Michigan’s most overachieving schools: is your school an Academic State Champ?

One is a rural northern Michigan school district receiving the minimum state funding per student. Another is nestled in a wealthy suburban enclave populated with professors and physicians. Several more are charter schools serving low-income students of Middle-Eastern backgrounds. All are among the best public schools in Michigan, getting more out of their students than comparable schools across the state.

That’s the conclusion of Bridge Magazine’s third annual Academic State Champs report. This report ranks Michigan’s schools from best to worst, based on the test scores and income levels of families.

Where does your school district or charter rank?

Star International Academy in Dearborn Heights earned the top spot in Bridge’s top-to-bottom ranking, followed by Central Academy in Ann Arbor and Crawford AuSable Schools in Grayling. At the other end of the list, the school getting the least out of its students, according to our rankings, is Grattan Academy in Greenville.

Fifty-four traditional school districts and charter schools – the top 10 percent in our top-to-bottom list - were named Academic State Champs for 2013. Missing from the champ list are some academic blue blood schools, while some districts with below-average raw test scores are deemed praise-worthy.

It’s a list likely to raise some eyebrows, as well as shed light on the complexities of judging the effectiveness of schools and teachers.

Why we did it and how we did it

Why do we cheer for a perfect spiral pass, but not for a perfect ACT? How many radio shows fill the day weighing the strengths and weaknesses of rival high school basketball teams, when far fewer spend time comparing the academic records of neighboring schools?

In 2011, Bridge Magazine launched its first Academic State Champs, in an effort to praise fourth-grade reading champs like we do our sports heroes. But how best to determine which schools are superstars and which are also-rans?

To a frustrating level, school test scores track the socioeconomic status of the children who walk through the doors. It’s not a coincidence that some of the school districts with highest raw test scores (Bloomfield Hills, Okemos, Forest Hills) are in wealthy communities, or that struggling school districts (such as Detroit, Flint and Saginaw) are in poor ones.

To measure the true effectiveness of schools, Bridge Magazine and the Lansing-based research firm of Public Sector Consultants created a ranking system measuring student achievement of schools enrolling students of comparable family income. In essence, it is a ranking not of achievement, but overachievement.

See how we did it.

As a result, some districts with higher raw scores are ranked lower than some higher-poverty districts with lower test scores.

For example, Laingsburg Community Schools near Lansing had 18 percent of its juniors considered “college ready” on the basis of their ACT scores in 2013, which is close to the state average; Godwin Heights Public Schools near Grand Rapids had only 2 percent of juniors classified as “college ready.”

But Laingsburg is a comparatively affluent school district, with 24 percent of students qualifying for free and reduced lunch; at Godwin Heights, 86 percent are low income. In simplest terms, Laingsburg’s kids learn less than students attending similar-income schools, while Godwin Heights’ students learn more than kids in other high-poverty schools.

The result: Godwin Heights is an academic superstar, coming in at No. 7 out of 540 school districts and charters; Laingsburg is No. 499.

The results

The top schools in Bridge’s rankings are very similar to last year; the top five schools were also the top five last year, with the order rearranged.

Charter schools dominated the top – and the bottom – of the rankings.

Three charters – Star International in Dearborn Heights (No. 1), Central Academy in Ann Arbor (2) and Riverside Academy in Dearborn (4) - as well as Dearborn City School District (14), all have large Arab-American enrollments, a phenomenon Bridge chronicled in the 2012 rankings.

Godwin Heights had the top fourth grade scores, while Star International was tops in both eighth grade and 11th grade scores.

Okemos was the top-ranked affluent school; Crawford AuSable Schools the top rural district. See all our Top Ten lists here.

Small classes and wifi buses

Crawford AuSable ranges over 520 square miles, so students ride buses for considerable time each morning and afternoon. To make use of that time, the district installed wifi in two new buses, with more high-tech buses expected to be on the road next year. High schoolers can do homework on iPads purchased from funds gained in a bond issue; eighth-graders are given Google Chromebooks. Younger students are encouraged to “BYOD” on the bus – Bring Your Own Device.

Wifi on buses is one of many ways the Grayling school district is raising test scores among students who, in the not-so-distant past, had few options.

