A new Michigan education model shows promising signs for students in struggling schools. But can it work long-term?

DPSCD Literacy Night at Academy of the Americas school | Ken Coleman

After two years of a new state approach to struggling schools, a recent study shows it has improved student achievement, giving educators and experts hope. But those schools still face challenges with student outcomes and recruiting highly qualified teachers.

The Michigan Partnership Model was designed in 2017 to improve the state’s lowest-performing schools, which serve about 54,000 students. 

Image by vgnk from Pixabay

What makes the program different than past school improvement strategies set by the state is that “the districts are in charge,” said William Pearson, the director of the Office of Partnership Districts (OPD).

Michigan has been known for years for its low test scores, lack of state funding, and disheartening achievement gaps for historically disadvantaged students, so there is no surprise that the state felt the need to bring something new to the table to improve the struggling schools. 

In efforts to save a number of public and charter schools from closing, the Partnership Model was put in place by the former Gov. Rick Snyder administration. The growing program holds struggling priority schools accountable and provides greater support, while giving power back to the local level through personalized achievement plans based on the needs of each school or district.

Through the model’s design, districts and the state work together to identify improvement areas and set goals that can be met in a three-year timeframe. 

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Districts hailed from various geographic regions, including Kalamazoo, Detroit, Saginaw and Benton Harbor.

Michigan State University’s Education Policy Innovation Collaborative (EPIC) has analyzed the student academic outcomes and teacher retention and recruitment in Partnership schools for the 2017-18 school year.

Many Partnership schools were described by the researchers to have seen “modest improvements” in student achievement and human capital in the classrooms, but Detroit Detroit Public Schools Community District (DPSCD), in particular, saw improvements from the model. 

Photo by Zackary Drucker, The Gender Spectrum Collection

“The Partnership Model seems to be the most engaging model of accountability and improvement that Michigan has been able to come up with,” said Don Wotruba, executive director of the Michigan Association of School Boards (MASB). “It has been the best of a bad situation when you’re a district in this space, but it has been moving the needle in a number of districts.”

However, research shows that historic disadvantages like poverty in these communities are making substantial improvement a challenge.

Positive change in DPSCD

After the first year of partnership with the state, DPSCD saw some of the strongest turnarounds in test scores, as well as lower dropout rates and higher teacher retention rates.

DPSCD Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said that the community was shocked to hear that a number of its public schools were at risk of shutting down in 2017 ーjust a few months before he joined the district as superintendent. 

“Our belief is closure is not a school improvement option,” said Vitti.

Nikolai Vitti, DPSCD, general superintendent | Ken Coleman

He says the Partnership agreement led the district to prioritize the most struggling schools, as well as rethink leadership, teacher selection and resource deployment.

National test results released last month show that Detroit public schools ranked last among 27 urban areas across the country. 

But it wasn’t all bad news. In fact, the district saw some of the greatest improvements in math and reading scores compared to the other urban areas, which is the kind of change Vitti is looking to see in the district. 

“The status quo is always unacceptable when you look at the performance of many of our low-performing schools. The worst thing that you can do is sit back and say, ‘Well, we’re doing the best we can,’” Vitti said. “The test of the Partnership agreement will be if districts make the hard decisions, like changing school leadership, faculty or curriculum when improvement isn’t made.”

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How the Partnership Model came to be

Michigan’s Partnership Model was launched in March 2017 to support the state’s lowest-performing schools and districts after 38 schools were slated to close. 

Snyder, an education reform advocate who backed giving incentives to districts to encourage education improvements, was now forced to address the number of districts on the verge of shutting their doors.

Gov. Rick Snyder, (R-MI), speaks during a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing, about the Flint, Michigan water crisis, on Capitol Hill March 17, 2016 in Washington, DC. |
Mark Wilson, Getty Images

Prior to Partnership agreements, schools that ranked in the bottom 5% based on low student achievement, declines in student performance or substantial achievement gaps for three consecutive year were subject to forced closure by the state under law. They were known as priority schools, but the state today no longer categorizes bottom-ranking schools as such.

In January 2017, Former School Reform Officer (SRO) Natasha Baker stirred controversy — and more than a bit of panic — after announcing almost 40 schools were at risk for closure for being “chronically low achieving.”

A section of the School Code Act, which has since been repealed in June 2019, gave the SRO power to identify and hold priority schools accountable, which included the possibility of forced closure. 

In response to the massive announcement of potentially 38 school closures, four districts filed lawsuits against the state. Snyder directed Brian Whiston, then-state schools superintendent, to draft a plan in 60 days to turn these struggling schools around in order to keep them open. 

Brian Whiston
The late Superintendent Brian Whiston

The Michigan Department of Education (MDE) began discussions with 10 school districts to implement agreements by forming a coalition between the state, Intermediate School Districts (ISDs) and communities. 

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Nine districts decided to go into partnership with the state, but Michigan Technical Academy, a Detroit charter school authorized by Central Michigan University, opted to close its doors instead.

The first round of schools in the Partnership agreement were: Pontiac School District, Detroit Public School Community District, Benton Harbor Area Schools, Saginaw Public Schools, River Rouge School District, Bridgeport-Spaulding Community School District, Eastpointe Community Schools, Muskegon Heights Public School Academy System and Kalamazoo Public Schools.

Benton Harbor left the Partnership agreement in June 2018 to enter a cooperative agreement with the MDE, which ended in July 2019 when the School Reform Office closed. The district has since been negotiating a turnaround plan with the state.

