WMU News

Science and math specialists land $2 million Detroit school reform job

October 20, 1998

KALAMAZOO -- A pair of Western Michigan University science and mathematics evaluation specialists have been awarded $1,950,000 to serve as the independent external evaluators of the Detroit Schools' 21st Century Initiative, the largest and most comprehensive reform effort ever undertaken in the Detroit school system.

Dr. Zoe A. Barley and Dr. Mark Jenness, researchers with WMU's Science and Mathematics Program Improvement project, will lead a team that includes researchers from the University of Michigan and two private firms in an evaluation of the first five years of the work in the Detroit initiative. The Detroit effort is one of 11 large urban school projects in the nation that is sponsored by the Annenberg Foundation.

Philanthropist Walter Annenberg issued a challenge to the nation's urban school districts in 1993 and since then grants have been awarded through his foundation to efforts that represent responses to that challenge. The grants are funding initiatives aimed at boosting teaching and learning in public schools by improving community relationships, personalizing the relationship between students and teachers, finding better ways to meet the developmental needs of children and freeing city schools to reshape themselves in ways that best suit the communities they serve.

In Detroit, $20 million in Annenberg funds was matched by $20 million in state and federal education funds and another $20 million in grants from private foundations. The $60 million total is funding a five-year top-to-bottom review and restructuring of the city's schools that involves 14 major stakeholder groups. They include the school district; parent and community organizations such as the United Way, the Detroit Urban League, the NAACP and the City-Wide School Community Organization; teachers and administrators; unions; universities; and local and national foundations such as the Kellogg, Knight, Kresge, Mott and Hudson Webber foundations.

Funding for WMU's involvement came from the Schools of the 21st Century Corp. of Detroit, the private non-profit organization set up to administer funds and oversee the effort. An earlier $50,000 planning grant for the project also was received. Joining Barley and Jenness in the effort will be evaluation professionals from the University of Michigan; Roegan Enterprises Inc., a Detroit firm specializing in technical assistance to schools; and Abt Associates Inc., a school evaluation and technical assistance firm in Cambridge, Mass.

"This really is a challenge to schools in Detroit to turn things around," says Barley of the entire effort. "It is very important locally and critically important nationally. If this opportunity to reform schools in large urban centers fails, there will be questions about whether achieving such a goal is possible."

To determine whether the goals in Detroit are being met over the course of the project, the evaluation team, working with the Detroit community and DPS, have drawn up a series of "joint success indicators" that reflect the goals of the initiative as well as the district's overall student achievement goals. They also will be looking carefully at how well the district's efforts live up to agreements that exist between the district and its various stakeholders. A major consideration for the evaluation team is how to collect complete data that reflect movement toward those goals.

"Determining changes in the schools' MEAP scores is easy," Barley notes, because of a firmly entrenched testing and reporting system for the Michigan Educational Assessment Program tests. "But instead of just looking at how schools stack up against other schools, we need to look at the kind of yearly progress being made in what's happening for kids in classrooms and at home. We also need to measure changes in parent and community involvement in the schools and that may be difficult because we'll want to reach nonengaged parents about their views on the district and many of them may not have a phone."

Among tools they will use for data collection are surveys, school site visits, document gathering and interviews with stakeholders and staff. They also will convene parent and community meetings and attend formal initiative meetings and events.

To begin the evaluation process, this fall the evaluation team is surveying all of the district's principals as well as teachers in the 20 comprehensive high schools to determine their views on school climate and district goals. They also will be doing informal site visits to schools. During the winter, they will survey all 5th- and 8th-grade teachers and conduct 16 in-depth site visits to cluster schools. All of those efforts will be to compile baseline data for making future comparisons.

An unusual aspect of the Detroit effort, Barley says, is its scope. Originally planned to involve about 45 of the district's schools, the effort has expanded to include more than 300 schools organized into 63 clusters. The expanded number of schools also means an expansion of the evaluation activities needed.

Detroit, says Barley, also is unique among the Annenberg projects around the country in that community involvement in the work is very real and includes representation at the top decision-making levels of the effort.

"It is not easy to create this collaboration," she notes. "It's been described as a marriage and our evaluation team has been pulled into that work in a very extensive way."

An all-volunteer council guides the Schools for the 21st Century initiative in Detroit and a subcommittee, also comprised of volunteers, is providing input on the evaluation. Working with concerned and committed community members who may not fully understand evaluation techniques presents another challenge says Barley, but its one her team welcomes.

She and Jenness have a history of working with statewide science and mathematics reform projects in Michigan and Vermont where they worked closely with project stakeholders as reforms developed.

"Our strengths are our ability to develop collaborative evaluation and a willingness to provide technical assistance. Those are the traits the Detroit stakeholders were looking for," she notes.

Media contact: Cheryl Roland, 616 387-8400, cheryl.roland@wmich.edu

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