Understanding Inequity in Michigan K-12 Online Education

Published on August 24, 2022
Since legislation passed in the late 2000s requiring online experiences for Michigan K-12 students and establishing online charter schools, enrollment in online courses in Michigan has steadily increased. Depending on their race and ethnicity, socio-economic status, and special education status, students had markedly different outcomes in their online courses. This report is intended to understand K-12 online education from an equity perspective, and more thoroughly, to understand if all Michigan K-12 students are receiving equitable education online.

Suggested Citation

DeBruler, K., & Gieseking, T. (2022). Understanding Inequity in Michigan K-12 Online Education. Michigan Virtual. in a new tab)

What We Already Know

  • There is a significant digital divide between African American and Hispanic, and white families.
  • This digital divide leads to a “homework gap” for students that exacerbates existing inequalities and disproportionately affects communities of color, people with disabilities, and low-income families.
  • Disparities between African American and Hispanic, and white students on national educational assessments remain largely unchanged for the past two decades.

What This Report Adds

  • The disparities in educational access and outcomes present in in-person education are also demonstrated in online learning.
  • African American students, students in poverty, and students with disabilities have less successful course outcomes than white students, students not in poverty, and students without disabilities.
  • There are strategies for increasing equity in online learning specifically related to increased student support.

Implications for Practice/Research

  • Online learning providers should better understand how they are serving all students and identify specific supports for those students who are not obtaining successful course outcomes.


Enrollment in online courses in Michigan has steadily increased since legislation passed in the late 2000s requiring online experiences for Michigan K-12 students and establishing online charter schools. During the 2020-21 school year — as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting emergency remote instruction — online enrollments grew at previously unseen rates. Even before that, however, 8% of Michigan public school students took at least one online course, a number that increased to 29% of students in the 2020-21 school year (Freidhoff, 2020; 2022). While 8% may seem like a small percentage of students, this number accounts for more than 120,000 Michigan K-12 students. Depending on race and ethnicity, socio-economic status, and special education status, however, these students had markedly different outcomes in their online courses. 

This report is intended to explore K-12 online education from an equity perspective, and, more thoroughly, to understand if all Michigan K-12 students are receiving equitable education online. Equity, for the purposes of this report, is understood as:

“The situation in which everyone is treated fairly according to their needs and no group of people is given special treatment.”

(Cambridge Dictionary, n.d.)

For a long time, language about “equality” in education was prevalent, ensuring that all students had the same access and opportunities. However, the focus on “sameness” in equality leaves out the necessary types of individualized support needed for students to succeed — thus the switch to a focus on “equity.” This refocus prioritizes not simply treating every student the same but rather demonstrating respect for and a commitment to the success of every student (Education Reimagined, 2021).  

This report is not intended to attribute specific conditions leading to the inequity, nor to prescribe quick fixes to increasing equity in online education in Michigan. Rather, this report aims to explore equity in online education in Michigan, whether it be equity in outcomes, funding, teaching, etc., as well as to explore data on outcomes for online students for specific populations of students. Finally, we conclude by highlighting online programs that are serving all students equitably and explore possible strategies to improve outcomes for students who are not currently being well served. 

Equity in Education in Michigan

The educational system in Michigan has historically been one in which affluent and predominantly white neighborhoods have had what the Michigan Civil Rights Commission calls “stronger school systems,” or, in other words, systems with greater opportunity for student success. Historically, economically disadvantaged neighborhoods and those of color often lack the same resources and educational opportunities as white neighborhoods (Michigan Civil Rights Commission, 2020). 

Historical Perspective

Although each school district in Michigan receives the same per-pupil funding from the state, a portion of funding for public schools comes from local tax revenue and is thus subject to variation in local property values. This system leads to the current disparity between “high performing” and “failing” schools, according to the Michigan Civil Rights Commission, and perpetuates generational poverty. 

Disparities in technological equity are not constrained to education. According to Digital Equity Now and research conducted by the Pew Research Center, just over half of African American (58%) and Hispanic (57%) adults have access to a laptop or desktop computer compared to 82% of white adults (Digital Equity Now, n.d.). Disparities exist for broadband access as well, with 66% of African Americans and 61% of Hispanic adults having broadband access compared to 79% of white adults. As of 2019, 36 million households did not subscribe to a broadband internet service. A majority of these households are in urban areas and cannot afford such services. 

