Every now and again comes a story that makes you want to weep with despair about policymakers’ priorities. Like this one out of Detroit: In one of the lowest-performing districts in the nation, students have been using outdated textbooks for nearly a decade.
Michigan adopted the Common Core State Standards in 2010, part of a wave of states that approved the K-12 student expectations. Among other things, the standards require more reading and writing based on texts and math instruction that emphasizes concepts over rote procedures.
But the 48,000-student Detroit district, the state’s largest, never fully updated its materials to match, according to a recent audit of its curricula. Its reading textbooks, for example, date to 2007, according to the Detroit News. The audit, funded by a Wayne County regional education agency, was conducted by David Liben, a former principal and teacher who helped craft the English/language-arts standards and is now at the nonprofit consulting group Student Achievement Partners.
Think about that for a moment: Detroit students have been taught out of books that are not aligned to state goals or the tests that they have been taking. Nor have teachers had access to materials that support some of the standards’ goals—such as using a rich collection of fiction and nonfiction texts to build students’ background knowledge and vocabulary, which many lack when they first show up in the classroom.
The Detroit school system, as most readers know, has been in a state of administrative dysfunction for years. It only returned to an elected school board in January of 2017, after having experienced a series of emergency managers, as well as the rise and fall of a state-run “turnaround” school district that included many of its schools. That and the district’s near insolvency clearly did not help matters. Yet research has found that improving curriculum is an inexpensive way of boosting learning compared to other reforms, like hiring more teachers.
One board member called the results “chilling,” according to the Detroit Free Press’ Lori Higgins, who reported from the Feb. 13 board meeting, where the audit was discussed.
Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said at the meeting that he will scrap the current books and put out a competitive bid for materials for the 2018-19 school year, with alignment given priority over vendors that give “nice presentations” or promise a “nice price,” Higgins reported.
The alignment of materials to standards, as many states have discovered in the common-core era, is much more difficult than it seems. As Education Week reported back in 2012, states had tough decisions to make over whether the new reading series from the major publishing houses were truly aligned to the Common Core.
The context of this finding is also interesting. In 2016, Michigan recently adopted legislation requiring all districts to screen students’ reading progress and to retain them in grade 3 if they are not sufficiently skilled.
What’s more, the state was recently sued over its English/language arts instruction. That class-action suit cited Detroit schools’ low literacy levels—along with crumbling classrooms and outdated supplies— as a violation of their constitutional equal-protection rights. The state’s response, so far, has been to point fingers at the district’s administration—and to claim that there is no right to literacy in the U.S. Constitution.
Photo: Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti.—File
A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.