Michigan must continue to hold schools accountable for achievement gaps

Great schools for all students and reliable school information for parents should be a given in Michigan – not a privilege. With among the nation’s largest achievement gaps for students of color, Michigan has a responsibility to hold its public schools accountable for the performance of all of its students.

This month, the Michigan Department of Education (MDE) has an opportunity to move in this right direction. It is preparing what is called a waiver to the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The waiver is hugely important for Michigan students and families, as it will largely direct how school accountability and public reporting are carried out in our state.

Before 2011, school accountability and transparency about school performance was practically nonexistent in Michigan. The majority of schools in the state were rated good under the previous state’s grading system, even when many were not. Parents had virtually no reliable information.

African-American and Latino students were particularly underserved. In many communities such as Ann Arbor, Novi and East Lansing, many students were doing well, but large groups of students were struggling. MDE took some important steps toward holding schools more accountable for these gaps in performance, though it did not go far enough on behalf of the state’s most vulnerable children.

This month, the Michigan Department of Education must decide whether to provide courageous leadership on this issue. We urge them to do so, including by holding public schools accountable for achievements gaps for African American, Latino and low-income students.

Some K-12 leaders are pressuring the MDE to do just the opposite, and avoid including achievement gap data in the state’s so-called “top-to-bottom” school ranking. This ranking is one of Michigan’s primary ways of communicating schools’ student achievement to parents – and holding schools accountable for that performance.

These K-12 leaders argue it’s unfair to grade their school districts based, in part, on how well they serve students of color and low-income students and the gaps between them and other students. They argue that by adding an information “dashboard,” parents of color and of other groups would be well-served — and nothing would be lost.

However, we know from leading education states such as Massachusetts how important school accountability is. Information, alone, is not enough. Accountability for students of color, low-income and struggling students is also hugely important and necessary for driving improvement in our schools.

By getting honest with ourselves about how well schools are serving all of our children, Michigan districts and charter school leaders are spurred to look closely at their practices, make long-overdue improvements and focus on strategies that raise learning for all students of every background.

Indeed, in Massachusetts — the nation’s leading education state — some educators and district leaders complained greatly about accountability during the first few years of implementation of their systemic reforms in the 1990s, including about school and educator accountability. Many teachers and K-12 leaders weren’t used to being held responsible for their performance, much less looking to state comparative data to drive instructional improvement.

After those early years, though, Massachusetts’ student learning began to grow — and then skyrocket. Today Massachusetts is so high performing, if it were a country, it would be among the highest performing countries in the world.

Now is not the time to back off from school accountability or educator evaluation work that has been begun to be developed over the last few years in Michigan. These systemic reforms are starting to spur all Michigan stakeholders to get more serious about improving public education, a system which is among the nation’s weakest for important measures such as fourth-grade reading performance and improvement.

Additionally, it is time for Michigan leaders to adopt “A-F” letter grades. This is a simple change, replacing the the MDE’s current color-coded school grades with letter grades. The MDE should make it part of its waiver application.

Now is the time for Michigan to stay the course on accountability for both educators and schools. Our students deserve it — and desperately need it.

