Rock bottom

Detroit schools ranked worst on national exam — again. But is there hope that things can improve?

PHOTO: Getty images

It’s difficult to find good news for Detroit schools in newly released national test score results.

Not only did students in the city’s main district rank dead last — for the fifth time — among major cities in every subject, but their scores dropped even lower than the rock-bottom numbers Detroit fourth-graders posted the last time they took the exam in 2015.

The biggest drop came in fourth-grade math, where the city’s average score fell 5 points between 2015 and 2017.

The test, called the National Assessment of Educational Progress or NAEP, was given to a representative sample of students in the first few months of 2017, shortly after a new school board took over the district, but before Superintendent Nikolai Vitti was hired.

The poor showing put an exclamation point on years of turmoil in the city’s main school district.

Detroit schools saw a rotating cast of emergency managers, teacher walkouts over unsafe building conditions, and plunging enrollment that created a financial crisis. It was so severe that the Detroit Public Schools only avoided bankruptcy in 2016 when state lawmakers created a new debt-free district called the Detroit Public Schools Community District.

During that time, a teacher shortage forced schools to crowd 30 or 40 students into some classrooms. And educators have been using a curriculum so outdated that a recent audit found students had largely been set up to fail.

Given all of that, few experts were expecting strong results on the NAEP — a test often called the nation’s report card.

“There’s just been so much instability in this district for so long,” said Mike Addonizio, a professor of educational policy at Wayne State University. “I think you would be hard-pressed to find other urban districts that have had the disruption that Detroit has had.”

The exam is given to students across the country every two years.

Detroit is one of the large urban districts that voluntarily participates in a comparison of big city schools called the Trial Urban District Assessment, or TUDA. This year, 27 districts participated.

Detroit, which has taken part in the urban district comparison since 2009, has ranked last every year that it has participated.

But the district also faces more significant challenges than those in other cities.

According to U.S. Census data, Detroit has the lowest median household income and the highest percentage of families living in poverty compared to people who live within the boundaries of the other 26 districts.

The data show that half of families with children under 18 in Detroit live in poverty.

Poverty is a major predictor of how well students perform on standardized tests, but it doesn’t tell the whole story.

It doesn’t explain why Detroit students dropped 5 points in fourth-grade math compared to two years or earlier, or why some cities do well despite high poverty rates.

Fourth-graders in Jacksonville, for example, posted the highest math scores among participating districts even as poverty within the boundaries of the Duval County Public Schools is higher than in seven other TUDA districts.

The scores in Jacksonville are perhaps the only glimmer of hope that Detroiters can turn to in the test results.

Those Jacksonville fourth-graders posted one of the largest math gains among TUDA districts between 2015 and 2017— a jump of 5 points — at a time when Vitti was running the schools there.

Vitti, who left Jacksonville last spring to become superintendent in Detroit, had been in charge of the Duval schools since that group of fourth-graders had been in kindergarten.

He can claim credit for the improvements there and says he hopes to do the same for Detroit.

Detroit’s scores are “not a reflection of our students’ talent or potential,” Vitti said. “Instead, they are indicative of a school system that has not implemented best practices regarding curriculum, instruction, academic intervention, and school improvement for over a decade.”

Vitti said things are already changing in the district.

“This year we have focused on rebuilding the district’s infrastructure using the same strategies that led to some of the highest performance among large urban school districts in Duval, Miami-Dade, and Florida in general,” he said. “This includes a focus on training teachers and leaders on the Common Core standards, implementing data systems to monitor student performance and provide intervention, and curriculum that is aligned to the standards. We simply need time and space to build capacity and improvement will be seen by 2020’s administration of NAEP.”

Sarah Lenhoff, an education researcher and assistant professor at Wayne State who specializes in school improvement and choice said the strong scores in Duval are encouraging news for Detroit. 

“That’s more evidence that Dr. Vitti was a good hire and might know how to boost Detroit in the same way Duval was boosted,” said “We need to focus on instruction, high-quality teaching, trying to move to a more rigorous and aligned curriculum.”

Duval’s fourth-grade reading scores were unchanged between 2015 and 2017 while eighth-grade scores remained flat, with math up 1 point and reading down 1 point — changes so small that testing officials said they were not statistically significant.

In Detroit, the 5-point drop that fourth-graders posted in math on the 2017 exam was identified as a statistically significant decline by the exam’s creators.

Fourth-grade reading scores also dropped 5 points, but that change was not identified as statistically significant.

The Detroit eighth-graders who took the test in 2017, meanwhile, posted similar scores to students who took the test two years earlier, with math scores up 1 point and reading scores down 2 points — changes that were not identified as significant.

Ron French and Mike Wilkinson, of Bridge Magazine, contributed to this report.

Chalkbeat and Bridge Magazine, members of the Detroit Journalism Cooperative, teamed up to cover the nation’s report card on schools. Click here to see Bridge’s report on Michigan scores.

