Rochelle Riley’s column on Sunday in the Detroit Free Press begins this way: “Something miraculous happened at this year’s Mackinac Policy Conference sponsored by the Detroit Regional Chamber. For the first time that I can recall, people in charge of changing people’s lives spent most of their time focused on those in the state who need their help the most.”
Detroit’s school superintendent, Dr. Nikolai Vitti, finishing his first year on the job, made the biggest waves—by telling the truth.
Remember that in these accountability-driven times, when school superintendents pretty much have to promise to raise test scores as a requirement for getting hired, these people have to pretend they can turn a district around on a dime. When they inevitably fail, they are fired. Three years is a long time for such people to last.
And remember the history of Detroit’s schools, until 2017 under years of state takeover—run by a state government dominated by DeVos conservatives. For years Governor Rick Snyder had been able to impose emergency fiscal managers on the school district—people responsible for cutting costs but not required to be educators. Until the beginning of 2017, when an elected school board was sworn in and its members set out to find a superintendent of their own choosing.
Dr. Nikolai Vitti was their choice, and last week at the end of his first year on the job, at a conference sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce at the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island, he confronted the dogma of Michigan’s power establishment—Rick Snyder, the DeVos family and all the rest.
The Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss reprinted part of Dr. Vitti’s remarks: “People often ask me, ‘What were you most surprised about when you took the job and started to work in the system?’ And I often say I was shocked, horrified at the lack of systems and processes for traditional public education. Traditional public education has always been, and hopefully will always be, the vehicle for social change, for social justice, for equal opportunity in this country. And walking into the system and seeing a lack of systems and processes is a testament to the lack of belief in what children can do.”
Vitti continued: “And there is a racist element to what has happened. Children in Detroit have been treated like second-class citizens. When a system is allowed to be run over a decade by individuals, and it’s not about one individual, but individuals that had no track record of education reform, no local governance structure to address immediate concerns and issues by the community through an elected board… and year after year of low performance, a lack of growth, drop in enrollment, facilities that are not kept up, that would never ever happen in any white suburban district in this country. And that is a testament of race. Because this country would not allow that. We see signs of that in Flint and we saw signs of that in New Orleans after the flood and we have multiple examples of this.”
Vitti decried any lack of real commitment to equity: “And there is oftentimes very strong rhetoric about equal opportunity in public education. It’s time to actually support it financially. But even with the right policy, even when we talk about “we need accountability”…. I often say to people, when you inject the accountability, what are you doing for support? Because for best practices for every unit of accountability, there has to be a corresponding unit of support. And for schools that are deeply struggling basically because of poverty, there needs to be extra degrees of support. And that’s what we haven’t figured out.”
Vitti’s comments were part of a panel that included Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and other community leaders. Detroit Free Press columnist Rochelle Riley, who was the panel’s moderator, asked Vitti to speak from the point of view of an 8-year-old third-grader and to tell the audience what the third-grader would say about his school. She reports Vitti’s answer: “I want the same thing that your child wants… I may not have your privilege. I may not have the color of your skin. I may live in a different ZIP code. But I want the exact same thing you want for your son, your daughter, your grandchild, your niece, your nephew. That’s what I want.”
In the Washington Post, Valerie Strauss reports on another sign of evolving attitudes. Richmond’s new school superintendent, originally an acolyte of Michelle Rhee and her use of test scores to evaluate teachers, has not taken to Richmond the IMPACT teacher evaluation system he helped develop for use in the schools of Washington, D.C. Jason Kamras became superintendent of the Richmond Public Schools late in 2017.
Strauss describes how IMPACT worked in Washington, D.C. when Kamras was serving under Rhee: “Kamras helped create and implement an assessment system for teachers and other adults in D.C. schools that was on the leading edge of a movement to evaluate teachers by student standardized test scores. Those evaluations were used to reward and punish educators. Michelle Rhee, then chancellor of the D.C. school system, was a leader of that movement, and the teacher evaluation system they developed, called IMPACT, was a national model embraced in part by other states. Launched in 2009, IMPACT’s key evaluative elements were student standardized test scores and the results of classroom observations from ‘master’ teachers… For several years, all adults in a school building were graded in part on student test scores, including the custodial staff and the people who worked in the lunch room, the idea being that everybody contributed to the school’s climate. IMPACT used methods of data analysis that were not considered especially reliable or valid for high-stakes purposes, but supporters of test-based school reform didn’t seem to mind.”
You may remember that in 2014, the American Statistical Association rejected Value-Added-Measures (VAM) evaluations of teachers by their students’ scores. The ASA declared: “VAMs are generally based on standardized test scores, and do not directly measure potential teacher contributions toward other student outcomes. VAMs typically measure correlation, not causation: Effects—positive or negative—attributed to a teacher may actually be caused by other factors that are not captured in the model. Under some conditions, VAM scores and rankings can change substantially when a different model or test is used….” And in 2015, the American Educational Research Association warned strongly against over-relying on students’ standardized test scores for evaluating their teachers.
It is one thing for psychometric experts to caution about the use of students’ test scores for judging teachers, and quite another for a practicing school district leader who helped design IMPACT for Washington, D.C.’s schools to reject such a system when he later becomes a school superintendent. Valerie Strauss quotes what Kamras recently said when he was asked about whether he would bring the system he helped design for Washington, D.C. to his new school district in Richmond: “My thinking on this has evolved… The idea of high expectations for everyone—myself, teachers, students—is certainly something that I believe in and something that will be a part of my leadership here… But how that looks concretely is something we need to explore with our educators, students and families. What I can say for certain: I am not bringing IMPACT to Richmond.”