Socioeconomic status has “a significant impact” on a child, said Joe Powers, superintendent at Crawford AuSable, the top-ranked traditional school district in Bridge’s 2013 rankings and No. 3 overall.

“What our staff has done is embrace what the family brings to the table, and we employ a tremendous number of strategies to focus on academic growth.”

Teachers, who primarily came from middle-class backgrounds, undertook a rigorous poverty training workshop to better help understand their students, 63 percent of whom qualify for free or reduced lunch.

“You can’t apply middle class (strategies) to kids in poverty,” Powers said. “A child from poverty has different motivations, and doesn’t bring the same resources to the table as a child whose both parents are doctors.”

In one example is a de-emphasis on homework. “Homework that is graded that in
middle-class students would use as a motivator, will be a negative motivator for families in poverty,” Power said.

Instead, homework is emphasized as a way to practice what was learned in class.

The district, which receives the minimum per pupil allotment from the state, cut about 100 positions in recent years, partly in order to slash class size. Classes in early elementary grades average 17 or 18 students.

“We put the emphasis in the early grades,” Powers said, trusting that early intervention will pay off later.

The district’s strategies are working. Standardized test scores that “weren’t that good” a few years ago are increasing steadily.

“We can’t solve every problem in the world,” Powers said, “but we can control what happens between 8 and 3:30.”

High expectations

Many students at Okemos Public Schools would be successful no matter what the school district did, drawing kids from subdivisions brimming with white collar workers and professors from nearby Michigan State University. Yet students still overachieve for their socioeconomic status, according to Bridge’s analysis. Okemos is ranked 6th overall, and is top gun among schools with less than 25 percent of students eligible for free and reduced lunch.

The district’s obsessive use of data is a contributing factor in student success.

“We do a lot of data meetings with teachers,” said Deputy Superintendent Patricia Trelstad. “The teachers have gotten so good at looking at student achievement data, taking it down to the student level, and giving individual attention to students.”

Elementary students are evaluated three times a year, with struggling students assessed as often as every week.

“We’ve created a system where there are … interventions with kids who are struggling and enrichment for kids who are advanced,” said Superintendent Catherine Ash. “We can continually adjust plans if kids are progressing.

“Okemos is such a unique culture, there are such high expectations,” Ash said. “People moving in to the district notice the parental and community involvement. Everyone buys into this culture of education.”

All of which makes the district’s job harder, not easier.

“Our students think its OK to be successful academically,” Ash said. “They push us to be better to stay ahead of them.”

Apples to apples

Star International, Crawford AuSable and Okemos are tough to compare. Bridge’s analysis, similar to models being created by the state to evaluate schools, is “trying to compare apples to apples as opposed to looking at ‘here’s a school with great funding and extreme amount of parent participation, and here’s a school with low funding and (high poverty),’” Crawford AuSable’s Powers told Bridge in 2012.

That kind of analysis is vital for Michigan as it searches for ways to improve its schools.

“Bridge has drawn attention to this,” Powers said last week. “I don’t know that we’d be talking about it in the state otherwise.”

