Rock bottom

Detroit schools ranked worst on national exam — again. But is there hope that things can improve?

PHOTO: Getty images

It’s difficult to find good news for Detroit schools in newly released national test score results.

Not only did students in the city’s main district rank dead last — for the fifth time — among major cities in every subject, but their scores dropped even lower than the rock-bottom numbers Detroit fourth-graders posted the last time they took the exam in 2015.

The biggest drop came in fourth-grade math, where the city’s average score fell 5 points between 2015 and 2017.

The test, called the National Assessment of Educational Progress or NAEP, was given to a representative sample of students in the first few months of 2017, shortly after a new school board took over the district, but before Superintendent Nikolai Vitti was hired.

The poor showing put an exclamation point on years of turmoil in the city’s main school district.

Detroit schools saw a rotating cast of emergency managers, teacher walkouts over unsafe building conditions, and plunging enrollment that created a financial crisis. It was so severe that the Detroit Public Schools only avoided bankruptcy in 2016 when state lawmakers created a new debt-free district called the Detroit Public Schools Community District.

During that time, a teacher shortage forced schools to crowd 30 or 40 students into some classrooms. And educators have been using a curriculum so outdated that a recent audit found students had largely been set up to fail.

Given all of that, few experts were expecting strong results on the NAEP — a test often called the nation’s report card.

“There’s just been so much instability in this district for so long,” said Mike Addonizio, a professor of educational policy at Wayne State University. “I think you would be hard-pressed to find other urban districts that have had the disruption that Detroit has had.”

The exam is given to students across the country every two years.

Detroit is one of the large urban districts that voluntarily participates in a comparison of big city schools called the Trial Urban District Assessment, or TUDA. This year, 27 districts participated.

Detroit, which has taken part in the urban district comparison since 2009, has ranked last every year that it has participated.

But the district also faces more significant challenges than those in other cities.

According to U.S. Census data, Detroit has the lowest median household income and the highest percentage of families living in poverty compared to people who live within the boundaries of the other 26 districts.

The data show that half of families with children under 18 in Detroit live in poverty.

Poverty is a major predictor of how well students perform on standardized tests, but it doesn’t tell the whole story.

It doesn’t explain why Detroit students dropped 5 points in fourth-grade math compared to two years or earlier, or why some cities do well despite high poverty rates.

Fourth-graders in Jacksonville, for example, posted the highest math scores among participating districts even as poverty within the boundaries of the Duval County Public Schools is higher than in seven other TUDA districts.

The scores in Jacksonville are perhaps the only glimmer of hope that Detroiters can turn to in the test results.

Those Jacksonville fourth-graders posted one of the largest math gains among TUDA districts between 2015 and 2017— a jump of 5 points — at a time when Vitti was running the schools there.

Vitti, who left Jacksonville last spring to become superintendent in Detroit, had been in charge of the Duval schools since that group of fourth-graders had been in kindergarten.

He can claim credit for the improvements there and says he hopes to do the same for Detroit.

Detroit’s scores are “not a reflection of our students’ talent or potential,” Vitti said. “Instead, they are indicative of a school system that has not implemented best practices regarding curriculum, instruction, academic intervention, and school improvement for over a decade.”

Vitti said things are already changing in the district.

“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,” he said. “This includes a focus on training teachers and leaders on the Common Core standards, implementing data systems to monitor student performance and provide intervention, and curriculum that is aligned to the standards. We simply need time and space to build capacity and improvement will be seen by 2020’s administration of NAEP.”

Sarah Lenhoff, an education researcher and assistant professor at Wayne State who specializes in school improvement and choice said the strong scores in Duval are encouraging news for Detroit. 

“That’s more evidence that Dr. Vitti was a good hire and might know how to boost Detroit in the same way Duval was boosted,” said “We need to focus on instruction, high-quality teaching, trying to move to a more rigorous and aligned curriculum.”

Duval’s fourth-grade reading scores were unchanged between 2015 and 2017 while eighth-grade scores remained flat, with math up 1 point and reading down 1 point — changes so small that testing officials said they were not statistically significant.

In Detroit, the 5-point drop that fourth-graders posted in math on the 2017 exam was identified as a statistically significant decline by the exam’s creators.

