Facing Dead-Last National Test Scores, Detroit’s Public School District Approves New Teaching Materials

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The Detroit school board Tuesday adopted a new, $7.1 million curriculum that Superintendent Nikolai Vitti says is a key part of his plan to bring Detroit schools up from the bottom of national rankings.

Earlier Tuesday morning Detroit was ranked last — for the fifth time — among urban school districts on a national test known as the Nation’s Report Card. Vitti’s former school district, Duval County Schools in Jacksonville, Florida, showed significant gains in fourth-grade math and posted the highest scores among 27 urban districts in the nation in that subject. He told Chalkbeat the curriculum he used in Duval is the same one a committee of educators recommended to the board last month.

“The gaps between the standards and the materials being used in the district is very relevant” to the poor performance on the national test, Vitti said at the school board meeting at Mumford High School.

“So the fact that we are last…it’s not surprising,” Vitti said on a radio show on Wednesday. “Let’s specifically talk about what affects those test scores — quality curriculum. We did an audit this year that show the materials are not only outdated but not aligned to the standards.”

This change in teaching materials is one of the biggest investments the district has chosen for the 2018-19 school year. For math, K-8 students will begin using Eureka Mathematics materials at a maximum cost next school year of $1.8 million, and will use the Expeditionary Learning curriculum from Open-Up Resources for reading at a maximum cost of $5.3 million. The total yearly recurring cost will be $3,074,151.

There are no changes in curriculum for high school students at this time.

An audit completed earlier this year showed that the district’s current curriculum is woefully unaligned to state standards — it set kids up to fail on standardized tests like the one released this week.

“I didn’t realize how low the bar for our current curriculum is right now until we saw this one,” said Brandy Walker, a teacher at the Foreign Language Immersion and Cultural Studies School who served on a committee of educators tasked with helping choose the materials.

The district has estimated that the new materials will boost reading scores by 3.46 percentage points per year, and by 3.1 percentage points in math every year.

“This year we have focused on rebuilding the district’s infrastructure using the same strategies that led to some of the highest performance among large urban school districts in Duval, Miami-Dade, and Florida in general,” Vitti said. “We simply need time and space to build capacity, and improvement will be seen by 2020’s” next round of testing.

It’s a critical time for improving reading scores. In 2020, a new reading law will force schools to hold back most third-graders who are not reading at grade level. Last year, only about 10 percent of third-graders passed the state’s annual English Language Arts exam.

Teachers will begin training in the summer and be given all new materials to review far before the start of the school year, Vitti said.

The district can pay for the materials mostly because of an increase in enrollment, and thus an increase in total per pupil funding from the state, said Jeremy Vidito, the district’s chief financial officer.

The school board approved a budget of  just under $732 million for next year on Tuesday, which pays for the new teaching materials and allocates money for gym teachers, art or music teachers, guidance counselors, and more.

The district is currently recruiting at universities around the country, and specifically targeting historically black universities. The approved budget also allocates money to centralize services for bringing new teachers on board to make the hiring process easier and faster.

The district has roughly 180-190 teacher vacancies, Vitti said, compared to about 265 at this time last school year.

Vitti is negotiating with union representatives to offer higher salaries to experienced teachers coming from outside the district. Salaries for new teachers start near the bottom of the district’s pay scale.

“If we can fully recognize experience outside Detroit, we will be much closer to being fully staffed,” Vitti said.

“In my experience as a teacher, teachers are overwhelmed by how many students are in their class,” said John Lambert, a teacher at Burns Elementary-Middle School. “I think budgeting for more teachers is one of the wisest things the district could do.”

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools. Daily Detroit syndicates their content with permission.

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