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Thu, 03/26/2015 - 7:42am
The achievement gap at East Lansing high school has been a problem for a long time, various things have been done to try and turn that around with dismal results. I don't know what the answer is. I think schools don't like the gap being pointed out because it is embarassing to them and that is why they would just like to not have to have it reported anymore.
Mary Kovari
Thu, 03/26/2015 - 2:21pm
I agree, sweep it back under the rug. Many good people believe that until you eradicate poverty, we will not be able to "turn around" schools. But how does one eradicate poverty with the help of highly functioning school systems. There seems to be no courageous leadership and if it were not for Arellano and Ed Trust Midwest it would be easier for some to keep their heads in the sand.
David Britten
Thu, 03/26/2015 - 10:10am
It is always interesting that groups put up Massachusetts as a model educational state based on test results but ignore the critical inputs in that state such as more equitable funding directed towards supporting high-needs students. Whenever resources are brought up, these groups, the media and our state politicians immediately bury their collective heads in the sand. While every school should do the best it can with the resources it has to elevate achievement for all students, to continue to ignore Michigan's haphazard, illogical way of deciding which school district gets funded at higher or lower levels and then blame the schools or the teachers for not measuring up is morally wrong.
Chris Hansen
Thu, 03/26/2015 - 11:10pm
Great points.
Chuck Fellows
Thu, 03/26/2015 - 10:32am
Current methods used to identify "Achievement Gaps" are imperfect tools that cannot provide parents or regulators with valid or reliable assessments of learning performance. It is impossible since the primary driver of asessment and conclusions about performance are high stakes testing protocols design to measure only content retention void of information essential to an authentic evaluation of performance, local and individual context. Standardized testing inhibits development of the skills children will need to be successful in the workplace with their narrow linear focus on content versus broader learning contexts. Our children are smart and aware of the evidence discrediting these assessment practices. Using their common sense they approach them with that understanding. (Indifference, lethargy, gaming the test). Across this nation the high stakes attached to these tests have led to widespread cheating to insure the arbitrarily set cut scores are exceeeded and rewards gained. Some are even going to prison. More and more parents are beginning to opt their children out. Parents deserve an authentic assessment of how their children are doing. Children should not be compared with imperfect tools to other children. “Authentic assessments are those - teacher developed and administered - tests which are used to see if students can apply the knowledge they have learned in a real-world setting.” Authentic assessments “examine student performance on worthy intellectual tasks,” whereas traditional assessments simply require the ability to recall knowledge.” Authentic assessment is usually designed by the teacher to gauge students' understanding of material. Examples of these measurements are open-ended questions, written compositions, oral presentations, projects, experiments, and portfolios of student work. Standardized tests cannot be used to gauge understanding, their focus being a narrow review of content without substance. Assessments should provide teachers with the necessary information to improve their instruction in an attempt to address the needs of all of the students in their classroom. Our current system of per pupil funding ( see previous article by Tim Kelly) and compliance practice does not support authentic and reliable assessment or accountability.
Thu, 03/26/2015 - 11:31am
Mr. Fellows, Thank you.
Mary Kovari
Thu, 03/26/2015 - 2:24pm
Mr. Fellows, with all due respect, you have your head in the sand.
Chuck Fellows
Sat, 03/28/2015 - 3:55pm
Simply research the premise that supports the "achievement gap" and you will discover a huge gap in the common sense application of statistics and society's overwhelming tendency to torture statistics to produce their preconceived conclusion - the "Nation at Risk" fallacy that the sky is falling.
Joseph E Sucher
Thu, 03/26/2015 - 10:48am
Successful students more often than not are motivated to learn. Educational achievement is the reward for trying. Obviously not all students put in equal effort, and some high achievers put in perhaps less effort than some not as intellectually blessed. However whoever wrote the headline for this article has overlooked an important ingredient in the process. That is the effects, both positive and negative, of the home, parents, and the family. To cavalierly hold that schools can be held solely accountable for providing the necessary motivation and support is not nor, in my opinion, will never solve the problem, and promoting this view may actually contribute to the problem.
Mary Kovari
Thu, 03/26/2015 - 2:30pm
As someone who both taught and led a school in Detroit Public Schools and now works for a charter school I have experienced the barriers that poverty erects for parents who have a difficult time supporting their students and manipulating a K-12 environment. That is why it is so important for schools to bridge this gap. Strong leadership from the state, districts, principals and teachers on how to mediate the barriers that poverty represents and raise student achievement is what is needed. It will take additional funding but also the leadership that knows how to leverage the funding to close the gap. People are doing it well, let's emulate what and how they do it including funding.
Chris Hansen
Thu, 03/26/2015 - 11:12pm
With all due respect, Amber, when were you a teacher? Where did you teach? How long did you teach for?
Michael Rio
Fri, 03/27/2015 - 12:33am
The test scores are largely meaningless until we start holding our students strictly accountable for their test scores as they do in every other advanced Western country! Only in the US does a student's state test scores have zero accountability as far as whether they pass their classes or graduate. In other advanced countries the accountability is first and foremost on the students so they study for months in advance of state tests. The scores also affect what schools they may attend and if they get into college or university. Here the students could care less, almost never study in advance and many do not try at all when they actually take the test! The way we do testing is terribly inaccurate and does not even come close in measuring the quality of schools or even the basic abilities of the students. Until this changes it is absurd to use test scores to judge schools or educators!
Chuck Fellows
Sat, 03/28/2015 - 3:59pm
IN the other OECD countries in the world standardized tests, if used at all, are given to a selective audience as criteria for entrance into additional education, not as a contest to see who can "better" who and to justify the discriminatory allocation of dollars.
Fri, 03/27/2015 - 8:56am
How about putting some responsibility / accountability on the student?! You can go to the Troy or Avondale school districts and find that Blacks enrolled in those schools perform below their White counterparts. Southfield Schools that are 95 per cent Black and has been one of the top 5 in per pupil spending continue to be at average or below in state testing ranks.
Chuck Jordan
Fri, 03/27/2015 - 12:41pm
Good points made especially Mr. Rio's. Why do people correlate standardized test scores with accountability when there is no reason for students to take these tests seriously. Everyone can agree we need to do more for minorities and low income students, but how is rating those schools in low income districts as F going to help improve them? That is exactly what happened in North Carolina. Schools rated low were almost all in low income areas. In fact, choice and charters has made it worse for those low income schools sucking out the best students and the per pupil money that goes with them. These schools have to cut and cut and cut services and teachers or be taken over by the state. And the teachers in these districts are paid less. Why? Charters have also led to more segregation in a state that is already one of the most segregated in the country. The waiver Ms. Arellano mentions for "federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act" is No Child Left Behind if I'm not mistaken. The reforms from this act enacted in 2003 I think called for all students to be proficient by 2013 or 2014. How realistic is that? So of course all states now need a waiver, and the remedy has been defined by the Department of Education (illegally many believe). How convenient. There has been 10 years of "reform" under NCLB and accountability by test scores and they haven't worked. More of these reforms will not either. If you want to improve education, create incentives for the best teachers to work in poor districts and connect real assessment to passing classes (not grade levels).
Sun, 03/29/2015 - 5:23pm
I arrived from Germany when Americans went berserk about Sputnik. I was eight years old. People today are incredulous when I tell them that my third and fourth grade science and Spanish classes, among others I attended at Detroit's Wayne Elementary, were some of the very best I had through high school in Westland. I've lived in Ann Arbor ever since 1967. Besides Europe, I also have some experience in Canada. I find it difficult to not trace the roots of Michigan's K-12 education problems to be that their funding is dominated by local property tax and their administration is like home rule. But every discussion about K-12 problems seem to look for more complicated causes. Also I find it strange that the superior K-12 outcomes in our Department of Defense schools are rarely acknowledged and studied as examples for best practices and lessons learned. For a quick and easy first look at them see:http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/12/education/military-children-outdo-publ...