Considering the State's Bottom 5% List


A few weeks ago the State Reform Office (SRO), as required by June’s legislation, released the list of the bottom 5% performing schools statewide from the 2014-15 school year. The 2015-16 list is scheduled for release in December, and depending on who you listen to, closures could be automatically triggered for those schools that failed the past three years. After looking closely at the SRO’s list, we came away with seven observations. Unfortunately, it’s hard to find any silver lining.


  1. For Detroit families, the education system remains in crisis. Altogether, 71 schools serving over 35,000 Detroit students appeared on last week’s bottom 5% list, serving roughly one in three Detroit students in 2015. And keep in mind, the challenges extend well beyond the bottom, as an additional 80 schools earned a ranking between 5th and 20th-percentile on the state’s 2014 list (the state did not release the full list for 2015). Three quarters of Detroit’s schools perform in the bottom 20% in the state. This news comes on the heels of 2016 M-Step results, which showed a substantial year-over-year decline in citywide 3rd grade reading proficiency, from 16% to 9%.  


For Detroit families, a stark reality remains: A very small group of schools are performing at a high level, many hover around average, and the large majority are struggling. Something is clearly broken. It’s not the kids and families, nor is it just an isolated handful of schools. This new round of data makes clear that a comprehensive solution is needed if our schools are to deliver the results that Detroit families deserve, and that our city and state need.


  1. The new Detroit Community School District Board (DCSD, formerly DPS) will have to move aggressively. The former DPS is the most troubled district on the list, by a large margin. Without question, these academic results are the responsibility of the state and its recent management of DPS, but they’ll soon be the responsibility of the locally governed Detroit Community School District. The 2015 bottom 5% list included 47 DPS schools, half the district. The list also included 13 of the 14 schools currently governed by the Education Achievement Authority (EAA), which will soon be transferred back to the district.


When new school board members take their seats and look toward the 2017 school year, they’ll likely be governing a district with around 30,000 students enrolled in Priority Schools. If the DCSD Priority Schools were a district it would be the second largest in the state, second only to the DCSD and slightly larger than Utica Community Schools. It’s a deep hole.


There will be easy changes available like adjusting bell schedules and implementing a balanced calendar that have proven beneficial to students elsewhere. Unfortunately, most other reforms will be more contentious and will take time. The Board will have to move quickly to set the district on a new course, and should look to the playbooks of other urban districts around the country that have turned things around.


  1. Is the charter sector really ready to lead? Last week, the Michigan Association of Public School Academies (MAPSA) put out a press release promising to lead on accountability. “We expect charter school authorizers to continue to hold their charter schools to higher standards,” proclaimed Dan Quisenberry, MAPSA’s CEO. That is great news. Historically, too many authorizers use DPS’ performance as their standard, by most measures too low a bar. All Detroit schools would benefit from a strong charter sector, and in fighting against much-needed legislative updates to the authorizing process, the charter lobby promised to do a better job self-policing. The opportunity to look forward and lead is clearly available. We recommend starting with the lowest performing schools and operators.


Thirteen charter schools serving Detroit kids ranked in the bottom 5% in 2015, including five suburban-based charters that depend heavily on Detroit enrollment. Some should close, and for others, we hope authorizers put pressure on boards to consider changes. They can start with two prominent charter operators with track records of low performance: Leona Group and K12 Inc.


For The Leona Group, Academy for Business and Technology (EMU) joins Cesar Chavez Academy Elementary (SVSU), Mildred Wells Preparatory Academy (Bay Mills), and Saginaw Preparatory Academy (SVSU) as Priority Schools from previous years. Additionally, Allen Academy (Ferris) was managed by Leona until it closed earlier this summer. Leona remains Detroit's second largest charter school operator. The state’s top authorizers, Central Michigan University (CMU) and Grand Valley State University (GVSU), stopped doing business with Leona long ago, but several other university authorizers continue to work with them. We hope their trustees ask them why.


Michigan Virtual Charter Academy (MVCA) also appeared on the bottom 5% list. MVCA is authorized by GVSU and operated by K12 Inc., the largest for-profit operator in the country. This is the same K12 Inc. that has been under attack from within the charter movement, and finds itself at the center of a major lawsuit in California. As a cyber school operator that profits off of outdated funding and accountability laws, K12 Inc. surely sees plenty of green grass in Michigan. Considering GVSU’s strong track record, we assume K12 Inc. is getting a close review.


  1. A: The legal battle around closing schools is the predictable result of divisive, shortsighted legislating. The spirited reactions to the School Reform Office’s (SRO) mention of closures was predictable. Some are arguing against the state’s authority to close schools, while others demand that the state close all priority schools. And law firms are cashing in trying to decipher what House Republicans meant in their hastily written bills last June. Either way, no one should be surprised that the debate continues to rage after the Legislature chose to advance hyper-partisan House language over the bipartisan Senate package. The bickering will almost certainly continue.


B: Some schools should close, BUT closing schools alone won’t solve the problems. All the yelling aside, we know that Detroit has too many schools, spreading resources thin and forcing endless competition for enrollment. We also know that too many schools are under-performing, failing to deliver the quality of education every child deserves. If the majority of schools were producing stellar results, than we might be able to deal with the long list of inefficiencies. The reality being what it is, low performance and too many schools, the need to close and consolidate some schools is clear.