These statistics have real consequences for children. Even before the pandemic, nearly one in five teenagers reported being unable to complete homework assignments because they lacked a reliable internet connection (Digital Equity Now, n.d.). Digital Equity Now asserts that this digital divide or “homework gap” for students exacerbates existing income inequality and disproportionately affects communities of color, people with disabilities, and low-income families. 

These disparities are clearly shown in national and state-level student achievement data. In Michigan in 2019, African American students had an average score on the National Assessment of Educational Progress Reading that was 25 percentage points lower than white students. On the same assessment, Hispanic students had an average score of 17 percentage points lower than white students (National Center for Education Statistics, n.d.). These disparities in educational attainment are not statistically different from disparities in 1998, suggesting that little progress has been made, at least in terms of making foundational education equitable, in the past two decades. Further, students who were eligible for the National School Lunch Program (determined by income and often used as an indicator of poverty status) scored 26 percentage points lower than students who were not eligible. Again, this disparity has gone unchanged since 1998.  

Clearly, learning and educational achievement gaps were prevalent prior to the COVID-19 pandemic and associated school closures; however, it seems those gaps have only widened during the last 2 academic years. According to Katharine Strunk, Director of the Education Policy Innovation Collaborative (EPIC):

“The learning gaps got bigger, and this is a major equity problem.”  

(Mauriello, 2022, January 10)

The EPIC group found that in the 2020-21 school year, African American students, Hispanic students, and students in poverty were more likely to start and end the school year “significantly behind grade level.” Not only did these students start and remain behind, but great numbers of students from these groups fell behind during the school year. Specifically, 49% of African American students were behind in the fall compared with 66% in spring (representing a 17% change), and 35% of Hispanic students were behind in the fall compared with 43% in the spring (representing an 8% change). These numbers stand in contrast to the only 21% of white students behind in the fall and 24% in the spring (representing only a 3% change) (Kilbride et al., 2021). Test gaps also grew over the year for students in poverty (compared to those not in poverty) and for special education students (as compared to general education students). 

Additionally, districts that maintained in-person schooling during the 2020-21 year typically started and ended the year with higher average student test scores than districts that were fully remote and/or hybrid. Analyses confirmed that districts that offered only remote learning during 2020-21 experienced a reduction in math achievement growth that was twice as large as in-person districts. It should also be noted that schools that were identified as “low performing” before the pandemic were more likely to be using remote learning, not in-person instruction, during the 2020-21 academic year (Hopkins et al.,  2021). 

Equity & Funding 

In researching school funding and equity, The Education Trust found that in 27 states (Michigan among them), the highest poverty districts do not receive any additional funding despite their increased need (The Education Trust, 2018). The Education Trust-Midwest also reported that Michigan is one of only 16 states providing less funding to its highest poverty districts. This disparity in funding translates to less experienced teachers, larger classes, and, ultimately, lower graduation rates and achievement levels (Michigan Achieves!, 2021). Multiple studies over multiple years have shown that Michigan’s system of funding public education leaves many districts lacking sufficient resources (Michigan Department of Education, 2021).

The Citizens Research Council of Michigan asserts that more than two decades after school finance reform in 1994, Michigan’s locally-driven school financing system based on “disparate property wealth” fails to provide what they call “safe, modern physical learning environments” for students (Citizens Research Council of Michigan, 2022, March 2). 

It is important to note that Michigan districts serving the most students of color did receive additional state and local funding compared to those serving the least amount of students of color (The Education Trust, 2018). Michigan increased the minimum per pupil State Aid Foundation Allowance to $8700 in 2022, up $589 from the previous 2 years. Subsequent Michigan budget proposals call for a further increase in per pupil funding, from $8,700 to $9,135 (“Gov. Whitmer’s 2023 Budget,” 2022). These increases, however, are standardized and do not take into account the needs of historically under-resourced populations. 

There have been several proposals for making school funding more equitable in Michigan. The Mackinac Center for Public Policy proposes shifting to a funding model wherein student aid takes precedence over school aid. Their proposal advocates for funding to be distributed based on individual student need regardless of educational setting and closer tracking of how and where student dollars are spent (Degrow, B. 2022). 

