Michigan: Students have no right to literacy

Literacy is not a fundamental right, argues the State of Michigan. The state is fighting a lawsuit charging Detroit schools are so bad they deny children a chance to learn to read, reports the Detroit Free Press.

Only a small percentage of Detroit students read proficiently.

Only a small percentage of Detroit students read proficiently.

“As important as literacy may be, the United States Supreme Court has unambiguously rejected the claim that public education is a fundamental right under the Constitution,” the state lawyers argue. “Literacy is a component or particular outcome of education, not a right granted to individuals by the Constitution.”

The lawsuit filed Sept. 13 on behalf of seven Detroit schoolchildren claims the State of Michigan has failed to provide them with basic literacy, a foundation of all education and a precursor to active citizenship. It asks the federal courts to order remedies, including “evidence-based literacy reforms,” a systemic approach to instruction and intervention as well as fixes to crumbling Detroit schools.

The suit argues that literacy “is a right because without it, citizens can’t access other constitutionally protected activities such as casting an informed vote, or serving on juries or in the military,” reports the Free Press.

Detroit, which has been run by state-appointed managers in recent years, is one of the lowest performing urban districts in the nation. Overall, fewer than 5 percent of students test as proficient.

Nearly half of Detroit adults are functionally illiterate, according to a 2011 report.

The Detroit Free Press has launched a series looking for solutions to the crime, abuse, poverty, neglect and school failure that affects the city’s children.

Study: Teachers bargain, students lose

Teachers’ collective bargaining rights correlate with lower employment and earnings for students later in adult life, concludes a study by Michael F. Lovenheim and Alexander Willén in Education Next.
They compared student outcomes in states that enacted a duty-to-bargain law to outcomes in states that did not change their collective-bargaining policies.

There was no effect on the amount of schooling students completed.

However, “students who spent all 12 years of grade school in a state with a duty-to-bargain law earned an average of $795 less per year and worked half an hour less per week as adults than students who were not exposed to collective-bargaining laws.” Those educated in duty-to-bargain states were less likely to be employed and those with jobs were more likely to work in low-skilled occupations.

Why? They’re not sure.

Perhaps collective bargaining has made it more difficult for school districts to dismiss ineffective teachers or to allocate teachers among schools. Or perhaps the political influence of teachers unions at the state level has interfered with efforts to improve school quality.

More than 60 percent of U.S. teachers work under a union contract, but some states, such as Wisconsin, Michigan,  Indiana and Tennessee, have moved to restrict teachers’ bargaining rights.

‘Thinking like a scientist’ — without facts

Memorizing is out, thinking like a scientist is in, thanks to Michigan’s proposed new science standards, reports Lori Higgins in the Detroit Free Press. 

Instead of “memorizing the ins and outs of life cycles, photosynthesis and matter,” Michigan students will “ask questions, investigate, analyze data, develop evidence and defend their conclusions,” writes Higgins. “In short, they’re going to have to think, act and learn like scientists.

What does this mean? Projects.

“There’s a lot more hands-on activities, a lot more getting your hands dirty, trying things out, taking the core ideas and scientific and engineering practices and putting them together,” said Brian Peterson, a fifth-grade teacher at Musson Elementary in Rochester Community Schools.

Take a popular balloon rocket experiment, he said. Nowadays a teacher might give students the basic materials (a balloon, string, straw and tape), then step-by-step instructions. Under the new method, a teacher might provide kids with different sizes of balloons, different lengths of straws, and different materials for string, then turn them loose.

The kids design their own balloon rocket — then defend why they made the material and size choices they did.

“Scientists think like scientist because THEY #$%@! KNOW SCIENCE!,” writes Robert Pondiscio on Facebook.

This isn’t new. In The Music Man, Professor Harold Hill promised Iowans their sons would learn to play music via the “think system.”

Skilled trades don’t appeal to students

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder is trying to persuade students to train for welding, carpentry, machining and other skilled-trades jobs, but job training programs are having trouble recruiting students. Many don’t believe a community college credential will lead to a good job.

Houston business leaders also are having trouble persuading young people to train for blue-collar jobs that are seen as “dirty jobs.”

Court upholds ban on racial preferences

States can ban racial preferences in university admissions ruled the U.S. Supreme Court today on a 6-2 vote. The case involves a Michigan initiative passed by voters.

“This case is not about how the debate (over racial preferences) should be resolved,” Justice Anthony Kennedy said in announcing the ruling. But to stop Michigan voters from making their own decision on affirmative action would be “an unprecedented restriction on a fundamental right held by all in common.”

Seven other states – California, Florida, Washington, Arizona, Nebraska, Oklahoma and New Hampshire – have similar bans, notes USA Today.

When the University of Texas’ affirmative action plan was thrown out in court, the state came up with a race-neutral alternative. The Texas Ten Percent Plan (TTP) guarantees admission to state universities — including University of Texas in Austin and Texas A&M — to the top students in each high school class. Florida and California adopted similar guarantees.

The Ten Percent Plan encourages top students to enroll in state universities, but doesn’t increase university attendance, according to a study in Education Next.  “The program appears to have simply shifted students from selective private or out-of-state colleges to the two flagship universities. That may have lowered educational costs for eligible students, but it did not enhance the quality of their higher education opportunities.”

‘How badly can we mess up kindergarten?’

