Set up to fail

The Detroit school district has been using a curriculum that’s ‘an injustice to the children of Detroit’ — but it’s not alone.

PHOTO: Getty Images

The auditors’ findings were unsettling.

Middle schoolers in Detroit’s main school district have been taking pre-algebra classes that have “virtually no relationship” to the state’s mathematics standards.

Students in kindergarten through third grade have been taught with an English curriculum so packed with unnecessary lessons that they don’t have time to get a firm grasp of foundational reading skills.

That “sets students up for a school career of frustration with anything that requires reading,” auditors found.

And an entire district of more than 50,000 students has been using textbooks that are so old and out of date that it’s likely that most students, for years, have been taking the state’s annual high-stakes exam without having seen much of the material they’re being tested on.

The test results can nonetheless be used to make potentially devastating decisions, like whether schools should be forced to close.

In short, the auditors who came to Detroit last fall to review the district’s curriculum found that students here have been set up to fail.

“It’s an injustice to the children of Detroit,” said Superintendent Nikolai Vitti.

But while this might sound like just another example of dysfunction in a long-troubled district, curriculum experts say that Detroit is among hundreds — possibly thousands — of districts across the country that are using textbooks and educational materials that are not aligned to state standards.

Detroit is now making a fix. The district plans to spend between $1 million and $3 million in the coming year to purchase new reading and math materials.

But most districts don’t do curriculum audits like Detroit has done. And curriculum experts say that most districts don’t realize the materials they’re using aren’t very good.

That means the students in those districts are not only ill-prepared for state exams, they’re less likely to succeed in college or careers.

“If you go to college and have to take remedial classes, that costs more money, takes more time and can ruin your life,” said Larry Singer, the CEO of Open-Up Resources, a nonprofit organization that makes quality math and English curriculums available to schools for free.

“If you can’t do algebra by the time you graduate from middle school, it’s very hard to finish up,” Singer said. “It takes 13 years to be prepared to be a freshman in college and every year that districts go with [improperly aligned curriculums], they sacrifice more kids to a difficult life.”

The fact that it has been years since Detroit teachers were given high-quality teaching materials is only one reason why students here have routinely posted some of the lowest test scores in the nation. Students face intense personal challenges in a city where more than half of children live in poverty. Their schools are dealing with a severe teacher shortage. And many buildings have deteriorated.

A curriculum overhaul won’t magically solve Detroit’s problems. But research suggests that even when nothing else changes — how teachers are trained or what challenges students face at home, for example — higher-quality curriculum materials can raise student learning.

It has been years since Detroit teachers have been given high-quality instructional materials.

And student learning urgently needs to improve in Detroit, teachers say.

“Their reading skills are so low,” said Faith Fells, a history teacher at Detroit’s Mumford High School who returned to the city this year after teaching in Boston. “I thought some of my students last year were struggling and some of them were reading and writing below grade level. But here I would say it’s the vast majority of our students.”

Auditors reviewing Detroit’s curriculum last fall found that most of the materials used in Detroit schools are from 2007 or 2008, before the state’s current standards were adopted.

The state of Michigan took over the district in 2009 and appointed a series of emergency managers who ran the city schools until last year. The emergency managers apparently never made updating text books a priority.

“The emergency managers were focused on closing schools, budget issues and those kinds of things,” said Randy Liepa, the superintendent of the Wayne County intermediate school district, which supports Wayne County districts including Detroit and helped find about $40,000 in federal money to pay for Detroit’s curriculum audit. “It seems like clearly the curriculum wasn’t being addressed.”

The problem became more acute when Michigan joined 44 other states in adopting the Common Core standards in 2010. Those standards were meant to help states ensure that students would be prepared for college-level work upon graduation. Their adoption rendered old curriculum materials immediately out-of-date — and also spurred criticism that the federal government, which had encouraged states to adopt the standards, had reached too far into states’ purview.

The ensuing tumult has made state officials hesitant to get involved in what is taught in local classrooms, Singer said.

“Once upon a time, states had a very strong role in selecting curriculum,” Singer said, estimating that, five or six years ago, roughly half the states in the country would bring educators together every year to review textbooks and materials and make recommendations to school districts. The states would often provide financial incentives that encouraged districts to choose from the state’s recommended list.

Today, he said, nearly every state leaves those decisions exclusively to local districts, which may or may not have the staff and resources to fully vet the claims of textbook publishers.

“A lot of districts just rely on what vendors tell them,” Vitti said. “[Publishers say], ‘Of course it’s aligned to the new standards.’ They even put on the front cover of the books ‘Aligned to Common Core standards’ but there hasn’t been a lot of time spent unpacking whether that’s really aligned or not.”