Alternatively, the School Finance Research Collaborative recommends that the state adopt a weighted funding model that funds the educational needs of students in a way that reflects the additional costs of doing so (Augenblick, Palaich, and Associates & Picus, Odden, and Associates, 2018). Approximately 30% of district funding comes from local sources through tax revenue. Thus, schools with higher property values receive more funding than low-income communities with lower property values and, therefore, less to tax. This additional funding is commonly used for building maintenance and upkeep, resulting in students in poorer areas — as well as urban and rural areas — “attending class in dilapidated buildings” (Mauriello et al., 2021, June 30). A “needs-based” or weighted school funding model would provide additional funds for historically under-resourced schools and students, and those who require additional support, to meet state educational standards. 

This report barely scratches the surface of the complexity and nuance of educational funding. We encourage readers to consult the resources linked above for additional context and understanding of educational funding at the national level and, more specifically, in the state of Michigan.

Equity & Teachers  

Teachers in Michigan, as well as nationwide, have been historically, and remain overwhelmingly white. According to a survey by the U.S. Department of Education, nearly 80% of public school teachers are white (90% in Michigan), and less than 7% are African American (National Center for Education Statistics, 2020). These statistics are in sharp contrast to the public school student population demographics. In the 2020-21 school year, approximately 65% of Michigan public school students were reported as white. 

White teachers are overrepresented in Michigan public schools, and they also have the highest retention rate of any race or ethnicity. A 2021 report by the Regional Educational Laboratories found that white teachers had the highest average annual retention rate at 85%, while Asian and Black teachers had the lowest rate at 74% (Lindsay et al., 2021). The researchers also found that teacher retention rates were highest in districts that served lower percentages of students in poverty, higher percentages of white students, and those with strong English language proficiency. 

The report does not assess the specific mechanisms behind the disparities in retention. What it does demonstrate, however, is that professionals of color are less likely to enter teaching, and, if they do, are less likely than white teachers to remain in their positions. This translates to fewer opportunities for students of color to be educated by teachers who share and understand their culture as well as provide a positive role model and supportive relationship for students. 

Low teacher retention ultimately leads to teacher shortages, a problem plaguing public education in Michigan, and one that was exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. The Michigan Department of Education (MDE) recognizes this as well, stating:

“The teacher shortage is the biggest threat to public education. Too many students are beginning and ending a school year with long-term substitutes in their classrooms because no one is applying for the opening.”

(Michigan Department of Education, 2020)

As part of Michigan’s Top Ten Strategic Education Plan, the Michigan Board of Education and State Superintendent set goals around increasing the number of certified teachers in areas of shortage as well as setting metrics for increasing the number of teachers of color. MDE has enacted a number of measures — including professional development grants, the Welcome Back Proud Michigan Educator campaign, and the Future Proud MI Educator program — designed to entice certified teachers back to the classroom as well as to attract a diverse group of new prospective teachers. Further, MDE has approved alternative routes to teacher education. One such model, deployed by the Detroit Public Community School District (DPCSD), is the On the Rise Academy program, which supports current DPCSD employees who are prospective teachers in obtaining their initial teacher certification. This program also supports currently certified teachers in obtaining additional endorsements in mathematics, science, and elementary education. The effectiveness of MDE’s initiatives, and those of local districts, has yet to be determined. 

Equity in Online Education in Michigan

The Need for Equity in Online Education

Even prior to the pandemic, online education has expanded educational opportunities and access for hundreds of thousands of Michigan students. During the COVID-19 pandemic, however, online learning became an educational lifeline. Too many students, however, are unable to participate fully in online learning because they lack basic technology access. This lack of access is not randomly distributed, nor does it impact students equally. A report published by the National Education Association (NEA) states:

“This divide between those who have access and those who do not occurs in both urban and rural areas of the country and reflects historical structural biases, ableism, inequalities, and prejudices.”

(Public Policy Associates, Incorporated, 2020)

Digital equity is paramount as online education continues to grow, and if not addressed, will continue to propagate the inequities that exist in general education. The NEA report goes on to assert that:

“Students who do not have sufficient access to online learning resources cannot fully participate in remote learning. In effect, students who lack such access are barred from the virtual classroom.”

(Public Policy Associates, Incorporated, 2020)

Definitions of Online Equity

Equity is a situation wherein everyone is treated fairly according to need. Thus, we define equity in online education as all students being treated fairly according to need, as well as the right of all students — regardless of race, poverty level, and special education status — to have access to, support throughout, and success in high-quality online education.  

Online equity also means ensuring all school-aged children have the technology necessary to fully participate in online learning, including computer access and access to affordable broadband internet (Public Policy Associates, Incorporated, 2020).

