a new standard

Facing dead-last national test scores, Detroit district approves new teaching materials

The Detroit school board Tuesday adopted a new, $7.1 million curriculum that Superintendent Nikolai Vitti says is a key part of his plan to bring Detroit schools up from the bottom of national rankings.

Earlier Tuesday morning Detroit was ranked last — for the fifth time — among urban school districts on a national test known as the Nation’s Report Card. Vitti’s former school district, Duval County Schools in Jacksonville, Florida, showed significant gains in fourth-grade math and posted the highest scores among 27 urban districts in the nation in that subject. He told Chalkbeat the curriculum he used in Duval is the same one a committee of educators recommended to the board last month.

“The gaps between the standards and the materials being used in the district is very relevant” to the poor performance on the national test, Vitti said at the school board meeting at Mumford High School.

“So the fact that we are last…it’s not surprising,” Vitti said on a radio show on Wednesday. “Let’s specifically talk about what affects those test scores — quality curriculum. We did an audit this year that show the materials are not only outdated but not aligned to the standards.”

This change in teaching materials is one of the biggest investments the district has chosen for the 2018-19 school year. For math, K-8 students will begin using Eureka Mathematics materials at a maximum cost next school year of $1.8 million, and will use the Expeditionary Learning curriculum from Open-Up Resources for reading at a maximum cost of $5.3 million. The total yearly recurring cost will be $3,074,151.

There are no changes in curriculum for high school students at this time.

An audit completed earlier this year showed that the district’s current curriculum is woefully unaligned to state standards — it set kids up to fail on standardized tests like the one released this week.

“I didn’t realize how low the bar for our current curriculum is right now until we saw this one,” said Brandy Walker, a teacher at the Foreign Language Immersion and Cultural Studies School who served on a committee of educators tasked with helping choose the materials.

The district has estimated that the new materials will boost reading scores by 3.46 percentage points per year, and by 3.1 percentage points in math every year.

“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,” Vitti said. “We simply need time and space to build capacity, and improvement will be seen by 2020’s” next round of testing.

It’s a critical time for improving reading scores. In 2020, a new reading law will force schools to hold back most third-graders who are not reading at grade level. Last year, only about 10 percent of third-graders passed the state’s annual English Language Arts exam.

Teachers will begin training in the summer and be given all new materials to review far before the start of the school year, Vitti said.

The district can pay for the materials mostly because of an increase in enrollment, and thus an increase in total per pupil funding from the state, said Jeremy Vidito, the district’s chief financial officer.

The school board approved a budget of  just under $732 million for next year on Tuesday, which pays for the new teaching materials and allocates money for gym teachers, art or music teachers, guidance counselors, and more.

The district is currently recruiting at universities around the country, and specifically targeting historically black universities. The approved budget also allocates money to centralize services for bringing new teachers on board to make the hiring process easier and faster.

The district has roughly 180-190 teacher vacancies, Vitti said, compared to about 265 at this time last school year.

Vitti is negotiating with union representatives to offer higher salaries to experienced teachers coming from outside the district. Salaries for new teachers start near the bottom of the district’s pay scale.

“If we can fully recognize experience outside Detroit, we will be much closer to being fully staffed,” Vitti said.

“In my experience as a teacher, teachers are overwhelmed by how many students are in their class,” said John Lambert, a teacher at Burns Elementary-Middle School. “I think budgeting for more teachers is one of the wisest things the district could do.”

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.