Creative commons photo by Tomash Devenishek.

More than 100 low-scoring Michigan schools — including dozens in Detroit — will start classes next month likely doomed to close in June.

In a move that is bound to shock parents and educators across the state, the School Reform Office is moving ahead with an aggressive plan to close every school in the state that posted rock-bottom test scores for the last three years — even though Michigan’s education department promised schools that last year’s test scores wouldn’t be held against them.

Closing so many schools might not be popular, said Dan LaDue, assistant director for accountability for the School Reform Office, which Gov. Rick Snyder took over last year in an effort to increase pressure on low-performing schools.

But he says too many Michigan schools aren’t doing their jobs.

“Anytime you talk about closure, that’s going to upset people,” LaDue said. “But we’re not here to make everybody happy. We’re here to hold adults responsible for the performance of students.”

LaDue says his office plans to give notice this fall to every Michigan school — district and charter — that ranked in the bottom 5 percent on state exams in 2014, 2015, and 2016. The schools will have close their doors in June, with exceptions granted only in circumstances where closing a school would pose an “unreasonable hardship” to students, such as if the school is in a neighborhood without better alternatives.

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That sweeping closure plan will come as a surprise to many schools: The Michigan Department of Education said it would not use the results of the 2015 M-STEP to mete out serious consequences to schools.

Michigan changed the exam it gives to students in 2015 when it replaced the longstanding MEAP exam with the M-STEP, which is aligned with tougher new Common Core standards. Because of the nature of the new test, the department committed in an agreement with the U.S. Department of Education, to hold off on penalizing schools for poor results until at least 2016.

That’s why the state education department did not release its annual top-to-bottom schools ranking in 2015.

But the School Reform Office, where LaDue works, is no longer a part of the Michigan Department of Education. Snyder signed a controversial order in 2015 that yanked the reform office out of the education department, which is overseen by the state superintendent and state Board of Education, and put it under his own direct authority. The move was a strong signal that he didn’t think the education department had been assertive enough about holding schools accountable for poor performance.

So while the education department promised not to penalize schools for their 2015 exam results, LaDue says the School Reform Office isn’t held to that.

In fact, LaDue said, the office is required by state law to release an annual list of the state’s lowest-performing schools.

DATA: Click here for list of the lowest 5% of Michigan schools in 2014

In the next couple of weeks — “before or after Sept. 1,” LaDue said — the SRO plans to release a list of schools whose 2015 test scores put them in the bottom 5 percent of state schools. The SRO plans to use the same methodology for the 2015 list that the state education department has used for school rankings in the past, despite the test changes.

The department plans to release a top-to-bottom ranking for 2016 later this fall based on exams that were given last spring. Then, LaDue says the School Reform Office will identify schools that were in the bottom 5 percent for three years in row: on the last year of the MEAP and the first two years of the M-STEP.

Every school on all three lists will get letters telling them to plan for closure in June. They’ll stay open only if the “unreasonable hardship” exception kicks in.

Exactly how many schools will get these letters is unclear. But there were more than 100 schools on the bottom-five list in 2014, the last time it was published (see that list here). More than 40 were in Detroit.

Natasha Baker, the reform office director, told the Free Press that the total number of schools closed will ultimately be “nowhere near 100 schools” but that schools that have been identified for improvement for many years should not remain open.

It might sound harsh, LaDue said. “But I’ll be very blunt here. Most of these schools that we’re looking at have been identified for improvement not just … two or three times but 8, 9, 10, 15 times and I don’t have any qualms about moving forward saying a school is poor-performing.”

The state could give these schools more time to try to improve, LaDue said. “But how many more kids are going to be allowed to go through that school and graduate and that diploma really doesn’t mean anything?”

Part of the reason for the rapid closure timeline is a new law that Snyder signed in June as part of the $617 million rescue package for the Detroit Public Schools district.

