Headlines

Week in review: “Horrible outcomes” vs. “false news”

 

Today’s the day that struggling schools across the state have been dreading for months. At 11 a.m., the state education department plans to release its annual top-to-bottom school ranking, which the state school reform office will use to decide which schools could be shuttered for poor performance.

The difficult news, which is likely to be drowned out by coverage of Donald Trump’s inauguration, caps a busy week that included Gov. Rick Snyder’s State of the State address and the Senate nomination hearing for Betsy DeVos. Detroit schools took a bit of a beating during the DeVos hearing as Democrats tied Trump’s chosen education secretary to “horrible” outcomes in Detroit schools. DeVos pushed back saying “a lot has gone right” in Detroit schools. She knocked claims that poor results are related to lax charter school oversight as “false news.”

“I think it is important to put Detroit in context. In 1950, there were 1.8 million people living in the city of Detroit. Today there is less than 700,000 … Anyone with any means in the city of Detroit has basically left the city.”

— Betsy DeVos, nominee for U.S. Secretary of Education

Read on for more on the hearing, the State of the State address and the rest of the week’s headlines. Also stay tuned for next week, when we’ll have some exciting news of our own.

The hearing

The DeVos hearing was marked by sharp partisan division as Democrats griped that they weren’t given enough time to question someone they deemed unqualified for the nation’s top education job. But DeVos made it clear in more than three hours of testimony that more time would not likely have produced more insight. She offered few policy specifics beyond reiterating her support for giving parents control over education. Here’s what we learned (and what we didn’t) during the hearing. (Our roundup was co-published this week by FiveThirtyEight).

For Detroiters, the most interesting exchange came between DeVos and Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, a former Denver Public Schools superintendent who says his city does a much better job of holding charter schools accountable than Detroit does.

Bennet says he supports charter schools — but only if they work. “There’s no practical difference between being forced to attend a terrible school and being given a chance to attend the choice of five terrible schools,” he said.

There’s a lot of ideology on both sides of the DeVos/Detroit debate. Here’s some facts to help sort it out.

A Senate committee is planning to vote on DeVos on Tuesday but, whether or not she gets the job, these crucial education issues will largely be decided by the states.

If you missed the hearing, here’s a transcript. (Search for the word ‘Detroit’)

State of the State

Education was not a major topic during Snyder’s seventh State of the State address but the Detroit News speculated that he might be holding out for an imminent report from an education commission he appointed last year. “Hopefully it will contain meaningful suggestions,” the paper wrote.

During the speech, Snyder made no reference to the looming school closings that are expected from his office today.

The Free Press noted that the speech had many notable omissions. Among them: There was no mention of school funding or of the report last year that found many school districts don’t get enough money from the state.

Snyder did mention the new Detroit school board, which he encouraged to be “laser-focused on the kids learning with an emphasis on prudent financial management.”

He also announced a push to improve computer science education to prepare kids for high-tech jobs. “Think about your schools in your area and think about what they’re teaching,” he said. “We have a huge gap. We need to close that gap. And so I look forward to creating a work group to work with the legislature and the superintendent on coming up with great ideas about how to encourage more of this. And you’re going to find us willing to make investments.”

In other news

  • News of dreaded school closings is expected today — two days after teachers at one troubled high school rallied to keep their school open.
  • Today will be the last time the state releases its top-to-bottom school ranking. Schools will soon be judged instead by an A to F letter grade system.
  • The city of Detroit has joined the federal lawsuit that claims the state of the city’s schools violates children’s constitutional rights.
  • A lawsuit over Detroit school janitors could cost taxpayers $31 million.
  • A parent leader has this message for Detroit’s new school board.
  • On MLK Day, a Detroit high school created an exhibit to document racial prejudice and violence.
  • A historic Detroit high school has been repeatedly vandalized since it closed in 2012.
  • A Detroit charter school has locked down its Corktown building.
  • Public school supporters rallied in cities around the country as part of a nationwide demonstration.
  • A troubled suburban district is seeking community input on plans to overhaul academics.
  • A state Republican lawmaker makes a case for transferring state and federal education dollars into parent-controlled Education Savings Accounts.
  • An education advocate notes that Trump’s plan to put more education decisions in the hands of states ramps up pressure on Michigan leaders to focus on equity and excellence in schools. She called on the state to rethink its approach to early literacy, school funding and accountability and other key priorities.
  • A teachers union leader says low pay and difficult teaching conditions are to blame for an acute substitute teacher shortage.
  • A Michigan teacher has come under fire for refusing to allow his students to watch Trump’s inauguration address during class.

