Not Fair, Not Effective: The Michigan School Reform Office's Plan for Potential School Closures

Michigan’s School Reform Office (SRO) recently announced its intent to identify schools for potential closure in the next few years.  All schools scoring in the bottom 5% of the state’s quality ranking system for the last three years will be candidates for closure.

Here’s the Problem            

  • Lack of rigor.  The are no absolute standards for what constitutes a good or a poorly performing school.  

Ranking schools (and calculating standardized scores) only tells us which schools are better than others; not which are serving their students well and which are not.

The statistical results of these analyses make no reference to a fixed standard for what constitutes a good or under-performing school (other than the state average); and actually obfuscate the relationship between who is attending these schools, how they get there, and the quality of their education.

  • Unfair.  We don't know the conditions schools face in trying to improve – either for the bottom five percent or the top ninety-five percent.

   For example, there is no clear information about how populations of students with various learning challenges are distributed in the bottom 5% (compared to the other 95%).  We also can’t ascertain whether the schools that are candidates for closure have similar degrees of control over the selection and retention of students and staff as those in the top 95%.

  • Not useful.  We can’t identify schools in the top 95% who have shown success in the face of similar conditions affecting those in the bottom 5%.  This would appear to be critical information for figuring out the kinds of supports to be provided to struggling schools going forward.               

 Suggested Solutions

  1.  Set absolute quality standards for literacy, math and attendance at the individual student and school levels.  For example, successful students achieve proficiency (or better) on M-STEP in reading and math and attend 90% or more days – and, in high schools, are on-track to graduate in four years. A “strong” school has at least two thirds of all students and 85% of students with at least two years attending the school meeting these thresholds for success.
  2. Create “gap metrics” to reflect in absolute terms how far away each school is from the school level standards.  For example, School A needs 50 more students to achieve the school-level standard of 85% of students with at least 90% attendance.  Then set annual targets for progress toward meeting the standard.
  3. Group schools with similar challenges and opportunities for improving quality.
    • Learning challenges – What concentration of students facing specific learning challenges – poverty, mobility, learning disabilities, limited English proficiency – do schools serve?
    • Level of selectivity – How much control does the school exert over student recruitment and retention – application process, minimal academic performance, parent contracts?          
  4. Base recognition, supports and sanctions on a school’s current performance on the absolute standards and its progress toward those standards.
  1. Differentiate recognition, supports and sanctions among groups of schools facing varying levels of difficulty in meeting the school-level quality standards.
  2. Use schools with demonstrated success in closing quality gaps within each level of difficulty to help identify effective supports for those who haven’t.

Final Thoughts

We present suggestions for how to bring more rigor, transparency and fairness into the process of identifying struggling schools; and how to strengthen the link between the conditions faced by schools in trying to improve quality and the supports or sanctions they receive.

Implementing these ideas should not require a massive amount of time or money.  It requires a shift in thinking:

  • from normative approaches to determining school quality to evaluating schools against value-driven, absolute standards of quality;
  • from statistical models for assigning quality ratings to more common sense, transparent and actionable approaches; and
  • from a primary focus on identifying and sanctioning struggling schools to articulating and strengthening systems’ capacity to improve these schools. 

For a more detailed explanation of our alternative approach to measuring education quality see our website and our recent report Education Quality:  What It is and How to Measure It.  For examples of how these solutions to the problem of getting a fair, rigorous and useful process for identifying struggling schools, follow us on Twitter and Facebook.

We are grateful to the Skillman and GM Foundations and our other education partners in Michigan and nationally for the opportunity to learn about the education conditions affecting students’ and educators’ success. The problems identified and solutions proposed in this article are IRRE’s alone, not necessarily those of our partners.

James P. Connell, Ph. D 
Institute for Research and Reform in Education