in Haitian Creole and that they have increased translation and interpretation services.

“We’ll continue our work to ensure that all our students receive a high-quality education,” said education department spokesman Will Mantell, “and have the support they need to be successful in the classroom and beyond.”

This story has been updated to include additional information.

Charter changes

This sweeping proposal would rewrite Tennessee’s charter school law

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Rep. Harry Brooks and Assistant Commissioner of policy Elizabeth Fiveash present the charter proposal to lawmakers on Wednesday.

A wide-ranging charter school bill written by the State Department of Education seeks to overhaul Tennessee’s 15-year-old charter law and address concerns of both advocates and opponents.

Called the “Tennessee High-Quality Charter Schools Act,” the bill attempts to address the often rocky relationships between the state’s 105 charter schools and the districts that oversee them. The legislation clarifies rules on everything from applications to closure, and includes measures that charter and local district leaders have fought for — and against.

“This bill develops a stronger partnership between the (districts) and the charter schools,” said Rep. Harry Brooks, the Knoxville Republican sponsor.

But smoothing over fractious relationships won’t be quick or easy, based on the first discussion in a House subcommittee on Wednesday. Lawmakers adjourned before casting a first vote on the proposal, with plans to pick up the discussion next week.  

And while representatives of the Tennessee School Boards Association and the Tennessee Charter School Center told lawmakers that the bill is a “step in the right direction,” some critics remain concerned about the growing sector’s impact on traditional public schools.

For years, local school board members — especially from districts in Memphis and Nashville, which are home to most of the state’s charter schools — have charged that charter schools drain resources from traditional public schools. Charter leaders, meanwhile, have complained that they don’t get enough funding to cover facilities, forcing them to spend money that should go toward students instead on rent and building upkeep.

The Department of Education tried to address both concerns in its bill. The legislation establishes a $6 million fund over three years to help cover leaky roofs and cramped quarters that operators say make their jobs harder. But the bill also allows local districts to charge operators an authorizer fee to offset oversight costs.  

Local districts have sought to charge an authorizer fee for years, and charter operators in Memphis recently have shown willingness to voluntarily pay one. In 2015, the state legislature voted to allow the state’s Achievement School District to begin collecting a fee, too.

The state proposal would allow a district with 21 or more charter schools to charge a fee up to 1 percent of per-pupil funding. Districts with 10 to 20 charters could charge a 2 percent fee, and those with 10 or fewer could charge 3 percent. The change would go into effect in 2018.

“The local district has significant responsibility in regards to being an authorizer of charter school,” Brooks explained when introducing the bill. “There’s expense tied up in that; there’s personnel tied up in that.”

But some think the proposed fee isn’t nearly enough, especially in Memphis and Nashville, where the ASD and State Board of Education can charge charter schools 3 and 4 percent, respectively. In Shelby County Schools, for instance, the district is doubling the size of its charter office to keep up with its oversight duties.

“When state authorizers are getting higher fees than districts, that’s a red flag,” Nashville school board member Will Pinkston told Chalkbeat. “One percent seems like a nice first offer, but districts need to make significant counter offers to get that higher.”

Other parts of the expansive bill would curb local attempts to rein in charter schools. One section says that applications can’t be based on “conditions or contingencies” — a provision that concerns Pinkston, who spearheaded an effort to make the approval of Nashville charter schools contingent on their location.

“Every local school system needs to have the ability to ask for the details they think are necessary before making a decision,” he said.

Charter operators argue that such contingencies put them in impossible situations, unable to secure a location without a contract, and vice versa.