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti meets with students at Detroit’s Durfee Elementary-Middle School on the first day of school in September, 2017

The state of Michigan does not track what curriculum materials are being used in local schools. A spokesman for the Michigan Department of Education said it has no way of knowing how many of the state’s more than 500 districts and 300 charter schools are using materials aligned to the standards.

“The MDE doesn’t dictate or track local curricula, or alignment with our state standards,” William DiSessa, a department spokesman, wrote in a statement. “This is a local education state and we’re not charged with doing so.”

People who have paid close attention to curriculum across the country say the result is curriculum materials that often do not reflect what students are expected to know.

“It’s far too common” for districts to be using poorly aligned materials, said Eric Hirsch who heads an organization called EdReports that’s like a Consumer Reports for curriculum. The three-year-old non-profit brings expert educators from around the country together to review curriculums.

Of the first 197 math programs EdReports reviewed, just 48 met the organization’s criteria for alignment. Of the first 111 English Language Arts curriculums EdReports reviewed, just 58 met the organization’s criteria.

Many teachers know they’re not using great materials, Hirsch said, noting that a recent survey of teachers found that only a fraction of teachers — fewer than 1 in 5 — believed the materials they were given by their districts were aligned with state standards.

Instead of relying on those textbooks, he said, teachers spend an average of 12 hours a week searching for lesson plans on the internet.

“They’re on places like Pinterest and Google, which are not curated,” he said. “It’s hard for a teacher who has probably 150 kids to do that level of work.”

That story rings true for Nicole Cato, a ninth-grade English teacher at Detroit’s Mumford High School who returned to the district this year after four years in a suburban school. “I spend a lot of time looking for additional resources,” Cato said. “All of my prep periods, plus the weekends.”

After the audit, district officials are eager to send help Cato’s way. The audit, which was conducted by New York’s Student Achievement Partners, a nonprofit organization whose founders include some of the people who wrote the Common Core standards, awarded the district’s English curriculum 3 out of 21 possible points.

The math curriculum fared even worse. It got zero points.

Sonya Mays, a member of the Detroit school board, which resumed control of the district in January 2017, described the results as “chilling” when they were presented to the board last month.

Now, she said she’s hopeful that the audit can lead to better things.

“As outraged as I am,” Mays said, “the silver lining is it’s really, really hard to make a case that something doesn’t need to change quickly and drastically.”

Curriculum is a relatively easy fix. Buying new materials is significantly less expensive and more practical than lowering class size — especially in a district that already has nearly 200 teacher vacancies.

A quality curriculum is also especially important in cities such as Detroit where the vast majority of students are growing up in homes where they’re less likely to have access to books and less likely to hear the kind of expansive vocabularies that more affluent children do.

“A lot of our kids are entering kindergarten already behind, their vocabulary exposure, their background knowledge, their recognition of letters and sounds,” Vitti said.

If their teachers are well-prepared with a quality curriculum, it can be an equalizer that will put Detroit students on even footing with their peers in the suburbs, he said.

The district is now soliciting bids for a new curriculum that will be used across the district next year.

A team of teachers will review the options, making sure materials meet the needs of special education students and those who are learning English, and that they’re culturally sensitive, meaning students will see pictures and read stories about people who look like them. They’ll consider cost — the district is budgeting between $1 million and $3 million a year for curriculum , Vitti said — and factor in things like whether the materials are user-friendly.

But this much is sure, Vitti said. “Regardless of how nice, how user-friendly the materials are, if they’re not highly aligned to the standards, then they won’t move on.”

The district will select the curriculum later this spring and start to train teachers on it for next year. The process could be difficult, Vitti said. Students might struggle with suddenly being asked to do work for which they haven’t been fully prepared in prior years. But it’s something that district is going to have to go through, he said.

Cato, the Mumford English teacher, said she looks forward to having top-notch instructional materials to use with her students next year — even if she might still supplement with things she finds online.

“Teachers need at least a game plan and a curriculum provides that,” she said.

Read the audits of Detroit’s math and English curriculum below:

Getting from good to great

Many Detroit educators have never worked in a high-performing school. This program imports coaches who have

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Mumford Academyprincipal Nir Saar, left, records video of a lesson taught by Algebra II teacher Lindsey Aldridge as part of a new effort to build a video catalog that he can use to train teachers — a technique he's expanding under the guidance of school leadership coaches.

Throughout the Mumford Academy High School one morning this month, teachers were prepping their students for upcoming SAT exams. Teens flooded the hallways between classes, calling out to friends.

