The majority of Michigan’s most struggling schools appear to be improving quickly enough to avoid potentially serious consequences, including closure.
The latest standardized test results brought welcome news for education officials who backed a turnaround program for schools performing in the bottom 5% statewide. Two years ago, the state threatened to shut down dozens of these schools, then reversed course, giving them additional funds — and three years — to improve.
“It is much easier to simply ‘bring the hammer down’ than it is to dive in and do the hard work,” said Casandra Ulbrich, a Democrat and president of the State Board of Education. “But, in the end, this is much more productive for educators and students.”
High-profile school turnaround efforts have produced decidedly mixed results nationally. An Obama-era federal program that sent $7 billion to struggling schools helped in some places, but didn’t make a difference in many others. Meanwhile, New York City’s Renewal turnaround effort cost $773 million and yielded disappointing results before it was canceled this year.
Michigan spent just $6 million last year to provide extra help to 102 schools in 29 districts. But officials say there are early signs that the extra money — combined with help from the state to create an improvement plan — appear to be helping schools at risk of closure.
Of the eight school districts that have reached the halfway point in their improvement plans with the state, six are on track, state officials said. Those districts account for almost all of the schools that were threatened with closure two years ago. Three schools in the the Bridgeport-Spaulding Community School District and the Saginaw city district were not on track after 18 months.
All of the turnaround schools still perform below the state average, but they appear to be largely on pace to meet the benchmarks laid out by the state.
“We’re beginning to see some improvements,” said Gloria Chapman, assistant director for the state’s Office of Partnership Districts. “We still have work to do, obviously, but it is a step in the right direction.”
There are no plans in place to add more schools to the list, Ulbrich said.
The state reviews the districts’ progress halfway through turnaround plans. Chapman declined to say whether districts that haven’t hit the halfway point are on track.
The latest round of state test scores, which were released by the state last month, offers some evidence that most of the state’s most troubled schools are improving.
Chapman highlighted a 14-point rise in sixth-grade reading scores at David Ellis Academy, a Detroit charter school that hasn’t yet undergone a midway review.
Where data was available, the schools showed improvement on the whole. In math and English across all grade levels, they showed progress on 72 percent of the tests compared with last year. But data was not available in most cases because so few students passed the test. The state does not publish test results when the pass rate is so low that individual students could be identified.
It is not clear what will happen to schools that don’t hit the state’s benchmarks in three years.
Their contracts leave open the possibility that they could be closed. But the department has declined to clarify amid the arrival of a new state superintendent.
Chapman declined to comment on consequences for schools that don’t meet state benchmarks.
“The contract includes a ‘next level of accountability’ for schools,” Ulbrich said. “This includes a range of options, but I am hopeful that we will see progress among all of the schools.”
Scroll down to see test results for the state’s most struggling schools.