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Labor Voices: Closing schools would cause harm

Steven Cook

Closing a neighborhood school can be devastating for students, families and communities. And what does it solve? Shutting down schools does nothing to address complex problems — a truth conveniently ignored by proponents of school choice who push monetizing public education as a magic bullet.

In reality, all of the “failing” schools identified by the state School Reform Office exist in high-poverty communities. That is no coincidence — but rather could have been predicted. Using standardized test scores as the sole determinant of school performance guarantees that low-income communities will be targeted for punitive measures.

State Sen. Phil Pavlov, R-St. Clair, recently introduced legislation to repeal the law creating the SRO. Pavlov, chair of the Senate Education Committee, called the law “deeply flawed,” stating, “In the six years the law has existed, it has produced more questions than answers and more controversy than solutions.”

Many school leaders were angered to learn that parents received letters from the SRO announcing their children’s schools were slated for closure — without first alerting the district about the notices. Kalamazoo Public Schools Superintendent Mike Rice called it “disruptive to our students and families.”

The next step for the SRO is site visits at schools on the closure list. “It seems a little backward, charitably, to make a determination about school closure and then do a site visit,” said Rice.

Closing schools without finding out why those schools are struggling is not a viable long-term strategy. If we are serious about improving low-performing schools, we must first identify problems and then commit to solutions.

Why don’t we examine the needs of the 38 schools targeted by the SRO for “academic failure” and invest the resources to help them better serve students?

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 all variables in a school building that could contribute to low performance. But the concept was shelved when Michigan didn’t receive federal funding for implementation.

Here’s how it works: A team of independent experts conducts the audit. Team members have educational expertise and understanding of factors that contribute to a successful, high-performing school. However, the “local experts” — teachers and support professionals on the front lines — should have significant input into the audit. They know what resources are most needed — adequate technology, books, paper, paint, furniture, afterschool programs, parental involvement, pull-out programs for struggling students — to make that building successful.

The team visits classrooms and talks to parents, teachers, students, support staff and administrators. They focus on governance, curriculum, student learning conditions, student assessments and professional development for teachers.

Once the audit is concluded, the team issues recommendations for improvement. The team returns later to see if problems have been addressed and if those measures resulted in higher student achievement.

The most recent attempt to turn around low-performing public schools, the Educational Achievement Authority, has been a dismal failure. Aligned with new Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ dream of turning Detroit schools into for-profit charters, the EAA not only failed to improve achievement (eight of the 38 schools on the SRO closure list are EAA schools), it became a breeding ground for criminal corruption. The SRO’s “test and punish” approach follows a similar path toward privatization and monetization of schools — and will similarly fail to improve results.

The concept of educational audits applies simple logic that says we need to determine what schools in struggling communities need to succeed. 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.