Which Mich. schools add most value for students?

At first blush, Godwin Heights Public Schools isn’t anything special. Only 6 percent of its juniors were considered “college ready” on their ACTs in 2012, about one-third of the state's median rate. Fourth- and eighth-grade MEAP scores were middling, at best.

On the other hand, Bloomfield Hills has the highest percentage of students deemed “college ready” by the ACT in the state – 58 percent. Its International Academy, which also draws students from surrounding districts, is often ranked as one of the top high schools in the nation.

Nevertheless, Godwin, a high-poverty school system in Grand Rapids, is Michigan’s top traditional district in a new Bride Magazine analysis, beating out Bloomfield Hills and hundreds of other schools where students score higher on standardized tests.

Is it possible that the best teaching in the state is taking place in a high-poverty district where students score at the state average? Can Bloomfield Hills learn from Godwin Heights?

Absolutely, says Amber Arellano, executive director of Education Trust-Midwest, a Royal Oak-based advocacy organization. “This would not surprise us,” Arellano said. “They do extraordinary work.”

Bridge Magazine, in collaboration with the Lansing-based research firm of Public Sector Consultants, created a ranking system measuring a school’s test scores adjusted for student family income, which is often a predictor of academic achievement. In essence, it is a ranking not of achievement, but overachievement.

Complete coverage

Top of the mark  Bridge Magazine set out to find which Michigan public schools do the best job in adding value – helping students succeed beyond expectations. This “Value-Added Matrix” identified some surprising results among both traditional and charter schools in the state.

Academic State Champs 2012  From Godwin Heights to Dearborn, from Baldwin to Troy, from Gaylord to Ann Arbor, see Bridge’s 2012 Academic State Champs.

Where’s your school?   Bridge applied its “Value-Added Matrix” to 560 schools across the state – see where yours ranked in this handy searchable database.

Newcomers, old practices  Charter schools in the tight-knit Arab communities in Dearborn dominated the top of Bridge’s statewide rankings in 2012. Educators credit their success in aiding students, many of them recent immigrants, to their familiarity with the culture and their commitment to making learning a family affair.

The charter conundrum  Charter schools in Michigan posted a remarkable presence at the top – and the bottom – of Bridge’s 2012 Academic State Champ rankings.

Finding what works  Education Trust-Midwest has long studied the central question of education policy: What works? Its executive director, Amber Arellano, tells Bridge that if Michigan helps teachers improve their skills, boosts in student learning will follow.

Read stories by MLive Media Group reporters on how schools in your area fared: http://topics.mlive.com/tag/bridge-champs/

The value-added rankings, released at a time when state leaders are discussing massive education reform, raise questions about how Michigan should distinguish success from failure among schools and teachers.

What do schools add?

To a frustrating level, school test scores are a function of 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.

Bridge and Public Sector Consultants created a Value-Added Matrix (VAM) to determine its 2012 Academic State Champs, celebrating schools that are finding a way to push learning through the socioeconomic ceiling.

School districts traditionally thought of as high-performing do well in the analysis, but the top 10 is dominated by charter schools and high-poverty districts not typically recognized for academic success.

Star International Academy in Dearborn Heights is the top-scoring school, with a VAM score of 120 (a school scoring as expected for the income of its families would score 100). The bottom school out of 561 reviewed is also a charter school, Aisha Shule/WEB Dubois Prepatory Academy, in Detroit, with a score of 76.

The top traditional school district is Godwin Heights with a score of 116; trailing the pack is Ecorse Public Schools, with a VAM score of 82.

Bridge's VAM rankings: No. 1 to No. 560

The scoring system is similar to one introduced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in June. While Mackinac’s report ranked high schools, Bridge analyzed test scores from elementary, middle and high school to present a comprehensive view of school districts and K-12 charter schools. The methodology used by Mackinac and Bridge also varies slightly.

See how we did it.

While an analysis that ranks some low-test-score schools above high-performing districts seems counterintuitive, it does offer insights into the complexity of evaluating success and failure among schools with vastly different demographics.

“Unfortunately, poverty and other challenges affect children’s learning,” Arellano said. “Poverty is not destiny, but it does create a steeper hill for teachers to climb.”

Top performers on adding value

Among high school scores alone, Star International topped the VAM ranking, with Caseville Public Schools second. See the top ten.

