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States

Mich. Achievement Authority a Lightning Rod for Controversy

By Jaclyn Zubrzycki — December 11, 2012 5 min read
Denby High School Principal K.C. Wilbourn reacts to news of a student’s death last week. According to local press reports, the teenager was among four people—two men, a woman, and the teenage boy—who were found shot to death in a Detroit home earlier in the week. The home later burned in a suspicious fire. Turning around low-performing schools in such stressful environments is a challenge, and Ms. Wilbourn says she appreciates the support she’s gotten so far from the state’s Education Achievement Authority.

As Michigan’s Education Achievement Authority nears the end of its first fully operational semester, a battle rages over its present and its future.

The statewide school system, which took charge of 15 schools in Detroit this fall, has been the subject of disputes in recent weeks about governance, educational models, and equity in a city notoriously plagued by financial issues, depopulation, racial tensions, poverty—and low student achievement.

Michigan is among a number of states, including Tennessee and Louisiana, that have formed state-level authorities to manage their most troubled schools. The progress of those ventures is being closely watched by policymakers nationwide.

The controversy in Michigan had another flashpoint late last month, in the wake of a Detroit school board vote that questioned the status of the city school system’s state-appointed emergency financial manager, Roy Roberts. The city school board unanimously voted to withdraw from the statewide authority.

Meanwhile, lawmakers in the state House and Senate, in an effort to protect the authority, have drafted bills that would have set it into state law. The bill’s authors and other proponents of codifying the authority say the newly created district, which serves about 11,000 Detroit students, could potentially improve the lowest-achieving 5 percent of schools across the entire state. Though the bills were not voted on in 2012, the legislators plan to reintroduce them in 2013.

Letter to Washington

The Detroit board’s vote did not represent the end of the education authority, mostly because the statewide entity currently operates through a contractual agreement, signed by Mr. Roberts, between the 50,000-student city school system and Eastern Michigan State University. Mr. Roberts, who has authority over most district decisions, is unlikely to dissolve that agreement.

Jonathan Hui, a teacher at Denby High School in Detroit, checks the hallway to make sure students are getting to class. Denby is one of 15 low-performing city schools that were taken over this fall by Michigan’s newly created Education Achievement Authority. Just months into that effort, the authority has landed in the center of a raging debate.

But the authority remains the focus of contention. A group of parents, university professors, and advocates for the Detroit public schools wrote a letter last month to

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and President Barack Obama listing concerns with the educational program, accountability, and governance of the authority, which was recently named a finalist in the federal Race to the Top district competition.

Some opponents have gone further in their critiques: The president of the Detroit school board, LaMar Lemmon, and community activist Helen Moore said in interviews with Education Week that the authority was a racially motivated attempt to dismantle Detroit’s public school system.

The educational authority is so new that there aren’t yet data to indicate whether it is more or less successful than the traditional system. Steven Wasko, a spokesman for the Detroit public schools, said that the lack of information argues against dismantling the authority.

“Given that the schools have been assigned to that reform district for just a little over three months, on what basis can it be concluded that it has not worked?” he said.

But advocates like Ms. Moore say the authority is too new and untested to know whether it should be expanded.

Fraught History

The Detroit school system was first taken over by the state in 1999, returned to local control in 2006, and handed to a state-appointed emergency financial manager in 2009. The lack of local control over the school system has long been a bone of contention.

State Rep. Lisa Posthumus Lyons, the chairwoman of the house education committee and a sponsor of House Bill 6004, which would confirm the authority as “part of this state’s system of public schools,” said that while she believed in locally controlled schools, state legislators had a responsibility to help improve low-performing schools.

She said the bill had been modified to reflect some concerns. For instance, students in the authority were initially not required to take the same state tests as students in other schools, but now are. Another revision would allow schools to eventually leave the authority.

But the most recent version of the bill would still grant the authority the power to create new charter schools and authorizers, and would have required the regular Detroit school system to lease or sell buildings to the authority.

The authority’s learning model and its use of a computer program called Buzz have also come into question. The program in Detroit is similar to an effort that authority Chancellor John Covington installed while he was the superintendent of the 17,000-student Kansas City, Mo., school system, which abandoned the model soon after Mr. Covington left in 2011.

But Detroit teacher Brooke Harris, testifying before state legislators, said the program was “not innovative, and not student-centered.”

In an interview, Mr. Covington said criticism was overly focused on the online program. He said that Buzz “does not drive the curriculum of the authority of Michigan,” which he described as a blended learning program.

Differing Perspectives

Anecdotal evidence on the new instructional program is also mixed. K.C. Wilbourn, who is in her fourth year as the principal at Detroit’s Denby High School, said that when she first learned that Denby would become part of the authority she was “devastated.” But Ms. Wilbourn said working with Mr. Covington has been a pleasant surprise. “I can share thoughts without consequences, and that to me is priceless,” she said.

This year, 75 percent of the staff is new, and 25 percent were provided by Teach For America, the nonprofit group that places teachers in high-need schools.

“It’s been good for the children because it’s been good for its leader,” Ms. Wilbourn said.

Meanwhile, at Mumford High School, also within the authority, Ms. Harris said her school had struggled this year with logistical problems. Her classes had as many as 45 students, and two classes only recently gained access to Buzz after being delayed by technical issues. Rescheduling this month brought Ms. Harris’s class sizes down to 33.

The Urban League’s Mr. Anderson said “we’re interested in what’s happening to improve education in the state, but the jury’s still out on whether the [authority is] the best way or not.”

A version of this article appeared in the December 12, 2012 edition of Education Week

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