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Mon, 01/27/2014 - 8:55am
In comparing Apples to Apples, you have acknowledged that different schools have different students and families walking in the door. Thank you for the good work you are doing.
Mon, 01/27/2014 - 1:42pm
I would like to commend Mr. French and Bridge for their work that went into developing this article. By identifying a set of factors that related to academics that they are comparing school districts, they are making a good effort at identifying successes. They have included some examples they believe the successful district are doing to contribute to their success. They have mentioned some of the barriers to success that school districts have had to overcome mentioned how they have created value by addressing the barriers. I am hopeful that Bridge will build on their work and Mr. French’s reporting by making this a regular feature and regularly reporting on the successful districts and how they have achieved their success. Thank you Mr. French for this article and how you have reported on the successes, you have provided a new way to look at our education system. Thanks you Bridge for the time and resources you committed to this investigation and the openness you use to share your findings.
Ann Bolzman
Mon, 01/27/2014 - 2:21pm
And this is why we transferred our son to the Crawford AuSable School District thanks to school of choice. What a positive learning environment!
Sandy Lewis
Mon, 01/27/2014 - 3:31pm
This list reinforces our decision to move our daughters to Crawford AuSable this year through School of Choice. It shows what we already knew, that CASD is a top not school district who puts students first and finds ways to help all types of students learn. We are so proud to be a part of CASD.
Mon, 01/27/2014 - 9:51pm
I have already noted my appreciation for Mr. French’s article. There were a few things that caused me to pause while reading it. “Why do we cheer for a perfect spiral pass, but not for a perfect ACT?” Does Mr. French really want to know, would he truly like to see academics elevated to sports status in our communities, or, it this just a writer’s ploy, a rhetorical question? Does Mr. French truly see academics as visible as sports, does he feel that the students seem more engaged with sports, does he see that sports seem to elevate students attention and energy and responsibility for their role in sports, does he consider sports as a success and model for academics? If he does want to better understand sport to see if it can relate to academics, a good starting point would be comparing structures, sports seem to have a high The sports expectation are for both the individual and the team, academics don’t seem to see value in creating the team and do seem to talk about expectations for each student. Sports has well defined expectations for participants, the scoring of performance is well established, feedback is clear, timely, and broadly communicated, accountability as integrated into the system, sports fosters completion. The academics seem to be lacking in each of these categories. Successful sports programs have clear expectation of what each team member is to learn and what they will have to do to achieve those expectations (they are communicated early and often), they provide quick feedback being specific on what is being done correctly and what will have to be done to improve, the immediate and longer term impact of the team members practices are effectively communicated. In my limited experience that is rare with academics. I feel Mr. French has asked an insightful question, I encourage him/Bridge to draw a small diversified group together to explore the idea Mr. French raised in that question. I would encourage them to include people who have process development experience, successful sports staff, educators (teacher, administrator), parents, students, and few outside the educational system, a facilitator, 18-24 in all. They could work on developing a process map for sports and for academic learning, identifying similarities and differences, looking at successes, at disappointment, looking for the how and why of each, identifying barriers, and offering their work for public comment. I do agree with Mr. Power, with their effort Bridge has brought attention to where the student’s actions toward success are the focus of the program. The value of the attention can be fleeting or it can become a tool for improving the education process. Bridge needs to decide whether this becomes a tool for learning or a tool for political lobbying.
Charles Richards
Tue, 01/28/2014 - 11:01am
Does Duane realize that we are probably the only country in the world that makes sports a part of schools? None of the countries that are highly ranked on the PISA test have school sports programs. Time devoted to practice and playing is time taken away from an education devoted to training students in higher order, critical thinking. He is, however, quite correct in emphasizing the value of high expectations, constant measurement and feedback.
Tue, 01/28/2014 - 10:36pm
Charles, If sports is deemed successful then the point is to learn from why sports is so effective in engaging the students, getting the engagement of the community, and support for those teaching the kids. If you feel too much time is spent on practice, then why/how sports is able to get the kids to spend do much time in practice so they will want to spend more time in studying. Don't look at sports as a barrier, learn from it and making academics more effective.
Fri, 01/31/2014 - 9:32am
