How Michigan’s Plans to Close Schools May Hurt Children In Poverty

Natasha Baker, the director of Michigan’s School Reform/Redesign Office (the “SRO”), recently announced that the SRO will close some of the 100 schools that rank in the lowest 5% of schools in Michigan by the end of this school year.   Baker’s stated goal is to move all schools from the lowest 5% to the top 25% of schools.  That sounds like a great idea, something we should all rally around.  But the reality of this challenge may not be as clear-cut as we would like.  Before the SRO closes any school, it would be helpful if it answered the following questions:

  1. How is the SRO different than the Education Achievement Authority (the “EAA”)? The EAA was a policy-maker’s dream.  It had a partnership with the local school district, great buildings and new technology, the freedom to retain or hire the best possible staffs, and an infusion of cash from philanthropy—and it still failed miserably by most measures.   The SRO should offer an honest assessment of what wrong with the EAA, and how it plans to avoid similar pitfalls.
  1. How will the SRO build trust in the communities it plans to serve? Trust is the oil that allows different stakeholders in a project to work well together.  In high-performing schools, the parents trust the teachers, who trust the principal, who trusts the parents.  In high-poverty communities, trust is extremely scarce and difficult to earn.  The SRO’s initial efforts to take over schools in East Detroit has only led to lawsuits so far.  How can it build trust instead of litigation costs to make future efforts more effective?
  1. When is it possible for a school to be in the lowest 5% and still be succeeding? The SRO and the media speak of the schools in the lowest 5% as if they are all abject failures worthy of disdain.  But by definition, there will always be schools in the lowest 5%, and they invariably are in those communities where poverty is most entrenched.  Some of these schools are filled with people who have been beaten down by the trauma of poverty’s weight hitting them over the head day in and day out.  Others are in fact are filled with amazing people who love and serve children in ways that very few people on this earth are capable of doing.  How does the SRO distinguish between the two?  How will it lift up and celebrate the successful ones, despite the fact that they are in the lowest 5% because the community they serve has less than 1% of the social fabric that others enjoy.
  1. What is the SRO’s accountability? Policy-makers and foundation officials have the freedom to go from place to place with great intentions and big plans, often with the belief that more accountability will produce better results.  Does that belief extend both ways?  Will the SRO be closed or its leaders fired if it is not successful in achieving its goals?

Ultimately, the SRO’s may achieve the opposite of what it intends.  Experienced school leaders know that the quickest way to improve a school is to put the most difficult kids out of it.  Thus, the best way to improve schools is also the most surefire way to increase the rate of poverty in the surrounding community.

Schools that proactively seek to serve every child who comes to them, regardless of how challenged they may be, should be supported, not pilloried.  In my role at the United Way, I worked with East Detroit High School and found their leaders and teachers to be extremely smart and dedicated.  They thoughtfully worked to serve all kids, regardless of race or income-level, where many schools in Macomb County kept the doors of their school and community closed to those same children.  Their reward?  To be deemed a failure and taken over by the State.

Despite its best intentions, the SRO may actually be encouraging schools and school districts not to let in the most difficult students, or to put out the ones they have.  As a state, we can and should do better.