Fourth-grade reading scores also dropped 5 points, but that change was not identified as statistically significant.

The Detroit eighth-graders who took the test in 2017, meanwhile, posted similar scores to students who took the test two years earlier, with math scores up 1 point and reading scores down 2 points — changes that were not identified as significant.

Ron French and Mike Wilkinson, of Bridge Magazine, contributed to this report.

Chalkbeat and Bridge Magazine, members of the Detroit Journalism Cooperative, teamed up to cover the nation’s report card on schools. Click here to see Bridge’s report on Michigan scores.

 

2017 NAEP Trial Urban District Assessment Rankings for 4th Grade Math

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics, National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), various years, 1990–2017 Mathematics Assessments. / Graphic by Sam Park
SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics, National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), various years, 1990–2017 Mathematics Assessments. / Graphic by Sam Park

 

2017 NAEP Trial Urban District Assessment Rankings for 8th Grade Math

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics, National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), various years, 1990–2017 Mathematics Assessments. / Graphic by Sam Park
SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics, National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), various years, 1990–2017 Mathematics Assessments. / Graphic by Sam Park

 

2017 NAEP Trial Urban District Assessment Rankings for 4th Grade Reading

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics, National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), various years, 1990–2017 Reading Assessments. / Graphic by Sam Park
SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics, National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), various years, 1990–2017 Reading Assessments. / Graphic by Sam Park

2017 NAEP Trial Urban District Assessment Rankings for 8th Grade Reading

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics, National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), various years, 1990–2017 Reading Assessments. / Graphic by Sam Park
SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics, National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), various years, 1990–2017 Reading Assessments. / Graphic by Sam Park

Developing Dads

From reading to breastfeeding, Detroit dads learn how to engage with their pre-K children

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor
Dwayne Walker sits with son, Braylen, during a break at Dad's Day in Pre-K

Although he grew up without a father or male role model, Dwayne Walker is the kind of dad who goes on his 5-year-old son’s school field trips, sits in on his classes, and dresses him in a mint green golf shirt and khaki pants to match his own.

At Dad’s Day in Pre-K, a Detroit district event to help fathers better connect with their young children, the 43-year-old realized how much he has changed over the years. His youngest son, Braylen, was with him at the event.

“I broke the cycle when I became a father. I’m involved, and this is helping me to learn I can do even more as a father and a father figure,” he said.

Walker was one of about 100 fathers who attended Dad’s Day in Pre-K, sponsored by the main district to help remove barriers that prevent fathers from engaging in their children’s lives and their schools.

District leaders are working to get parents more involved in their children’s education through a new Parent Academy, teacher home visits, and other efforts. They also are trying new approaches to get parents to participate when their children are younger — including focusing more on fathers.

A study published in 2016 in the Journal of Family Psychology indicated that the more fathers took part in bathing, dressing, reading, and playing with their infant children, the more these nurturing activities increased as the children got older and started school.  

That’s why the district held its second Dad’s Day, said Franchott R. Cooper, preschool supervisor with the district’s Early Childhood Department, who coordinated the event.

“If we keep the fathers involved from preschool, they’ll be there for elementary school, middle school, and high school,” he said. “They’ll be there to support their children with homework, help them with math, help them with reading, supporting them in their academic pursuits.”

Services that the program helps with include job placement and training, helping to reinstate their driver’s licenses so they can get to work and see their children, and assisting with child support issues. Fathers also got tips on how to nurture their children by reading to them, and advice on helping their mates breastfeed.

Wilma Taylor-Costen, former executive director of the district’s Early Child Education program, came up with the idea for Dad’s Day just before she left the district last year. Her department held the first event of its kind a year ago.

“I recognized there was a gap in early child education with our fathers,  particularly with black fathers” she said. “They have been beaten up a lot and the conversation always is they are not in the home, and they don’t care about their children.

“I wanted to give an opportunity for our fathers to come together in a structured support system and if there were barriers preventing them from being in the child’s life, we would bring the courts, the elders, and services they may need under one roof so they can learn lessons and be great dads.”

