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Central High's method of change questioned

Ohanian Comment: In the photograph accompanying this story, Lena Teagarden, identified as a transition specialist, is pictured. Interested in the term "transition specialist," I tried to find out more about it. Of course it's a euphemism--employed in many different contexts. Lena Teagarden doesn't appear on the Internet in connection with this term--except in this one newspaper photograph.

Of course educationists like euphemisms. After all, calling a standardized test the Merit Examination. The Michigan Merit Exam (MME) replaces the the Michigan Educational Assessment Program (MEAP) test. The MME inclues the ACT, a competitor to the College Board's SAT.

Marisa Schultz

Detroit -- Central High School is on the brink of a massive transformation that seeks to raise test scores, curb violence and truancy and put students on a path to college.

While few dispute the need for drastic measures in a school where a student was shot in February and only 6 percent of students passed the math portion of the state's merit exam this spring, many question the method.

Detroit Public Schools hired four private educational firms to work with district principals on radical changes at the 17 worst high schools, including Central.

District officials say Edison Learning, EdWorks, Model Secondary Schools Program and Institute for Student Achievement were chosen for their "proven track record of raising student achievement." But while the individual organizations boast success stories at schools around the nation, experts say the effectiveness of this relatively new trend of turning to private firms to transform public schools is still unclear.

"The evidence is mixed," said Frederick M. Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington-based think tank, of the available data on education management organizations. "It's hard for anyone on either side to point to evidence and say clearly this generally works or this generally doesn't work."
Reforms get bolder

Detroit Public Schools Emergency Financial Manager Robert Bobb insists accountability is paramount and that principals like Central's Steven McGhee will work with the firms to roll out best practices. They'll be monitored to ensure students have the tools needed to excel, Bobb said.

"If they fail to perform, they are out," he added.

The change "is much-needed and it has to happen," said McGhee, whose first order of business was to change his school's name to University of Central College Preparatory High School to promote a more academic atmosphere.

"If we don't do it for ourselves in Detroit Public Schools then someone else is going to do it for you."

Under growing pressures to meet federal No Child Left Behind standards, school reforms have gotten bolder and have challenged the structure of public schools themselves, experts say.

"When schools hit the bottom -- and I think Detroit Public Schools have hit bottom -- superintendents and boards will look for things that will radically shake things up," said Jack Jennings, president and CEO of the Center on Education Policy, a Washington-based advocate for more effective public schools. "And this creates an opening for these management companies."

Leaders at the private firms are optimistic.

"We know of all the places that we've worked there's not a more important place to emerge as the growth leader in academic performance than Detroit," said Joseph Wise, executive vice president and chief education officer at Edison Learning, which is assigned to Cooley, Denby, Finney, Kettering, Mumford and Southeastern high schools.

The uncertainty bothers parents like Sharon Kelso, whose granddaughter will be a junior at Mumford. "I'm very concerned," said Kelso, noting she's read such turnaround plans can take two years to work.

"If the plan is not going to work for two years, what kind of plan do you have in place for my child, who is in the 11th grade?"
Philly provides example

Researchers point to Philadelphia as one of the few spots with data on effectiveness of education management organizations. Following a state takeover, the Philadelphia School Reform Commission in 2002 turned more than 40 failing schools over to educational management organizations in the largest single experiment in the privatization of public schools in the United States to date.

Nearly half the schools were assigned to Edison, which will oversee six schools here.. The rest were managed by a mix of for-profit and nonprofit entities. By 2008, six of the schools were returned to district control after lackluster results.

Student achievement improved throughout Philadelphia since the state takeover, but the gains were greater at district-run schools, according to two studies. Another study found that schools managed by for-profit companies, like Edison, outperformed district schools in math.

"Perhaps the most important conclusion to be drawn is that there is a great deal of variability in the operations and effectiveness of (privately)-operated schools," researchers said in the "Handbook of Research on School Choice." Consequently, education leaders "have little guidance for deciding whether to turn to private management (and) for choosing private managers."

Laura Marshall, 18, doesn't need a study to know that an educational management organization can work.
'Give it a chance'

She's testament to one of Detroit's experiments with the New York-based Institute for Student Achievement. In its pilot year, 2008-09, Osborn and Cody were transformed to smaller high schools. The model requires college prep curriculums, extending the school day and year, boosting parent involvement and continuous staff training.

"I just want people to give it a chance," said Marshall, who struggled at Central for two years before transferring to Osborn. "Before I started at Osborn, I was going to give up. I was going to drop out. ... I messed up my ninth-grade year and Osborn helped me make up for it (by offering more credits)."

At Osborn she received the one-on-one teacher attention she needed. Discipline was enforced. Violence, shooting dice and skipping were curbed.

McGhee oversaw the transformation at Osborn before leading another this year at Central.

His biggest task now is interviewing all the teachers and staff at Central to see whether they are good fit for the new culture.

Staff buy-in is vital to the success of the school, and some didn't embrace change at Osborn, he said. "I had a chance to pick my entire staff. You need that responsibility as an educational leader. My livelihood depends on it and the future and livelihood of our children depends on it."

— Marisa Schultz
Detroit News


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