Michigan Future Schools lessons learned

There are six big takeaways from our MFS’ work:

An unregulated marketplace diminishes quality teaching and learning

As we explored previously, the consequence of an unregulated education marketplace with little or no quality standards is too many schools chasing too few students. Which leaves all education operators unstable––both public school districts and charters. And that instability contributes to low quality teaching and learning.

College ready is far more than a test score

We began the initiative believing––as most still do––that the ACT (and now SAT) score was the key predictor of college ready. The MFS grants committed the schools we funded to reach an average ACT score of 21. Turns out that was wrong.

Based on (1) national research; (2) the learnings of national charter school networks which are getting the best student outcomes in determining which of their graduates do well in college and ultimately earn degrees; and (3) learning from our higher education partners, we learned that there are non cognitive skills and non content specific cognitive skills that matter at least as much as the content specific academic skills that are tested on college entrance exams (and other standardized tests).

We developed the MFS matrix to delineate what matters most to college success: student ownership of their education; engagement and effort as measured in GPA (the best predictor of college success); academics as measured by ACT/ SAT; college writing; college matching; and alumni support.

We concluded that the foundation skills for all Michigan students should be the 4 Cs of the Partnership for 21st Century Learning: critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity.

Central offices––not school buildings––matter most to improved student outcomes

Contrary to conventional wisdom, the core characteristic of schools nationally that are getting breakthrough gains in student achievement is the commitment and capability of the management of schools (the central office of both charter school networks and traditional public school districts), not building level leadership and/or the quality of the teachers. Both of course matter, but they, by and large, are a reflection of the quality of the central office both in hiring and developing building-level talent and in providing building-level professionals with a playbook for meeting high student outcome standards.

What surprised us the most during this initiative is how weak the school operators were that MFS funded and has worked with even though they were selected through what we thought was a very rigorous RFP process. This weakness was true of the two national operators we selected as well as the local operators. And true of charter school management as well as the central office of DPS.

Many struggled initially with running the enterprise tasks and student recruitment. The basics you need to be good at before you can tackle student outcomes. When it came to student outcomes the default approach is to focus on discipline and teaching the content on standardized tests. The latter at a not rigorous enough level.

To us the evidence is clear: if we do not improve the quality––as it relates to student outcomes––of the management of those who run schools in Detroit (and more broadly in schools serving predominantly non affluent students across the state) we will not get the breakthrough student achievement gains we all want.

The student outcomes bar is too low

Michigan Future Schools was launched to improve the college––not high school––graduation rate of students growing up in the city of Detroit. We did not lower that standard even as the schools struggled to meet it.

One of the barriers we ran into––somewhat unexpectedly––is that those the schools are accountable too have set much lower student achievement standards. This includes state policy makers; charter school authorizers; the Michigan Department of Education; the Education Achievement Authority; the Detroit Public Schools; and the charter school boards of the schools we have worked with.

The student outcomes bar the schools are held accountable for is their test scores and, too some degree with high schools, their high school graduation rate. Which overemphasizes the test score at the expense of developing other essential skills not on the test. But, even worse, what matters with the test score is almost exclusively in Detroit whether a school is on the bottom five percent list or not. If you are you get in trouble (the individual school, not, by and large, the central office/management). If not, no matter how low student outcomes are, there is little external pressure or incentive to get better.

Add to that our experience has been that far too many of the professionals at the building level and at their central offices; the school boards; and those responsible at the local and state level for holding schools accountable have low expectations for Detroit students. That a college ready standard is too much to expect of most kids growing up in Detroit.

Low standards and low expectations are a recipe for low student achievement.

High schools can make a difference in students’ life outcomes

Before we began MFS we got a lot of push back here and nationally not to do high schools. The notion being they are too difficult and too expensive and also that high school is too late to change student outcomes. That, by and large, there is little improvement possible from the level students have achieved through the 8th grade.

At the end of MFS we believe, at least as much as we did at our launch, that high schools in and off themselves can make a big difference in the life outcomes of its students. The reality is there are non-test-in urban high schools around the country that are getting big gains in student outcomes without pre K-8 feeder schools. Including the Noble charter schools in Chicago and the New York public school district’s small high schools (as assessed by MDRC).

Also MFS had the good fortune of having on staff three professionals who had worked nationally in urban schools getting the kind of results that MFS was designed for. They described the quality gap in teaching, coaching, counseling and management between the schools they taught in and the ones they have been assisting in Detroit and that closing that gap is possible and what kind of student achievement gains can be realized if that gap is closed.

Online learning is not a substitute for quality in person teaching and learning

Conventional wisdom increasingly is that the way to improve student outcomes is to move teaching and learning online rather than delivered by a teacher in a classroom in a school building. The MFS experience is that that is unlikely to be true. (The public data from EAA and Cornerstone charters––both who made online learning a central feature of their design––also indicates that online learning is not a substitute for quality in person teaching and learning.)

The two schools we funded with blended learning models at their core did not work well. Schools for the Future never really had a chance to test its nationally developed model. The initial attempt was plagued by poor management and building level leadership. The second attempt by very low enrollment. WAY, on the other hand, with a well designed and innovative project based online teaching and learning system has been fully operational for nearly three years with very poor student outcomes. With high rates of students leaving school and, for those who stayed enrolled, low rates of earning high school credits combined with low rates of academic achievement.

Our experience with both SFF and WAY was that if the online learning was as rigorous as it needs to be to graduate students college ready, unless educators build student ownership in the value of education, students would not spend the time online to complete assignments, let alone entire courses. In addition, the non content specific skills that are at least as important to college, career and life success cannot be learned online. They require a community of teachers and other students.

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Lou Glazer

Lou Glazer is President and co-founder of Michigan Future, Inc., a non-partisan, non-profit organization. Michigan Future’s mission is to be a source of new ideas on how Michigan can succeed as a world class community in a knowledge-driven economy. Its work is funded by Michigan foundations.

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