Set up to fail

The Detroit school district has been using a curriculum that’s ‘an injustice to the children of Detroit’ — but it’s not alone.

PHOTO: Getty Images

The auditors’ findings were unsettling.

Middle schoolers in Detroit’s main school district have been taking pre-algebra classes that have “virtually no relationship” to the state’s mathematics standards.

Students in kindergarten through third grade have been taught with an English curriculum so packed with unnecessary lessons that they don’t have time to get a firm grasp of foundational reading skills.

That “sets students up for a school career of frustration with anything that requires reading,” auditors found.

And an entire district of more than 50,000 students has been using textbooks that are so old and out of date that it’s likely that most students, for years, have been taking the state’s annual high-stakes exam without having seen much of the material they’re being tested on.

The test results can nonetheless be used to make potentially devastating decisions, like whether schools should be forced to close.

In short, the auditors who came to Detroit last fall to review the district’s curriculum found that students here have been set up to fail.

“It’s an injustice to the children of Detroit,” said Superintendent Nikolai Vitti.

But while this might sound like just another example of dysfunction in a long-troubled district, curriculum experts say that Detroit is among hundreds — possibly thousands — of districts across the country that are using textbooks and educational materials that are not aligned to state standards.

Detroit is now making a fix. The district plans to spend between $1 million and $3 million in the coming year to purchase new reading and math materials.

But most districts don’t do curriculum audits like Detroit has done. And curriculum experts say that most districts don’t realize the materials they’re using aren’t very good.

That means the students in those districts are not only ill-prepared for state exams, they’re less likely to succeed in college or careers.

“If you go to college and have to take remedial classes, that costs more money, takes more time and can ruin your life,” said Larry Singer, the CEO of Open-Up Resources, a nonprofit organization that makes quality math and English curriculums available to schools for free.

“If you can’t do algebra by the time you graduate from middle school, it’s very hard to finish up,” Singer said. “It takes 13 years to be prepared to be a freshman in college and every year that districts go with [improperly aligned curriculums], they sacrifice more kids to a difficult life.”

The fact that it has been years since Detroit teachers were given high-quality teaching materials is only one reason why students here have routinely posted some of the lowest test scores in the nation. Students face intense personal challenges in a city where more than half of children live in poverty. Their schools are dealing with a severe teacher shortage. And many buildings have deteriorated.

A curriculum overhaul won’t magically solve Detroit’s problems. But research suggests that even when nothing else changes — how teachers are trained or what challenges students face at home, for example — higher-quality curriculum materials can raise student learning.

It has been years since Detroit teachers have been given high-quality instructional materials.

And student learning urgently needs to improve in Detroit, teachers say.

“Their reading skills are so low,” said Faith Fells, a history teacher at Detroit’s Mumford High School who returned to the city this year after teaching in Boston. “I thought some of my students last year were struggling and some of them were reading and writing below grade level. But here I would say it’s the vast majority of our students.”

Auditors reviewing Detroit’s curriculum last fall found that most of the materials used in Detroit schools are from 2007 or 2008, before the state’s current standards were adopted.

The state of Michigan took over the district in 2009 and appointed a series of emergency managers who ran the city schools until last year. The emergency managers apparently never made updating text books a priority.

“The emergency managers were focused on closing schools, budget issues and those kinds of things,” said Randy Liepa, the superintendent of the Wayne County intermediate school district, which supports Wayne County districts including Detroit and helped find about $40,000 in federal money to pay for Detroit’s curriculum audit. “It seems like clearly the curriculum wasn’t being addressed.”

The problem became more acute when Michigan joined 44 other states in adopting the Common Core standards in 2010. Those standards were meant to help states ensure that students would be prepared for college-level work upon graduation. Their adoption rendered old curriculum materials immediately out-of-date — and also spurred criticism that the federal government, which had encouraged states to adopt the standards, had reached too far into states’ purview.

The ensuing tumult has made state officials hesitant to get involved in what is taught in local classrooms, Singer said.

“Once upon a time, states had a very strong role in selecting curriculum,” Singer said, estimating that, five or six years ago, roughly half the states in the country would bring educators together every year to review textbooks and materials and make recommendations to school districts. The states would often provide financial incentives that encouraged districts to choose from the state’s recommended list.

Today, he said, nearly every state leaves those decisions exclusively to local districts, which may or may not have the staff and resources to fully vet the claims of textbook publishers.

“A lot of districts just rely on what vendors tell them,” Vitti said. “[Publishers say], ‘Of course it’s aligned to the new standards.’ They even put on the front cover of the books ‘Aligned to Common Core standards’ but there hasn’t been a lot of time spent unpacking whether that’s really aligned or not.”

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti meets with students at Detroit’s Durfee Elementary-Middle School on the first day of school in September, 2017

The state of Michigan does not track what curriculum materials are being used in local schools. A spokesman for the Michigan Department of Education said it has no way of knowing how many of the state’s more than 500 districts and 300 charter schools are using materials aligned to the standards.

