Cook: Frontline experts able to advise on schools

Steven Cook

When determining how to address issues like student testing or teacher evaluation, the Michigan Education Association believes asking the experts on the front lines for their insight is the right approach for policymakers.

So, when it comes to tackling the problem of low-performing schools, it stands to reason that asking about the problem would be a logical first step. That’s the theory behind “educational audits,” an existing tool in Michigan that can help struggling schools succeed in their mission for students.

If we are serious about improving low-performing public schools, we must first identify the problems in individual buildings that contribute to low student achievement. A few years ago, the state Department of Education created a program to do just that. The “Comprehensive School Audit Report,” commonly known as an “educational audit,” was developed to examine and evaluate all variables in a school building that could contribute to low performance.

Although finances are not part of the audit, the concept of an educational audit is based on experience with financial audits, which uncover issues and problems that were previously undetected. Initially developed as part of Michigan’s application for federal “Race To The Top” grants, educational audits were shelved when Michigan was not awarded one of the grants.

Here’s how it works: A team of experts independent of the school conducts the audit. The team could consist of education consultants and staff from the Intermediate School District and local community college, as well as teachers and administrators from other school districts. Team members have the educational expertise and understanding of factors that contribute to a successful, high-performing school and, not being employed by the district, they are able to make critical assessments of what works and what doesn’t.

The team begins its work by spending three days in the building, visiting classrooms, talking to parents, teachers, students, support staff and administrators. Typically, the audit focuses on the staff and governance of the school, the curriculum, the students learning conditions, student assessments and professional development for the teachers.

Once the audit is concluded, the team reconvenes and issues recommendations for improvement based on the problems they have identified. The team returns later to see if those problems have been addressed and if building improvements are reflected in higher student achievement.

Educational audits are targeted to school buildings as opposed to districts. A building-by-building approach is more effective as individual buildings often have their own culture and distinct practices that contribute to their performance.

Changing the conversation about the persistent and intractable problem of Michigan’s lowest performing schools must be a top priority on the education reform agenda. The most recent attempt to turn around low-performing schools, the Educational Achievement Authority (EAA), has been a dismal failure. The EAA in Detroit Public Schools has not only failed to achieve positive results, we recently learned it is a breeding ground for corruption.

Unlike EAA, educational audits offer a path to improvement that does not include a state takeover of the school from the local community.

Following the successful enactment of improvements to the teacher and administrative evaluation process, these audits would continue to advance a comprehensive system of our recent improvement of educational evaluation.

While those with expertise in the field of education warned policymakers that the EAA approach to improved student achievement was flawed, the concept of educational audits is widely supported by professional educators. Now is the time to revive the program and institute real education reform that will produce real results.

Labor Voices

Labor Voices columns are written on a rotating basis by United Auto Workers President Dennis Williams, Teamsters President James Hoffa, Michigan AFL-CIO President Ron Bieber and Michigan Education Association President Steven Cook.