By the numbers

Sinking test scores won’t help Detroit Public Schools as closure threat looms

PHOTO: Creative Commons/timlewisnm

When the Detroit Public Schools officially became a new school district this summer, it left behind years of accumulated debt.

It may also want to leave behind its test scores.

The results from the 2016 M-STEP, released Tuesday, offer little good news for Michigan’s largest school district.

The percentage of students in grades 3-8 who tested proficient in math dropped from 7.2 percent in 2015 to 6 percent this year. Statewide, math scores barely changed — around 37 percent of students were proficient last year and this year.

It was a similar story in reading, where Detroit Public Schools saw scores drop in every grade except fifth and eighth, where scores were essentially flat. While 13.3 percent of its students in grades 3-8 tested proficient in 2015, that number dropped to 12 percent this year.

Across the state, reading scores saw a smaller decline, with 47.8 percent of students scoring proficient in 2015 and 47.3 percent scoring proficient this year.

The district also struggled at the high school level. Just 14.6 percent of DPS 11th graders earned a proficient score on the math section of SAT compared with 36.9 percent statewide. It was the first year that the SAT was used to assess Michigan 11th graders so the score can’t be compared to prior years but the district saw 11th grade scores drop from 15.6 percent to 12.2 percent on the M-STEP’s social studies section. Scores on the science section were flat.

(See how your school or district performed on the M-STEP or the SAT here).

The bad news comes as low-performing schools across the state face a heightened threat of closure.

The state School Reform Office has said it plans to shutter schools that score in the bottom 5 percent on the state’s annual top-to-bottom ranking for three years in a row using 2014, 2015, and 2016 rankings.

The data released Tuesday still need to be crunched by state officials, who plan to release the top-to-bottom list for 2016 later this year.

How the test scores should be used is the subject of dispute between two state agencies.

The agency that released the scores Tuesday — the Michigan Department of Education — says this data is for “information only.” Last year, the department told schools they would not be held accountable for scores on the first years of the new M-STEP, which is a more rigorous exam that replaced the old MEAP test. It was administered for the first time in 2015.

While discussing the scores Tuesday, a state education department official did not mention that the results could be used to close schools.

“Remember, all students come to school equipped differently in terms of readiness to learn, ability to learn on any given day, and so tests are only one part of our assessment of how a school is performing and what a school is doing to meet the needs of that student,” Deputy Superintendent Venessa Keesler said.

“All of the schools in our state, our nation, need to be in a state of continual improvement to get better. I believe they are. But it’s not a linear process, for sure.”

But the School Reform Office says otherwise. That office is no longer a part of the Department of Education and is no longer overseen by the state school board. Gov. Rick Snyder took over the department last year in an effort to ramp up pressure on low-performing schools.

It’s the Reform Office that plans to close down schools with multiple years of low test scores. Schools that were in the bottom 5 percent on the 2014 top-to-bottom list and are on the 2015 and 2016 lists could get letters instructing them to close their doors next June.

(The 2015 rankings have not yet been released. The School Reform Office plans to release a list of schools whose scores landed them a place at the bottom of the 2015 ranking as soon as this week.)

Detroit Public Schools may plan to argue that the fact that it is now a new district, officially called the Detroit Public Schools Community District, means it shouldn’t be held accountable for the old district’s scores.

The 15 Detroit schools in the Education Achievement Authority, a state-run recovery district, may also have a legal argument they could use to stay open because of their unusual position.

But the EAA can point to some improvement on this year’s exams. In reading, the percent of students who were proficient in grades 3-8 went from 5.3 percent last year to 6.9 percent this year.

early dismissals

Top Newark school officials ousted in leadership shake-up as new superintendent prepares to take over

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Incoming Newark Public Schools Superintendent Roger León

Several top Newark school officials were given the option Friday to resign or face termination, in what appeared to be an early move by incoming Superintendent Roger León to overhaul the district’s leadership.

The shake-up includes top officials such as the chief academic officer and the head of the district’s controversial enrollment system, as well as lower-level administrators — 31 people in total, according to documents and district employees briefed on the overhaul. Most of the officials were hired or promoted by the previous two state-appointed superintendents, Cami Anderson and Christopher Cerf, a sign that León wants to steer the district in a new direction now that it has returned to local control.