Detroit's Pershing High School is among dozens of schools that could face closure under a state School Reform Office plan. Michigan State Historic Preservation/Flickr
Detroit’s Pershing High School is among dozens of schools that could face closure under a state School Reform Office plan. Michigan State Historic Preservation/Flickr

The new law requires the reform office to develop an A-F school grading system that will eventually be used to close schools. But until that system is in place, the law requires the reform office to close all Detroit schools — including both district-run and charter schools — that are on the bottom-five list for three years in a row, except for those where closure would cause an unreasonable hardship.

And if the School Reform Office has to close schools in Detroit, LaDue said, it sees no reason to stop at the city’s borders. “We want to be fair to all districts and all kids,” he said.

But even in Detroit, the SRO’s rapid timeline is bound to stun communities and educators who thought they would have more time to turn their schools around. They note that the new law wasn’t specific about which three years should be used to make closure decisions and assumed, based in part on the education department’s promise, that closures would wait until Michigan has three years of data from the same exam.

“In such an important decision as closing schools, I would think we’d want to develop a coherent accountability system and assess schools on that system over a period of time before making that decision,” said Veronica Conforme, who heads the Education Achievement Authority, a state recovery district that took over 15 of Detroit’s lowest-performing schools in 2012.

Most of the schools in the EAA were on bottom-five list in 2014, the last time the list was published, including some of Detroit’s most storied high schools such as Mumford and Pershing.

Conforme says she believes the changes she made when she took over the EAA two years ago will boost scores with a little more time. But she might not get the chance to prove that.

“I think we’ve implemented a lot of positive strategies that I think will bear fruit this year and into next year,” Conforme said. “But … turnaround takes a long time.”

Chalkbeat reached out to the U.S. Department of Education to ask if using 2015 data to close schools would violate the state’s agreement with the federal government. A spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Education said the agreement expired earlier this month as the agency continues to shift away from the old No Child Left Behind Act and move toward the nation’s new education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act.

The Michigan Department of Education did not respond to a request for comment last week, but John Austin, the state board of Education President, said he has concerns about the way the reform office is proceeding.

For one thing, he said, it’s not wise to close schools unless “we’re creating high quality alternatives.” For now, he said, “the alternatives being offered by charter schools are not consistently high quality.”

Second, Austin said he’d rather see schools get some help turning things around than see them closed down.

“The SRO’s approach to date has not brought resources and real assistance to educators in schools that would give them a shot at being successful with their students,” Austin said. “To talk about shutting them down before having had the right support is certainly not the way to proceed.”

Addition, 7:00 p.m.: This story was updated to include new remarks from reform office director Natasha Baker. There’s now more to this story – read the update here.

Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared on Chalkbeat Detroit and used here with permission of Chalkbeat. We welcome submissions as Daily Detroit is a platform for community conversation.

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12 COMMENTS

  1. ““Anytime you talk about closure, that’s going to upset people,” LaDue said. “But we’re not here to make everybody happy. We’re here to hold adults responsible for the performance of students.””

    As a Detroit teacher, I want to know which other adults are responsible for the safety of my students (so they aren’t surrounded by guns), or the health of my students (paying for their medical bills and getting them healthy food), or the conditions for my students (like the terrible conditions many of the schools are in), or the transportation of the students (since my district doesn’t have its own bus system).

    Seriously? If we’re going to talk about HOLDING ADULTS RESPONSIBLE for how good students do on tests that mean nothing (I did awful on tests in school, but I consider myself an intelligent and productive person), then we’ve got to hold everyone else accountable for everything the students bring with them to school because that affects my job and how well I’m able to prepare them.

    I don’t know how easy these people think this stuff is, but they’re not helping anybody.

    This is mostly frustrating because if Snyder thinks that they’re not being assertive enough with schools who are preforming low, fine, things need to be fixed – but giving up on/closing isn’t the way to do it. Education is what needs to happen (for teachers, administrators, etc.) and someone needs to monitor and evaluate.
    The hypocrisy here is outrageous – how do they expect teachers to “raise scores” if they are showing us how to do the exact opposite? They should be modeling what teachers are supposed to do, because just giving up and shutting down is NOT what we’re allowed to/supposed to do. If a kid isn’t doing well on his testing, I can’t just ‘be assertive’ and show him whose boss by kicking him out of my classroom for good and never allow him to come back in and learn. Ultimately, that’s what these law makers are doing and showing teachers is what is okay to be done… if a kid’s not doing well in class and I want him to improve, I’ve got to teach him differently and help him practice.

