Future of Schools

Scores of Michigan schools to be shuttered based on test scores they were told wouldn’t count

PHOTO: Alan Petersime
Dozens of Michigan schools could get some tough news Friday as school closures loom

More than 100 low-scoring Michigan schools — including dozens in Detroit — could start classes next month likely doomed to close in June.

In a move that is bound to shock parents and educators across the state, the School Reform Office is moving ahead with an aggressive plan to close every school in the state that posted rock-bottom test scores for the last three years — even though Michigan’s education department promised schools that last year’s test scores wouldn’t be held against them.

Closing so many schools might not be popular, said Dan LaDue, assistant director for accountability for the School Reform Office, which Gov. Rick Snyder took over last year in an effort to increase pressure on low-performing schools.

But he says too many Michigan schools aren’t doing their jobs.

“Anytime you talk about closure, that’s going to upset people,” LaDue said. “But we’re not here to make everybody happy. We’re here to hold adults responsible for the performance of students.”

Read our latest story about the school closure plan. And sign up for our weekly newsletter to get more Detroit school news. 

LaDue says his office plans to give notice this fall to every Michigan school — district and charter — that ranked in the bottom 5 percent on state exams in 2014, 2015, and 2016. The schools will have close their doors in June, with exceptions granted only in circumstances where closing a school would pose an “unreasonable hardship” to students, such as if the school is in a neighborhood without better alternatives.

That sweeping closure plan will come as a surprise to many schools: The Michigan Department of Education said it would not use the results of the 2015 M-STEP to mete out serious consequences to schools.

Michigan changed the exam it gives to students in 2015 when it replaced the longstanding MEAP exam with the M-STEP, which is aligned with tougher new Common Core standards. Because of the nature of the new test, the department committed in an agreement with the U.S. Department of Education, to hold off on penalizing schools for poor results until at least 2016.

That’s why the state education department did not release its annual top-to-bottom schools ranking in 2015.

But the School Reform Office, where LaDue works, is no longer a part of the Michigan Department of Education. Snyder signed a controversial order in 2015 that yanked the reform office out of the education department, which is overseen by the state superintendent and state Board of Education, and put it under his own direct authority. The move was a strong signal that he didn’t think the education department had been assertive enough about holding schools accountable for poor performance.

So while the education department promised not to penalize schools for their 2015 exam results, LaDue says the School Reform Office is required by state law to release an annual list of the state’s lowest-performing schools.

In the next couple of weeks — “before or after Sept. 1,” LaDue said — the SRO plans to release a list of schools whose 2015 test scores put them in the bottom 5 percent of state schools. The SRO plans to use the same methodology for the 2015 list that the state education department has used for school rankings in the past, despite the test changes.

The department plans to release a top-to-bottom ranking for 2016 later this fall based on exams that were given last spring. Then, LaDue says the School Reform Office will identify schools that were in the bottom 5 percent for three years in row: on the last year of the MEAP and the first two years of the M-STEP.

Every school on all three lists will get letters telling them to plan for closure in June. They’ll stay open only if the “unreasonable hardship” exception kicks in.

Exactly how many schools will get these letters is unclear. But there were more than 100 schools on the bottom-five list in 2014, the last time it was published (see that list here). More than 40 were in Detroit.

Natasha Baker, the reform office director, told the Free Press that the total number of schools closed will ultimately be “nowhere near 100 schools” but that schools that have been identified for improvement for many years should not remain open. Read our story about why officials now say they won’t close as many schools as they could. 

“I’ll be very blunt here,” LaDue said. “Most of these schools that we’re looking at have been identified for improvement not just … two or three times but 8, 9, 10, 15 times.”

The state could give these schools more time to try to improve, LaDue said. “But how many more kids are going to be allowed to go through that school and graduate and that diploma really doesn’t mean anything?”

Part of the reason for the rapid closure timeline is a new law that Snyder signed in June as part of the $617 million rescue package for the Detroit Public Schools district.

The new law requires the reform office to develop an A-F school grading system that will eventually be used to close schools. But until that system is in place, the law requires the reform office to close all Detroit schools — including both district-run and charter schools — that are on the bottom-five list for three years in a row, except for those where closure would cause an unreasonable hardship.

And if the School Reform Office has to close schools in Detroit, LaDue said, it sees no reason to stop at the city’s borders. “We want to be fair to all districts and all kids,” he said.

But even in Detroit, the SRO’s rapid timeline is bound to stun communities and educators who thought they would have more time to turn their schools around. They note that the new law wasn’t specific about which three years should be used to make closure decisions and assumed, based in part on the education department’s promise, that closures would wait until Michigan has three years of data from the same exam.

“In such an important decision as closing schools, I would think we’d want to develop a coherent accountability system and assess schools on that system over a period of time before making that decision,” said Veronica Conforme, who heads the Education Achievement Authority, a state recovery district that took over 15 of Detroit’s lowest-performing schools in 2012.

