More grades?

Lawmaker proposes giving every school in the state A-F grades to stop ‘masking poor performance’

Rep. Tim Kelly speaks on his bill that would give Michigan schools letter grades.

All Michigan schools would receive an annual report card with letter grades in six different categories under new legislation that got a hearing in Lansing on Thursday.

Backers of the proposal say it offers a “middle ground” in a divisive debate over how schools should be evaluated and how those evaluations can be most useful to parents making school choices.

The state superintendent last year dropped plans to assign a single A-F grade to every school, in favor of a “data dashboard” that provides data on school performance factors like how well students do on state tests and graduation rates. But supporters of letter grades say navigating the dashboard makes it too difficult for parents and educators to judge school performance.

Instead of a single letter grade, 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 – to ensure schools cannot test only their highest performing students.

How to measure schools has been a longstanding issue in Michigan. Nationally, letter grades to measure school performance and create accountability became popular in the mid-2000s, but more recently states have questioned whether grades fairly evaluate schools or offer enough details about their performance.

At least 18 states as of last spring used letter grades. Early in discussions last year, state Superintendent Brian Whiston supported such a system, but some education groups were against it. Instead, the state Department of Education created the Parent Dashboard, a tool meant to provide a more nuanced look at school success than letter grades.

The dashboard provides data on school performance factors like how well students do on state tests and graduation rates. But supporters of letter grades say navigating the dashboard makes it too difficult for parents and educators to judge school performance.

Lack of accountability in Michigan schools is one major reason why education in the state is ranked among the worst in the nation, says Rep. Tim Kelly, of Saginaw Township, the Republican who introduced the bill.

“Michigan has made a unique slide nationally in academic achievement over the last decade or so and I’ve been trying to put a finger on why that’s been the case,” he said. “When we’re not accountable, performance wasn’t there.”

He said his bill is a middle ground between a single grade and the state’s dashboard, which he said had “a lot of good information,” but “still masked poor performance.”

The A-F ranking system has been a divisive issue, with some hailing it is a tool to increase transparency and others viewing it as too simplified because it doesn’t necessarily take into account other factors like poverty that would impact student performance.

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

Speakers at the hearing included charter advocate Moneak Parker, the executive director of parent group Detroit Voice for School Choice, who said as a mother, she wanted to more easily understand which schools were best for her child.

“Let’s get away from the confusion,” she said. “I don’t want to have to go through all the logistics of reading all this data – I just want to get straight to the point, so I’m totally in support of the A-F system.”  

After the state education department dropped its letter grade plan last year, Dan Quisenberry, president of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, told the Detroit Free Press in March 2017, “Michigan will be lacking any sort of meaningful accountability system for schools, and parents and students will be the ones who suffer.”

The letter grade legislation, if passed, would add on to the state’s current controversial school law. Currently, schools that perform in the bottom five percent statewide are subject to state intervention, which could include school closure. The state last year threatened to close 38 schools, but backed down in the face of political pressure.

Among criticism of the current law is that the formula behind the rankings has changed, and so have the tests they are based on. Consequently, some schools have dramatically climbed up the rankings while others have fallen.

Changing the law is something the Democratic committee members would like to see happen.

Rep. Adam Zemke, a Democrat representing Ann Arbor, said the current law allows leaders to “arbitrarily make a decision” to shut down low performing schools “that will impact a lot of families and children and won’t actually solve any of the problems going on.”

“If we’re going to identify schools, I want to do so in a way that is not going to continue to engage in that behavior,” he said.

Story booth

VIDEO: How a Detroit special education advocate tries to help parents

PHOTO: Tairia Bridges
Dorothea Nicholson is a education advocate for children with special needs and their parents

When Dorothea Nicholson first learned her oldest daughter had special needs, she recalls crying all the time.

Her daughter, now 17, was almost 5 years old then, and had so many health issues – including being unable to hear, walk, talk, or hold food down – doctors told Nicholson there was nothing they could do, and that she should place her daughter in center-based treatment. Nicholson remembers going to 15 doctors appointments in one week and feeling alone.

“I didn’t know what I was supposed to do,” the Detroiter said. “I was left in the dark, lost.”

Five years later, Nicholson gave birth to another daughter. She had attention deficit disorder with impulsivity, mood disorder, asthma and allergies to “almost everything.”

But by then, Nicholson said she had a better idea of what steps to take to advocate for her after attending support groups and getting other help.

Now, the educational advocate has taken up a mantle of helping other parents of children with special needs. She understands these parents deal with a variety of issues in their personal lives while trying to figure out what to do to support their children.

Nicholson recently shared the story of how she helps parents of children with special needs at a recent special education listening session sponsored by Chalkbeat Detroit and the nonprofit Detroit Parent Network. Do you know someone who has a story to share? Reach out to us.

Getting ready for school

Kindergarten ‘boot camp’ aims to ready young Detroit children — and their parents — for school

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor
In this counting exercise, twin brothers, Rafael and Nicholas Gonzalez, prepare to stack pretend scoops of ice cream on their cones.