Equity is also more than the initial action of providing opportunities and support; it must also be a lens through which instructional practices and student supports are continuously reviewed, challenged, and revised. Using this approach, educators can ensure they are honoring student perspectives, adapting instruction to unique student needs, and using data to ensure equitable outcomes for all students. 

Equity in education, even online education, extends beyond the student. An equitable online education must also include finding ways to build trust between families, online education providers, and local support. This extends beyond simply disseminating information to families, rather it encompasses conversations and joint decisions making between families and providers (Charania, 2021). Moving toward equitable online education requires changes at all levels (i.e., classroom, school, district, state, and nationally), particularly removing barriers that disadvantage, marginalize, and exclude certain students, in addition to building systems that honor and respond to the unique circumstances and needs of each student (Education Reimagined, 2021). According to the Virtual Learning Leadership Alliance (VLLA):

“Embracing digital equity and doing the work to achieve it means all children will have the opportunity to engage in high-quality learning.”

(Virtual Learning Leadership Alliance, 2022, February 3)

Equity & Technology  

In The Urgency of Now: Michigan’s Educational Recovery, a poll of Michigan parents revealed that African American parents and parents of color were more likely than white parents to have their children learning remotely full-time during the 2020-21 school year. Eighty-one percent of African American parents reported their child was learning fully online compared to 63% of white parents (Michigan Achieves!, 2021). 

This statistic by itself is not necessarily indicative of inequity; however, researchers at EPIC found in their analysis of state assessment data from the 2020-21 school year that districts that offered only remote learning experienced a reduction in math achievement growth that was twice as large as districts that offered in-person instruction (Kilbride et al., 2021). In a recent article posted on the Bridge Michigan website, Jennifer Mrozowski, director of communications for the Education Trust-Midwest, commented:

“This data makes clear what we feared: The children whose learning was most impacted by the pandemic are the students who are often the most underserved, including Black and economically disadvantaged students.”

(Virtual Learning Leadership Alliance, 2022, February 3)

Certainly, these statistics become more troubling when we consider the disparity in lack of access to broadband internet and home computers. In a report prepared by the National Educational Association, it was noted that 419,036 school-aged children in Michigan lacked access to broadband internet and a home computer in 2020 (Public Policy Associates, Incorporated, 2020). This figure represents 26.5% of all school-aged children in Michigan who are lacking full access to participate in remote learning. White school-aged children and those not in poverty were more likely to have full access to these resources, with 80% of white school-aged children and 79% of school-aged children not in poverty having both broadband internet access and a home computer. This stands in contrast to just 64% of African American school-aged children, 66% of Hispanic school-aged children, and 53% of school-aged children in poverty who had full access to these resources.

Equity & Online Learning Programs

There is no single or standard model of online learning from which we can assess equity in access or outcomes. In Michigan, as is the case nationally, online learning can comprise a very small part or the entirety of a student’s educational experience, or somewhere in between. Online learning encompasses different educational models and programs which vary in many of their key elements. There are 10 defining dimensions that characterize an online learning program, including: comprehensiveness (supplemental vs. full time), reach (local, state, national, global), type, location, delivery, operational control, type of instruction, grade level, teacher-student interactions, and student-student interactions (Vanourek, & Evergreen Education Group, 2011). 

Commonly, these dimensions materialize as full-time cyber charter schools, full-time online learning programs run by districts or intermediate school districts (ISDs), part-time course offerings (also called supplemental programs) run by schools, or supplemental courses offered by third-party providers or state virtual schools. 

Just as not all online learning is functionally equivalent, outcomes vary as well. In the 2019-20 school year, approximately three-quarters of students who took an online course in Michigan enrolled in part-time or supplemental courses. These students had higher course pass rates compared to full-time online students, with 59% of part-time online students passing their courses compared to 52% of full-time students. Course pass rates were also higher for students taking fewer virtual courses. Students taking just one or two courses passed 76% of their courses compared to the 52% pass rate for students taking five or more online courses (Freidhoff, 2021).

There are no clear answers as to why those students enrolled in full-time online programs have less favorable outcomes than students who take supplemental online courses. However, given the disparity between students taking five or more courses and those taking one or two, it does seem that there are additional support structures that may be more critical for students in full-time online programs. Further, additional research is needed to determine if students of color and students in poverty are equally or overly represented in full-time online programs and if they are more likely to take five or more online courses. 