But for much of this day in early April, the school’s principal, Nir Saar, was isolated from the usual rush and noise of his northwest Detroit school. He was instead in a small conference room beyond the main office, huddling with his top advisors and a team of education experts in hopes of solving a problem that some say imperils the ability of schools in Detroit to be truly successful.

The problem is this: Because so many schools in Detroit are struggling, and so many are turning out grads who are ill-equipped to succeed in college, many Detroit educators have never had the chance to work in a high-performing school.

They’ve never seen an effective force of well-supported teachers working together to meet students’ needs and see them succeed.

That’s the impetus behind the new $900,000 Team Fellows Program, funded by the Detroit Children’s Fund, that kicked off earlier this year at the Mumford Academy and at two Detroit charter schools.

The program brings advisors into Detroit schools to provide intensive coaching to principals, assistant principals, deans and other top administrators. The coaches work with school leaders together as a team to collectively create improvement plans, then work to implement them.

The Children’s Fund sees the Team Fellows program as a model that could be expanded across the city. But it has already hit an early hiccup with the news that Mumford Academy is likely merging with the larger Mumford High School. The uncertainty underscores the challenges Detroit school advocates have grappled with for years, as promising programs have begun in schools that closed or were wiped out by changes in management.

Still, supporters are hopeful the concept is strong enough to weather the uncertainty.

Jack Elsey, who launched the program last year after becoming the first executive director of the Children’s Fund, said his goal is to bring strategies that have been successful in other cities to some of the more promising schools in Detroit.

“There are a whole set of best practices that happen sort of repeatedly, almost without thinking, in high-performing schools,” said Elsey, who has worked as a New York City teacher, and as a top school administrator in the main Detroit district, the Chicago Public Schools and in Detroit’s state-run Education Achievement Authority.

“At a foundational level, all high-performing schools have a clear vision for what they want to achieve,” Elsey said. “They’re constantly assessing themselves and having others assess them. … The Team Fellows is designed to provide those reflective moments.”

Cutting shadow missions

The coaches from a New York-based organization called the School Empowerment Network, which got its start helping to launch 121 new schools in New York City, first came to the Mumford Academy in January. They met with students and educators, grilling them about what was working and what needed to improve.

They then set some ambitious goals. Among them: making sure teachers are adopting an “instructional vision” that involves pushing students not just to learn information, but to think about and discuss what they’ve learned.

The team set a goal that 80 percent of current 11th graders would score a 980 on the SAT by 2019, with at least 30 percent scoring at least a 1060 — numbers that would put the school well ahead of the curve in a city where the average SAT score last year was 887 and the statewide average was 1007.

A third goal involves increasing student involvement in school-wide activities by 40 percent — an effort the team and its coaches hope will improve relationships between students and reduce the percentage of students fighting or getting into trouble.

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Coaches from the School Empowerment network including Carrmilla Young, left, and Jessica Westermann, center, huddle with Mumford Academy Principal Nir Saar, right, and his top leadership staff as part of a Team Fellows program that aims to push good schools to get better.

The group then mapped out a long list of action steps that Saar and his team agreed to implement. Their coaches come to Detroit every other week to keep them on task, and will be leading the team on a trip to New York City to tour three schools that the coaches consider models for success. Included on the tour are a charter high school, a small district high school inside a large Manhattan campus, and an unusual K-12 school that uses a project-based curriculum.

On that April morning in the conference room, the Mumford Academy leaders were discussing different ways to observe teachers, and to build “data dashboards” that track everything from student discipline to attendance at after-school events.

They discussed ways to cut down on what they call “shadow missions,” meaning work that takes them away from their priorities. They grappled, for example, with whether the principal and his top advisers should staff lunchtime detention for students who’ve broken school rules.

“You’re wanting to show that you’re willing to be in the trenches and do that work,” Saar said, adding that lunch detention is also a quiet time when he can get other work done.

But if Saar or his assistant principal are watching students during detention, or keeping peace in the cafeteria, they can’t attend teacher planning meetings that take place at the same time — meetings that could be key to promoting the school’s instructional vision.

The group then discussed strategies like developing a rotation so one administrator per day could peel off from lunch duty to work with teachers.

Also in the works that morning was a plan to capture Mumford Academy educators during moments of great teaching to show other teachers how it’s done.

One of the team’s coaches, Carrmilla Young, a Detroit native who has worked in schools in Texas, Chicago and Fresno, California, offered to help locate videos that demonstrate great teaching. But Saar said he preferred to produce them in the school.

“You know how it is,” he said, “when you see your kids and all of that, you rule out all the ‘Oh, these are white kids in the suburbs. They have 15 kids in the class.’ All of that stuff.  So I think we definitely should make a commitment to try to keep it in house.”