In a back room of a church on the city’s near east side,  Abraham and Magaly Gonzalez attended a summer camp with their 5-year-old twins. Six other children from the church’s child care center were seated around a rectangular table lit by fluorescent overhead lights, working on exercises to teach them colors, numbers, and shapes.

“They have to learn more,” Magaly Gonzalez said, explaining that the couple has been working with the boys, Rafael and Nicholas, at home using books and videos, “and we have to learn more to help them.”

This was their second session in the Detroit main district’s newly launched Kindergarten Boot Camp, a four-week summer program led by district staff that focuses on the basics children need to start school. The Gonzalezes sent their sons to preschool when they were 4 years old. But the couple was so excited about what their boys learned in an earlier camp that they came to the People’s Missionary Baptist Church, a community site, to help them learn more: how to count to 20, spell and write their names, and recognize letters and shapes.

Although school readiness is not a new notion for educators, in the past couple of years, the summer programs for children who are about to start kindergarten have become a national trend, said Robin Jacob, a University of Michigan research associate professor who focuses on K-12 educational intervention.

“They are a fairly new idea, and they are important,” said Jacob, who researched more than a dozen similar programs that recently have sprung up from Pittsburgh to Oakland, Calif., many targeting children who had no prior preschool education.

A full year of preschool is the best way to get children ready for kindergarten, she said, “but we know there are kids who fall through the cracks and it’s important to catch those children, and preschool doesn’t always include parents so they learn how to help their children at home.”

A growing number of districts and schools have added the programs, recognizing that they last only a few weeks, are relatively inexpensive, and keep students engaged during the summer months, she said.

These early lessons are important for children and their parents, said Sharlonda Buckman, the Detroit district’s assistant superintendent of family and community engagement, because officials too often hear from teachers that children don’t know how to sit in their seats, line up, or hold a pencil.

Even when they’ve gone to preschool, she said, some children still have trouble,  because kindergarten requires more discipline and structure than preschool. The children’s parents often don’t know how to prepare their children for kindergarten and lifelong learning.

That’s why the district’s program requires parents like the Gonzalezes to attend the boot camp sessions with their children.

“People automatically assume Kindergarten Boot Camp is about the kids,” Buckman said. “For us, it’s about the parents.”

About 100 parents attended the classes this summer in nine elementary schools and the church to build on the belief that “parents are the child’s best teacher,” Buckman said.

Parents also are involved in programs sponsored by Living Arts, a nonprofit arts organization, that is offering a range of programming in Detroit through Head Start to help preschool children and their parents get ready for the first day of school.

“Our movement, drama and music activities encourage children to learn how to be part of a line to transition to another part of the day such as going outside, the bathroom or a circle,” said Erika Villarreal-Bunce, the Living Arts director of programs. “The arts help children understand this new space they’re in is not like things were at home, and helps children learn to function in those spaces.”

Although not all camps require parent involvement, they offer similar lessons to prepare children for kindergarten.

In suburban cities such as Southfield and Huntington Woods, the Bricks 4 Kidz program uses models made of brightly colored bricks to teach preschool children letter recognition, patterns, colors, counting, and vocabulary. Maria Montoya, a spokeswoman from the Grand Valley State University, the largest charter authorizer in Detroit, said she wasn’t aware of any similar summer kindergarten readiness programs. They also did not receive grant funding for the pre-kindergarten initiative.

The best of them teach basic academics, instruct children in a classroom setting, and engage parents in student learning, Jacob said.

“Educators have thought about school readiness for a long time, but understanding how important that summer transition period can be is something that people have started to think about more carefully recently,” she said. “Summertime is a key time where kids can be learning.”

Regina Bell, a W.K. Kellogg Foundation program officer, said the foundation funded Detroit’s Kindergarten Boot Camp because of the importance of focusing on the earliest years of life to ensure students’ success in K-12 and beyond.

“Part of this is recognizing that most of the the human brain is developed by the age of 5, and when you think about early learning opportunities, those are the foundation for the future,” she said. “It is that foundation that really takes children into the K-12 system.”

Kindergarten Boot Camp, funded by a $3 million Kellogg grant, is only one part of the Detroit district’s efforts to increase parent involvement to improve student attendance, discipline issues, and test scores. The three-year grant also funds the Parent Academy and teacher home visits. (Kellogg is also a Chalkbeat funder).

As for Abraham Gonzalez, the twins’ father, parenting and teaching children doesn’t come naturally. So he says the early learning opportunity for his sons is essential for them — and their parents, although they spent a year in preschool at the Mark Twain School for Scholars in southwest Detroit.

“We are trying our best to teach these kids,” he said, and it’s even more challenging teaching them when Spanish is their first language.

Now, he said, the boys’ are getting so proficient at English, they understand more than their parents.

“They are understanding what the people tell them,” he said. “Sometimes, we don’t.”