Statistics on Equity in Online Education in Michigan

Available data suggest that online education in Michigan is not equitable, which is to say that students in poverty, students of color, and special education students are not achieving the same level of success in their online courses as white, low poverty, and non-special education students. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic and shift to emergency remote learning and associated educational disruptions, statistics that follow in this report will be presented from both the 2019-20 and 2020-21 school years for comparison, as we suspect that the 2020-21 school year statistics may be anomalous and not indicative of lasting trends.

Students in Poverty

According to data from, in the 2019-20 school year, 68% of enrollments in online courses were from students who were in poverty (as compared to 66% of enrollments in 2020-21), which accounted for only 51% of the Michigan K-12 student population. Clearly, these students have access to online education; however, they were not achieving the same levels of success as their counterparts. The online course pass rate was 18 percentage points lower for students in poverty, achieving a 50% pass rate as compared to 68% for students not in poverty. (This compares to the 13 percentage point difference between students in poverty and students not in poverty during the 2020-21 school year, 69% for students in poverty compared to 82% for students not in poverty) (Freidhoff, 2021; 2022). So, while perhaps students in poverty may have equal access to online education broadly, they may not necessarily have equal access to high-quality online education, nor the support necessary to achieve success in their online courses. 

In the 2019-20 school year, 3,228 students were enrolled in 11 or more online courses and did not pass any of their courses. Of these more than 3,000 students, 85% were students in poverty (Freidhoff, 2021). Given this statistic and the previous ones, it seems that either students in poverty are being enrolled in high numbers of online courses without being provided the necessary support to successfully complete these courses and/or these students in poverty are being enrolled in low-quality online courses with little oversight and opportunity for success. 

Students in poverty who took any number of virtual courses in the 2020-21 school year also performed more poorly than virtual learners not in poverty on state-level assessments. On the 2020-21 state assessments, students in poverty had proficiency rates roughly half that of students not in poverty for all four focal areas: evidence-based reading and writing (proficiency rate of 34% for students in poverty and 62% for students not in poverty), mathematics (13% for students in poverty and 37% for students not in poverty), science (7% for students in poverty, and17% for students not in poverty), and social studies (26% for students in poverty and 48% for students not in poverty) (Freidhoff, 2022).

African American Students

While students from all races and ethnicities enroll in online courses in Michigan every year, African American students are the only minority sub-group who average over 10% of the enrollments. The small enrollment size of these groups makes comparisons difficult, and, as such, only African American students are discussed in detail in this section. For a full breakdown of enrollment trends of all students, please reference Michigan’s K-12 Virtual Learning Effectiveness Reports

From available data, it seems that the disparity in opportunities for achievement between white students and students of color persists in online education as well. In the 2020-21 school year, white students accounted for 55% of virtual students, while African American students accounted for 28% of students. These statistics show that white students were underrepresented and African American students are overrepresented in virtual learning compared to their statewide student populations (Freidhoff, 2022). 

In the 2019-20 school year, African American students had the lowest overall pass rate of all races or ethnicities at 45%, which was 15 percentage points lower than white students (a pass rate of 60%). For the 2020-21 school year, African American students had a pass rate of 75%, whereas white students had a pass rate of 73%, and the overall pass rate for all students was 74%. There is no clear or obvious reason as to why the pass rate for African American students increased so significantly during this school year, but what is clear from the 2020-21 data is that enrollment trends and outcomes for that school year were atypical. 

Due to COVID-19 school closures, there were significantly more enrollments in online courses at the K-5 level, and many schools with no prior history of online learning enrolled large numbers of students. Enrollment and pass rate data is needed for subsequent years to determine if the 2020-21 data is the “new normal” for virtual learning in Michigan or anomalous. It is likely, however, that this increased pass rate is not a trend that will continue beyond the 2020-21 or potentially the 2021-22 school year since the large gap in pass rate between African American and white students is the more stable trend. For school years between 2015 and 2019, African American students averaged pass rates in their virtual courses 13.5% lower than white students. 

Overall, the data on African American students in virtual courses in Michigan suggest that African American students are being enrolled in virtual courses at a higher proportional rate than other races or ethnicities while simultaneously having the least successful outcomes in these courses.