***, It isn't being for or against sports, it is about what can we learn from sports and how can that be applied to academics. A good example it feedback, during a game there is instant feedback on what is being done. Is it working or isn't it, does something need to be done differently or not, and everyone students, coaches, parents, community that is interested is getting that feedback. How often, how timely, how specific, and how broadly it the academic feedback provided?
John Rose
Tue, 01/28/2014 - 9:00am
Wow! an article that talks about schools that are successful...hmmm looking at most any other article schools are doing a horrible job. It is about time that we start taking a look at the MANY SCHOOLS in Michigan that are doing an excellent job with Michigan children. Maybe by focusing on what works(I wonder how many current teachers would pass the current testing that folks want to see new teachers pass..what a joke) we can help all schools improve..what a novel concept!
Charles Richards
Tue, 01/28/2014 - 11:40am
Mr. Rose says " It is about time that we start taking a look at the MANY SCHOOLS in Michigan that are doing an excellent job with Michigan children." To be the best of the mediocre is not a compliment. Michigan and American schools compare very badly to the best in the world. He says, "I wonder how many current teachers would pass the current testing that folks want to see new teachers pass..what a joke." Precisely. Not many of them would pass it, and that is the problem. There is a fifty percent attrition rate among teachers in the first five years. Why? Charles Wheelan, in his book "Naked Economics" points out that teachers' salaries in the United States are determined "by a rigid formula based on experience and years of schooling, factors that researchers have found to be generally unrelated to performance in the classroom. This uniform pay scale creates a set of incentives that economists refer to as adverse selection. Since the most talented teachers are also likely to be good at other professions, they have a strong incentive to leave education for jobs in which pay is more closely linked to productivity. For the least talented, the incentives are just the opposite." So, the talented leave and the average and mediocre stay, and we wind up with a highly inadequate education system. What works is to limit teaching to very capable, highly educated and well trained individuals.
Richard Joseph
Tue, 01/28/2014 - 8:35pm
You forgot highly paid in you teacher requirements.
Tue, 01/28/2014 - 9:26am
We're so proud to have supported over 1,300 students from Star Academy this summer with the ThinkStretch Summer Learning Program. Great work, everyone! If you want a peek of our program, feel free to download a free sample: http://bit.ly/1hIAMxF [FULL DISCLOSURE: ThinkStretch Summer Learning Program isn't free, but this sample download is!]
Michelle Ribant
Tue, 01/28/2014 - 10:32am
Congrats, Joe Powers!
Robert Lloyd
Tue, 01/28/2014 - 11:02am
So a school district primarily serving lower-income pupils can have an average test score that would be considered atrocious were it the score of a district with higher-income pupils, but still be considered a "champion" school. Though I don't question the motivation behind this score stratification, I think that, along with "every kid a winner" and "self-esteem" movements, it does a disservice to many kids from the lower-income districts, for two reasons. First, these "champions" are being set up to fail further along the way when they enter the same arenas as kids with advantages they never had, e.g., being read to early on, high expectations, implicit assumptions about success, parental financial help...I could name many more. Why work hard, harder than more-advantaged kids ('cause life's not fair, folks), if you're already a champ? Second, stratification is a way of giving tacit approval to the notion that low-income students simply cannot perform well, instead of encouraging the notion that with a admittedly tremendous amount of work on the part of faculty and staff, low-income students can perform as well as their higher-income peers. It's settling for mediocrity. I'll end with a true story. I live in Kalamazoo, and many years ago a misguided high school principal there actually had the name on his school building changed from Kalamazoo Central High School to "Kalamazoo Central World Class High School." After he left for other pastures the name was changed back, presumably because the administration realized that the school wasn't "world class" at all, that naming it as such didn't make it so, and that the hyperbole was actually hurting the kids. So it is with "champions" with studentscores at 2% in college readiness exams.
Charles Richards
Tue, 01/28/2014 - 11:46am
My compliments to Mr. Lloyd.
Thu, 01/30/2014 - 10:13am
Thank you for your insightful comments. I thought it was just me seeing this. Let's not get too excited or disappointed about where our school district falls on this list.
Charles Richards
Tue, 01/28/2014 - 1:30pm
