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School turnaround plan improving test scores, but teacher retention crisis is urgent

Nicole Honeywell for Unsplash.com

One year into a state turnaround program, some of Michigan's lowest-performing schools are showing improvement.

That’s according to a massive new report from Michigan State University, where researchers are fastidiously tracking Michigan’s Partnership Model.

That’s the plan former-Governor Rick Snyder authorized two years ago, when the state’s school reform officer was threatening to close as many as 38 schools. The backlash was fierce. 

So instead, the state rolled out an alternative plan. “Partnership” schools would get a little extra money and help from the state, and local leaders would be allowed to map out their own improvement plans, with reviews at the 18 and 24-month marks. 

While there’s only one year of data available at this point, MSU education professor Katharine Strunk says so far, math and reading scores are on the rise. Schools in Detroit made especially significant gains. 

But of the 3,000 educators interviewed for the report, there was broad agreement: teacher retention and recruitment is probably the biggest, most urgent challenge. 

“So you’ve got teachers who are there for a little bit and then leave, and you’ve gotta bring in subs,” Strunk says. “All the money you spent on PD is gone. All the money you spent on...even training for a new rigorous curriculum, those teachers and those principals are gone. And you have to retrain all the new ones, if they’re there. And that just makes it incredibly hard to do the kind of reform work that we want these districts to do.” 

One of the first things the 209-page report notes: partnership schools don’t get a fair playing field. The 35 schools in the program’s first round are a “snapshot of economic and social inequality,” the report says, and educators say $6-7 million additional state aid distributed across the districts doesn’t go nearly far enough.

Teacher salaries in these partnership districts are lower than 70% of other districts in the same intermediate school district (ISD). Yet there’s another glimmer of hope here: teachers were less slightly likely to leave districts that were part of the state’s partnership program. 

“Which was surprising to us,” Strunk says. “We would have thought we would have seen teachers being more hesitant to go [work there.] And we actually saw slight increases in teacher retention in these districts. So that seems like a positive net gain, that maybe things are changing in these districts.” 

It’s still too early to make any sweeping conclusions, Strunk cautions, given that there’s only one year of data so far. But they’ll be releasing year-by-year evaluations of the Partnership model. You can read thefull report, or the executive summary, here.


Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.
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