Week In Review

Week in review: A ‘poor choice of words’ from the state schools boss, Grosse Pointe considers lightening up

The state superintendent was under fire this week after telling a TV interviewer that school choice had taken the state “backwards.” It was a comment he later called a “poor choice of words.”

Scroll down for more on that story and the rest of the week’s Detroit schools news. That includes insight into why Grosse Pointe is reviewing its tough enforcement of its residency rules and the latest on Detroit’s new schools boss, Nikolai Vitti. He was the subject of a major Chalkbeat story this week that looked at his plan to bring order to a district that he says lacked basic financial and academic systems.

Also, if you weren’t able to attend the forum featuring Vitti and the Citizens Research Council this week, you can watch the full video here. If you’re still looking for more, please tune in to American Black Journal on Sunday when I’ll be talking about Detroit schools.

Oh, and we have some exciting news: We’re hiring! If you know any thoughtful reporters who’d be interested in covering one of the most important stories in American education, please tell them to get in touch. Thanks for reading!

The Detroit schools boss

The state schools boss

  • Michigan schools boss Brian Whiston stressed in his clarification about his controversial school choice remarks that he’s a strong supporter of choice but believes giving parents options can’t be the only fix for schools.
  • Whiston’s comments come as advocates lament declining test scores across the state. Among them: a news publisher who blasts Lansing for fiddling while public schools “go to hell” and an advocate who urged Michigan parents to stop telling themselves that their child’s school is probably fine. “In fact,” she writes, “Michigan is one of only five states that has declined in actual performance in fourth-grade reading since 2003 for all students.”
  • Still, the head of the state board of education says it’s “irresponsible” to suggest that Michigan schools are in crisis.
  • The school choice supporters who were miffed by Whiston’s comments are also still steamed about a New York Times Magazine piece on charter schools last week. One critic said the article failed to tell the whole story about the challenges to education in Highland Park and Detroit. A news site that strongly supports choice scrutinized the way the story characterized the number of for-profit charter schools in Michigan.

In Detroit and across its borders

  • Grosse Pointe schools officials are reviewing their aggressive approach to enforcing residency rules that keep Detroiters and other non-residents out of the district’s schools. In the past three years, the district has spent $74,528 on investigations and legal fees related to out-of-district students and has made all parents jump through burdensome hoops to prove they live in the district.
  • A Detroit teacher (and Chalkbeat reader advisory board member) set out to talk with other educators to “build a more nuanced narrative of Detroit schools.” Among teachers he featured is Janine Scott who the writer discovered when she appeared last spring in a Chalkbeat/Skillman Foundation “Story Booth.” (If you’re a parent, educator or student who wants to be featured in a future Story Booth, please let us know).
  • A principal who moved a Detroit charter school from the 8th percentile on state rankings to the 51st explains how it’s done.
  • Detroit’s main district plans to spend up to $57,000 to establish Parent Teacher Associations in all of its 106 schools.
  • The head of a Detroit high school engineering program explains how it aims to change lives.
  • An organization that places young adults in Detroit schools to provide support got a major gift from Quicken Loans that will help it expand.
  • The construction boom has highlighted the shortcomings of the city school system.
  • Wayne State University’s leaders pushed back against an article last week that highlighted a dramatic decline in African American enrollment — particularly graduates of Detroit schools.

In other news

Week In Review

Week in review: Charter wars ramp up as kids return to school

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Not all district schools faced challenges on the first day. Students at Detroit's Chrysler elementary school walked the red carpet the school set up for the first day of school.

This week not only marked the start of the new school year in Detroit. It also brought an escalation of the city’s ongoing charter school wars.

Charter supporters were fuming over a New York Times Magazine takedown that asserted “children lost” when Michigan “gambled on charter schools.”