“The MDE doesn’t dictate or track local curricula, or alignment with our state standards,” William DiSessa, a department spokesman, wrote in a statement. “This is a local education state and we’re not charged with doing so.”

People who have paid close attention to curriculum across the country say the result is curriculum materials that often do not reflect what students are expected to know.

“It’s far too common” for districts to be using poorly aligned materials, said Eric Hirsch who heads an organization called EdReports that’s like a Consumer Reports for curriculum. The three-year-old non-profit brings expert educators from around the country together to review curriculums.

Of the first 197 math programs EdReports reviewed, just 48 met the organization’s criteria for alignment. Of the first 111 English Language Arts curriculums EdReports reviewed, just 58 met the organization’s criteria.

Many teachers know they’re not using great materials, Hirsch said, noting that a recent survey of teachers found that only a fraction of teachers — fewer than 1 in 5 — believed the materials they were given by their districts were aligned with state standards.

Instead of relying on those textbooks, he said, teachers spend an average of 12 hours a week searching for lesson plans on the internet.

“They’re on places like Pinterest and Google, which are not curated,” he said. “It’s hard for a teacher who has probably 150 kids to do that level of work.”

That story rings true for Nicole Cato, a ninth-grade English teacher at Detroit’s Mumford High School who returned to the district this year after four years in a suburban school. “I spend a lot of time looking for additional resources,” Cato said. “All of my prep periods, plus the weekends.”

After the audit, district officials are eager to send help Cato’s way. The audit, which was conducted by New York’s Student Achievement Partners, a nonprofit organization whose founders include some of the people who wrote the Common Core standards, awarded the district’s English curriculum 3 out of 21 possible points.

The math curriculum fared even worse. It got zero points.

Sonya Mays, a member of the Detroit school board, which resumed control of the district in January 2017, described the results as “chilling” when they were presented to the board last month.

Now, she said she’s hopeful that the audit can lead to better things.

“As outraged as I am,” Mays said, “the silver lining is it’s really, really hard to make a case that something doesn’t need to change quickly and drastically.”

Curriculum is a relatively easy fix. Buying new materials is significantly less expensive and more practical than lowering class size — especially in a district that already has nearly 200 teacher vacancies.

A quality curriculum is also especially important in cities such as Detroit where the vast majority of students are growing up in homes where they’re less likely to have access to books and less likely to hear the kind of expansive vocabularies that more affluent children do.

“A lot of our kids are entering kindergarten already behind, their vocabulary exposure, their background knowledge, their recognition of letters and sounds,” Vitti said.

If their teachers are well-prepared with a quality curriculum, it can be an equalizer that will put Detroit students on even footing with their peers in the suburbs, he said.

The district is now soliciting bids for a new curriculum that will be used across the district next year.

A team of teachers will review the options, making sure materials meet the needs of special education students and those who are learning English, and that they’re culturally sensitive, meaning students will see pictures and read stories about people who look like them. They’ll consider cost — the district is budgeting between $1 million and $3 million a year for curriculum , Vitti said — and factor in things like whether the materials are user-friendly.

But this much is sure, Vitti said. “Regardless of how nice, how user-friendly the materials are, if they’re not highly aligned to the standards, then they won’t move on.”

The district will select the curriculum later this spring and start to train teachers on it for next year. The process could be difficult, Vitti said. Students might struggle with suddenly being asked to do work for which they haven’t been fully prepared in prior years. But it’s something that district is going to have to go through, he said.

Cato, the Mumford English teacher, said she looks forward to having top-notch instructional materials to use with her students next year — even if she might still supplement with things she finds online.

“Teachers need at least a game plan and a curriculum provides that,” she said.

Read the audits of Detroit’s math and English curriculum below:

Urgent repairs

Crumbling Detroit school buildings will cost $500 million to repair. It’s money the district doesn’t have

The water-damaged, mold-infested Palmer Park Preparatory Academy was closed for months while crews replaced the roof and made other repairs.

The buildings in Michigan’s largest school district have been so neglected and so poorly maintained for so long that a new review put the price tag for bringing them up to current standards at half a billion dollars — money the district says it doesn’t have.

“We would have to dramatically cut personnel to even put a dent in this problem,” Superintendent Nikolai Vitti told the school board’s finance committee during a meeting at the district’s Fisher building headquarters Friday morning. “And even then, we would not be able to make substantial improvement.”

The review, whose results one school board member called “tragically awful,” was conducted over the last several months by an architecture and engineering firm called OHM advisors. It assessed the condition of the 106 buildings that currently house district schools, including roofs, interiors, and systems like plumbing and electrical.

It found that nearly a third of school buildings are in an “unsatisfactory” or “poor” condition, while roughly a third are considered in good repair.

The review did not take into account 19 vacant buildings that the district owns and is responsible for securing and maintaining so that they don’t become a danger to the community.

That means that the “unbelievably frustrating” picture painted by the review “undershoots” the problem, said school board member Sonya Mays, the finance committee chairwoman.

What makes the situation even more extreme is the fact that the Detroit district does not have the same ability to borrow money for construction projects that other Michigan districts do.