He said he and his leadership team would commit to capturing as many videos as they could on their phones so the group could watch them with their coaches to identify moments that would be useful for other teachers.

“We almost need a catalog,” Saar said, “where it’s like, in video one, we can highlight these things … If we get to a really good place, three years down the road, I’d love to have the time signatures so it’s like at a minute-fifteen, we see this element that’s really effective.”

That way, he said, teachers who are struggling with, say, classroom management, could be directed to a certain moment that was captured in a colleague’s classroom.

“That’s a really high level of functioning that I think we eventually will get to,” Saar said.

Will instability interfere?

The Team Fellows program is one of several that the Children’s Fund is kicking off in Detroit this year.

The Fund, which is affiliated with the Skillman Foundation (a Chalkbeat funder), has a stated goal of creating 25,000 high-quality school seats in Detroit by 2025. That would be a major improvement in a city where Elsey estimates that just 8,000 Detroit children currently have access to high-quality schools — a tiny fraction of the more than 100,000 school-aged children in the city.

His organization is heavily focused on training educators. In addition to the Team Fellows program, which works only with teams of leaders currently working together, the fund is now inviting educators to apply for a new Leaders Institute that will train teams of educators to take control of new or existing schools.

For the Team Fellows program, Elsey said leaders from 25 Detroit district and charter schools applied to be part of the program, which was targeted to schools the fund considered “good schools” that could become “great schools” with a little extra support.

The two charter schools that were selected are part of the same network — the Detroit Achievement Academy in northwest Detroit and its newer, sister school, Detroit Prep in Indian Village. The schools selected all had strong track records with test scores, attendance rates and other measures of school quality.

Mumford Academy, a small school that launched with just ninth-graders inside the larger Mumford High School in 2015 when the school was a part of the Education Achievement Authority, was selected last winter before the school’s future was called into doubt.

In March, Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti recommended to the school board that all buildings containing more than one school be merged to save money. That means the Mumford Academy, which now has students in grades 9-11 will likely join with the larger Mumford High School in September. It’s not yet clear who will lead the newly merged school, but Vitti said he sees no reason why the Team Fellows program can’t continue at Mumford.

“If the focus is on supporting children, then they will still be there,” he said. “Just under one school, not two.”

The program was designed to continue through the 2018-19 school year but the merger could mean that Saar and his team could be split up. They might not all be selected to be a part of the new school leadership team, or they might decide to leave.

Elsey said the fund will make decisions when more information is available. After years working in Detroit schools, he said, he’s come to expect perennial change.

“Look, when you do this work, you have to be flexible with the dynamism that exists in today’s urban schools,” he said. “If there’s a way we can continue to believe and see that this program could be helpful at Mumford, then we’re committed to find a way to do that. We’re going to keep watching it.”

That “dynamism” in Detroit schools — usually described with less positive words like ‘instability’ — is one of the things that makes improving schools more difficult in Detroit than elsewhere, Young said.

Mumford alone has, since 2011, been added to the state recovery district and returned to the main Detroit district when the recovery district dissolved. It was put on a state list last year of schools in danger of being shut down. It saw the Mumford Academy created by one set of administrators, and now it faces a merger promoted by another.

“Every district has some variation of that,” Young said. “But it seems like it’s been prevalent in Detroit for a few years now.”

Still, Young said, the benefits of the Team Fellows program will continue no matter what happens to the school.

“A solid instructional vision is important, whether you’ve got 300 kids or you’ve got a whole high school full of them,” she said.

Jessica Westermann, an executive director at the School Empowerment Network and one of the coaches working at the Mumford Academy, noted that Detroit schools have far fewer resources than schools in New York City, where she has spent the bulk of her career.

But that doesn’t mean that the New York team can’t spot ways to help Detroit educators step up their game.

“We can’t bring higher per-pupil funding,” she said. “But I do think there are ways of doing more with the resources you have, of taking the people who are working together, and making sure that they are working in an aligned fashion.”

Saar said the lessons he’s learning will be valuable no matter where he ends up.

“For me as a principal who is often running around doing 20 million different things, this has been a very focusing kind of experience,” Saar said. “It’s really forced us to step back to ask, ‘What is it we actually want a high-quality school to look like?’… It’s not something we spend a lot of time thinking about, but it’s been really nice to have somebody from the outside come and ask those questions.”

New tools

Eight things to know about Detroit’s big math and reading curriculum shift

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn

The countdown is on: In five months, elementary and middle school teachers in the Detroit district will be teaching from all-new curriculum.

