An Open Letter to Parents, Students & Educators in Oakland County

From Dr. Vickie L. Markavitch, Superintendent of Oakland Schools, October 22, 2012

Good afternoon Oakland County parents, students and educators,

You may have seen me quoted in recent newspaper articles (Oakland County school districts not happy with state’s labels and State slams Oakland Schools for wide achievement gap) or heard me say in my podcast (Losing Focus with Focus Schools?) that the metrics used to define Focus Schools in Michigan are flawed. I stand behind this statement and because I do, Oakland County and our public schools are being targeted by Michigan’s State Superintendent Michael Flanagan.

The State Superintendent’s office has sent communications to our local media accusing Oakland County school leaders of being “in denial” and ignoring our schools’ achievement gaps. This is simply not true and I’d like to set the record straight.

The reason that Oakland Schools, the Michigan Association of School Administrators, the Michigan Association of Intermediate School Administrators, the Tri-County Alliance, other intermediate school districts and local schools across the state have raised concerns about the Focus School designation is the dire consequences associated with its implementation.

Impoverished districts will bear the costs of diverted resources (such as Title I funds), plus the costs of added busing, loss of remedial teachers, and more. The schools receiving these diverted resources are NOT where the most critical academic problems lie. The metric used to identify Focus Schools does not focus on closing the achievement gap to high standards of proficiency, and it does not focus attention or resources to schools that need them the most.

The MDE is quoted in the Oakland Press as saying “Some Focus Schools, as a whole, may look good because the high-achieving student scores bring up the overall school results, but they can disguise a large number of students who are struggling academically.” The Oakland County schools “look good” because they are outstanding schools, and I stand by that fact.  In fact more Focus Schools in Oakland County have an average MEAP scale score above the state standard than schools that are NOT on the Focus list. (See Focus Schools – Oakland County) As a matter of fact, looking at the achievement of Oakland County students overall we see scores above state averages for every subject at every grade level. (See MEAP/MME Performance in Oakland County).

The purpose of the new Focus School metric, according to MDE, is to help local schools recognize the large achievement gaps they have within their student bodies. Well we agree schools ought to identify and remove achievement gaps, large or small, between what students know and what they need to know to be college and career ready. But that means we need to look at the gap between current student learning and a clear, consistent and rigorous proficiency standard – not the gap between the highest and lowest learner in a particular school. In fact, once students are at proficiency we ought to help them soar way above proficiency according to their own interests and talents. That is how we have scientists, musicians, engineers, journalists, and artists in this great society of ours. In order to close the gap using the metric the MDE identifies, we would have to promote sameness over high achievement – and that is just wrong.

For the MDE to accuse Oakland County educators of being in denial over achievement gaps is absurd. We have been monitoring our data on achievement gaps for years and we are closing the gap to proficiency for every population. (See Closing Achievement Gaps in Oakland County) In 2005 the educators of Oakland County and their boards of education formed the Learning Achievement Coalition-Oakland (LAC-O). It is a collaborative made up of school personnel and university professors, and it’s the reason why Oakland County has made significant gains in closing the achievement gap. LAC-O members meet monthly to plan strategies and monitor progress toward their goals of raising the academic bar for all learners and decreasing the gap between student learning and rigorous standards of proficiency.

I think the data cited above paints a positive picture of where student achievement sits in Oakland County right now, and the direction it is going. Which is why the chart sent out by MDE was, in my opinion, unfair and out of context. You probably know that Michigan enacted new cut scores for its MEAP tests recently. You should know that Oakland educators embraced those higher college and career ready standards and are vigorously working to help all students meet these new standards. But the standards are new, and one consequence of being on the learning curve is that test performance across the state and in Oakland County is lower than it had been previously.

In fact for schools that do not have more than 70% of their students scoring proficient on these new standards in any given subject at any given grade, the percent proficient in the bottom 30% of student scores has to be zero. This is simple math. So, how many schools did have more than 70% of their students score above the new proficiency cut scores? Looking at the actual data for all schools in Michigan and schools in Oakland County, we see for every subject at every grade tested, there are more schools with more than 70% of their students scoring proficient in Oakland County than in the state. That means that Oakland County also has more students from our bottom 30% scoring proficient. (See Percent of Schools Scoring Above 70% Proficient on Michigan New MEAP Cut Scores)

I wanted you to know that the educators working in your schools are doing an excellent job of educating our students. They are committed to bringing all of our students to a high standard of proficiency and are making steady and consistent progress in doing just that. But we also want to assure you that when your county educators believe they are being distracted from that work, when they see resources diverted from this work, then they will continue to make their thoughts known to educational policy makers. Democracy calls for no less.

Sincerely,

Dr. Vickie L. Markavitch, Superintendent
Oakland Schools

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5 comments

  1. BlueOak · · Reply

    Simple. It sounds like the “Focus Schools” metric = OBE (Outcome Based Education). Remember that wonderful concept? It is exactly what drove our children into private education. Punish success. There’s too much of this sickness going around – similarly in politics.

    1. Agreed! To repeat my earlier tweet: Focus Schools punishes schools w/ high achievers if there’s a gap between high & low pupils – even if progress is made by all!”

  2. Stephanie · · Reply

    I would agree that your argument is logical. However you are basing everything on Meap scores, tests that school districts in Oakland County spend weeks if not months teaching or should I say reteaching materials taught the previous year. That is not real assesment and it unfair to judge other counties as if all things are equal. oskland county is one of if not the richest county in Michigan do you expect me to believe that PTA’s and other groups aren’t finding some of the extra learning sessions. We used to go to Rochester Community Schools and I believe they were all about mediocracy, sameness, and lack of academic freedom to excel. We moved when my youngest was entering 2nd grade, he was constantly being ridiculed for not trying hard enough to learn to read…their solution was that he needed to be medicated or physically restrained with a weighted vest or lap blanket to help him”focus”… What a joke they wanted to tire him out. Where we moved to his DRA reading level went from a 4 to a 30 in one school year! Not because they medicated or weighted him down. But because they worked with him individually. Don’t even get me started on Chicago Math or Denealian handwriting. I think Oakland county and the State of Michigan needs to look hard at their education system and compare it with some of the premiere public schools in the country, like those of Northern Virginia. Or your students won’t be able to compete.

    1. I agree that we are required by federal and state policies to do too much high stakes testing and that pushes schools and teachers to adjust their lessons to those tests. Authentic assessment is an important part of instruction when it used diagnostically with students to best match their learning needs and monitor their academic progress, but schools are being forced to do more testing than is necessary – testing that is too frequently not aligned with instruction (and more than not, tests which assess lower order thinking skills). This is hurting schools across Michigan and the U.S. not just in Oakland County. I also agree it is not fair to compare counties, school districts, or students. Comparisons don’t improve learning for anyone!

  3. Linda Cumming · · Reply

    I am homeschooling my daughter this year because of the “focus” school concept. She is extremely accelerated and they will not let her rise above the “core standards”. Unbelievable, for anyone frustrated by this system I would recommend checking out Oxford School District. They are unbelievably progressive.

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