Michigan May Feel Full Force Of Federal Law

By Bess Keller — February 11, 2004 7 min read
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Michigan may well have a distinction no other state wants: more than 200 schools that have been in academic trouble so long they are headed for the most sweeping remedies now required under federal law.

Facing Consequences

The federal No Child Left Behind Act mandates the following actions for states
and school districts that receive Title I funds and don’t make “adequate
yearly progress,” or AYP.

1. Schools that fail to meet AYP for two consecutive years must be given technical assistance and offer public school choice to their students (unless prohibited by state law).

2. Schools that fail to meet AYP for three consecutive years must offer students from low-income families the opportunity to receive instruction from a supplemental-services provider of their choice.

3. Schools that fail to meet AYP for four consecutive years must take one or more “corrective actions” that include: replacing school staff; implementing a new curriculum; decreasing management authority at the school; appointing an outside expert to advise the school; extending the school day or year; or changing the school’s internal organizational structure (plus continue Nos. 1 and 2 above).

4. Schools that fail to meet AYP for five consecutive years must be “restructured.” Such restructuring must consist of one or more of the following actions: reopening as a charter school; replacing all or most school staff; taking over school operations by the state (if permitted under state
law) or a private company; or undertaking other “major restructuring” of school governance (plus corrective actions in Nos. 1 to 3 above).

SOURCE: Education Commission of the States and Education Week

To be precise, 112 Michigan schools have failed to meet the “adequate yearly progress” requirements under the No Child Left Behind Act for five years, and must plan for changes next school year that include reopening as charter schools or under private management, state takeover, or replacing all or most of their staffs.

Although the AYP requirements were enacted just over two years ago—when President Bush signed the No Child Left Behind law reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act—the law holds schools accountable for subpar performance in prior years if state testing was already in place.

If the Michigan schools do not meet progress requirements on this winter’s state tests, the plans must go into effect by the next school year. Michigan has 108 other schools that have failed to meet test-score benchmarks for four years, and could be in a similar spot next year.

“It’s a huge capacity issue,” said Patricia L. Sullivan, a deputy executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, referring to the resources that would enable schools to make drastic—and successful—changes in less than a year. “And there will be more schools at that point next year.”

National figures on the number of schools that have reached the different rungs on the ladder of federal consequence are not kept by the U.S. Department of Education or any other organization. But those familiar with the law’s impact generally believe that Michigan has the highest number of schools facing the federal law’s direst consequences.

Part of the reason, experts say, is that Michigan is one of only about 15 states that were ready to start the five-year clock because they had test scores back to 1997.

In Pennsylvania, another state that has a full complement of scores, 130 schools, all in Philadelphia, have reached the stage where they must plan for restructuring next year, but only 11 follow them on the next rung down. Many of Philadelphia’s schools, moreover, have already been restructured.

‘Alternative Governance’

In Michigan, the early signs are that many of about 30 districts with schools on the five-year list are struggling to get on track despite unanswered questions about how the state will define compliance with the federal law and what sanctions it might impose.

Local and state officials are giving almost no consideration, though, to reopening the troubled schools as charter schools or turning them over to outside groups such as the state itself—both moves explicitly approved in the law. That leaves two options: replace all or most of a school’s staff or restructure the school’s governance to introduce “fundamental reforms.”

“We’ve been talking about saying to districts, ... ‘You really want to look at alternative governance,’” said Yvonne Caamal Canul, who directs the Michigan education department’s office of school improvement. “But we’re asking, ‘What would a major reform look like in a school?’”

The department has been trying to find efficient ways to help districts remake the schools that are under the gun, and to assist all schools to head off new consequences

Seventy-five school “coaches"—many of them retired teachers—will soon be trained to provide technical help to struggling schools. The state will also offer a do-it- yourself approach called MI-Map that provides an improvement “road map” to schools on low rungs of the ladder of consequences.

The mandate to reform Michigan’s schools targeted by the No Child Left Behind Act got anything but an auspicious start, many observers say.

State test scores were delayed for months last year, and 3,000 tests went missing. Finally, late last week, the state released its list of schools that had failed to make enough progress. It took that step several months later than anticipated.

At the same time, and adding to the confusion, officials unveiled the first-ever grades on Michigan’s new report card.

The state combines the test scores with other factors to accredit schools on an A-to-F scale, while also using results from the state’s mathematics and reading tests to determine whether schools are making adequate progress under the federal law.

What’s more, many educators in the Wolverine State still feel stung by a federal system that seems to penalize states, such as Michigan, that started piling up scores early and which use challenging tests.

Strategies Differ

The Flint school district, in a city hard-hit by industrial decline, has three schools that face wholesale change next year, and five coming up behind those after four years on the list.

Officials of the 23,300-student district said they plan to restructure those schools under district auspices, but they want to know from the state if they can get more time.

The law apparently envisions a year of planning for the change, and yet with the release of scores at the end of January, just seven months remain before the new school year.

Flint has been receiving help from two expert educators affiliated with Genesee County’s intermediate school district. But as Eugene Rutledge, the chief academic officer of the Flint district pointed out, those experts are stretched over more than 20 schools—a far cry from the one-on-one help the state has said it would like to give.

No district has a bigger problem than Detroit, where 40 schools have failed to make adequate progress for five years. Officials of the state’s biggest district, which has 161,000 students, declined to be interviewed last week, saying they did not yet have final plans for those schools.

In Hamtramck, a suburb of Detroit where many immigrant families live, three of the 3,800-student district’s five schools are on the five-year list. The school board recently fired its superintendent for allegedly wasting $1 million of the district’s money, and only now is ready to tackle wholesale change for its schools, said school board President Camille Colatosti.

In the 17,600-student Lansing district, the picture is different.

There, officials have a plan for the one school facing dire consequences next year. They also believe they have laid the groundwork for that change with a plan that would be valuable for other schools as well.

Last year, Lansing schools negotiated a three-year teachers’ contract that reduces teachers’ seniority rights in transfers to new schools. It will allow the district to close a school and reopen it as a theme school with a new staff, said Susan Dumala, the district’s human-resources officer.

Ultimately, however, many are skeptical that the state can enforce the federal law if and when some districts fall short in their enforcement efforts.

Said Justin King, the executive director of the Michigan Association of School Boards: “There simply are not enough police out there to force districts to do all that stuff, let alone police who know what they are doing.”

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