School & District Management

State Authority to Run Worst Schools in Detroit and Michigan

By Christina A. Samuels — June 20, 2011 4 min read

The governor of Michigan and the emergency financial manager of the beleaguered Detroit school system announced an improvement plan Monday that will take the lowest-performing schools out of district management and place them under the auspices of a separate educational authority.

The schools, under the umbrella of the newly created “Education Achievement System,” will be given the power to bring in successful principals and teachers and to lengthen the school day and year. The program is expected to begin in the 2012-13 school year with 39 schools in Detroit, with plans to expand to the lowest 5 percent of schools in the state by 2013-14.

“The future of Michigan is our kids. Let’s get the kids in Detroit on a positive path. Let’s create that environment for success and then go statewide,” Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican, said during a June 20 press conference.

The system will be a partnership between the 73,000-student Detroit district and Eastern Michigan University, in Ypsilanti, though it will be a free-standing entity. Schools will remain under the authority of the achievement system for five years, during which time they will be expected to improve student performance. After five years, each of the schools will have the choice of remaining under the operation of the authority or returning to the management of the local district. The school could also seek to open as a charter school.

While the schools are under the achievement system, the local district will have responsibility for noneducation-related activities, such as building maintenance.

Roy S. Roberts, the emergency financial manager for the Detroit public schools and a former executive with General Motors, said that the 2011-12 school year will be an incubating and planning year for the new management authority.

The city’s children “deserve our very best efforts,” he said. “This is not about giving up on DPS or its students; it’s about strengthening it.”

Mr. Roberts will be the chairman of the executive committee of the system. The remaining board members will be appointed by the governor, Eastern Michigan University, and the Detroit school system.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan joined the press conference through remote videoconference. He noted that the 2009 results on the math portion of the National Assessment of Educational Progress were “devastating” for the city and illustrated the urgency of the problems there. Nearly 70 percent of the district’s 4th graders scored below basic. In 8th grade, 77 percent were below basic. The test scores marked the lowest performance in the history of NAEP.

“This city has no viable future if the status quo is allowed to stand. We are fighting for the future of the city,” Mr. Duncan said.

In creating the separate management authority, the Michigan leaders cited districts such as the Recovery School District in Louisiana, which took over many New Orleans schools in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. The recovery district has opened new charter schools and given greater autonomy to improving schools.

The percentage of Recovery School District 4th graders passing Louisiana’s state promotion tests grew from 58 percent in the 2009-10 academic year to 64 percent in 2010-11. Over the same time, the 8th grade rate improved from 50 percent to 60 percent.

Keith Johnson, the president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, said that it’s hard to argue against giving concentrated attention to struggling schools. He noted, however, that some of the same initiatives—a longer school day and year, greater school autonomy, rigorous education programs—were a part of the district’s “priority schools” program, which had its first year of implementation in 2010-11.

Fifty-one low-performing schools were designated as priority schools, but the Detroit system failed to follow through with the resources those schools needed to make substantive improvements, Mr. Johnson said. The priority-schools initiative was not mentioned during the press conference.

“You don’t have to reinvent the wheel here,” Mr. Johnson said. “Don’t just give this another name and do the same thing.”

The introduction of the plan did not delve into specifics of funding, and the district is still facing a $327 million deficit. But Mr. Roberts said that the new arrangement should allow schools to spend more money in the classroom rather than on the central office administration.

Gov. Snyder and Mr. Roberts also announced they are working with foundations, other philanthropic organizations, and businesses on a plan modeled after the Kalamazoo Promise, a six-year-old program funded by a private foundation that guarantees graduates of the Kalamazoo district four years of tuition and fees at a Michigan public university. The Detroit program would guarantee that all students who graduate from a high school in the city can attend a two-year college in Michigan. Gov. Snyder says he hopes to expand the program to four-year colleges soon.

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A version of this article appeared in the July 13, 2011 edition of Education Week as State Authority to Run Worst Schools in Detroit and Michigan

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