Special Education Students

Special education students have online course enrollments proportional to their statewide K-12 enrollments, making up about 12-13% of both populations, which may suggest that special education students have similar access to online education as general education students. The pass rates for special education students, however, are consistently lower than students not receiving special education services, with only 50% of enrollments considered “passing” compared to 57% of general enrollments for the 2019-20 school year. (By contrast, for the 2020-21 school year, the pass rate for students receiving special education services was 69% compared to 74% for general education students) (Freidhoff, 2021; 2022).

Students receiving special education services face several unique challenges when learning online. Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) are not typically written for students in the online environment; rather, they are primarily intended for in-person instruction. This leads to a lack of clarity around expectations for the student in their online course, as well as the allocation of support between the student’s local school and their online course provider. 

Strategies to Increase Equity in Online Education in Michigan 

Family Engagement

One key strategy to increasing equity in online education, specifically in terms of access and outcomes, is to increase family engagement in online education. There is a strong positive relationship between family engagement and educational success for students (Borup et al., 2017). Family engagement, while not a complete solution to inequity in online education, is still a critical one and has the possibility of increasing student engagement and, thus, success in online courses. Borup et al. (2017) call for further understanding of the optimal levels and type of family engagement required for success. It is likely that increasing family understanding of online learning options as well as helping families understand how to better support their children in their online courses will be beneficial. Borup et al. (2017) advocate for the following, noting that online programs would likely see an increase in parental engagement if they: 

  • Involve parents in the online course enrollment decisions,
  • Educate parents regarding the challenges of learning online and ways that parents can support their students,
  • Maintain regular contact with parents by sending them specific invitations to be involved, and
  • Assist parents in their monitoring activities by regularly emailing them progress reports and providing them with an online parent portal with displays that allow them to easily track student engagement and performance.

MDE also recognized the importance of parental and family engagement in their 2020 report, MiFamily: Michigan’s Family Engagement Framework

The Christensen Institute, in its report on family engagement, asserts that family engagement is no longer a beneficial-yet-optional facet of education. Rather, they advocate:

“For schools committed to creating and sustaining equitable learning environments for students, finding ways to value and cultivate the resources inherent within families is no longer a nice-to-have. Effective family engagement hinges on trust and reciprocity between families and schools, not simply disseminating information.”

(Charania, 2021, p.3)

Mentoring and Support Services for Online Students

Michigan laws around online learning direct that districts assign a mentor, who is a professional employee of the district, to monitor online student progress, ensure access to the technology required to complete the courses, and ensure the student has access to the teacher of the online courses (Michigan Legislature, n.d.). The specific role and responsibilities of the mentor evolve throughout the semester, from choosing and enrolling in the right online course for the student to accessing the course and becoming familiar with the course learning management system or platform, to assessing student engagement and resolving any barriers to progress encountered by the student. Mentors play a critically important role in the success of online students; however, the quality and level of support provided to online students are variable and inconsistent statewide (Debruler, & Green, 2020). 

While mentors are not responsible for providing instruction — although they often do provide instructional support (de la Varre et al., 2011) — effective mentors are experts in the learning process (Borup, 2018). According to Borup (2018), mentors have three primary facilitating responsibilities as experts in the learning process:

  1. Nurturing the student through developing a caring relationship and building a safe learning environment, 
  2. Monitoring and motivating the student, keeping them engaged with their course, and intervening when necessary, and 
  3. Encouraging communication between the student, parent, and online instructor.

Present and supportive mentors provide critical in-person support for online students and have the potential to impact student engagement by serving as a proxy for the teacher-student relationship. 

Models of Educational Equity in Michigan

In 2021, the Education Trust-Midwest identified four Michigan schools as providing an equitable education to their students. Identification of the four programs was exhaustive, and researchers from the Education Trust-Midwest analyzed quantitative assessment, growth, and school performance data from the 2016 through the 2019 school years (data were unavailable for the 2020 school year due to assessment requirement waivers as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic). Researchers also conducted school site visits, which included interviews with stakeholders and qualitative assessments of the schools’ learning environments. Based on this work, the following four schools were recognized as Building the Hope schools, which “demonstrate academic progress and growth and affirming culture for students of color, English language learners, and students from low-income backgrounds” (“Modeling the way”, 2021, November 4). 

