Detroit Schools: High Poverty Levels A Concern

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Detroit Schools: High Poverty Levels A Concern
We look at a new report from the Mackinac Center that shows some Detroit Public Schools fare better in their rankings when poverty levels at the schools are taken into consideration.

Detroit Public Schools tend to get a pretty bad rap regarding performance and education quality. However, many of the evaluations that contribute to this view do not consider the specific challenges teachers in these schools face daily. Many of the schools in Detroit face extremely high percentages of students living in poverty – a factor that can directly impact their ability to learn. In a recently released report that weighed this factor in comparing schools in Michigan, some Detroit schools fared much better than expected.

Elementary and Middle School Context Report Card

The Mackinac Center for Public Policy recently released its “Elementary and Middle School Context and Performance Report Card,” which offers a unique comparison formula that considers income level and location. The result is an “apples-to-apples” comparison that does not penalize schools with high poverty levels, according to the website for the Mackinac Center. The recent report card ranked 2,362 elementary and middle schools in the state.

The report card takes several factors into account as it calculates school scores and poverty levels. The report includes data on the school’s location, whether it is a city, suburb, town, or rural area. It labels the school type, distinguishing between conventional, selective, and charter schools.

The report card also lists the total enrollment at the school and the percentage of children that qualify for the free lunch program. Finally, the report calculates the CAP (Context and Performance) score, grade, and the school’s state rank. The online report card allows interested visitors to scan rankings according to all the different variables to help them find the information they are looking for quickly.

This video reports on poverty in Detroit's public schools.

How Scores Were Tallied

The Holland Sentinel explains that the Context and Performance Report Card numbers resulted from four years of MEAP (Michigan Education Assessment Program) exam scores. Scores for third through eighth-grade students were compiled and then adjusted based on the number of students who qualified for the free lunch program at the school. If schools exceeded performance expectations, they were given a score of 100 or more. Those schools that failed to meet expectations were given a score of less than 100.

According to a statement from the Mackinac Center, the report “improves the quality of information publically available to Michigan parents, taxpayers, school officials and policy makers.”

How Detroit Scored

The news from the Context and Performance Report Card was good for Detroit. It was especially good for Thirkell Elementary School, which scored at the top of the rankings. Thirkell is a high-poverty school where 85.9% of students qualify for a free lunch. Even with these challenges, the school managed to have 84% of fifth graders score proficient in both math and reading on the MEAP examinations.

According to My Fox Detroit, some of the teachers at Thirkell attribute the success to the school’s principal, Dr. Clara Smith. Cynthia Russell, a fourth-grade teacher at the school, told My Fox Detroit, “The ‘it’ factor is the essence of what defines great leadership. In my opinion, you either have it or you don’t, and my principal, Dr. Clara Smith, wrote the book on ‘it.’”

On the other hand, Dr. Smith credits the staff and students at Thirkell for their stellar rating. She told My Fox Detroit, “Our teachers have worked hard for this honor. Our students have worked hard for this honor. This honor is not just for me, but it’s for the entire Thirkell community.”

Dr. Smith added that in light of Thirkell’s success this year, their goal for subsequent years will be to remain in the number one spot.

This TEDx Talk looks at the effect of poverty on education.

Going from Bottom to Top

According to another article on the Mackinac Center’s website, Thirkell hasn’t always enjoyed such a prestigious position in the state education rankings. In fact, it has been rated by the Michigan Department of Education as one of the worst schools in the state. The “Top to Bottom” list released by the department only ranks schools according to test scores. These scores do not consider other factors, like income level.

“We didn’t want to penalize schools that educate students who come from needy backgrounds,” Audrey Spalding, the Education Policy Director at the Mackinac Center, stated in the article.

Spalding and Dan Armstrong, marketing and communications team leader for Mackinac Center, recently traveled to Thirkell to present awards to all schools that made it to the top of the center’s report card. All the schools included in the presentation received “A” grades from the center. Other schools that made the top of the list include:

In addition, the top schools according to locale included:

  • City School: Thirkell Elementary
  • Suburb School: Crestwood Accelerated Program
  • Town School: Franklin Elementary School (Cadillac)
  • Rural School: Jamestown Elementary School (Hudsonville)

According to a report at mLive, Detroit made the bottom of the report card list while the school district climbed to the top. Three of the bottom five schools in the ranking were former Detroit schools that the Education Achievement Authority has since taken over. Those schools included Burns Elementary-Middle School, Trix Elementary, and Stewart Elementary.

Comparing schools according to factors that directly impact student learning seems to make sense. As the Context and Performance Report Card from the Mackinac Center provides more accurate information about school quality in Michigan, perhaps other states will also begin to use a more accurate methodology for ranking their schools.

Questions? Contact us on Facebook. @publicschoolreview

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