Week In Review: Teaching and learning in the ‘worst’ city

Alycia Meriweather

Detroit’s main school district is still struggling to recruit teachers and enroll more students, but leaders say they remain hopeful about the new school year. Their optimism comes against higher-than-ever stakes for this year’s kindergarteners — and after a politically tumultuous spring, recounted this week in Harper’s Magazine, that teachers say affected their students.

"If every time you turn on the news they tell you how you live in the worst city, they tell you your education is no good, what do you have to look forward to?"Kimberly Thompson, Detroit teacher

Read on for more on these stories and the rest of the week’s Detroit education news. Also, if you missed last night’s MiWeek Roadshow focusing on the state of education in the Detroit area on DPTV, you can watch it online here. We were honored to participate along with Detroit school leaders and advocates.

Making the (third) grade:

Legislation that would force schools, starting in the 2019-20 school year, to hold back third-graders who aren’t reading at grade level is on its way to the governor. If he signs it, this year’s kindergarteners will be the first to face the more demanding standards.

Lawmakers passed the bill after reaching a compromise: Students who can’t pass state reading tests or demonstrate literacy in other ways can advance to the fourth grade if they receive remedial instruction and demonstrate proficiency in other subjects. And a new “good cause” provision lets parents appeal for their child to be promoted, even if he has not met the state’s standards.

The legislation would make Michigan at least the 17th state to pass third-grade retention rules, even as some places have moved away from holding students back. And it remains controversial: It passed largely with Republican support, but it did win over some Democrats and liberals who had initially raised concerns that the measure was too punitive and would hurt children whose parents have fewer resources to fight for them.

“We maintain our concerns with mandatory retention,” said the head of a children’s advocacy organization, a former Democratic lawmaker. “But … we are pleased with the number of exemptions, including the ability of a parent to make the request. The bill contains many other positive provisions, such as early and ongoing interventions to help students struggling, and is ultimately a strong step in addressing this issue.”

What the bill doesn’t contain is new money. States with successful mandatory retention laws have also put money up to help kids make the grade, writes a Free Press columnist. Instead, she writes, Michigan’s bill “requires schools to do an awful lot of stuff to improve their reading instruction, but notably absent is money to pay for it.” She’s not the only one complaining.

Want more details? Here’s more about what the bill requires.

Waiting for the courts?

The federal civil rights lawsuit filed last week alleging that Michigan is violating the rights of Detroit children by failing to provide them with a quality education is making waves in legal circles. One legal scholar wrote that the case has “blockbuster potential.” Another said the lawyers behind the case have put forward an “innovative legal claim” that, “although novel … is well grounded in decades of Supreme Court precedent.”

That has local advocates hopeful about the potential for the case — but not waiting for it to work through the courts. The ACLU’s Michigan director called for a statewide ballot referendum to let voters decide if Michigan students should have a fundamental right to an education. And a Free Press columnist urged readers to do something now about the state of Detroit schools.

Fiscal watchdogs, meanwhile, are raising concerns. A Detroit News columnist warns that if the federal courts get involved with state school funding, it “could create a new reality, and one that would hit state budgets hard.”

In Detroit:

  • Two weeks into the school year, the new Detroit school district was about 2,000 students shy of its enrollment target — but hopeful that the number would climb by “count day” next month, when local funding is set. The district was also trying to fill 240 teacher vacancies.
  • A state Republican leader said the contract caused him to lose confidence in transition manager Steven Rhodes, who he said is not “doing a good job for the taxpayers.” (The Detroit News called that a “budding buyer’s remorse” for last spring’s $617 million Detroit schools reform package.) Rhodes defended the $10 million contract expense, saying: “I concluded that simple notions of fairness required to us to do what we could for our teachers.”
  • Mayor Mike Duggan says he’s not done fighting for a Detroit Education Commission that would have authority over both public and charter schools – and next time he’ll cultivate more allies than just the governor.  “I’ve learned my lesson and we’ll come back in a different way,” he said.
  • Duggan sent fire marshals to investigate overcrowding at a westside school after a concerned mom took pictures of kids squeezed together in classrooms. When the fire inspectors arrived, the whistleblower mom said school officials pulled kids out of classes and hurried to move the furniture.
  • A new way of sharing textbooks in Detroit schools has raised eyebrows among parents.
  • Two Detroit school board candidates removed from the ballot on a technicality have been reinstated. The activist who got them tossed, a former Highland Park school board member who was convicted of felony embezzlement, is continuing his campaign — even as a Detroit News editor says he should “leave these candidates alone.”
  • Jews and Muslims came together to help spiff up this eastside school.

Across the state:

  • Detroit Public Television looks at school suspensions, which often lead to dropping out, and highlights the fate of one boy who was suspended so often last year, he missed 60 class days and had to repeat seventh grade.
  • School choice-fueled racial segregation isn’t just a problem in the Detroit area. A Bridge Magazine review found similar patterns in districts across the state. Plus: These are the 10 school districts that have lost the most students to Schools of Choice programs.
  • Teachers in Michigan — not just in Detroit — say they feel demoralized. The survey results from 11,000 teachers should be a “wake-up call for policymakers,” wrote a leader of one of the teachers unions that organized the poll.
  • A western Michigan administrator says the major study that found many Michigan school districts are underfunded was flawed because it used the state’s top districts as the standard. Instead, he said, the study should have looked at the top districts in the nation.
  • Want to know which Michigan school superintendents are paid the most — and which made $76 last year? This database has salary data from around the state.
  • A new report finds that access to qualified instructors is the biggest barrier to success for career programs in Michigan high schools and colleges.
  • As Michigan reviews its school evaluation metrics to comply with new federal laws, a teachers union leader and a business leader joined together to urge the state to find ways to reward schools for improving things like chronic absenteeism that can dramatically affect students. “If we choose chronic absenteeism as our quality indicator,” they write, “principals have the option to invest in after-school programs, extracurricular clubs, one-on-one student support and more.”

