MSU report finds low-performing schools are making progress

October 15, 2020

Michigan’s lowest-performing schools are making progress in some student and teacher outcomes, according to the second independent report on the Partnership Model for school reform from Michigan State University’s Education Policy Innovation Collaborative, the strategic research partner of the Michigan Department of Education.

Student test scores in math and English language arts in particular showed gradual improvement. The Detroit Public Schools Community District, DPSCD, the district with the largest number of Partnership schools—those with higher proportions of low-income and at-risk students—continued to see dramatic decreases in high school drop-out rates beginning in the first year and continuing into the second year in the first cohort of schools identified for the intervention. Cohort 1 DPSCD Partnership schools also saw a small decrease in grade retention in the first year of implementation.

Katharine Strunk headshot
Katharine Strunk

“The indicators of success are going in a positive direction and reflect the hard work and commitment of the Partnership districts, as well as the strength of the partnerships with MDE,” said State Superintendent Michael Rice. “That said, our most socioeconomically challenged districts require more resources. Relative to School Finance Resource Collaborative recommendations, Michigan school districts were underfunded before the pandemic and remain underfunded during the pandemic. Michigan school districts that educate the largest concentrations of poor children are in many cases significantly under-resourced relative to the needs of their children. This needs to change.”

Though evidence suggests that the Partnership Model is improving some student and teacher outcomes, reform takes time, so patience, persistence and additional funding is needed, according to Katharine Strunk, director of EPIC and the Clifford Erickson Distinguished Professor of Education Policy at MSU.

“Partnership schools face unique challenges and it can be hard to move the needle on student achievement, but there are early signs of success,” Strunk said. “If we really want to improve educational opportunity for Michigan’s most vulnerable students, it will be imperative to continue supporting Partnership districts. This is especially the case now, as the communities that house Partnership districts have been the hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The report also found that a sufficient supply of teachers and educational staff continued to be a challenge for Partnership districts. Partnership districts are implementing several initiatives to improve teacher recruitment and retention, and district leaders indicated that these efforts seem to be working. Moreover, teachers in Partnership districts reported that they were more likely to remain in their schools.

“Given the central importance of high-quality educators for improving student outcomes, it is worrisome that staffing challenges continue to plague Partnership schools and districts,” Strunk said. “These districts are working to improve teacher recruitment and retention, implementing ‘grow-your-own’ programs to train and recruit teachers and working to improve compensation, as well as their schools’ culture and climate.”

The partnership model facilitates improvements by enabling schools and districts to access and use data to help them identify areas for improvement, further enabling them to strategically plan how to address aspects of operations and schooling that needed attention, said William Pearson, director of the Michigan Department of Education’s Office of Partnership Districts.

“Partnership educators report being optimistic about improvements in student outcomes over the next year to three years, and in particular, Partnership school principals grew increasingly certain that Partnership would positively impact student outcomes in the coming years,” Pearson said. “However, we continue to find one of the greatest challenges facing Partnership districts is human capital—the need to recruit and retain quality teachers and leaders.”

To assess the implementation and efficacy of the Partnership Model, EPIC researchers used longitudinal data on students and educators throughout the state. They combined it with analysis of data from Partnership teacher and principal surveys, interviews with Partnership leaders, and case studies of three Partnership districts.

Michigan’s Chief Deputy Superintendent Sheila Alles said the state’s new strategic education plan includes eight goals that provide direction to improve student achievement throughout the state and most importantly to serve children in our highest-needs districts.

“Our collective and collaborative efforts to address the plan’s goals ultimately will have a positive effect on student outcomes in our partnership districts,” Alles said.

Though the report is encouraging, Strunk believes more has to happen.

“While state funding for Partnership has supported turnaround efforts, many district leaders shared that the level of funding was not sufficient to achieve turnaround,” Strunk said. “There is strong evidence that money matters in education—and in particular for underserved and under-resourced schools and districts like those in Partnership. Investing in these low-performing schools, even and especially in a time of particularly scarce resources, will be critical to advancing the turnaround process.”

This article originally appeared on MSU Today.