 

2017 NAEP Trial Urban District Assessment Rankings for 4th Grade Math

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics, National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), various years, 1990–2017 Mathematics Assessments. / Graphic by Sam Park
SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics, National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), various years, 1990–2017 Mathematics Assessments. / Graphic by Sam Park

 

2017 NAEP Trial Urban District Assessment Rankings for 8th Grade Math

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics, National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), various years, 1990–2017 Mathematics Assessments. / Graphic by Sam Park
SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics, National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), various years, 1990–2017 Mathematics Assessments. / Graphic by Sam Park

 

2017 NAEP Trial Urban District Assessment Rankings for 4th Grade Reading

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics, National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), various years, 1990–2017 Reading Assessments. / Graphic by Sam Park
SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics, National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), various years, 1990–2017 Reading Assessments. / Graphic by Sam Park

2017 NAEP Trial Urban District Assessment Rankings for 8th Grade Reading

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics, National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), various years, 1990–2017 Reading Assessments. / Graphic by Sam Park
SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics, National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), various years, 1990–2017 Reading Assessments. / Graphic by Sam Park

more money fewer problems

Detroit teachers will finally get paid what they deserve if agreement holds up with district

Ally Duncan, an elementary school teacher in Lake County, works with students on sentence structure. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Good news for Detroit district teachers stuck at a low pay level: The finance committee of the school board Friday recommended an agreement with the city’s largest teachers union to raise pay for the first time in years.

“This is a major step for the district to fully recognize experience,” Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said. “A lot of the adult issues have been put aside to focus on children.”

The changes will be for members of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, the city’s largest teachers union.

In the past, Detroit teachers have bargained for contracts that severely restrict the pay of newly hired teachers who could help alleviate the shortage. New teachers could only get credit for two years’ experience they accrued working in other school districts.

Vitti has said low pay in the Detroit district is the main reason it’s difficult to attract new teachers and keep the ones they have. And with fewer teachers, classroom sizes start to balloon.

Detroit currently has 190 teacher vacancies, down from 275 at this point last year.

The subcommittee also recommended giving a one-time bonus for teachers at the top of the salary scale to recognize outside experience for current and future teachers, and to repay the Termination Incentive Plan as soon as this September.

The incentive plan took $250 from teachers’ biweekly paycheck and held it to pay them when they left the district when emergency managers were in control, but the money was never given back to teachers, said Ivy Bailey, the president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers.

Teachers who have paid into the incentive plan from the beginning will receive $9,000. The teachers union made a contract with the district last year that stipulated the money be paid by 2020, but the new agreement would move the payment to this September.

Finally, a bonus — $1,373.60 — for more than 2,000 teachers at the top of the pay scale would be paid in December.

Potentially, some teachers receiving bonuses and who are eligible for the incentive plan payment would receive in excess of $10,000,

“The bonus for teachers on the top is focused on ensuring that we retain our most veteran teachers as we work on an agreement in the third year to increase, once again, teachers at the top step so they can be made whole after emergency manager reductions,” Vitti said.  “We can do that once our enrollment settles or increases.”

In all, the district proposes to spend a combined $5.7 million to pay current and future teachers for how long they’ve worked, $3.2 million on bonuses for veteran teachers, and $22 million on the incentive plan.

“This is something none of us were expecting,” Bailey said. “This is good for everyone. We already ratified a contract, so this is just extra.”

It’s a tentative agreement between the district and the Detroit Federation of Teachers, Bailey said.

If an agreement is reached and the school board approves it, the changes would make a huge impact. It’s a major change for district teachers who have been stuck in a pay freeze and could draw new teachers into the district now that their experience may be recognized, allowing them to start at a higher salary.  

The two groups are still in talks to “iron out the details,” she said. Specifically, the federation wants to make sure that district employees like counselors, therapists and college support staff also receive higher salaries commensurate with experience.

Detroit's future

Despite top scores in quality standards, Michigan’s early education programs neglect English language learners

PHOTO: Jamie Cotten, Special to The Denver Post
Josiah Berg, 4, paints a picture at Mile High Montessori, one of more than 250 Denver preschools that are part of the Denver Preschool Program.

Michigan’s 4-year-olds receive some of the highest quality education and care available in the country — that is, if your child can speak English.

Michigan was one of only three states to meet all 10 quality benchmarks designed by a national advocacy organization that released its annual State of Preschool Report this week. However, the state met only one out of 10 benchmarks for English language learners.

Four-year-olds enrolled in privately funded programs are not included in this data.

Enrollment and state spending per pupil stayed largely constant from the same report last year. About 30 percent of 4-year-olds are enrolled — some 38,371 children — while state spending was steady at $6,356 per pupil.

Compared to the rest of the country, Michigan ranks 16th out of 43 states and Washington, D.C., in enrollment for 4-year-olds and allocates about $1,000 more dollars on per pupil spending than the average state.

These findings come from the State of Preschool 2017 report published by the National Institute for Early Education Research, or NIEER, at Rutgers University.

Three states — Alabama, Michigan, and Rhode Island — met all 10 of the institute’s benchmarks for minimum state preschool quality standards. Benchmarks included things like student-to-teacher ratios, teacher training, and quality of curriculum.

But the only benchmark the state met for English learners is permitting bilingual instruction in the state-funded preschool program. Michigan did not meet benchmarks for assessing children in their home language, allocating more money for English learners, or making sure staff are trained in working with students learning English.

Authors of the new report say supporting English learners is important, especially early in life.

“For all children, the preschool years are a critical time for language development.” said Steve Barnett, senior co-director of the institute. “We know that dual-language learners are a group that makes the largest gains from attending high-quality preschool. At the same time, they’re at elevated risk for school failure.”

About a quarter of early education students nationwide are English learners. Michigan does not collect data on the number of early education students who are English learners, so it’s unclear how many students the low quality of instruction impacts.

Chalkbeat Colorado’s Ann Schimke contributed to this report.