Plan to fix failing schools falls flat

Brandon L. Wright and Michael J. Petrilli

Michigan’s plan to fix its lowest performing schools is about as bright and clear as a winter day in Ann Arbor. As Michigan alumni, we both know that means neither bright nor clear.

The flawed strategy was recently submitted to Washington as part of Michigan’s obligations under the new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). Under that law, the state must identify and take action to fix schools with ultra-low achievement, as well as high schools with low graduation rates and any school that routinely produces weak results for particular groups, such as low-income, minority, or special education students.

The good news is that ESSA — unlike its heavy-handed predecessor, No Child Left Behind — is intentionally silent on what specific interventions Michigan must use for such schools. This flexibility allows for a variety of evidence-based approaches. The bad news is that the Great Lakes State appears poised to squander this critical opportunity.

Consider its proposed handling of the most persistently failing schools — places where previous turnaround efforts haven’t done any good. Michigan says it will partner with school districts in which such schools exists, and those districts must “complete a comprehensive needs assessment and comprehensive support and improvement,” “identify 3-5 benchmarks,” and “identify outcomes that will be met at the end of a three-year period.” Those are pretty words but also vague, unimaginative, and unlikely to turn around many failing schools.

Michigan leaders should go back to the drawing board and embrace three demonstrably impactful strategies: charter school expansion, a state-led “turnaround district,” and state-driven but district-based solutions, such as school receiverships and innovation zones. All of these satisfy ESSA’s requirements and have succeeded elsewhere.

Michigan already recognizes what great charter schools can do for needy kids, having one of the largest charter marketplaces in the country. It’s also a proven strategy for transforming students’ lives, especially in urban areas, wherein research has found that charter schools have produced more than a month of additional days of learning for all students, and lead to stronger performance for students of color and special education students, compared with traditional public schools. Those in Detroit charters, for example, see larger annual learning gains in math and science than their peers in Detroit Public Schools. Communities in Michigan with chronically low-performing schools should therefore use federal funds to replicate the state’s existing high-quality charters, as well as create new schools with strong leaders and teachers.

In a turnaround district, the state extricates struggling schools from the systems in which they operate and places them under the responsibility of a new statewide entity. Michigan tried such a model in 2011 when it created the Education Achievement Authority — but due in part to a public image beleaguered by allegations of corruption and mismanagement, it will be shut down this summer. Nevertheless, as evidenced by Louisiana’s program, turnaround districts — when done well — can be especially promising in districts that have clusters of low-performing schools. That one is the oldest such model in the country, dating to 2003, and has produced strongly positive effects, even while accounting for demographic changes as New Orleans recovered from Hurricane Katrina.

Finally, Michigan should initiate forceful district-based solutions. One example is “receiverships” — akin to an “educational bankruptcy” procedure — where the state temporarily shifts authority over individual schools to others in the community who have the knowhow, courage, and freedom to change them in fundamental ways. This has led to improved student growth and graduation rates in Massachusetts. Another promising approach is the “innovation zone,” in which districts keep control of low-performing schools but give them more resources and much greater autonomy. Memphis, for example, has found great success with this option.

Michigan children stuck in the state’s worst schools deserve a much greater sense of urgency than is visible in the proposed ESSA plan. It’s not too late for state policymakers to put their needs first.

Michael J. Petrilli and Brandon L. Wright are president and editorial director, respectively, of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.