In other news:

  • The head of the Skillman Foundation stressed the urgency to create a college-going culture in low-income communities at a national college access conference.
  • If you think Detroit is the only part of the state where educators face possible corruption charges, guess again.
  • Two Detroit schools were on lockdown this week as police searched for a gunman who fired shots in the area.

From Chalkbeat:

  • Terence Crutcher was a KIPP parent and the charter school network urges action.
  • A new study suggests sending little kids to the same schools as teenagers can reduce bullying.


Extra Credit

For seven weeks over the summer, 40 Detroit Public Schools Community District high school students earned a living stipend and a $1,200 scholarship for future education expenses by working on projects that focused on education, food access, energy savings, art activism and renewable power generation in partnership with EcoWorks, Grow Detroit’s Young Talent and AmeriCorps (Photo: Detroit Public Schools Community District).
For seven weeks over the summer, 40 Detroit Public Schools Community District high school students earned a living stipend and a $1,200 scholarship for future education expenses by working on projects that focused on education, food access, energy savings, art activism and renewable power generation in partnership with EcoWorks, Grow Detroit’s Young Talent and AmeriCorps (Photo: Detroit Public Schools Community District).

silver screen

United Federation of Teachers drops more than $1 million on new ad campaign

PHOTO: Courtesy photo/UFT
In a new ad released by The United Federation of Teachers, a teacher crouches at a student's desk and smiles.

Amid a wave of teacher activism nationwide and major threats to the influence of unions, the United Federation of Teachers is expected to spend more than $1 million on a primetime television and streaming ad featuring local educators.

The 30-second spot hit the airwaves on Jan. 23 and will run through Feb. 1, with an expected audience of 11 million television viewers and 4 million impressions online, according to the union.

Featuring a chorus of singing students, bright classrooms, and a glamour shot of the city, the ad is called “Voice.” A diverse group of teachers declares: “Having a voice makes us strong. And makes our public schools even stronger.” It ends with the message, “The United Federation of Teachers. Public school proud.”

The union, the largest local in the country, typically runs ads this time of year, as the legislative session in Albany heats up and city budget negotiations kick-off. But this time, the campaign launches against the backdrop of an emboldened teaching force across the country, with a teacher strike in Los Angeles and another potentially starting next week in Denver.

UFT is also eager to prove its worth after the recent Janus Supreme Court ruling, which could devastate membership by banning mandatory fees to help pay for collective bargaining. So far, membership has remained strong but the union could face headwinds from organized right-to-work groups and the sheer number of new hires that come into the New York City school system every year.

The ad will run locally during programs including “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” and “Good Morning America,” on networks such as MSNBC and CNN, and on the streaming service Hulu. You can watch the ad here.


These were our 10 most-read Chicago education stories in 2018

PHOTO: Adeshina Emmanuel / Chalkbeat
A story about a 16-year-old student struggling to read was one of our most-read stories of the year. Here his aunt, Katrina Falkner, heads into his high school for a meeting with the special education team.

From a principal’s first-person column on personalized learning to a profile of a teen struggling to read, these were our most-read stories of the year.

  1. Trauma can make it hard for kids to learn. Here’s how teachers learn to deal with that. This conversation with a child psychologist from Lurie Children’s Hospital who advises local educators on identifying and handling trauma resonated with educators and parents alike.
  2. Meet Javion: He’s 16 and struggling to read in Chicago schools. How did 16-year-old Javion Grayer end up in high school barely able to read? This story examines how many forces in the city and its schools can threaten learning.
  3. I’m a principal who thinks personalized learning shouldn’t be a debate. This first-person column from Lisa Epstein, the principal of Lee Elementary, was the most read column we published this year. “Personalized learning looks different in every classroom,” she writes, “but the common thread is that we now make decisions looking at the student.”
  4. Rauner and Pritzker are at odds over most education issues — but agree on this one point. Hint: It’s money. But listening back to the interviews with the candidates, which we conducted in partnership with WBEZ, helps paint a picture of the state of education in Illinois.
  5.  How one Chicago principal is leaning on data to help black boys. The stakes are high. Black boys, especially those from low-income households, are more prone than their sisters to falling behind in school and running into the juvenile criminal justice system. Here’s how one principal is making inroads at her school.
  6. Secret CPS report spotlights big vacancies, lopsided options for students. The report has already been cited as reasoning in district-level decision-making.
  7. Is your school one of the city’s top rated? Our database of school ratings included a school’s total points scored on the Chicago rating system, known as SQRP.
  8. Three out of four kids aren’t ready for kindergarten. The data is the first look statewide at how many children show up to kindergarten prepared.
  9. Three Chicago principals and the war against Fs.“Fs and Ds are worthless,” one principal exclaimed. We looked at his case. 
  10. Why Noble teachers say Noble CEO’s downfall could boost unionization efforts. This story is one of many we’ll continue to watch in 2019.