WHAT'S NEXT FOR FAILING DETROIT PUBLIC SCHOOLS
Detroit News -- November 20, 2005
by Doug Guthrie
Educators nationwide are watching as Michigan grapples with the first
schools that have failed at every level under the federal No Child Left
Six of 24 schools on a critical list identifying the state's most
troubled public institutions have failed to meet academic standards for
six straight years -- one year more than federal officials expected when
creating rules aimed at forcing the improvement of underperforming schools.
All six are public schools in Detroit, where some state officials fear
the least has been done to repair the problems.
"There is nothing in the federal law about what happens next," said
Diane Stark Rentner, deputy director of the Center on Education Policy,
a research group in Washington. "Do you try different approaches, or if
the law is mute, do you do nothing?"
State officials have reacted by sending teams of education auditors to
the six Detroit schools to find if the district did what it promised
last year when required to restructure. Reaching phase five meant
choosing at least one of several options: install new curriculum;
replace teachers and/or the principal; change how the school operates
and is governed; turn over management to another authority; or become a
"The question is, does the clock start over after you have restructured?
Our position in Michigan is no," said Yvonne Caamal Canul, director of
the Michigan Department of Education Office of School Improvement.
Michigan schools were among the first to arrive at this point because
the state was measuring academic performance before No Child Left Behind
was enacted in 2001.
Georgia, California, Kentucky, Maryland and North Carolina are in
similar situations, but the Center on Education Policy says Michigan
officials have used a unique strategy, pushing schools to continue
trying to improve by threatening to withhold funding -- up to $45,000
per school. No money has been withheld.
Michigan also was allowed to add another option to the list of choices.
The state created a cadre of trained coaches, mostly retired educators,
who are available to help districts. Seven schools on the critical list
planned to hire outsiders to help. None of the Detroit schools chose
Although the federal law allows a state takeover as a last resort,
Michigan officials have neither the money nor the manpower to accomplish
such a task. Instead, new rules being considered by the state Board of
Education could allow officials to force continually failing schools to
hire advisers from their coaching pool. Reports filed by the auditors
who started inspecting the Detroit schools this month will include
further action suggestions.
Proposals yield few results
Restructuring plans filed by schools from Albion, Benton Harbor, Flint,
Muskegon, Muskegon Heights and Taylor included lengthy descriptions of
multiple approaches and their reasons for choosing methods to fix
Grand Rapids Public Schools avoided the issue by closing a middle school
that failed a sixth time. A school can fail by not having enough
students proficient in core subjects, by having fewer than 95 percent of
students take the Michigan Educational Assessment Program (MEAP) test
and by low scores from students in specific groups, such as special
State officials balked when Detroit Public Schools turned in plans that
called for simply replacing the principals at 12 out of 14 of its
schools on the critical list. When the state threatened to withhold
federal funds, more detailed plans resulted. They outlined student and
teacher development and mentoring programs, use of study skill kits and
a call for more parental involvement.
Joseph Ruffin said he had no idea the Detroit school where his son
DeAngelo Jackson, 12, is a sixth-grader, was among the six worst in the
state. McMichael Middle School got several changes, including a new
name, McMichael Technological Academy, along with the inclusion of
kindergarten through eighth grade.
"There was talk about improvements, but I can say the classrooms I
observed are challenging ones," said Ruffin, who works as a Head Start
teaching aide. "His math teacher told me he has laptops for use by every
student, but he hasn't gotten them out for fear of what might happen to
MEAP scores last fall show seventh-graders at McMichael caught up with
the state's average. Reading also improved slightly but remains far
short of the statewide goal. Eighth grade math scores plummeted another
11 percent last year to just 22 percent proficiency. The state average
is 60 percent.
Deborah Hunter-Harville was assigned last year as the new principal. She
also is president-elect of the National Alliance of Black School Educators.
"Having younger children in the building has mellowed us out. The older
kids are caring about the younger kids because many of them are their
siblings," she said.
All students wear uniforms. Teachers write goals on chalkboards each
morning to keep students on task. After-school programs provide tutoring
in math and reading and chances to take classes in art and dance. Teams
of teachers are being formed to share ideas. More effort is being made
to reach and involve parents.
When state auditors arrived Friday, Hunter-Harville welcomed them.
"People need to come inside of these phase five and six schools and see
what we are doing. It's a lot more than just a change at principal," she
Critics: Feds unreasonable
Critics of No Child Left Behind have said it is impractical to expect
quick changes. Some experts say it takes up to six years to turn around
a failing school and up to a dozen to reverse districtwide problems.
There are 133 schools statewide involved in restructuring. In a report
released last week, the Center on Education Policy noted improvements in
test scores at 85 percent of those schools. A total of 113 have since
met federal progress goals and 26 did it for a second consecutive year,
allowing them to exit the restructuring process.
Still, the report warns real progress is slow and the largest reason for
dramatic improvements here may have been rule changes that made it
easier to meet goals.
Willow Run School officials and parents remain frustrated, having tried
nearly everything at their middle school that failed for five
consecutive years. Scores still narrowly missed federal standards last
year despite a $22 million investment in a new building. Half of the
teaching staff took early retirement and was replaced. New teachers were
hired and others stayed in the new building only if they supported the
philosophies of a new curriculum. Laptop computers were given to each
State officials removed Willow Run Middle School from the critical list
only because success appears to be imminent.
"Just because we leveled a school doesn't guarantee instant success,"
Willow Run Superintendent Ron Ciranna said. "It's a long process."
Six of Fawn Martin's 12 children already have outgrown Willow Run Middle
School, but the rest, she said, will benefit. "The kid mentality is that
my big brother skated so I can, too," Martin said.
"You change the environment in the classroom and beyond and it doesn't
matter what your big brother did. Expectations need to be raised all
around a school. That's a big social change and that doesn't happen