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Bad strategy to close bad schools

Shaun Black

Gov. Rick Snyder has tasked the state School Reform Office (SRO) with holding low-performing school districts and schools accountable for improving the quality of education.

Last week, the SRO announced plans to potentially close some of the lowest performing schools in Michigan at the end of the 2016-17 school year.

In the SRO’s statement, it indicated some schools in the bottom 5 percent (i.e., priority schools) would likely be closed, but the SRO did not provide any specifics of its closure plan. Currently, there are 184 schools on the priority schools list with 59 percent of the schools located in urban areas with majority African-American populations.

Natasha Baker, the reform officer of the SRO, said: “A starting point could be taking three years of data, closing schools that fell in the bottom 5 percent.” Therein lies the problem because Baker did not layout an objective, fair, or transparent process for potentially closing these low-performing schools.

While Baker’s statement clearly signals that the SRO’s objective is to close low-performing schools, the same governmental agency recently placed East Detroit Public Schools into state receivership, leaving us to wonder about the SRO’s methodology.

How does the SRO determine which schools to close and which ones to take over?

Will standardized test scores be the only factor in the school closing formula? Education research has shown the link between poverty and poor student achievement on standardized tests. For example, four schools in Flint are on the priority schools list. Is the SRO seriously considering closing Flint’s schools with everything the city and its children have endured with the water crisis and lead poisoning?

Education policies often have unintended consequences for those who the policy was not designed to impact. What are the potential unintended consequences if the SRO moves forward with this school closing plan in Pontiac, where 72 percent of the public schools within the city limits are on the priority list? What unintentional consequences could those potential school closings in Pontiac have on neighboring school districts in Auburn Hills, Bloomfield Hills, Waterford and West Bloomfield?

The bottom line is: the SRO’s strategy to close low-performing schools is contrary to education research on school turnarounds.

The important steps to turning around low performing school districts and schools are:

■The right types of principals (instructional leaders) need to be in place to oversee these turnarounds.

■Turnaround principals need a certain level of autonomy and support from district leaders, and must prioritize staffing.

■Successful turnarounds proactively engage the community to gain their support for the turnaround with a collaborative vision for the future.

Rather than close low performing schools, the SRO should:

■Provide additional support for principals in the form of strategic turnaround and principal effectiveness professional development.

■Train a cadre of school administrators to become effective turnaround principals in Michigan’s lowest performing schools.

■Provide additional funds for schools in the bottom 5 percent to provide wrap-around services for students living in poverty so they can to be successful in school.

Closing schools is a draconian measure which is not supported by the research or best practices. The SRO’s statement also reveals that the state is not genuinely interested in the educational outcomes of our least advantaged children, and it will essentially create institutional barriers between disadvantaged children and an equitable education in our state.

Shaun Black has a Ph.D. in educational leadership and policy studies from Wayne State University.