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Sept. 28, 2021

Michigan’s lowest-performing schools faced extreme challenges during the pandemic

The state’s lowest-performing schools and districts faced extraordinary challenges during the pandemic with greater COVID-19 spread and disproportionately higher death rates, according to the latest report from Michigan State University’s Education Policy Innovation Collaborative, the strategic research partner of the Michigan Department of Education.


Learning was greatly affected in Partnership school communities that experienced more cumulative cases and deaths per 100,000 population by the end of the 2020-21 school year with consistently higher infection rates. Student absenteeism was pervasive with educators largely agreeing that educating students who did not attend was their greatest challenge.


Michigan’s Partnership Model of school reform was launched in the spring of 2017 to support the state’s lowest-performing schools and school districts.


The students who made the largest gains in the first two years of the Partnership intervention — prior to the pandemic — appear to be the students with the highest level of need. However, due to the  pandemic, only about 12% of Partnership educators, believed that their students were on track academically.  


Even as districts throughout the state returned to in-person learning in spring 2021, most Partnership districts offered remote-only instruction for the majority of the 2020-21 school year. Learning from home was challenging as teachers reported their students grappled with out-of-school issues related to access to health care and housing, economic instability, food insecurity and illness. Schools were forced to address resource and capacity constraints.


High school graduation rates, which were ticking up in the first two years of Partnership implementation, dropped back down in 2019-20.


“All of the data and evidence that has been accumulating within Michigan and across the country show how greatly the pandemic has exacerbated already-existing inequities in the public systems that serve our students,” said Katharine Strunk, director of EPIC, and the Clifford Erickson Distinguished Professor of Education Policy at MSU’s College of Education. “Our latest report hammers in that point: Kids in Michigan’s lowest-performing schools and districts live in communities that were hit harder by COVID and by the resulting economic and health consequences of the pandemic. How could this not affect their opportunities to learn?”

Katharine Strunk, Clifford E. Erickson Distinguished Chair in Education and co-director of the Education Policy Innovation Collaborative research lab

Notably, the probability of students leaving Michigan public schools entirely increased. Students were approximately 2 percentage points more likely to leave Michigan education in 2019-20 than in previous years and also more likely to leave than students in low-performing comparison schools. Kindergarten enrollment declined sharply in Partnership schools in 2020-21 — steeper drops than other schools in the state.


In positive terms, the report found that teachers in Partnership schools and districts reported that their principals were highly effective on average and principal effectiveness has increased over each of the three years of the evaluation. Survey data also show that the share of teachers and principals planning to stay in their current roles increased in the 2020-21 school year. Educators cited factors such as school leadership and culture and climate as their top reasons for wanting to stay.


“One thing that our results make clear is the dedication of the educators working in Michigan’s Partnership schools and districts,” Strunk said. “Teachers and school and district leaders were on the front lines of the pandemic and our results suggest that they are working hard to support their students.”


The Partnership Model focuses on building capacity to improve student outcomes by asking districts to carefully assess their own needs and challenges and then develop context-specific solutions in collaboration with a coalition of partners from the Michigan Department of Education, intermediate school districts, and local communities.


Note to media: Please link to the full report available here:



By: Kim Ward

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