Alanson Public Schools had the highest eighth-grade score. See the top ten. Godwin Heights topped the fourth-grade ranking. See the top ten

The top-ranked rural school was Mason County Eastern. See the top ten. Okemos was the top affluent school. See the top ten.

'Moneyball' approach to reform

Bridge’s Value-Added Matrix and the work of Education Trust-Midwest suggest a “Moneyball” approach to education reform.

“Think about (Godwin Heights and Bloomfield Hills) and their student populations,” Arellano explained. “In Godwin Heights, 82 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunch, an indicator of poverty. In Bloomfield Hills, only 12 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunch. Impoverished students typically start school much further behind than their wealthier counterparts, for lots of reasons. For example, they are exposed to fewer words as children and they typically have fewer books in the home.

“So the educators in Godwin Heights have to work much harder, in many ways, to bring their students’ knowledge up to a career- and college-ready standard than would an affluent school district,” Arellano explained.

Education Trust-Midwest research helped lead to the development of the tenure and teacher evaluation reforms passed in 2011. In 2013, the state will be building a sophisticated K-12 data system that may include value-added growth data on every student and teacher in the state. “This kind of rich data tells us how much students are learning and the impact that teachers are having even as we consider for barriers such as poverty,” Arellano said. “This would be a much more fair and nuanced picture of the quality of schools and teaching and learning.

“For example, we’ll see that some schools and educators are actually producing extraordinary student growth, given their challenges,” Arellano explained. “We should recognize such hard work and teachers’ expertise” even when raw test scores are not high.

Examples of success

That’s the case with many of the schools in the overall top 10 of Bridge’s 2012 Academic State Champs. After Star International Academy and Godwin Heights, the rest of the top 10 were: Riverside Academy in Dearborn; Crawford AuSable Schools in Grayling; Central Academy in Ann Arbor; Macon County Eastern Schools; Kingsley Area Schools; Kingston Community Schools, Okemos Public Schools and Bloomfield Hills School District. The top eight are high-poverty schools.

“I sit at my (office) window and see the empty storefronts around our little school district,” Godwin Heights Superintendent Bill Fetterhoff told Bridge last spring. “Down from us, we had a large GM stamping plant that they just finished leveling. There was a time when you could go in there and make a good living with or without a diploma.”

Fetterhoff knows his school’s raw scores aren’t high (last spring, Bridge listed Godwin Heights as one of the “Faltering 40” districts underachieving in college and career readiness.

“It’s much more than that (raw test scores),” he said. “You have to look at a growth model, to see how much impact you have. You may still have a student who is failing, but how much have they increased their capacity?

“They can perform as well as any kids,” Fetterhoff said, “but foundationally, they come in without skills that other kids have.”

About 44 percent of Godwin Heights students are Hispanic, many of whom are learning English as a second language. Most are poor.

“It boils down to more time and more work,” Fetterhoff said. “And unfortunately, you have a finite amount of time and resources.”

Both Godwin Heights and Crawford AuSable use data extensively to track how students are learning -- and to intervene quickly when a problem arises.

“It’s just like 'Moneyball',” said Crawford AuSable Superintendent Joe Powers. “Metrics are being used everywhere.”

Bridge’s Value-Added Matrix and more complex models being created for the state are “trying to compare apples to apples,” Powers said, “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).’”

Senior Writer Ron French joined Bridge in 2011 after having won more than 40 national and state journalism awards since he joined the Detroit News in 1995. French has a long track record of uncovering emerging issues and changing the public policy debate through his work. In 2006, he foretold the coming crisis in the auto industry in a special report detailing how worker health-care costs threatened to bankrupt General Motors.

How impactful was this article for you?

Only donate if we've informed you about important Michigan issues

See what new members are saying about why they donated to Bridge Michigan:

  • “In order for this information to be accurate and unbiased it must be underwritten by its readers, not by special interests.” - Larry S.
  • “Not many other media sources report on the topics Bridge does.” - Susan B.
  • “Your journalism is outstanding and rare these days.” - Mark S.

If you want to ensure the future of nonpartisan, nonprofit Michigan journalism, please become a member today. You, too, will be asked why you donated and maybe we'll feature your quote next time!

Pay with VISA Pay with MasterCard Pay with American Express Pay with PayPal Donate Now