What's next for failing Detroit public schools?
Ohanian Comment:What corporate-politicos refuse to consider as a necessary condition for improving schools is providing families with a living wage. It's more convenient to blame principals and teachers and the students themselves.
By Doug Guthrie
Educators nationwide are watching as Michigan grapples with the first schools that have failed at every level under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.
Six of 24 schools on a critical list identifying the state's most troubled public institutions have failed to meet academic standards for six straight years -- one year more than federal officials expected when creating rules aimed at forcing the improvement of underperforming schools.
All six are public schools in Detroit, where some state officials fear the least has been done to repair the problems.
"There is nothing in the federal law about what happens next," said Diane Stark Rentner, deputy director of the Center on Education Policy, a research group in Washington. "Do you try different approaches, or if the law is mute, do you do nothing?"
State officials have reacted by sending teams of education auditors to the six Detroit schools to find if the district did what it promised last year when required to restructure. Reaching phase five meant choosing at least one of several options: install new curriculum; replace teachers and/or the principal; change how the school operates and is governed; turn over management to another authority; or become a charter school.
"The question is, does the clock start over after you have restructured? Our position in Michigan is no," said Yvonne Caamal Canul, director of the Michigan Department of Education Office of School Improvement.
Michigan schools were among the first to arrive at this point because the state was measuring academic performance before No Child Left Behind was enacted in 2001.
Georgia, California, Kentucky, Maryland and North Carolina are in similar situations, but the Center on Education Policy says Michigan officials have used a unique strategy, pushing schools to continue trying to improve by threatening to withhold funding -- up to $45,000 per school. No money has been withheld.
Michigan also was allowed to add another option to the list of choices. The state created a cadre of trained coaches, mostly retired educators, who are available to help districts. Seven schools on the critical list planned to hire outsiders to help. None of the Detroit schools chose that option.
Although the federal law allows a state takeover as a last resort, Michigan officials have neither the money nor the manpower to accomplish such a task. Instead, new rules being considered by the state Board of Education could allow officials to force continually failing schools to hire advisers from their coaching pool. Reports filed by the auditors who started inspecting the Detroit schools this month will include further action suggestions.
Proposals yield few results
Restructuring plans filed by schools from Albion, Benton Harbor, Flint, Muskegon, Muskegon Heights and Taylor included lengthy descriptions of multiple approaches and their reasons for choosing methods to fix troubled schools.
Grand Rapids Public Schools avoided the issue by closing a middle school that failed a sixth time. A school can fail by not having enough students proficient in core subjects, by having fewer than 95 percent of students take the Michigan Educational Assessment Program (MEAP) test and by low scores from students in specific groups, such as special education.
State officials balked when Detroit Public Schools turned in plans that called for simply replacing the principals at 12 out of 14 of its schools on the critical list. When the state threatened to withhold federal funds, more detailed plans resulted. They outlined student and teacher development and mentoring programs, use of study skill kits and a call for more parental involvement.
Joseph Ruffin said he had no idea the Detroit school where his son DeAngelo Jackson, 12, is a sixth-grader, was among the six worst in the state. McMichael Middle School got several changes, including a new name, McMichael Technological Academy, along with the inclusion of kindergarten through eighth grade.
"There was talk about improvements, but I can say the classrooms I observed are challenging ones," said Ruffin, who works as a Head Start teaching aide. "His math teacher told me he has laptops for use by every student, but he hasn't gotten them out for fear of what might happen to them."
MEAP scores last fall show seventh-graders at McMichael caught up with the state's average. Reading also improved slightly but remains far short of the statewide goal. Eighth grade math scores plummeted another 11 percent last year to just 22 percent proficiency. The state average is 60 percent.
Deborah Hunter-Harville was assigned last year as the new principal. She also is president-elect of the National Alliance of Black School Educators.
"Having younger children in the building has mellowed us out. The older kids are caring about the younger kids because many of them are their siblings," she said.
All students wear uniforms. Teachers write goals on chalkboards each morning to keep students on task. After-school programs provide tutoring in math and reading and chances to take classes in art and dance. Teams of teachers are being formed to share ideas. More effort is being made to reach and involve parents.
When state auditors arrived Friday, Hunter-Harville welcomed them.
"People need to come inside of these phase five and six schools and see what we are doing. It's a lot more than just a change at principal," she said.
Critics: Feds unreasonable
Critics of No Child Left Behind have said it is impractical to expect quick changes. Some experts say it takes up to six years to turn around a failing school and up to a dozen to reverse districtwide problems.
There are 133 schools statewide involved in restructuring. In a report released last week, the Center on Education Policy noted improvements in test scores at 85 percent of those schools. A total of 113 have since met federal progress goals and 26 did it for a second consecutive year, allowing them to exit the restructuring process.
Still, the report warns real progress is slow and the largest reason for dramatic improvements here may have been rule changes that made it easier to meet goals.
Willow Run School officials and parents remain frustrated, having tried nearly everything at their middle school that failed for five consecutive years. Scores still narrowly missed federal standards last year despite a $22 million investment in a new building. Half of the teaching staff took early retirement and was replaced. New teachers were hired and others stayed in the new building only if they supported the philosophies of a new curriculum. Laptop computers were given to each student.
State officials removed Willow Run Middle School from the critical list only because success appears to be imminent.
"Just because we leveled a school doesn't guarantee instant success," Willow Run Superintendent Ron Ciranna said. "It's a long process."
Six of Fawn Martin's 12 children already have outgrown Willow Run Middle School, but the rest, she said, will benefit. "The kid mentality is that my big brother skated so I can, too," Martin said.
"You change the environment in the classroom and beyond and it doesn't matter what your big brother did. Expectations need to be raised all around a school. That's a big social change and that doesn't happen quickly."
You can reach Doug Guthrie at (313) 222-2359 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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