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Michigan's worst schools see gains under collaboration effort with state

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

Detroit — Three years ago, Burns Elementary-Middle School was on the state's chopping block for closure because of its persistent rock-bottom test scores.

Today, it's a thriving, well-attended "model school" within the Detroit Public Schools Community District, where students posted double-digit proficiency increases on the last state assessment. Teachers are vying for jobs at the fully staffed school.

Nikolai Vitti, superintendent of Detroit Public Schools Community District, interacts with Burns Elementary students Janylah Mitchell, left, and Marlie Jones, both 6, in their math class last week.

Burns, known to educators in the past as a "low-performing school," has been re-branded as one of Michigan's partnership schools. In 2017, the state launched this school reform model to support three dozen of the lowest-performing schools across eight school districts.

Under the partnership model created by former state superintendent Brian Whiston, schools and districts get to set their own improvement plans but have access to staff and expertise from the Michigan Department of Education, the local intermediate school district and the community.

A report released Monday by researchers at Michigan State University looking at first-year results found the partnership district model is having several early successes but also some challenges.

Being "identified" as a partnership school initially negatively impacted student and teacher outcomes, according to researchers for the non-partisan Education Policy Innovation Collaborative, or EPIC, but after implementation, those outcomes improved substantially, especially in Detroit.

Teachers at partnership schools were less likely to exit the profession after the program was implemented — compared with teachers at other struggling schools — especially early-year teachers, said Katharine Strunk, co-author of the report and co-founder of EPIC.

"We find modest but potentially positive results of some of those efforts, most notably, gains in test scores ... and in teacher retention," the report says. "In addition, one benefit seems to be improved relationships between the districts and MDE, as well as collaboration between districts and the ISDs."

Cynthia Clayton, principal at Burns Elementary school, leads a thriving, well-attended "model school" within Detroit Public Schools Community District.

The report, which involved interviews with 3,000 educators from partnership districts during fall 2018, found partnership schools statewide made test score gains of 0.09 points in math and 0.10 points in reading between identification and implementation years.

At DPSCD partnership schools, the gains were higher: 0.20 points in math and 0.16 points in reading.

The partnership had no impact on SAT scores, on-time high school graduation or drop-out rates overall, the report found, but did decrease drop-out rates at DPSCD by 0.04% and increased the rate of students exiting the district by 0.03%.

The report also found some challenges.

•Teacher recruitment and retention are the greatest impediments to improvement, district leaders said. Finding high-quality talent — including both skill/capacity but also recruitment and retention — extends to principals and district leaders, according to the report.

•There was a variation in the quality of the help provided by MDE through its provided liaison, according to the educators surveyed. The liaison is an MDE employee tasked with acting as a concierge between the department and the individual districts. One district leader reported feeling supported by the liaison only when asking for assistance. In some districts, liaisons were unhelpful, the report says. 

One person surveyed said: "Our current liaison is more: 'You will do this. This is what needs to be done. Do it now.'... It’s more that top-down hammer approach, which is, as I understand it, very much against (Whiston's) idea of this partnership."

The report comes as Michigan lawmakers last month approved $6 million in funding for partnership schools for the 2019-20 school year but had debated eliminating the funding altogether as the program had grown to include 30 districts and 91 traditional public and charter schools.

Most districts used the money to support teachers, either through professional development, bonuses or hiring, or for literacy and math coaches. DPSCD used all of its money for teacher incentives, including bonus and retention payments to find and keep qualified teachers in front of children, said Nikolai Vitti, DPSCD's superintendent.

State Board president Casandra Ulbrich said districts in the program have requested more money than has been appropriated to support turnaround efforts. About $10.4 million was sought in 2017-18, and $20.3 million was sought in 2018-19. Lawmakers awarded $6 million and $7 million respectively.

"I know there are a lot of needs," Ulbrich said. "A lot of schools apply for those funds and don’t get what they ask for. There is probably a need for additional money for this program."

Under the partnership model created by former state superintendent Brian Whiston, schools and districts get to set their own improvement plans but have access to staff and expertise from the Michigan Department of Education, the local intermediate school district and the community.

An about-face for Michigan education

The goal of the partnership program is to create sustainability for schools and districts through partnerships and have them released from the program after goals are met.

It's an about-face from the state's prior method of dealing with low-performing schools pre-2017, when state law allowed for the forced closure of a school if it ranked in the bottom 5% for academic performance for multiple years in a row.

All partnership schools and districts are required to set 18- and 36-month goals to improve academics and other factors in their schools. 

Schools that do meet goals after 36 months can reconfigure with principals or other school leaders being removed or other options. 

The goal of the partnership model has been to avoid school closures, said Bill Pearson, who oversees partnership districts for MDE. Four schools have been removed from the partnership list but only after the decision to close was made locally, not by the state. The state still has the authority to close schools, but this model is designed to avoid that drastic measure.

Of the eight districts in the first round of the program, seven are "on-track" after 18-months for meeting goals. They are: DPSCD, Eastpointe Community Schools, Kalamazoo Public Schools, Muskegon Heights Public School Academy System, Pontiac Public Schools, Saginaw Public Schools and River Rouge Public Schools.

At Burns, the principal was replaced, teaching staff was reassessed, monitoring was increased and expectations were raised for both adults and students under the model.

Vitti said the accountability designation acted as a lever for change when he arrived in 2017 and provided a sense of urgency in his district, which today — three years into the program — has 54 of the district's 100 schools in the partnership program.