Two sections of the article go to the heart of our educational problem. “Homework that is graded that in middle-class students would use as a motivator, will be a negative motivator for families in poverty,” Power said." And, “Okemos is such a unique culture, there are such high expectations,” Ash said." What is there about poverty that prevents parents from having high expectations? It doesn't cost any money for a parent to say to a child, "You didn't do well on this; you will have to work harder in the future." Why should a poor child collapse and accept failure? Amanda Ripley, in her book "The Smartest Kids In The World: And How They Got That Way," says, "There was a word in Finnish, "sisu" (pronounced SEE-su). It meant strength in the face of great odds, but more than that, a sort of inner fire." And "Sisu was Finland's version of drive, a quiet force that never quit. English has no word for sisu, though the closest synonym might be grit." Paul Tough, in his book about the role of character in education, cited research that showed that perseverance and grit were important determinants of educational success. Why can't low-income parents instill those character traits in their children? Given their situation, those traits would be of particular value. It may be that the kids in Okemos, while not necessarily more gifted than low-income kids, have parents who realize the importance of character, and are able to help their children in acquiring the necessary character traits. While the PSC study seems to have been well done, I would have like to have seen them include the percentage of people with a college degree in a district. That is a variable that, to a large degree, accounts for both income levels and students academic success.
Tom S.
Tue, 01/28/2014 - 2:02pm
Sorry, but once again, having Star International Academy at the top makes this ranking system laughable. Star is such a poorly run charter school that many of us that live in Dearborn Heights know that the family that runs it have driven out many students and teachers to inflate their scores. But we can't talk about that of course. It's interesting how all of a sudden the top 5 schools are charters when only a handful were there in the top 50 last year. I'm sure the Mackinac Center and other right-wing think tanks weren't too happy with you Mr. French so you had to make them feel a little better as charters continue to bleed the legitimate schools in order to make a few educational "entrepreneurs" wealthy. Sorry, I would still send my kids to Bloomfield Hills before any of your "charter" schools. BTW, you can't compare 1500 kids to 5000. Sorry, the numbers will always be skewed. You can manipulate data all you want, but perception is reality- charters in suburbia are viewed as below average schools and a place where the "troubled" kids are sent to.
Ron French
Tue, 01/28/2014 - 2:12pm
Hi Tom. While I can't address your experiences with Star, I can address your concern about charter schools at the top of our rankings, which you say is unlike last year. Actually, three out of the top five, instead of the top five, are charters. There are three charters in the top 10. Those same three charters were in the top 10 last year no increase in high-ranked charters. Also, as the story points out, the top of our list is dominated by charters, but so is the bottom of our list. There's plenty in these rankings for charter supporters and critics. Thanks for reading
Tue, 01/28/2014 - 3:28pm
Why are these district rankings so dissimilar than those found in US news & World Report?
Ron French
Tue, 01/28/2014 - 4:27pm
Hi Adam. U.S. News & World Report ranks schools by raw test scores This analysis ranks schools by comparing their performance to similar-income schools - how well does Bloomfield Hills perform compared to other affluent school districts, etc.
Tue, 01/28/2014 - 5:08pm
Does the study not include every school district and charter school? My child's district does not appear in the database.
Tue, 01/28/2014 - 7:06pm
Sam, does your student attend a private school? None are listed. Students at those schools do not have to take the same state tests as public and charter school students take.
Tue, 01/28/2014 - 7:33pm
I agree with Sam. I checked three charter academies. They are not in the list. Please explain
Ron French
Tue, 01/28/2014 - 8:07pm
We wanted to look at how school districts and charters performed over a student's career, so only districts and charters that have k-12 are included in the analysis. Many charters are k-6 or k-8. Thanks for reading
Wed, 01/29/2014 - 7:33am
Interesting analysis but you might consider controlling for enrollment practices of charters in your future analyses...do low achieving students stay in your top performing schools or do they get counseled out?
Sandra McClennen
Wed, 01/29/2014 - 8:02pm
Good to see socio-economic status taken into consideration. Makes a big difference!
Thu, 01/30/2014 - 6:25am
I am often a fan of work that appears here, but what appears here is remarkably sloppy from a methodological perspective. The article takes an important first step by attempting to control for socioeconomic status, but what is left is /still/ heavily dependent on socio-economic status. The correlation between "academic champ" score and per capita income in Oakland County school districts is 0.85 (out of a possible 1.00), an incredibly strong relationship (I dream of finding such strong correlations in my own work). The schools that achieve "champ" status here are also the richest schools. The schools at the bottom are also the poorest and the line between them is almost perfectly straight (with the possible exception of South Lyons, no school district in Oakland County significantly over or under performs its raw per capita income). If a study control for socio-economic status and still find an extremely strong relationship between performance and socio-economic status, then the study is not controlling enough--and in the process it sends precisely the wrong message, implying that schools in rich areas are somehow doing a better job with their resources than those in poor areas. The only way to reach this conclusion from the numbers we have, is to fail to take into account /all/ of the resources that richer areas have. Bridge needs to pull these calculations and rework them before presenting them back to us. What is here is sadly misleading and, to the extent it influences how we think about who is "working hard" to educate our kids, it will lead us to the wrong conclusions about who is at fault and what we should do about it. Full graph and more detail here: http://deegankrauseforferndaleschools.wordpress.com/2014/01/30/bridge-ac...
