News Story

Media Praises Hardworking Detroit Teacher, But Ignores Key Fact:

Her school is among Michigan's very worst

USA Today partnered with the Detroit Free Press recently to publish a series of stories on U.S. public school teachers who say they have been disrespected.

One article chronicled a day in the classroom of Detroit school district teacher Felecia Branch. The teacher’s compassion for her students is highlighted, with images of Branch hugging her students and descriptions of how she builds up their confidence through daily interactions. The article states that Branch is a motherly figure to many of her students.

But the report ignored one important aspect of public education: Are the children in this school learning?

In the case of the school where Branch teaches, the answer is a resounding “no.”

MacKenzie Elementary and Middle School is and has been among Michigan’s very worst public schools, according to recent assessments by both the state and by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.

The Mackinac Center report cards cover the 2011-16 time period. Importantly, they incorporate the effect of students’ economic backgrounds into how they grade schools. This allows the report cards to measure the amount of learning that actually takes place in a school, rather than how far its students may lag their peers in more affluent communities when starting out.

Schools where disadvantaged students advance more rapidly do better on this report card than schools where more advantaged students progress at a slower pace, even if the latter group may score higher on state tests.

In contrast, the state of Michigan’s school rankings do not factor in the socioeconomic background of the students they serve. This means that most schools with a higher percentage of disadvantaged students tend to be clustered at the bottom of the state’s ranking, even if their students are advancing at a faster pace than those elsewhere.

MacKenzie Elementary and Middle School has ranked at the bottom under either methodology. The state places it in the bottom one percent of all public schools.

In the Mackinac Center’s 2011-13 and 2014-16 report cards, MacKenzie Elementary and Middle School received an “F.” But that doesn’t quite cover just how poor the academic performance of that school has been.

In the 2011-13 report card, the Mackinac Center reviewed 2,246 elementary and middle schools and Mackenzie Elementary and Middle School finished 2,229th, meaning just 17 Michigan public schools performed worse.

In the 2014-16 report card, the Mackinac Center reviewed 2,261 elementary and middle schools and Mackenzie Elementary and Middle School placed 2,246th, meaning just 15 schools performed worse in the entire state.

The USA Today report states that Mackenzie teacher Felecia Branch suffered a pay cut and then had no raises for several years. But the article doesn’t explain why Detroit teachers had to take pay cuts. It happened because the district experienced an enrollment implosion over the past decade, due an exodus of students escaping the worst performing city schools in the United States.

That status was awarded by biannual National Assessment of Educational Progress reports, long called dubbed the nation’s report card, which ranked Detroit as the country’s worst urban school district in 2009, 2011, 2013, 2015 and 2017.

The period covered by these reports coincides with a 47 percent plunge in Detroit school district enrollment, from 95,494 students in 2009 to 50,210 in 2018. Parents were helped in getting their children out of the city’s failing schools by two Michigan public school choice programs: one that let children enroll at charter schools and another that let students attend schools in neighboring districts.

Enrollment at public charter schools in Detroit has risen to 50,460 in the 2016-17 school year – more than the 44,890 students who remained in the conventional school district. Tens of thousands more students who live in Detroit attend charters in other communities, or travel to other school districts under a state program known as Schools of Choice.

“Context matters, especially when the results at this school — and many others in Detroit – are so dismal,” said Ben DeGrow, director of education policy at the Mackinac Center. “Many parents have fled these schools to find better opportunities for their kids, and most of them are satisfied with what they’ve found. Charter schools in Detroit are getting better results for their students for significantly less funding. The typical charter environment is enabling teachers to make a greater impact on how much students learn. We need to be more curious about what’s causing that kind of success, and how to make it even better.”