tough choices

This beloved Detroit music teacher vowed to stay at his Detroit school — but the cost was just too high

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Quincy Stewart was featured in a June Chalkbeat story about his innovative use of music to teach African-American history. He left Detroit's Central High School this summer after learning he'd face a $30,000 pay cut.

When the school year began at Detroit’s Central High School last month, a beloved teacher was missing.

Quincy Stewart, who was featured in a June Chalkbeat story about his innovative use of music to teach students about African-American history, had been determined to stay at Central.

“I do this is because I’m a black man and these are black children,” he told Chalkbeat last spring. “These children have been robbed by this system from the cradle until right now … And when they walk in my classroom, all I feel is love for them.”

But love, unfortunately, doesn’t pay the bills.

Stewart was one of scores of teachers in the Education Achievement Authority, the now-dissolved state-run recovery district, who faced massive pay cuts when their schools reverted to Detroit’s main district in July.

In Stewart’s case, that pay cut came to $30,000 — more than a 40 percent reduction to the $72,000 he made last year.  

“They put me in a position where I had to make a decision between being able to pay my bills and staying dedicated to the students that I was there to serve,” Stewart said. “People in the central office are making $200,000, $160,000 and they’re paying us, seasoned teachers, $38,000? I’m in my 50s! That’s Burger King money!”

Stewart, who was also featured in a DPTV broadcast this summer, said he felt he had no choice but to accept a higher-paying job in the suburbs.

“It was a hard decision but I had to go where I could at least pay my bills,” he said. “It’s very easy for people to sit on the sidelines and judge that, but … I would have literally had to work there and work a part-time job just to survive.”

Stewart is one of dozens of EAA teachers who did not return to their jobs this year — a major reason why Detroit’s main district is still struggling to fill 150 teacher vacancies.

The district says that nearly a third of those vacancies are in 11 former EAA schools — even though those schools account for a small portion of teaching positions across the district’s 106 schools.  

With those jobs unfilled, some students are in classrooms led by non-certified substitutes. Others are missing out on programs like the one at Central. The school is not currently offering music at all.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said the district is working to aggressively recruit teachers. He told Chalkbeat last week that he is talking with the city teachers union to negotiate incentives for teachers in “hard to staff” positions. But that program will prioritize special education teachers and those who teach core subjects like reading and math. It won’t help fill Stewart’s position at Central.

“We have to make decisions … based on where the challenges are greatest,” Vitti said.

The pay cuts imposed on teachers from former EAA schools is only partly driven by the fact that the union-negotiated pay scale for teachers in the main district is lower than what many EAA teachers had been making.

Another factor was that the new teachers contract, signed by the union and district this summer, offers educators who come in from outside the district just two years of salary credit regardless of their experience.

That’s far less than some Michigan districts where teachers can change jobs without giving up pay. And it’s a different policy than the EAA used. The recovery district had paid teachers more if they came in with experience in other schools.

Vitti says he regrets that senior teachers in the EAA faced steep pay cuts but the main district had to consider teachers who’ve endured years of pay cuts and wage freezes in Detroit schools.

“We can’t just increase pay for a group of teachers that are coming in from the outside,” Vitti told Central’s principal Abraham Sohn on the first day of school as the two walked by the school’s empty band room where Stewart used to teach. “That doesn’t send the right message.”

Vitti has vowed to raise teacher salaries in the near future, calling that a priority for the district.

Someday, Stewart said, wages might be high enough that he’ll consider returning to Detroit. But for now, he’s committed to his new job at Harper Woods High School, just east of the city, he said. He urged the district to find a way to increase pay for all of its teachers.

“If they really truly cared about having seasoned, quality teachers, they would make an effort to pay them,” he said. “Even a teacher with a doctorate is only going to make maybe $60,000 and that’s just preposterous. You owe more in student loans than you make in salary.”

Scores of scores

Republican state board member says A-F school letter grades would hurt poor students, but lawmakers aren’t convinced

PHOTO: Amanda Rahn
Tom McMillin, a member of the state board of education, says A-F school letter grades will give the poorest schools the worst letter grades.

A representative of the state board of education spoke strongly against a House bill to evaluate school performance with an A-F report card, but charter supporters argued it was the best way to hold schools accountable.