Durrail Sanders of Highland Park said he was excited to attend because it was positive food for thought for him and other fathers.

“I’m for anything positive that’s going to better myself as a father, other fathers and our youth,” said Sanders, father of five sons, including 5-year-old Isrrail Simmons, who loves to play basketball video games with his dad. “I can get better at this.”

Keynote speaker, author, and educational consultant Jelani Jabari reminded the fathers of the importance of playing with their children, reading to them, helping them with homework, and simply spending time with them. He said he learned that by making mistakes he didn’t realize he was making. He was so busy being a good provider, and working so much, that he was barely at home.

He said he received a wake-up call on July 1, 2011, when he came home from work early and his youngest son, then 3, looked very confused and asked him why was he home for dinner.

“Dinner time, daddy gone,” his son kept repeating.

The comment left him shocked and speechless, but it prompted him to spend more time with his family.

He reminded the men to avoid being so busy making money that they forget to spend time with their children, and to be engaged in their lives. He urged them to add specific activities, such as reading, doing homework, or coaching their child’s sports team, to add structure to the time they spend with their children.

“We are in this together,” he told the fathers. “There is no manual for teaching dads how to be great fathers. It’s a process. Some of us seem to figure it out earlier than others.”

more money fewer problems

Detroit teachers will finally get paid for their years of experience if agreement holds up with district

Ally Duncan, an elementary school teacher in Lake County, works with students on sentence structure. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Good news for Detroit district teachers stuck at a low pay level: The finance committee of the school board Friday recommended an agreement with the city’s largest teachers union to raise the pay of veteran teachers — and to bring in experienced teachers at higher salaries.

“This is a major step for the district to fully recognize experience,” Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said. “A lot of the adult issues have been put aside to focus on children.”

The changes will be for members of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, the city’s largest teachers union.

For years, Detroit teachers have bargained for contracts that severely restricted the pay of experienced teachers who wanted to come into the district. As a result, new teachers can currently only get credit for two years of experience, regardless of how many years they’ve taught in other cities or in charter schools.

Vitti has called that restriction a major reason why it’s difficult to attract new teachers and keep existing ones. And with fewer teachers, classroom sizes start to balloon.

Detroit currently has 190 teacher vacancies, down from 275 at this point last year.

The committee also recommended giving a one-time bonus to teachers at the top of the salary scale, to recognize outside experience for current and future teachers, and to repay the Termination Incentive Plan as soon as this September.

The incentive plan took $250 from teachers’ biweekly paycheck and held it to pay them when they left the district when emergency managers were in control, but the money was never given back to teachers, said Ivy Bailey, the president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers.

Teachers who have paid into the incentive plan from the beginning will receive $9,000. The teachers union made a contract with the district last year that stipulated the money be paid by 2020, but the new agreement would move the payment to this September.

Finally, a bonus — $1,373.60 — for more than 2,000 teachers at the top of the pay scale would be paid in December.

Potentially, some teachers receiving bonuses and who are eligible for the incentive plan payment would receive in excess of $10,000,

“The bonus for teachers on the top is focused on ensuring that we retain our most veteran teachers as we work on an agreement in the third year to increase, once again, teachers at the top step so they can be made whole after emergency manager reductions,” Vitti said.  “We can do that once our enrollment settles or increases.”

In all, the district proposes to spend a combined $5.7 million to pay current and future teachers for how long they’ve worked, $3.2 million on bonuses for veteran teachers, and $22 million on the incentive plan.

“This is something none of us were expecting,” Bailey said. “This is good for everyone. We already ratified a contract, so this is just extra.”

It’s a tentative agreement between the district and the Detroit Federation of Teachers, Bailey said.

If an agreement is reached and the school board approves it, the changes could give the district a new tool in trying to reduce the teacher shortage. It’s a major change for district teachers who saw their pay slashed by 10 percent in 2011. The new contract ratified by the union members last summer promised to increase teacher pay by 7 percent over three years but many teachers grumbled that it wasn’t enough to bring them back to where they were in 2011. 

The two groups are still in talks to “iron out the details,” Bailey said. Specifically, the union wants to make sure that district employees like counselors, therapists and college support staff also receive higher salaries commensurate with experience.