"There is no mystery in raising student achievement: It’s not the kids. It’s the adults, and the way they have worked to support these children," Vitti said. "When we get human capital right and give them the tools they need, you get results."

Another factor in the district's success in the program might be the attention it is getting from MDE.

After the list of partnership schools at DPSCD grew to 54 schools in 2018, MDE officials opened a special unit inside Cadillac Place in Detroit in January — directly across the street from Vitti and his central office staff — and posted four people who focus on the district with an emphasis on special education and career technical education.

"The whole purpose behind that office is to be more helpful and focused and provide assistance there rather than from Lansing," Pearson said. "Detroit has really done a good job putting the systems in place that will help them be successful to increase student achievement. They are doing the things that need to be done."

Bridgeport Spaulding Community Schools is "off-track with progress" and has amended its plan.

Bridgeport Spaulding, which has about 1,500 students, was behind at both its 18-month review in 2018 and 24-month goal review in August. Among its goals was to increase students' performance in math and reading at its elementary school. 

"We had made improvements in multiple areas, but not enough to be on track with progress," said Mark Whelton, superintendent of Bridgeport Spaulding. "Our goals are fairly aggressive. They fit what we want to do here in Bridgeport Spaulding, which is increase academic performance and enhance our systems so we are functioning at a high level."

Whelton, who came into the district in July 2018, a year after the partnership agreement began, said he is working closely with MDE and an appointed liaison for his district.

Whelton says his liaison walks the schools' hallways with him, and they speak every week to work out challenges. 

"I walk hand in hand with her as we reset the district for these systems," Whelton said. 

"In the three years we were involved with this, we've gone from not making much progress to jumping two levels in the systems work. That is directly reflected in the work we've done with the department of education," Whelton said. "When we talk partnership, the bottom line is it actually is a partnership."

In the past, it was a top-down approach in which the state closed schools and did not help students, staff or the community, Whelton said.

"It's carrots vs. hammers," Whelton said. "Threats of closure and threats of takeover, they produce a lot of hype and anxiety. It changes whether teachers even want to work in your district."

Paul Schummer is the sole partnership agreement liaison or PAL for multiple districts, including Ecorse, Flint, Wayne-Westland and a Detroit charter school.

Schummer, a retired principal who works out of MDE's Detroit office, said being there puts him much closer to the districts.

"Being able to work out of the Detroit office has been a big boon because the districts are close, one is virtually a few blocks away," Schummer said. "We usually go to them in case it's a barrier."

Schummer said his job is to support districts in their turnaround plans and connect them to services they can use to make their goals. Sometimes, it's just talking out problems and making suggestions with someone who has "been there," he said.

"We work to eliminate barriers. We are neutral facilitators, thought partners," Schummer said of his work as a PAL. "I was lucky enough to be part of a couple of successful turnaround efforts so this seemed to be pretty good training for this job, helping other schools."

MDE responds to EPIC report 

The partnership district was the creation of Whiston, who died in 2018. He also asked the MSU research team for an independent evaluation of the system every year for three years.

Vitti, Whelton and several other educators credited Whiston for "having the courage" to tell the state it must stop closing schools and instead create a system of accountability and support.

MDE officials issued a response to EPIC's report, saying it was encouraged to see modest improvements in test scores, positive impacts on teacher retention and evidence of improved relationships between MDE and the districts and between the districts and the ISDs.

"It is critical that the various layers of the system work together and are aligned instead of working in opposition," MDE's statement said. "Previous reform efforts had often created negative relationships between MDE and districts, and sometimes created silos or competing approaches."

MDE acknowledged differences in implementation by districts, saying the partnership district work was impacted by the fact that "we were building the model while we were rolling it out." Some districts and schools had 60 days to create a plan.

Going forward, MDE officials said they will continue to refine the role of the liaison, content and structure of partnership district plans as well as expectations.

MDE says it has also strengthened training and cross-office work in the program "so that we speak with one voice and liaisons have the tools necessary for success."

As it approaches another round of identification in the next two years, MDE officials say they want to have a standardized process for onboarding districts and helping them develop plans.

Future of partnership schools

Most of the first round of schools and districts in the partnership program are expected to have their final review in the summer, Pearson said. The goal is to release the schools from the partnership.

Schools and districts in rounds two and three will have their 18-month reviews in 2020 and their final evaluations in 2021.

Pearson said MDE needs to determine its process for having a fourth round of schools and which districts would qualify.

Strunk of MSU said short-term accomplishments found in the first year of the program could fade with time, particularly if efforts are either not sustained or are hampered by new policies that replace or even conflict with districts’ plans.

"Partnership schools did not fall behind overnight, nor did the conditions of poverty," the report says.

Cynthia Clayton is the principal at Burns, a former Education Achievement Authority school that had two teachers on the roster when the school returned to DPSCD. Clayton has increased the number of teachers to 25.

Since becoming a partnership school, Burns has developed a partnership with Wayne State University to send students for in-classroom internships and with City Year, which sends its members to work with students on math and reading.

Clayton said last school year, Burns had no chronic teacher absences, which means outside sick days, teachers showed up every day.

"I think a lot of that has to do with just providing an environment that is very supportive," Clayton said. "Just making sure they are appreciated and providing consistency with the students."

Ultimately, Whelton with Bridgeport-Spaulding said he is looking forward to exiting the partnership program.

"I am excited for the end of this. Sometimes when you have a label, it's not fun to have that label," Whelton said. "It's going to be exciting to say we met our goals. And we aren’t quitting there. It’s the beginning of the renaissance."