And as one charter school leader knocked Nikolai Vitti, Detroit’s new superintendent, for refusing to work collaboratively with the city’s privately managed schools, Vitti created a panic among supporters of a new charter that wants to buy a former district building.

Scroll down for more on these stories and the rest of the week’s Detroit education news. Also, please mark your calendars for this event Wednesday night where I’ll be joining Vitti and the Citizens Research Council for a salon-style dialogue about Detroit schools.

 

Charter wars

  • Vitti’s decision to block a charter school from buying the former Joyce Elementary School building could mean it remains vacant while the district loses the $75,000 it stood to make from the sale.
  • One charter leader challenged Vitti with an op/ed calling for an end to the “charter school versus non-charter school rhetoric.”
  • The 7,000-word Times Magazine story explores the financial and academic challenges of a Highland Park charter school and blames the state’s free market charter school laws.
  • The state’s charter school association issued a rebuttal and blasted the author. Leaders of a free-market think tank wrote that the story contains “major errors.”
  • The rebuttal cites a study that finds that Detroit’s charter school students slightly outperform their district counterparts. That study is often cited by both sides of the debate. Read it here.  
  • Or read this story about the role U.S Education Secretary Betsy DeVos played in shaping the state’s charter school laws and the resulting educational conditions in Detroit.
  • DeVos was the subject this week  of a story on public radio’s This American Life. The piece looked at her volunteer work at a public school in Grand Rapids to provide a window into her views on education. (I’ve done some work on This American Life too. Check it out).
  • A day after blasting the Times story, the state charter school association highlighted its analysis that found that nine of the state’s highest performing schools on the 2017 M-STEP were charters. [Friday, the association sent an update alerting reporters that the initial analysis had been wrong. In fact, just the four highest-performing schools had been charters]. 
  • The number of charter schools in Michigan is down this year for the first time in the 23-year history of the state’s charter school law.

Back to school

  • As Detroit kids returned to class this week, Vitti said he was disappointed that 250 teaching positions in the district remained unfilled. He saw the effects of that shortage as he toured schools Tuesday.
  • Many of the vacancies were left by teachers who worked for the state-run recovery district until its dissolution in June. Teachers reported they weren’t given credit for their years of experience. That meant steep pay cuts.
  • If the 55,000 kids who’ve signed up to attend schools in the main district actually enroll, it would represent the first significant increase in years. Just 36,000 kids were in class Tuesday but Vitti said first-day attendance rates are typically around 70 percent.
  • Among kids who’ve enrolled in district schools: Vitti’s four children.
  • In a back-to-school Q&A that covered a number of issues, Vitti said the district could eventually decide to close some schools but has no plans to do so this year.
  • Absences are not just high on the first day of school. A News columnist notes that 60 percent of district students were chronically absent in a recent year.
  • The chronic absence rate across the state was 30 percent.
  • The Free Press put together a list of ten things to know about the new school year.
  • The state superintendent — who recorded this “welcome back message” for students — says he plans to make Michigan a top ten state by 2026.

 

State of our schools

  • A top state lawmaker is pushing for an A-F grading system for schools.
  • State lawmakers are reviewing test options as they consider replacing the M-STEP in the 2018-19 school year.
  • Michigan could be holding back nearly half of its third graders by 2020.
  • A website has created a list of the state’s top elementary schools.
  • The Detroit News has tapped a veteran education reformer to curate a series of commentaries about education that will be published throughout the school year.
  • The first piece in the News’ series looks at the state’s education crisis by the numbers.
  • A Free Press columnist expresses alarm at low reading scores across the state and writes that we’re no closer to a solution today “than we were four, eight or 20 years ago.”

In other news

  • Here’s the story of how a California-based nonprofit law firm catapulted seven Detroit schoolchildren into a civil rights suit in federal court.
  • The number of Detroit graduates enrolling at Wayne State University has plummeted over the last decade.
  • A Detroit teacher has filed a $10 million lawsuit against the main district and the city’s mayor saying she was retaliated against after blowing the whistle on tainted water in her school.
  • A former DPS principal is on her way to prison.