Most of the schools in the EAA were on bottom-five list in 2014, the last time the list was published, including some of Detroit’s most storied high schools such as Mumford and Pershing.

Conforme says she believes the changes she made when she took over the EAA two years ago will boost scores with a little more time. But she might not get the chance to prove that.

“I think we’ve implemented a lot of positive strategies that I think will bear fruit this year and into next year,” Conforme said. “But … turnaround takes a long time.”

Chalkbeat reached out to the U.S. Department of Education to ask if using 2015 data to close schools would violate the state’s agreement with the federal government. A spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Education said the agreement expired earlier this month as the agency continues to shift away from the old No Child Left Behind Act and move toward the nation’s new education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act.

The Michigan Department of Education did not respond to a request for comment last week, but John Austin, the state board of Education President, said he has concerns about the way the reform office is proceeding.

For one thing, he said, it’s not wise to close schools unless “we’re creating high quality alternatives.” For now, he said, “the alternatives being offered by charter schools are not consistently high quality.”

Second, Austin said he’d rather see schools get some help turning things around than see them closed down.

“The SRO’s approach to date has not brought resources and real assistance to educators in schools that would give them a shot at being successful with their students,” Austin said. “To talk about shutting them down before having had the right support is certainly not the way to proceed.”

Next up: Here’s why Michigan is unlikely to close all of its lowest-performing schools this year

recipe for success

Eva Moskowitz looks back at her turn away from district schools, as she plans for 100 schools of her own

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Eva Moskowitz speaks to students at the 2016 "Slam the Exam" rally.

Eva Moskowitz didn’t always aspire to be a champion of alternatives to the city’s public schools.

During an interview at a Chalkbeat breakfast event on Thursday, the high-profile — and often controversial — CEO of Success Academy Charter Schools explained her evolution from what she described as an “FDR Democrat” who believed the traditional school system was flawed but could be improved to an outspoken critic trying to lead an educational revolution from the outside.

Her transformation didn’t come from “reading Milton Friedman,” the free-market economist, she said. Instead, she described a gradual disillusionment with the traditional school system that began when she was a student at a Harlem elementary school, which she said was effectively “warehousing children,” and continued when she was a city councilwoman scrutinizing the city’s contract with the teachers union. (She claimed the union’s pushback against her contract probe made her feel like she was in one of the “Godfather” films.)

Success Academy is New York City’s largest charter school network, with 46 schools and 15,500 students. The network which mostly serves black and Hispanic children  has extremely high test scores, which critics argue are largely the result of intense test preparation and strict discipline policies that push out the hardest-to-serve students.

Moskowitz and her schools have been the target of criticism from Mayor Bill de Blasio, who made challenges to charter schools a tenet of his first campaign, and Moskowitz a particular target (he said she should not be “tolerated, enabled, supported”). She has fought back fiercely, staging rallies and protests and demanding that de Blasio provide the charter sector with space for its classrooms.

Her clash with City Hall is in marked contrast with that of Michael Mulgrew, president of the city teachers union, who two years ago explained to the audience at a similar Chalkbeat breakfast what it is like to work with an ally in City Hall.

Moskowitz laid out for her breakfast audience her aggressive expansion plans  which she said she intends to pursue despite de Blasio’s resistance. She estimates the charter sector will serve about 200,000 students in four years (out of the total 1.1 million public school students in New York City) and wants to expand Success Academy to reach 100 schools.

Moskowitz recently released a memoir, which is full of personal details about her history and explains the backstory of Success Academy. She remains a pugnacious advocate for her cause, continuing to take on the unions and the mayor, while arguing that parent choice is central to making schools more equitable.

Here are some takeaways from the event, which was held at the Roosevelt House in Manhattan.  

She decided early on that many district schools are failures.

Moskowitz attended a public elementary school in Harlem, where she said she and her brother were the only white students in the school. She described what she calls the “warehousing of children” and dubbed it “expensive babysitting.” When she attended Stuyvesant High School, she said, she had a French teacher who didn’t speak French and a physics teacher who was sometimes intoxicated.

As a teenager, she started helping Cambodian refugees find schools. In the neighborhoods they could afford, the schools were “God awful,” she said, while nicer schools were in neighborhoods out of their price range.

“It did stick with me that you were totally screwed if you didn’t live on the right side of the street,” Moskowitz said.  

She believes unions and their contracts are a big part of the problem.

Ninety percent of schools “are not working at the most basic level,” Moskowitz said, a dysfunction that she argued is partly due to the rules in teacher and principal contracts.

After becoming chairwoman of the City Council’s education committee in 2002, Moskowitz held hearings on every aspect of the school system including toilet paper. But her biggest showdown came when she decided to tackle the teachers union contract, she said.

“It is not a genteel sport when you take on the teachers union,” she said. “I had never felt like I was living a ‘Godfather’ movie before I took on the unions. It was a very scary undertaking.”