Ryan was ready to read, but the public school didn’t teach reading in kindergarten. So Paula Bolyard and her husband decided to homeschool for a year, thinking, “How badly can we mess up kindergarten?”  Bolyard recalls her 14 years of homeschooling in PJ Media Lifestyle.

Though I had no training in teaching or pedagogy (I had never even heard the word pedagogy), I taught Ryan to read using a boxed reading program with phonics songs on cassette tapes (a-a apple, b-b-ball, c-c-cat, and d-d-doll…).

Ryan was reading by Christmas. The Bolyards decided they couldn’t do much harm in first grade. They kept going, adding Ryan’s brother when he was old enough.

We came to believe that this was the best possible educational choice for our children. They were not only growing academically, but socially and spiritually we saw signs of the budding maturity we desired in them.

There were no “matching, hand-sewn outfits and freshly baked bread every day,” she writes. “We worked through learning disabilities and speech therapy” and what the family now calls “Algebra with Anger.”

But then I have a picture in my mind of my precious boys snuggled up with me on the couch as I’m reading Johnny Tremain to them. . . . The American Revolution is jumping off the pages and coming to life for them as Johnny helps Paul Revere warn that the British are coming! We have already read a couple chapters from the Bible that day, a chapter from a missionary biography, and have worked on memorizing Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem “If.”

Later in the afternoon the boys are scheduled to do some independent reading, work on a science lab (growing radishes), and complete their math lessons. But for now, they beg me to keep reading Johnny Tremain  — and because we are homeschoolers, we have the freedom to keep reading all afternoon if we want to. And we do, because I want to know what happens to Johnny and Paul Revere.

“Parents, who love and understand their children better than anyone else in the world, are well-qualified to educate their children at home and should seriously consider taking on the challenge,” concludes Bolyard.

Sending your children to traditional schools can be challenging too, she adds, linking to Jen Hatmaker’s Worst End of School Year Mom Ever.

Homeschoolers are coming to crave brick-and-mortar buildings, writes Linda. The Tampa Bay HEAT, which provides athletics, enrichment and classes for homeschoolers, hopes to buy a building, she writes. She’s inspired by the Homeschool Building in Wyoming, Michigan, which is used for “tutoring classes, soccer practices, volleyball games marching band, orchestras and, of course, basketball games and practices.”

Private managers take over Michigan schools

Two high-spending, low-performing Michigan school districts are now under for-profit management, reports Ed Week. Emergency managers hired Mosaica Education to run Muskegon Heights schools and the Leona Group to take over Highland Park, which borders Detroit. Can charter managers turn around failing school districts?

Both districts primarily enroll low-income black students. Both ran up huge budget deficits, while test scores remained very low. In both, schools have been plagued by violence.

In the middle of the first year, attendance was up and fighting was down, Mosaica’s Alena Zachery-Ross told Muskegon Heights parents.

Reading and math scores were up since the fall for 2nd to 7th graders, although many students continued to lag behind where they should be, she said, and many 8th to 12th graders remained far behind where they should be to graduate on time.

. . . According to tests administered at the beginning of the school year, 92 percent of 9th graders scored at least three grade levels below where they should have been in reading, and 82 percent were at least three grade levels below in math.

Teacher turnover has been high. Mosaica uses a structured, prescriptive curriculum and stresses “bell-to-bell instruction.” Some teachers quit as a result. In addition, Mosaica’s base teacher salary in Muskegon Heights is $35,000, with no retirement plan, compared with the former district’s $49,132. The company also cut  administrative positions to save money.

In Highland Park, Leona also pays lower salaries — an average of $39,400 compared with the $54,700 before — and spends less on administrators.

Cutting costs is essential.

The now defunct (Highland Park) school district operated under a $20 million budget in 2011-12. The new charter district is currently operating with a $14.6 million budget.

. . . (In Muskegon Heights) the charter district is operating on a budget of $8.9 million compared with the previous year, when the budget totaled $15.9 million, which does not include debt service.

Can Mosaica and Leona produce significantly better outcomes with significantly less funding? In both districts, the schools are safer. But that’s just the first step.

States to watch in 2013

The education minded should keep an eye on Mississippi, Illinois, Indiana and Iowa in 2013, advises Dropout Nation. And from last year’s states to watch list, Florida, Louisiana, New Jersey and Michigan will continue to be interesting.

Michigan teachers protest right-to-work bill

Michigan teachers walked out to protest a right-to-work law that will end automatic deductions to pay union dues. The bill passed the legislature and will be signed by Gov. Rick Snyder. Several districts that couldn’t find enough substitutes declared a “snow day.” An estimated 26,000 students missed class.

After Wisconsin’s teachers’ unions lost the right to collect dues from all teachers — and to negotiate for non-monetary issues — union membership fell by 30 percent.

Teacher Nancy Flanagan explains why she’s “stickin’ to the union.

Motor City meltdown

Detroit’s incompetent school board could regain control of the city’s worst schools, reports the Detroit News.

The state’s Education Achievement Author, modeled on Louisiana’s Recovery District, took control of the lowest-achieving schools last year under a contract written by Roy Roberts, the emergency manager. When Michigan voters repealed the state’s “emergency manager” law, the Detroit Board of Education canceled the contract, writes Education Gadfly in Meltdown in the Motor City. The Detroit school board, which one newspaper columnist said was “sauced on power and staggering with incompetence,” now wants to take back the schools, which are in the lowest 5 percent of Michigan schools in achievement.