Increasing school choice doesn't help students, if the new options are bad. All too often, that's been the case in Michigan recently with charter schools and cyber-schools, claims a new report by the reform group Education Trust-Midwest.
The report to be released today, "Invest in What Works: A Call to Michigan Leaders," lays out six steps Michigan should take to catch up with other states. And there’s plenty of catching up to do, the report says, since Michigan is below average on most educational metrics -- and is falling further behind.
"While leading states were developing a more comprehensive approach to education, Michigan's primary strategy has been to expand choice by allowing charter and virtual schools to proliferate, regardless of quality," the report states. "Charter and virtual schools have experienced explosive growth, but they haven't come close to matching their promise."
The report found 73 percent of charter schools performed below the average Michigan public school in 2012 and that they are disproportionately among the lowest-performing schools.
In Detroit, new charter schools are cluttering the educational landscape and in some cases drawing students away from successful charter schools, the group says. For example, University Prep Science and Math Schools, regarded as one of the best charter schools, lost some students when a low-performing competitor offered gift certificates at Foot Locker.
"The way that we do school choice and that we charter in Michigan has to change, and it has to be much more based on performance rather than simply growth," said Ed Trust- Midwest Executive Director Amber Arellano. "And we have to start investing in things that actually build better schools and better teachers and better school leaders, regardless of whether they are in charters or a traditional public school."
Dan Quisenberry, president of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, strongly disputed the report's finding.
"Charter schools are succeeding across the state, and they certainly are in the city of Detroit," he said. He cited a recent study by Stanford University's Center for Research on Education Outcomes that showed charter school students were learning at a faster rate than their public school counterparts.
The study found that 35 percent of charter schools had significantly more positive learning gains than public counterparts in reading, compared to 2 percent that were lower. You can see the Center's press release on the study here.
The report calls on lawmakers to learn from what's working in other states. For example, it says Massachusetts, Maryland and Florida have been effective in boosting achievement among African-American, Latino and low-income students.
But Arellano said Michigan's achievement gap is not limited to those populations. Earlier Ed Trust reports show white students and high-income students don't perform as well as their peers in other states.
Ed Trust Midwest's roadmap to education improvement includes:
-- Making a sustained commitment to support school improvement. Michigan has taken initial steps, such as increasing graduation requirements and reforming tenure, the report said. "But these reforms will accomplish little without significant state assistance for schools to make the necessary changes in practice in classrooms."
-- Fostering effective teaching and school leadership. State support and oversight is needed to better prepare teachers for the classroom, ensure meaningful professional development and make evaluations useful tools for accountability and growth, Ed Trust said.
--Sticking with college-ready curriculum standards for all students and with the Common Core State Standards that Michigan and 45 other states have committed to. Legislation has been introduced to ease rigorous graduation requirements adopted in 2006 and to block Michigan's participation in the national common core, which includes a national test that will provide better comprehensive comparisons of students across states.
--Improving school accountability, including close monitoring of student performance, especially among the most vulnerable students.
-- Revamping school funding to ensure that students in low-income communities receive at least as much, local, state and federal resources as others. "Michigan has not yet conducted a serious enough review of education funding -- in terms of its adequacy or in whether money is distributed equitably," the report says.
Michigan's charter schools strategy
Since the 1990s, Michigan has been one of the most aggressive states in supporting charter schools, with about 130,000 students currently attending them. Supporters say the schools give families choices, inject healthy competition for traditional public schools and serve as laboratories of innovation whose successes can be replicated elsewhere.
Margaret Trimer-Hartley*, superintendent of the University Prep Science & Math Schools, said there's a wide-open free market in education and that families sometimes shop for schools every spring like they are shopping for clothes. Too often they make decisions so that their children can be with a best friend, have a certain teacher for a year or even get a gift certificate, she said.
"There is a lack of sophistication in the consumer base right now, and there's a learning curve we all have to attend to so that decision making becomes more rational ad more aligned with the things that matter, like school culture, excellent test results and college placement," she said.
Trimer-Hartley said there's great disparity in how the public institutions that authorize charter schools view their role. Some, like Grand Valley State University (which authorized University Prep), are already doing a good job of holding charter schools accountable, but others seem more motivated by the profit margin and growth at all costs, she said.
Quisenberry countered that charter schools are accountable under the federal No Child Left Behind Act and the same set of accountability systems as public schools. In addition, about 50 have been closed by their authorizers over the history of charter schools, he said.
Better evaluations crucial, report states
Ed Trust's report emphasizes the need for effective evaluations of teachers to give educators helpful feedback to become better teachers as well as to hold ineffective teachers accountable. The Governor's Council for Educational Effectiveness is designing an evaluation model that is expected to be unveiled later this year.
Nate Walker, policy analyst for the American Federation of Teachers in Michigan, said an effective program has to include systematic observation, debriefing, feedback and coaching. "There's a lot of emphasis put on the importance of teacher evaluation, but there also needs to be an infrastructure in school to do that at a time when funding is at best staying the same," he said.
The report highlights an evaluation system at Grand Blanc High School outside Flint, which includes annual observation of teachers and rapid quality feedback. It has led to greater collaboration and improved instruction, said Principal Jennifer Hammond.
"Teachers are more cognizant of their performance and addressing different areas according to our observational tool," Hammond said. "And I believe the students are benefitting because teachers are writing student goals and being very specific about how they reach those goals."
Group backs graduation, curricular standards
Ed Trust says it is critical that the state adhere to the higher standards it has put in place through the Michigan Merit Curriculum graduation standards as well as the common core state standards. Arellano, Ed Trust's executive director, said the national exam will provide a much better assessment of students' analytical and critical thinking skills than the Michigan Education Assessment Program has.
The report says Michigan can learn from Maryland, which is investing in academies that bring school teams together to work on common core strategies.
"We've got to get away from asking teachers to rush through books and rush through content, but students not having deep understanding or developing analytical skills or being able to write a strong five-paragraph essay before they leave high school," she said. "That's what the common core is all about."
Chris Andrews is senior editor at Public Policy Associates, Inc. In addition to working as a freelance writer and editor, he teaches journalism at Michigan State University. Andrews was an editor at the Lansing State Journal and a reporter at the Rochester, N.Y., Times-Union.
*Trimer-Hartley is a member of the Bridge Board of Advisers.