The Thomas B. Fordham Institute recently released a report that focuses on a number of school reform districts across the nation, including the Education Achievement Authority of Michigan (EAA). ‘Redefining the School District in America’ offers a status update of EAA’s progress since it experienced a change in leadership with the appointment of Veronica Conforme as Chancellor in 2014.
Below are some key highlights:
The Authority is still walking on eggshells politically, but vigorous and candid new leadership is giving it a chance at success. While keeping a generally low profile during her early months in office, [Conforme] set about recruiting new talent for the central office and took steps to counter the perception of loose financial and ethical standards. This was accomplished by tightening up the rules on use of EAA credit cards and setting up an ethics hotline where staff and community members can report “improper contractor activity, conflict of interest, and EEOC or ADA matters.
On one critical measure of operational performance, Conforme was able to report in October that actual enrollment for the current school year would total approximately 6,500 students, slightly exceeding the EAA’s budget projection and stemming the precipitous drop that followed year one.
The tempo and depth of change picked up quickly after Conforme was named chancellor in November.
In an interview, Conforme said “everything is on the table” in terms of school management; her main concern is getting talented leadership. That could be done directly through hiring and developing school principals (she’s already replaced three) or via charter contracts that would bring in top-caliber talent through another door…When the decisions are made, the EAA will consider both academic outcomes (not just test scores, but also graduation rates and other measures) as well as leadership and school climate. Conforme said of the twelve direct-run schools, “They are making progress, but not fast enough, and we need to consider making changes that will accelerate the rate of student achievement.”
That comment is telling. Recently Conforme has repeatedly expressed, in blunt terms, her impatience with the pace of improvement in EAA schools. This is a sea change in the Authority’s public disposition. When confronted with stagnant or declining scores on the MEAP, Michigan’s state test, her predecessor would cite internal Performance Series assessments, which did show some growth—an average of 1.1 years of gain in Covington’s final school year. But Conforme simply says that the rate of improvement is unacceptable, period. Despite “some clear successes” and visible improvements in safety and learning environments, “student achievement has not improved at a fast enough pace.”
The EAA is developing a new suite of accountability measures, including a quantitative performance framework and a new School Quality Review, and creating new support networks to serve schools from a streamlined central office. The central office team is currently reviewing the Authority’s entire assessment program and will soon disclose which instruments will stay or go, but Conforme is emphatic that administrators and principals have to consider proficiency and not just growth. Interim tests can’t serve as the only benchmark: “You have to have both!”
On February 17, 2015, the chancellor announced sweeping new policies that will give all EAA schools, charter and state-run, additional autonomy over programs, resources, and professional development. Rather than following a single, centrally designed and mandated school model, building leaders will be able to chart their own path toward the Authority’s outcome standards…
EAA’s Achievement Leaders Academy, through a partnership with the nonprofit TNTP, will provide training for school leaders who will take the reins of EAA schools in the 2015–16 school year (and longer-term, to “create a pipeline of skilled candidates to run Detroit’s schools for years to come”).
A roughly 25 percent drop in enrollment after the EAA’s first year drew headlines. Little noticed was that it followed historic trends for the schools taken over: Between 2007–08 and 2013–14, enrollment at EAA schools declined by an average of 13 percent per year. Enrollment stabilized between the 2013–14 school year and the current one, according to preliminary numbers. And while all fifteen EAA schools saw enrollment decline between 2012–13 and 2013–14, six schools saw enrollment increases between 2013–14 and 2014–15.
Though academic turnarounds take time, efforts to create a healthier school climate seem to be paying off. According to surveys conducted by the nonprofit Excellent Schools Detroit, the percentage of students who reported feeling mostly or very safe in their classrooms increased from 56 percent to 64 percent between 2012–13 and 2013–14.
There’s more encouraging news on the graduation front. Graduation rates across the EAA’s six high schools took a serious dip in the first year after takeover, dropping from a four-year average of 64 percent in 2011–12 to 54 percent in 2012–13, its first full year overseeing the schools. But there was significant recovery in the EAA’s second year, with the four-year rate moving back up to 62 percent in 2013–14.
In April, State Superintendent Mike Flanagan announced that two EAA schools (direct-run Brenda Scott Academy for Theatre Arts, and Trix Elementary, a charter school) would be among twenty-seven schools removed from the state’s roster of Priority schools in the bottom 5 percent.
For now, EAA’s attention seems focused tightly on getting the ship moving ahead toward demonstrably higher achievement.