As Chatfield probe continues, Nessel urges reforms to dark money in politics

Column: Don’t punish schools getting results

Ben DeGrow

The question of what to do about Michigan’s chronically failing schools has returned to the limelight. It remains a challenge that demands thoughtful action. Unfortunately, the state’s current approach is out of balance.

Unlike previous years, the School Reform Office’s announcement last week of the state’s lowest-ranked schools has captured attention. State officials have signaled strong intent to close schools that have spent three straight years in the bottom 5 percent of academic performance. Of the 38 “identified for the next level of accountability,” 16 are in Detroit.

Two charter schools are subject to automatic closure in 2017, a smaller number than authorizers shut down on their own last year. (A third charter has already closed.) No Michigan district public school has ever been closed for poor performance, though that’s likely to change. If a school can’t be shut down because it might cause “unreasonable hardship,” the state school reform office could order most of its staff replaced, or reorganize it as a charter school.

Concerns are high because the process of intervening in troubled schools has not been especially clear or predictable. Earlier this month Senate Education Committee chairman Phil Pavlov, R-St. Clair, proposed scrapping the state’s failing schools law and starting over. Declarations of support came from school officials and reform groups alike. Finding a consensus solution may not be easy, but the Legislature should start by improving the method for ranking schools.

The Mackinac Center issues its annual Context and Performance Report Card to highlight how the state’s Top-to-Bottom Rankings reflect student poverty more than they measure school quality.

Using multiple years of test data, we adjust each school’s raw performance based on the percentage of students receiving free lunch assistance. This approach rewards schools that surpass what might be expected of them, given their student demographics. (Education observers have long noted that low family income and poor academic performance tend to go together.)

The center recently released the latest edition of the report card to examine the performance of the state’s public high schools. Each list of high schools has been topped by Star International Academy, a Dearborn Heights charter school where 9 out of 10 students are eligible for free and reduced lunch. A variety of schools from urban charters to rural district schools earned high acclaim in our rankings. Many offer examples of educators doing heroic work to achieve progress in high-poverty environments.

In a system largely funded by state tax dollars, the option to shut down schools that consistently underperform must remain on the table. But action ought to be directed at the schools that are most shortchanging those enrolled, and the door opened to better alternatives.

In the Mackinac Center’s ratings, Detroit Public Schools’ Thirkell Elementary twice has earned a spot in the top 1 percent of all Michigan public elementary and middle schools. But Thirkell is one of the 38 schools on the state’s chopping block. It’s clearly more deserving of being spared than many others, given its record of beating the odds. Thirkell’s case is an outlier, but several others on the list are doing significantly better than the state’s rankings would indicate.

Many schools indeed are failing. Closing most or all of them at the end of this school year and offering all the affected students better options for 2017-18 would require a tremendous undertaking. Officials should bring humility to the challenges that accompany closure or major turnaround efforts. For the schools genuinely falling short, hold a conversation with parents, listen to their concerns and help them find better alternatives.

Any rewrite of the state’s failing-schools law should focus on creating a robust, transparent system that adequately uses both high academic standards and growth to hold schools to account.

Ben DeGrow is director of education policy for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.