city hall watch

No longer distancing himself from education, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan is looking for ways to impact schools

After largely steering clear of education during his first term, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan is now looking for ways to become more invested in the city schools.

City Hall is already leading an effort called the Detroit Children’s Success Initiative that will put more social workers, therapists, and family support staff into schools. But the mayor is also having conversations with education and civic leaders about ways he can have a more significant impact on the state of education in the city. The low test scores and poor conditions in Detroit schools are often cited as the largest roadblock to the city’s recovery.  

What the mayor’s involvement will look like — and how it will go over with school leaders and parents wary of government involvement after years of state intervention in city schools — is still not clear.

“We’re trying to explore every lever that we can possibly pull to ensure that there are good schools in Detroit, so that’s what we’re looking at,” said Eli Savit, a top advisor to Duggan. “We don’t control the schools. We don’t want to control the schools. But anything we can do to help, we’re willing to do and that can take a number of different forms.”

A recent report from a prominent group of business and civic leaders called the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren anticipated a possible role for the mayor.

One of the coalition’s recommendations was to “Ask the Mayor to work with Coalition leadership to facilitate education ecosystem planning for the City of Detroit and appoint highly credible Detroiters” to work with him.

The coalition said it would ask the mayor to get involved in several delicate — and possibly divisive — issues including working with state education officials to “set school quality standards for all schools.” That could take many forms but some school advocates have raised concerns that the mayor could decide to issue letter grades or otherwise pick winners and losers in a city where most experts expect some low-performing, half-full schools to close in coming years.

The coalition also asked the mayor to take the lead on finding common ground between the city’s combative district and charter school leaders. The coalition report calls for a “charter-district compact that reviews, discusses, and presents plans for better coordination and transparency about school openings and school closings,” and that finds “opportunities for citywide collaboration in areas such as a centralized data system and a campaign to address chronic absences.” The recommendations assert that this compact should not make decisions about openings and closings or “usurp the authority” of district and charter school leaders.

Savit said the mayor is taking those recommendations seriously.

“We heard that recommendation loud and clear,” Savit said. “The coalition was a diverse set of stakeholders that came to us with that recommendation. Of course we’re looking at it and how … to potentially move that forward.”

As mayor, Duggan does not have much power over schools. The city’s main district is now run by an elected school board after years of control by state-appointed emergency managers. The city’s 90 charter schools are run by a host of education management companies and organizations that report to charter school boards and are overseen by 11 different colleges, universities, and school districts.

The result is a sometimes chaotic environment in which schools compete with each other for students and staff and rarely share ideas or resources. It was a situation that some city leaders hoped to address two years ago through the creation of a mayor-led Detroit Education Commission that would oversee issues such as where new schools should locate and how school success should be measured.

Duggan vocally campaigned for the commission when it was being considered in the legislature in 2016, but the idea met with strong opposition from both charter school and district school supporters who raised concerns about how the mayor’s influence might affect schools.

The commission was ultimately defeated in a contentious, tearful, middle-of-the-night vote, without any support from Democrats.

Since then, Duggan has not said much about whether he would again try to get involved with schools. But community leaders say he’s been holding meetings in recent weeks to figure that out.

One effort that is already underway is the Detroit Children’s Success Initiative.

The success initiative is focused on expanding “wraparound services” for schools including social workers, therapists, and support staff that can help families facing homelessness, transportation challenges, health issues, and other problems that make it difficult for children to come to school and succeed.

Schools across the country are increasingly turning to wraparound services after recognizing that earlier efforts like creating new schools and putting pressure on teachers to boost test scores were not sufficient to help children living in poverty.  

Savit declined to comment on the initiative, beyond saying that it’s a work in progress that’s being led by the city health department.

“We’ve been pulling together stakeholders and having discussions,” he said. “But … there’s nothing to announce at this time.

Several people involved in the effort say it began with a three-year, $15 million grant from an organization called the Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority.

Rather than give the money to specific schools or districts, the Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority approached the city about leading the effort, said Bernard Parker who serves on the Authority board and is also the CEO of the Timbuktu Academy, a charter school on Detroit’s east side.  

The mayor is using the money as a starting point to raise additional funds, working with local charities and foundations, Parker said. “We would like to double the money to $10 million [a year].”

As for how to distribute the money once it’s raised, conversations are still preliminary, Parker said.

“The model that’s been talked about is having a nonprofit organization already involved collaborate with a school,” Parker said. “The nonprofit would get the grant and could collaborate with people at the school to do various supports.”

Some advocates are hoping that if Duggan can bring district and charter school leaders together around supporting families for the Detroit Children’s Success Initiative, that could lead to other kinds of collaborations, such as efforts to recruit and train educators to teach in Detroit.

“The concept was to be a catalyst for change,” said Tom Watkins, who as CEO of the Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority last year first asked the authority’s board to find money for the initiative.

“If it’s just used as another funding source,” he said, “then we’ve missed an opportunity.”

Watkins, who was the state schools superintendent from 2001 to 2005, said he’s seen lots of money flow to lots of programs but their impact is often limited.

With this money, he said, “the whole concept was to pull the players together and to figure out ways in which we could really attack in a systematic way the issue of why kids aren’t successful. A lot of that resolves around the extra needs of children coming from poverty and all the social issues that go with that. What are the things outside of the academic environment that prevent children from succeeding?”

Watkins left the Mental Health Authority in August but said he was glad to hear that City Hall is moving the effort forward.

“The mayor is the epicenter to bring people together. Community groups, foundations, businesses, civic associations, whatever,” Watkins said. “Oftentimes, who convenes the meeting will bring players to the table.”

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.