The officials were given the option to resign by Tuesday and accept buyouts or face the prospect of being fired by the school board at its meeting that evening. The buyouts offer a financial incentive to those who resign voluntarily on top of any severance included in their contracts. In exchange for accepting the buyouts, the officials must sign confidentiality agreements and waive their right to sue the district.

Earlier this week, León submitted a list of his choices to replace the ousted cabinet-level officials, which the board must approve at its Tuesday meeting. It’s not clear whether he has people lined up to fill the less-senior positions.

It’s customary for incoming superintendents to appoint new cabinet members and reorganize the district’s leadership structure, which usually entails replacing some personnel. However, many staffers were caught off guard by Friday’s dismissals since León has given little indication of how he plans to restructure the central office — and he does not officially take the reins of the district until July 1.

A district spokeswoman and the school board chair did not immediately respond to emails on Friday about the shake-up.

Some staffers speculated Friday that the buyout offers were a way for León to replace the district’s leadership without securing the school board’s approval because, unlike with terminations, the board does not need to sign off on resignations. However, it’s possible the board may have to okay any buyout payments. And it could also be the case that the buyouts were primarily intended to help shield the district from legal challenges to the dismissals.

León was not present when the staffers learned Friday afternoon that they were being let go, the employees said. Instead, the interim superintendent, Robert Gregory, and other top officials broke the news, which left some stunned personnel crying and packing their belongings into boxes. They received official separation letters by email later that day.

The people being ousted include Chief Academic Officer Brad Haggerty and Gabrielle Ramos-Solomon, who oversees enrollment. Also included are top officials in the curriculum, early childhood, and finance divisions, among others, according to a list obtained by Chalkbeat.

In addition to the 31 being pushed out, several assistant superintendents are being demoted but will remain in the district, according to the district employees.

There was concern among some officials Friday about whether the turnover would disrupt planning for the coming school year.

“I don’t know how we’re going to open smoothly with cuts this deep,” one of the employees said. “Little to no communication was provided to the teams about what these cuts mean for the many employees who remain in their roles and need leadership guidance and direction Monday morning.”


What you should know about the White House’s proposal to merge the education department into a new agency

PHOTO: Gabriel Scarlett/The Denver Post

The White House is proposing the federal education department merge with the labor department to form the Department of Education and the Workforce, officials announced Thursday.

It’s an eye-catching plan, given how relatively rare changes to the Cabinet are and the current prominence of Betsy DeVos, the current head of the education department who has proven deeply unpopular with educators since her confirmation hearings last year. Education Week first reported the proposed merger on Wednesday.

Here’s what we know so far about what’s going on and why it matters.

The news

The Trump administration announced a big-picture government reorganization Thursday, and the education-labor merger is one part of that.

The new department will have four main sub-agencies: K-12; higher education and workforce development; enforcement; and research, evaluation and administration.

It comes after DeVos proposed acquiring programs from the labor department that have to do with educational programs for unemployed adult workers, reintegrating ex-prisoners, and “out-of-school” youth, according to the New York Times.

The two departments already work together on some adult education and vocational training programs, according to the the Wall Street Journal. In an interview with the Associated Press, director of the Office of Management and Budget Mick Mulvaney said that there are currently 40 different job training programs spread over 16 agencies. This merger would be one attempt to change that.

DeVos said she supports the plan.

“This proposal will make the federal government more responsive to the full range of needs faced by American students, workers, and schools. I urge Congress to work with the Administration to make this proposal a reality,” DeVos said in a statement.

The implications for K-12 education

Today, the department distributes K-12 education money and enforces civil rights laws. It’s small for a federal agency, at 3,900 employees. On a symbolic level, a merged department would be de-emphasizing education.

The existing set of offices overseeing K-12 education would move into the new agency, according to the document, which says those offices will be “improved” but not how.

The education department’s Office of Civil Rights will become a part of the new department’s “enforcement” sub-agency.

The plan doesn’t mention any cuts to the agency or its offices, though Secretary DeVos has proposed cuts in the past.

Why this might not happen

The proposal would require congressional approval, which will likely be a difficult battle. Past attempts to eliminate the Department of Education in the 1980s and 1990s didn’t gain any traction, and both lawmakers and unions have expressed skepticism toward the new plan.

Sen. Patty Murray, the ranking Democrat on the Senate labor and education committee, quickly put out a statement criticizing the plan.

“Democrats and Republicans in Congress have rejected President Trump’s proposals to drastically gut investments in education, health care, and workers — and he should expect the same result for this latest attempt to make government work worse for the people it serves,” she said