Struggling Detroit schools

A Detroit district plan would allow ‘master teachers’ to coach less experienced colleagues and reduce class sizes

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti talks with students at Durfee Elementary/Middle School. Vitti said he expects that master teachers will co-teach a classroom of kids, with one teacher working with that classroom on math and science while the other teacher is elsewhere in the building.

Some of the best teachers in Detroit will likely soon have a chance to become “master teachers,” taking a dual role in which they teach children half the time and coach teachers the other half.

Detroit schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti says the model would give teachers who don’t want to become administrators another way to advance their careers and potentially make more money. It would also help alleviate the district’s severe teacher shortage because master teachers would spend part of their day in the classrooms.

That’s compared to the “instructional specialists” who currently support teachers in some Detroit schools. They spend all of their time instructing other teachers and have no classroom responsibilities.

“Master teachers would model lessons for beginning and struggling teachers, facilitate grade level and common planning, mentor new teachers or resident teachers, and student teachers,” Vitti said in an email. “Their classrooms would also serve as model or observation classrooms for other teachers.”

In discussing the model last week, Vitti said he expects that master teachers will co-teach a classroom of kids, with one teacher working with that classroom on math and science while the other teacher is elsewhere in the building, coaching educators who need help teaching English and social studies. Then, the two teachers will switch.

The shift to master teachers will help alleviate overcrowded classrooms, Vitti said.

“The district’s current model exacerbates the district’s teacher shortage because instructional specialists are fully released from the classroom right now,” he said.

“It reduces vacancies and creates greater credibility with teachers because [master teachers] are still tied to the classroom. That’s not to say that instructional specialists aren’t doing good work and aren’t respected, but I think this will create better buy-in,” he added.

Currently, instructional specialists in the Detroit district are paid roughly between $53,000 and $68,000.

Master teachers “will be paid their regular salary plus be given a stipend,” Vitti said. “Say $5,000 depending on how we negotiate that with the Detroit Federation of Teachers.”

To get into the program, teachers would need a letter of recommendation from a master teacher or an administrator and demonstrated success in helping children raise test scores, he said.

Once they’ve been identified as master teachers, principals in need would be able to hire them.

The program will also enable schools to have model classrooms where less experienced teachers can go to watch master teachers work.

Vitti is planning to use the master teacher program to better train teachers in common core standards, which defines what students should know at the end of each grade K-12. Vitti said  instruction on the standards is one of the district’s major failings.

“One of our major definicines as a district, is when the state, and really the country, moved to common core standards, as a district we did not adequately train our teachers in that shift in literacy and mathematics,” he said. “Our vision in the fall is to work with DFT on this and every teacher will have a master teacher in literacy and a master teacher in mathematics.”

Vitti announced at a recent meeting of a school board academic committee that 50 teachers will be able to apply to attend common core training in Los Angeles, potentially as part of the master teacher training, using federal funds earmarked for professional development.

 

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.