She envisions continued growth for the charter sector, but would not be pinned down on how large it would grow.

Though she has aggressive goals to expand Success, Moskowitz wouldn’t say what percentage of the city’s public schools should be charter schools. She called it a “hypothetical debate” and wouldn’t make a prediction for the future, saying she doesn’t have a “crystal ball.”

Parent choice is at the heart of her philosophy.

Moskowitz said parent choice is “fundamental” and the best bet for ensuring school qualify. Parents also are a bulwark, Moskowitz argued, to ensure  that charter schools — which are run by private boards — will be responsive to the public will.  

She also thinks charter schools should be held accountable for results.

Although charter schools are freed from some bureaucracy, they are highly regulated and do not operate in “some libertarian universe,” she said. She said she holds her own schools to account, believing that she should not increase the number of Success Academy schools unless all are high-quality.

She “urged caution” about trying to engineer diversity at charter schools.

Moskowitz thinks districts can “get the social engineering wrong” when they try to integrate schools by methods such as forced admission or busing. Instead, she argued, parents should be the engine that drives integration in charter schools through their ability to choose which schools their children attend.

The city should concentrate on integrating district schools, where admission to most elementary schools is based on the zones families live in, she said.

“I’m not sure we should put our energy into fixing charters on this front when they are already a much more open, accessible system than the zoned system,” Moskowitz said.

WRONG SCORES

Scoring glitch means thousands of Tennessee students got wrong TNReady score

PHOTO: Chalkbeat Photo Illustration

Just when it seemed that this year’s state testing had gone off with minimal hitches, news has emerged that thousands of exams were incorrectly scored.

About 9,400 students in 33 districts across Tennessee received incorrect scores after the testing vendor, Questar, used a scanning program that included an error. That includes Shelby County Schools in Memphis, where the problem affected just over a thousand students at 11 high schools, school board members confirmed on Friday.

An official with the state’s Achievement School District said he wasn’t aware of the issue, but the ASD is one of 33 districts affected, according to the state.

The errors were isolated to English I and II and Integrated Math II tests for high school students, according to an email to school board members.

Shante Avant, chairwoman for Shelby County’s board, said the errors are concerning, especially after the tumultuous rollout of TNReady in 2016.

“Our kids do have to be assessed so we know how best to support them. And there’s a heightened scrutiny with test scores. But when we’re not able to provide accurate information, it breeds mistrust,” she said.

Here are the Shelby County Schools affected:

The state said tests for students in grades three through eight were re-checked and no errors were detected. “All student score results for grade 3-8 are correct and final,” according to a state email to superintendents.

It’s unclear how much the scoring errors might have distorted district averages, which the state reported in late August. About 1,700 of the changed scores statewide affected whether or not a student passed the test. 

“I don’t know if 1,000 out of 10,000 students is going to significantly impact the district,” said Shelby County board member Chris Caldwell. “But we certainly want to make sure they come out as accurate. It’s especially important for the students.”

Several districts, including Shelby County Schools, chose not to include raw TN Ready scores in student report cards, meaning student grades wouldn’t have been affected by incorrect scores. But confusion remains for board members on how exactly this will impact students as well as teachers, who are evaluated based on their students’ exam scores, Caldwell said.

What is clear is that the scores could have implications for historically low-performing schools. This year’s scores were the second year of the state’s new test for high school students — and the state will use them to decide what happens to struggling schools under its new accountability plan to comply with federal law.  

While TNReady results for individual schools haven’t been released yet, district-level scores for high schoolers showed that few were on grade-level in Memphis school districts.

Questar was new to Tennessee test-making this year and was responsible for distributing and scoring the exams. Questar took over following a string of TNReady challenges in the test’s inaugural year. After the online platform failed and numerous delivery delays of printed testing materials, McQueen canceled testing in grades 3-8 and fired its previous test maker, Measurement Inc.

 “Questar takes responsibility for and apologizes for this scoring error,” Chieff Operating Officer Brad Baumgartner said in an email to the state. “We are putting in additional steps in our processes to prevent any future occurrence. We are in the process of producing revised reports and committed to doing so as quickly as possible.”

Here is the full list of district’s affected:

  • Achievement School District
  • Anderson County
  • Benton County
  • Bradley County
  • Bristol City
  • Carter County
  • Cocke County
  • Collierville City
  • Crockett County
  • Davidson County
  • Elizabethton City
  • Giles County
  • Hamilton County
  • Hardin County
  • Henry County
  • Huntingdon Special School District
  • Jackson-Madison County
  • Knox County
  • Lewis County
  • Lincoln County
  • Marshall County
  • Maryville City
  • Monroe County
  • Montgomery County
  • Obion County
  • Putnam County
  • Roane County
  • Rutherford County
  • Shelby County
  • Smith County
  • Sumner County
  • Union City
  • Weakley County

This story has been updated with comments from Shelby County Schools board chair Shante Avant and Questar. We have updated the story with a full list of districts affected.