In the second day of House testimony for the proposal, Tom McMillin, a Republican on the board who represents Oakland Township, strongly expressed his dismay.

“I can tell you which ones will be tagged D and F,” he said, pointing to a graph of the poorest schools. “The ones down here.”

The bill would give each school six letter grades based on student scores, academic growth, improvements made by English learners, graduation and chronic absenteeism rates, and the number of students who take state tests.

Charter leaders and advocates have expressed support for the A-F letter grades because they believe the system would allow parents to see quickly and easily which public schools, traditional or charters, are best-performing.

“One of our guiding principles is that accountability is critical, but the accountability system in Michigan is foggy at best,” said Jared Burkhart, executive director of the Michigan Council of Charter School Authorizers, which supports the bill. “We need to be able to look ourselves in the mirror and grade ourselves.”

The A-F ranking system has been a divisive issue, with others viewing it as too simplistic because it doesn’t necessarily take into account factors like poverty that would impact student performance.

The state board had voted against using letter grades last year because they felt grades didn’t show enough detail for parents. The state superintendent, who earlier had supported letter grades, submitted a system that was a dashboard of data. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos approved the plan at the end of last year. The dashboard was created to comply with federal education law.

Rep. Pamela Hornberger, a Republican representing parts of Macomb, wasn’t swayed by McMillin’s testimony. Leaving children “in failing schools and not providing the information to parents that’s easy and clear and concise is wrong.”

McMillin shot back: “It’s easy and clear because it’s arbitrary and it could be very wrong.”

The new proposal calls for a dual way of analyzing school performance. To help account for factors like poverty, in addition to letter grades, every school would also be labeled: significantly above average, above average, average, below average, or significantly below average. Schools would be compared with other schools of similar demographics.

Because letter grades do not fully take poverty into account, one of the six grades would be for student growth, a measure that has been used in other states because it has been called a fairer way of comparing a wealthy school to a poor one.

The bill would create a commission to figure out the details behind the A-F letter grades and labels, including deciding what demographic factors they will look at when comparing schools. If the bill is approved in committee and passed by lawmakers in both houses, commission members would be appointed this fall, and they would be tasked with implementing the new systems for the 2019 school year.

grappling with grades

Getting kids to class may be harder than some lawmakers think. A new study casts doubt on how big a role educators can play.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Students walk past a "basketball court" that showcases students with best attendance.

Michigan and other states are focusing more on how often students are absent as a factor in determining a school’s performance. But a new study calls into question whether that’s a good idea.

Two Wayne State University researchers, Sarah Lenhoff and Ben Pogodzinski, said in a report published last week, that when it comes to whether a child will get to class, some schools have more influence over attendance than others.   

Among factors that can influence attendance are how much families trust their teachers, whether the kids feel safe, and response to the school’s discipline policy.  

Michigan is one of 36 states that plan to use chronic absenteeism to measure school performance under the federal education law. But the Wayne State study indicates that it is unreliable to use attendance as an mark of quality to compare schools when the effect of these influences can vary so much.

The findings are problematic for policymakers who want to use chronic absenteeism to judge schools, since the researchers found that in some cases, chronic absenteeism was unrelated to how well the schools were run. Students are considered chronically absent if they miss roughly at least two days of class a month, the report says.

But if GOP lawmakers in Lansing get their way, rates of chronic absenteeism will be even more prominent in determining the success of Michigan schools.

A senate committee Thursday heard testimony for an A-F school grading system. Rep. Tim Kelly, a Republican representing Saginaw County, sponsored the bill that would give schools six letter grades. One of those grades is for high rates of absenteeism.

“We can’t keep making excuses, it’s transportation or this or that,” Kelly told Chalkbeat. “We can’t keep sticking our heads in the sand and acting like it doesn’t matter. And I understand there’s a lot of contributing forces.”

But, “overall, you show me a high absentee rate and I’ll show you poor performance for a school,” he said.

Democrats on the Senate Education Reform Committee like Rep. Adam Zemke and Rep. Stephanie Chang were concerned the bill lacked nuance about similar issues to the ones raised in the report.

The study comes several months after Michigan’s plan to comply with federal education law was approved by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. Chronic absenteeism is one of the factors the state will consider when evaluating school performance.