That said, there is no evidence that closing schools alone will solve Detroit’s education challenges, especially if done without significant input from the community. Between 2009-2015, over 150 Detroit schools were closed, including nearly 100 DPS schools closed by state-appointed emergency managers. Many were academically failing. Nearly all were done without meaningful input. Let that sink in. In six years, 150 Detroit schools were closed. It hasn’t improved outcomes.


Still, closure advocates point to cities like NYC and D.C. as evidence that closures benefit kids. Of course those cities didn’t just close schools-- they created comprehensive plans that included citywide school improvement and talent investments, high quality opening strategies, and choice strategies that embraced enrollment and transportation systems along with neighborhood planning. While the researchers make this clear, the closure advocates tend to leave it out.


Both cities also vested authority in the Mayor’s Office or other locally based agencies (D.C. Public Charter Board) that could work directly with schools, families and neighborhoods as part of the civic infrastructure. These agencies are accessible and accountable to local families and voters. So, for instance, when you think someone is stealing money from your child’s school, you don’t have to wait for a federal investigation. Or when a school closes two weeks before classes start, families don’t have to drive 350 miles to talk with the authorizer or retrieve school records.


While closures have to be part of the equation here, it should only be part of the equation. The open question is how, or maybe who, does the rest of the critical work? Again, the Legislature reaffirmed the divisions in Detroit’s education system, and when it comes to responsibility, created far more questions than answers.


  1. With or without closures, time to rethink special education. We already know that Detroit’s education system does a poor job supporting students with special needs. As the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren recommended last year, Detroit families desperately need greater coordination and consolidation of special education services across school sectors.


That work should begin now, as half of the low-performing schools named last week by the state have special education enrollment rates over 15%. Several schools, including six high schools, consider at least one in four students with special needs, with the three schools on Cody’s campus registering special education rates of 46%, 30% and 30%.


When schools close, we know all families need some level of support, but families of children with special needs are typically in need of a higher level of support, and more transparent information about which remaining schools can and will serve their child. Many of these families have already moved around numerous times due to the inability of schools to properly meet specific needs. For students with special needs, school closures will only amplify the many systemic challenges already present in Detroit, unless they are accompanied with bigger systemic solutions.


  1. Going beyond performance, Detroit increasingly has an equity problem. During the legislative process, we often pointed out that many of Detroit’s top charters and DPS schools are located in downtown or midtown away from the neighborhoods where most Detroiters live.  Others are magnet schools with admissions requirements and/or transportation limitations. The opposite can be said of the city’s low performing priority schools. The Detroit schools in the bottom 5% are almost entirely neighborhood schools, creating a wall around the city’s core (See a map of the bottom 5% here).


In Detroit, school location often drives the commuting distance for students (and keep in mind, most Detroit schools do not offer transportation and a huge percentage of Detroiters don’t have cars). Schools operating in neighborhoods largely draw neighborhood kids. Schools operating downtown largely draw kids from around the city and suburbs. This rule applies for charters and district schools. It’s no surprise that the lowest performing schools are serving students closest to their homes. Among the K-8 schools on the bottom 5% list, the average distance traveled to school is 1.9 miles. For the remainder of K-8 schools, the average is 3.2 miles, and for the K-8 schools that have traditionally performed near the top half of the state rankings, the average is 5.1 miles. For high schools, the same phenomenon.  The average commute distance for schools in the bottom 5% is 3.2 miles, compared to 5.5 for the high schools that avoided the list, and 6.3 miles for the top schools.


In Detroit, average miles traveled is a great predictor of school performance. There are exceptions, but not many. Our education system clearly has a performance problem. Increasingly, it also has an equity problem.


  1. Which brings us to the last observation, poverty matters. Last month, the University of Michigan’s Susan Dynarski added more evidence to an already deep research pool about the United State’s unequal education system. Her analysis identified “persistently disadvantaged” students who have been eligible for free or reduced lunch every year since kindergarten.  


While we don’t have the persistently disadvantaged data by individual school, we can see the numbers of students by school who were eligible for free lunch in 2015 (students whose household income for a family of four was under $32,000), and the concentration of these students in Detroit’s lowest performing schools is unparalleled. Of the 71 Detroit schools on the state’s bottom 5%, 63 have free lunch rates above 75%. And nine schools have free lunch rates above 90%. Consider that. In nearly every low performing Detroit school, DPS, EAA or charter, 3 out of every 4 students and in some cases 9 out of 10 students, is coming from a household trying to manage through the daily challenges of poverty.


Certainly poverty cannot be an excuse for schools failing to deliver results, but the concentration of poverty in Detroit’s lowest performing schools can’t be dismissed either. It is clear that the enormous economic hurdles thrown at Detroit children and families have a deep impact on their learning, beginning with tragic rates of absenteism, and impact the educators and schools that serve them. Again, there are exceptions, but this feels more like the rule. Call it “hardship,” the term used in the recent legislation. Call it a bad accountability system, as the Mackinac Center did a few years ago.  Whatever you call it, this is the reality of being a school in Detroit, and must be part of the conversation.