When the state spent $617 million to create the new Detroit Public Schools Community District in 2016, the new law freed the new district from millions of dollars in debt that had hobbled the old Detroit Public Schools. But it put restrictions on the new district’s ability to borrow money.

Instead, the $617 million included $25 million for buildings improvements — including some pressing repairs that became national news that year when teachers walked out of their classrooms to protest building conditions, shutting down schools for days.

Vitti said much of that $25 million has been spent or is committed this year for projects like the the repair of the roof at the Palmer Park Preparatory Academy, an elementary school that’s been closed for months since a leaky roof triggered a mold problem. Students at the school finished out the school year in a different building. 

“The $25 million is literally a drop in the bucket of what the overall need is,” Vitti told the finance committee.

He called for an urgent discussion to figure out which buildings should be repaired, which ones should be replaced, and which ones should be considered for closure.  

“What we’ve done in this review is at least define the problem,” Vitti said. “Now that we have solid data … we will have to think broadly and deeply” about what to do next.

Options could include returning to Lansing for additional help from the state or partnering with businesses or philanthropy to raise private funds for repairs.

Vitti noted that if nothing is done to repair these buildings, the cost of bringing them up to acceptable standards will swell to $1.2 billion by 2023.

If we don’t make a high level of investment, which frankly we do not have the revenue to do, this problem only compounds itself in the years to come,” Vitti said.

Scroll down to see the presentation Vitti gave to the finance committee, which includes specifics on which schools are most in need of work.

Enrollment push

‘The pressure is on everyone’ as Detroit’s main district advertises to attract more students

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Detroit school board members stand with the students who will star in the district's summer ad campaign.

Detroit’s main school district has a new look.

Officials announced a new brand for the Detroit Public Schools Community District to real-live fanfare on Thursday, unveiling a new logo and tagline with a student brass band as backdrop.

After the announcement was made at Nolan Elementary School, students streamed out wearing blue tee shirts printed with the new logo, which depicts a rising sun.

“Students rise. We all rise,” reads the tagline, signaling that improvement  is coming to a district that is working to recover from decades of disinvestment and mismanagement.  Officials hope the campaign will bring Detroit families back to a district whose future depends in part on increasing enrollment.

That’s a sign of a new reality in public education, one that public relations professionals recognized around the time that policy shifts nationwide allowed more charter schools to open.

When school competition spread nationally, the phenomenon was especially pronounced in Michigan, where parents can enroll their children in charter schools or suburban schools that will accept them. State law puts few restrictions on where charter schools can be opened and who can open them.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said the re-branding effort was inevitable in a state that fosters competition between school districts.  Vitti has criticized Michigan’s charter school laws, but has charged head-on into the battle to enroll students nonetheless.

“I think the pressure is on everyone,” Vitti said. “Students can move from one district to another. It’s incumbent on every school district and every school to go into a marketing mode.”

The district paid $100,000 for the $300,000 campaign, which was put together by BLVD Content and Real Integrated, marketing and strategy firms that have worked for Ford, the City of Detroit, The Henry Ford, and the Detroit Opera Theater. The firms donated about $180,000 worth of work, the district said, with the non-profit United Way chipping in about $20,000 through the Detroit Public Schools Foundation. The brand includes television commercials and a new logo and tagline.

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Detroit’s main district has a new logo.

This is not the first time Detroit’s main district has used advertising to attract students. In 2010, the “I’m in” campaign won a top national marketing award. The old Detroit school district, which now exists only to pay off legacy debt, reported that 830 students enrolled as a result.

Nora Carr, former president of the National Association of School Public Relations, says schools are “borrowing a page from the private sector” by investing in brands. “Rarely mentioned a decade ago, branding is becoming part of the educational lexicon,” she wrote in a 2009 article.

While enrollment in Detroit’s main district has declined, it remains the largest in the state. That makes it easier to raise funds, but harder to implement a brand widely enough that it will become ingrained in parents’ perception of the district.

Many charter schools in the city are far smaller. Take The Detroit Achievement Academy, a 200-student charter school on the city’s northwest side. Kyle Smitley, the school’s founder, said in a text that she does the branding herself. “We don’t pay anyone externally,” she added.

District officials say the brand projects “a new beginning for traditional public education in Detroit.” His administration has set lofty academic goals, which it hopes to reach through an overhauled curriculum, but it remains too early to judge whether these efforts will move the district forward.

Boosting enrollment is a crucial piece of the puzzle. A plan unveiled earlier this month called for commercials on television, billboards and buses, part of an effort to bring back some of the roughly 30,000 students who wake up every day in the city and go to school in the suburbs.

The commercials will be based on a promotional video, also released Thursday, in which rapper Big Sean, a graduate of Cass Technical High School, speaks over images of actual Detroit students playing sports and studying. They build on a tradition of commercials that emphasize Detroit’s hard-knock reputation, with the rapper dropping lines like “we are a city that runs on ambition and grit.”

The video and other advertising materials can be seen on the district’s website.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the size of the contribution from United Way. The non-profit contributed $20,000 to the branding campaign.