Urban experiment taught school sponsors six lessons

For the past seven years, Michigan Future has helped launch and support new high schools in the city of Detroit. They are mainly charters but include two operated by the Detroit Public Schools.

As the initiative comes to end, we are reflecting on what we learned.

Most of these lessons are applicable not just to the high schools we worked with but more broadly to pre K-12 education in urban schools across the state — and likely even more broadly to pre K-12 education of non-affluent students statewide. The lessons quite possibly apply to early childhood programming, as well.

There are six big takeaways from the work:

An unregulated marketplace diminishes quality teaching and learning: The consequence of an unregulated education marketplace with little or no quality standards is too many schools chasing too few students. This 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/ SAT score was the key predictor of college readiness. Turns out that was a wrong assumption.

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 learned that high schools that prepare their graduates for post-secondary success are good at students owning their education, engagement and effort, academics, college writing, college matching and alumni support.

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 reflect 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.

The student outcomes bar is too low: The Michigan Future high school initiative 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.

The student outcomes bar the schools are held accountable to is their test scores and their high school graduation rate. This path 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 whether a school is on the bottom 5 percent list or not. If it is, it gets in trouble (the individual school, not the central office/management). If not, no matter how low student outcomes are, there is little external pressure or incentive to get better.

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 levels for holding schools accountable have low expectations for Detroit students. The prevailing thought is 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, we got a lot of pushback that said we should have nothing to do with high schools. The notion was that they are too difficult and too expensive, and also that high school is too late to change student outcomes.

Seven years later, we still believe that high schools can make a big difference in the life outcomes of students. We had the good fortune of having on staff three professionals who had worked nationally in urban schools. They got the kind of results for which our initiative was designed.

They described the quality gap in teaching, coaching, counseling and management between the schools they taught in and the ones they supported in Detroit. They said closing that gap is possible and described 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 have it delivered by a teacher in a classroom in a school building. Our experience was that is unlikely to be true.

We found that if the online learning was as rigorous as it needs to be to graduate students who are college ready, students would not spend the time online to complete assignments, let alone entire courses, unless educators build student ownership in the value of education. 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.

Lou Glazer is president of Michigan Future Inc.

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