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While the budget battle rages on in Lansing, a program that seeks to reform Michigan’s worst schools has managed to retain funding. Schools receiving the money ought to slash bureaucracy and channel it to where their problem lies: teacher recruitment and retention.

Michigan lawmakers last month approved $6 million in 2019-20 school year funding for the Michigan Department of Education’s three-year-old “partnership” program, which was formed following a botched attempt to close 38 of the state's lowest performing schools.

A progress report, conducted independently by Michigan State University, was released Monday and found the program's results are a mixed bag.

More: Michigan's worst schools see gains under collaboration effort with state

Schools implementing the partnership reform strategy show “modest” improvement in test scores and teacher retention, but across the board they all struggled with the same issue: human capital. 

While the reform strategy notes the importance of teachers, these challenges are “essentially unaddressed by the reform itself,” according to the report.

That's a problem.

In the partnership strategy, the state empowers school districts to diagnose their own shortfalls and set improvement goals. The state then holds the districts accountable to their 18-month and 36-month plans. The idea was for district leaders to reach out to community partners as they implemented turnaround plans. 

With this fairly hands-free approach, however, there's a chance the funds could be mismanaged.

The partnership program has grown from eight districts to include 30 districts serving 91 schools (both public and charter). Six of the eight first round of partnership districts are on track to meet their goals. And most of those schools used their money to develop their teachers — either through increasing incentives, bonuses, hiring or professional development. 

The Detroit Public Schools Community District saw the highest gains, with students scoring 0.2 points higher in math and 0.16 points higher in reading since the program was implemented.

DPSCD spent all of its money on teacher incentives.

Other partnership schools ought to take the lesson from DPSCD. And so should all other districts. 

“This is not a challenge faced only by partnership districts; it is a challenge facing Michigan as a state,” said Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Superintendent Michael Rice in a written response to the report.

If Michigan has a statewide teacher shortage, then we need to be encouraging more teachers to enter the profession — and stay. That includes more attention to teacher training programs and a closer focus on the caliber of recruits entering those programs. 

To address the teacher shortage in these struggling schools and throughout the state, the education department should encourage districts to direct funds to teacher incentives. That should include measures such as merit pay to raise wages for high-performing educators. 

As districts, such as Detroit, are spending more time and money on teacher preparation and development — as they should — they need more tools to encourage those teachers to stay. 

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