    This is so frustrating! These people don’t know how to do this job but think they’re all sorts of allowed to criticize how it’s done without fixing what they hate about it.

    Closing 100 schools loses so many jobs. Besides, if over 40 of these schools are Detroit – nobody wants to fund/help Detroit, so you don’t get GOOD teachers or even retain teachers! That’s a problem that no one wants to address. With the new legislation the state passed, UNQUALIFIED people who are NOT trained to teach are allowed to be hired to teach the kids. TELL ME HOW THIS FITS IN THEIR PLAN?! That’s supposed to help raise the test scores? It’s because they don’t want to do the work to get good teachers to come in and teach the kids.

    This is so gross it hurts.

    “Second, Austin said he’d rather see schools get some help turning things around than see them closed down.

    “The SRO’s approach to date has not brought resources and real assistance to educators in schools that would give them a shot at being successful with their students,” Austin said. “To talk about shutting them down before having had the right support is certainly not the way to proceed.””

    Exactly.

    • I agree with much of what you state, but I hope you do teach neither English nor Economics.

      Your grammar and punctuation are merely poor, but your understanding of job markets and basic accounting is disastrous.

  2. This is an agenda. Children are not to be educated they are to be dumbed down to serve the societal elites. Drugs, guns, poor food, homosexuality, reality tv, etc are all tools to mentally distort children, teens and adults. The options in the future will be to serve in the military and fight the countries perceived, made up enemies. Or serve as share choppers for the 1 presenters. I know many will say I am off base with this but do research on past dictatorships and societies

  3. Teachers can’t do their job when children are coming to school hungry, neglected, tired or abused in one way or another. I see many children who fall into one of these categories. So many parents are self centered and don’t focus on their children needs. How can a teacher teach in an overcrowded classroom with children who are hungry, tired and lonely. Low poverty schools have so many children that come from homes that fall into these categories.

    • Just how much does Amerika have to do for children from useless homes. Where does it end. Maybe the fools that are breeding these children should be stopped. Just maybe closing all of the pay to have children laws should be closed. But no, that would be genocide in the eyes of people that want to control every phase of the american life. Hitler tried this. How did that work out for him.

  4. After closing all the High Schools in Detroit, leaving all these lost children to fend for them selves, no education, broken homes, ect. Your only showing these kids to get in the streets, try to servive, and get killed. Yea nobody really cares about that though. Its terrible already, going to get worse. WE REALLY NEED TO BE LOVING ON OUR CHILDREN

  5. So please close schools so that the open schools become so overcrowded that all those kids suffer too and then the test scores are even worse and more widespread! Wow fix the problem not make it and everything around it worse!….Change staff, hire more teachers, take the chance and spend the extra money and let’s make this country great again by putting funding where it should go! Great decision making overpaid politicians!! Just remember these kids will have to go to some school and they will be in the schools with your rich kids that get all the advantages, meaning the more crowded their school is the less one on one and actual help your kids will get! Maybe not act so privileged and keep people down, take the paycut and maybe help further America’s children the right way and less selfish way!!!

  6. A fellow teacher wrote this…. “I can not believe how moronic people can be who are not working in these schools every day. Shipping failing students to the other part of town will not solve the problem. I work with some of the best educators and administration in the state, to say that we aren’t doing our job just really really gets me fired up. We succeed every day in so many ways that don’t always show up on a test. Can you test for social growth, self confidence, self awareness and discipline? There are so many other lessons that are 100x more important to learn first before math and spelling can even happen. To blame this problem completely on the teachers is just so amazing to me.”

  7. Three only ally Detroit public school have ever had were it’s parents. Administrators and teachers find the leadership among the parents in your schools and make it clear that they are needed aid in student acheivement. We are not all drop outs, all of our home are not broken. Some of us are hard wired help you and a week trainer parent group is absolutely your protection against closure and your ally fit voiding student acheivement. Words to the wise

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