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Since the Partnership Model was formed in 2017, there have been three rounds of districts that have joined the effort in order to improve student achievement. The program now has grown to a total of 123 Partnership schools in 36 districts. Most of these districts are in the state’s urban areas, but a few are in rural communities, such as Baldwin Community Schools. 

Of the 36 districts in partnership with the state, 56% of these districts are charter schools. Broken down by schools in the Partnership Model, 21% of the 123 schools are charters.

Michigan Capitol, Sept. 20, 2019 | Laina G. Stebbins

In 2018, the Legislature added language to an education Appropriations bill that required new criteria for the model to increase student performance that is numerically measurable and specific to 18- and 36-month timeframes.

There has been no shortage of attempts to turn around low-performing schools in Michigan. Pearson, the director of the Office of Partnership Districts (OPD), said that a big change with this model is ensuring that “the districts are in charge.”

The districts set their own strategic goals and achievement plans, and the MDE works with the district by providing resources, district liaisons and accountability measures.  

Despite seeing modest improvements for students and teachers over the years that the model has been in place, state leaders and educational experts say more needs to be done that goes deeper than test scores.

Researchers have long pointed to the role that race, income, communities, family dynamics and the pool of qualified teachers play in students’ educational opportunities. 

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Michigan’s Partnership Model was designed to strengthen local ISDs and resources, with additional support from the state, but historic disadvantages in these communities continue to make student achievement a struggle.

“State policymakers should recognize that even a fully implemented Partnership Model is unlikely to be the remedy for fundamental issues facing Michigan’s struggling schools,” said Katherine Strunk, co-director of EPIC and professor of education policy at MSU. 

“Poverty and struggling schools did not occur overnight or as a result of a single failed policy or program. These are old problems that have persisted for decades, which implies we need new solutions.”

How historic disadvantages affect students 

The schools served through this program serve some of the state’s most disadvantaged students.

The study from EPIC shows that on average, Partnership districts have almost $1,000 less in local revenue per pupil, such as property taxes, compared to the state’s non-Partnership districts. 

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The majority of students ー 82.7% ー in Partnership districts are classified by state standards as economically disadvantaged, compared to 49.9% of students in non-partnership districts. Student populations in these districts are also a majority Black or Hispanic, and have higher rates of students learning English as a second language. 

Additionally, these districts score far lower on the M-STEP and SAT standardized tests and have lower attendance rates than students in non-Partnership districts. 

Fewer than 20% of students in Partnership districts are considered proficient in math or ELA based on scores from state standardized tests, compared to more than 40% in non-Partnership districts.

But the EPIC study shows that many of these schools have since seen “modest but potentially positive results” in most, if not all, of these categories in the first year of the program.

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Teachers struggle to stay afloat

Researchers also uncovered that these districts face challenges with teacher recruitment and retention, especially for Partnership schools in urban areas. 

Most superintendents surveyed for the study report that turnover of teachers remains an issue in their districts. One-third of superintendents say they rely on substitute teachers to fill full-time teacher vacancies.   

Partnership teacher salaries are 70% lower than that of other districts in the same ISD – while non-Partnership districts are closer to their ISD’s median salary level, according to the study. 

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Along with lower salaries, data suggests that Partnership teachers also have higher workloads. The average student-teacher ratio in these districts is 28 students per teacher, compared to 23 students in non-Partnership classrooms. 

The state recognizes there is a shortage of teachers, not only in struggling schools, but affecting most schools in the state.

“MDE intends to continue to work on addressing the challenges in the educator workforce system and escalating our efforts, particularly in the areas of recognition, recruitment, and retention,” wrote Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and current State Superintendent Mike Rice in a statement following the EPIC study results release.  

“In some cases, our Partnership Districts are ‘celebrating’ having ‘only’ a few vacancies. However, until and unless our Partnership districts are fully staffed, we still have a teacher shortage in Michigan.” 

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Is the Partnership Model sustainable?

The program had a rushed start as an alternative solution to closing more than three dozen schools. Because of this, the model has been built up and improved during its implementation.

Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer at a Capitol rally for public schools, June 18, 2019 | Derek Robertson

Whitmer and Rice say that although Michigan’s education policy has taken a few recent turns, they believe the Partnership Model as it stands today will improve these districts.

“Michigan has been challenged with disparate, disconnected, and constantly changing approaches to helping our lowest performing districts and schools,” Whitmer and Rice wrote. “The causes of this scattershot approach are many — federal policy, state policy, changing leadership, grant program requirements — but the result is that, instead of enacting a research-based policy, evaluating its implementation, and modifying the intervention as needed, we have used a less measured and more reactionary approach. The MDE wanted this effort to be different.” 

Wotruba, the MASB head who has worked with a number of districts in facilitating Partnership agreement evaluations, agrees that changing policies and standards at the state level makes it hard for schools to keep up. 

Image by Wokandapix from Pixabay

“We think this is a good collaborative model,” Wotruba said. “But more importantly, if we can pick one model, even if we have to tweak it to make it better, and the state can stick with that model, then districts will at least know where the target is. When everything’s changed for them over and over and over, it’s been very difficult.”

Pearson, who now heads the OPD, is optimistic about the future of the model and the positive impacts it will have on the state’s lowest-performing schools.

“We are getting better as we go along,” Pearson said. “A year and a half ago, we didn’t have these modest gains. Even if they are modest, that’s still a really good thing.”