District leaders are scrambling to train teachers and prepare families for the switch to new reading and math teaching materials for grades K-5 in reading and K-8 in math. It’s a massive undertaking, and the first time in years Detroit is changing curriculum at this scale.

The move means that students, including many who are years behind grade level, may struggle with materials more difficult than what they are used to. But the district’s leaders are optimistic about the changes, given that the materials will be replacing a curriculum that was exposed as woefully unaligned to state standards. That meant information the state expects students to know was missing.

Parents, students, and teachers likely have questions about what’s coming. Here’s what we know about the new materials and what we’ll be watching for in the months ahead.

1. What are the new curriculums?

In math, students will now use a curriculum called Eureka Mathematics. Eureka is published by the nonprofit Great Minds. It’s also been known as EngageNY, and is a popular choice designed to align with the Common Core standards.    

In reading, students will use a curriculum known as EL Education K-5 Language Arts. That was published by an organization called Open Up Resources.

Both are open-source, which means they are free and available online. That means teachers and parents can check out a lot of the content for themselves, on the Eureka Math website and  the EL website.

2. Are the materials any good?  

Some think so. The reading curriculum received the highest score ever given to a K-5 English Language Arts curriculum by EdReports, a curriculum grading guide. It also got top scores for usability and its alignment to standards for every elementary grade.

An 18-district study by Mathematica Policy Research found that novice teachers using EL Education’s K–5 Language Arts curriculum and receiving specific training were more likely to focus on asking higher-order thinking questions than other novice teachers.

District leaders are banking on the investment to boost reading scores. The stakes are high because, starting in 2020, third-graders won’t be allowed to advance to the fourth grade if they aren’t reading at grade level. If that policy were in place last year, up to 90 percent of city third-graders would have had to repeat the grade.

Eureka Mathematics is currently the highest scoring math curriculum on EdReports that provides material for grades K-8. (EdReports has faced some criticism from groups like the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics in the past, and made changes in response.)

The curriculum has also faced criticism from parents frustrated with confusing homework and some educators who say it pushes students too fast.

3. How many districts use these materials?

Because both curriculums are open-source — and so don’t require district contracts to use — it’s hard to know the exact number of districts or schools that use them. But the creators of EL Education’s literacy curriculum say it is in use in 44 states and D.C., and Eureka Math claims to be the most widely used math curriculum in the country.

Duval County Public Schools in Jacksonville, Florida, where Detroit district Superintendent Nikolai Vitti served as superintendent until last year, used both, and he credits them with helping to raise the district’s standing on the national exam.

In Detroit, the curriculums were chosen by a committee of 113 Detroit educators, 88 of them teachers. The educators on the committee spent weeks reviewing and comparing options, then voted on their favorites.

4. What will they cost?

Both the English and math curriculums are open source, which means they are free and available online, but the district opted to pay for books and teacher training. Those will cost $7.1 million in total, with $5.3 million of that devoted to the reading curriculum.

Teachers will be paid for time spent training over the summer.

5. How does the English curriculum work?

For one, it provides a script for teachers to use, with suggestions on what to say during instruction.

“It’s not scripted because it assumes teachers can’t do it without a script,” said Jessica Sliwerski, chief academic engagement officer at Open Up Resources. “Rather, it’s meant to be a thinking teachers curriculum,” with prompts to help teachers get students engaged.

Brandy Walker, a fifth-grade teacher at the Foreign Language Immersion and Cultural Studies School, said she likes the script. “It tells you exactly what to do,” she said. “I can’t wait for the fall to start using the English curriculum, and see how test scores are going to go up.”

Whether other teachers feel the same way may determine the reception to the curriculum in schools across the city.

6. What about the content of the English lessons?

For students in grades K-2, there’s a daily one-hour lesson paired with a one-hour “lab” and a one-hour block of phonics instruction.

For students in upper elementary grades who are reading independently, the new English curriculum focuses on multicultural novels.

“There are all kinds of culturally relevant stories and informational texts as well,” said Deborah Hunter-Harvill, a school board member.

7. What does the math curriculum look like?

The content will vary widely from kindergarten to eighth grade. But in general, the Eureka curriculum is known for diving deep on fewer topics in each grade and for requiring students to show that they can solve problems in different ways.

8. How will these new materials work for students who are learning English or just struggling with the content?

Both curriculums include “scaffolding” support — specific methods teachers can use to adjust their instruction.

Eureka Mathematics incorporates notes in the margins of teacher texts for each lesson explaining how to help specific learners, including English language learners, students with disabilities, students performing above grade level, and students performing below grade level.

Chalkbeat Detroit wants to hear your questions. Fill out this form to ask a question related to the new curriculum and we will do our best to answer it in an upcoming story.