Fri, 01/31/2014 - 9:57am
Kevin, I place much less emphasis on socio-economic status when it comes to personal choice. I have found that is used too carelessly in stereotyping the individual and being use as a rationale for perssonal choices. There is a pattern that those who place emphasis on socio-economic status of using it as an excuse for why people are making poor choices and it becomes the justification for not holding people accountable, for government programs/laws, and spending of other people's money. The flaw in the emphasis on socio-economic status it discourages in finding those who succeed in spite of it, it prevents investigating the successes and learning from those successes, and it disregards the capaicity of the individual. When socio-economic status is invoked in a discussion it ends all consideration of competing ideas/action plans. If drives all attention to the 'big idea', the government program/law, for control to the exclusion of choice, it codifies the status the discussion claims to be trying to end. When and how does a child know they are 'poor', what does being 'poor' have to do with the way they think, is it being 'poor' what is the barrier to learning of is it other factors that are more prevalent in the 'poor' status? When the discussion is held at the more macro level, talking about socio-economic status of broad swathes of the population, it forces out the issues on the micro level, where people have choices and control.
The Princess-apal
Sat, 02/01/2014 - 10:09am
Actually, Crawford AuSable School District (#3 on the list) doesn't fit your formula. Check Crawford County's per capita income. It won't score like Oakland County & CASD beat Oakland County's schools.
Sat, 02/01/2014 - 6:13pm
Bridgemi needs to do an article on the changes coming to Holt High School where they plan to seperate the seniors from the other students in a different building (described as a run down dump by some students) compared to the newer high school they go to now. This is a new program to better prepare the students for college but has caused a huge controversy among students and their parents. No other school district in the country is trying this approach.
Joan J
Sun, 02/02/2014 - 12:24am
Where did the International Academy end up in the ranking?
Jacl Minore
Sun, 02/02/2014 - 10:01am
The AuSable School experience could well be replicated in most districts in the U;P. where an hour on the bus is not uncommon. And small class size in early years is something ALL schools in poorer communities absolutely need.
J. Strate
Sun, 02/02/2014 - 10:53am
This is a good start. Years ago using MEAP scores from public school districts in the tri-county metropolitan area and regressing those MEAP scores against the wealth of the district (SEV/pupil) I arrived at a similar conclusion. Most of the variance in MEAP scores across districts was due to SEV/pupil. Saving the residuals an analyst can determine whether a district is above (over-performing) or below (under-performing) the regression line. Of course, other variables are also correlated with academic performance (e.g., pupil/teacher), and should be included in any regression model. Perhaps doing so, however, would confuse readers without a background in statistics. If the author extends the analysis, they should look at other model specifications. Construct confidence intervals to identify schools that are exceptionally good or exceptionally bad based upon their residuals and then go out into the field and find out if their are "best" practices and "worst" practices. The author does not consider the factor of "regression toward the mean." Students from high income districts are likely to under-perform academically relative to how their parents performed in school; students from low income districts are likely to over-perform. Intelligence is heritable, has much to do with the academic performance of students, but the mechanics of sexual reproduction (meiosis) that helps us gain an edge against parasites scrambles the genetic materials generation by generation.
Mon, 02/03/2014 - 3:31pm
This is an excellent article. We transferred into the Okemos School District from another suburban Lansing school. The difference is obvious and a parent who is working two jobs to make ends meet could no way keep up with the homework requirements. The expectation is that your parents will help you stay organized and answer questions. Poorer districts cannot do the things done in wealthy districts they have to take a different approach. We had the option to move, and I would do it again no matter the cost. When my kids got used to the system it was clear that they were great in the old district, but were behind in this one. Schools are not equal and caring parents need information like this to make informed decisions. These types of studies should be available to all parents so they can decide what works for them. Go Chiefs!
Tue, 02/04/2014 - 2:44pm
High expectations are the key. Students themselves, parents, teachers, school systems, and the community all work together expecting the best, get the best results.
Thu, 02/13/2014 - 9:05am
I would like to see a study done on how many children in each district are taking ADHD medication (Ritalin, Concerta, Adderall, ect) and compare that to scores. It has been observed in College the kids taking ADHD medications are much more successful with higher test scores. Just a thought...