The four schools awarded the Building the Hope designation were: Bennett Elementary of Detroit Public Schools Community District, Discovery Elementary of Kentwood Public Schools, Hamtramck Academy located in Hamtramck, and Jefferson Elementary of the South Redford School District. These schools serve predominantly students of color and those from low-income families; however, they have each demonstrated “exceptional academic progress and growth for traditionally underserved students” (“Modeling the way “, 2021, November 4). According to the research conducted by the Educational Trust-Midwest, these four schools are in the top 25 percent for academic proficiency or above average for student growth for all Michigan students. 

The four Building the Hope schools certainly faced challenges in providing an equitable education to their students, particularly during the COVID-19 school years (2020-21). However, despite these challenges, these schools have implemented innovative practices — practices that celebrate individualization and diversity, rather than trying to “account for it.”

Bennett Elementary School

Bennett Elementary is located within the Detroit Public Schools Community District. According to data pulled from, the school serves approximately 434 students, 79% of whom are Hispanic, 10% African American, and 10% white. Fifty-two percent of Bennett Elementary students are English language learners compared to the state average of 6%. Eighty-three percent of students are economically disadvantaged compared to the state average of 52%. 

Bennett Elementary was selected as a Building the Hope school because these students demonstrated “exceptional academic growth,” exceeding statewide average growth in English Language Arts and Math for three consecutive years. In addition to academic support and differentiated instruction that helped facilitate academic growth, Bennett Elementary prioritizes parental involvement by utilizing a translation app to communicate with parents who are not fluent in English. Bennett Elementary also employs an English language interventionist to help students grow in their English fluency.

Discovery Elementary School

Discovery Elementary is located within Kentwood Public Schools. According to data pulled from, the school serves approximately 637 students, 32% of whom are white, 29% African American, 15% Asian, and 15% Hispanic. Twenty-nine percent of Discovery Elementary students are English language learners, well above the state average of 6%, and 69% are economically disadvantaged, also above the state average of 52%.

Discovery Elementary was awarded the Building the Hope designation as both English language learners and economically disadvantaged students — along with many other subgroups — showed what the Education Trust-Midwest called, “exceptional academic progress.” Discovery students exceeded statewide proficiency in ELA and math for three consecutive years (“Modeling the way”, 2021). According to the Education Trust-Midwest, this exceptional growth and achievement are due in part to Discovery’s commitment to its diverse school community, evidenced by hosting cultural celebrations, incorporating a culturally-responsive curriculum, and addressing and overcoming language barriers. Further, Discovery utilizes small group instruction to support struggling students and individualizes instruction to meet student needs. 

Hamtramck Academy

Hamtramck Academy is a National Heritage Academy charter school located in Hamtramck, Michigan. According to data pulled from, the school serves approximately 541 students, 71% of whom are Asian, 14% white, and 10% African American. Fifty-nine percent of Hamtramck Academy students are English language learners, well above the state average of 6%, and 97% are economically disadvantaged, also well above the state average of 52%.

Hamtramck Academy was awarded the Building the Hope designation due to its demonstrated commitment to its exceptionally high number of economically disadvantaged students and English language learners. Asian students and economically disadvantaged students at Hamtramck Academy showed consistent academic progress and exceeded statewide proficiency rates for three consecutive years. Hamtramck Academy also demonstrated a commitment to honoring the cultures of its students and families. They focus on culturally responsive communication practices, including using Arabic and Bengali translators. Further, teachers individualize instruction and tailor instruction to meet individual student needs through ongoing student data monitoring.  

Jefferson Elementary School

Jefferson Elementary is located within the South Redford School District. According to data pulled from, the school serves approximately 251 students, 69% of whom are African American, 19% white, and 10% of two or more races. Sixty-four percent of their students are economically disadvantaged, well above the state average of 52%.

As was true for the other recipients of the Building the Hope designation, Jefferson Elementary was selected due in part to the “exceptional” academic growth” demonstrated by African American and economically disadvantaged students. Multiple groups of students, including these two groups, exceeded statewide average growth in English Language Arts and Math for three consecutive years. Jefferson Elementary is committed to supporting student growth, and part of this includes ensuring that students have an understanding of their current academic standing as well as setting academic goals. Additionally, Jefferson has created a school culture optimized for student success. Examples of this include (but are not limited to) reducing the stigma of remediation by engaging in targeted instruction with all students, decreasing suspension and overall discipline rates, and building teacher capacity related to accelerating student learning.


Inequity in education has been a persistent issue in public education in Michigan for decades, and this trend has also thoroughly established itself in the online context as well. Recognizing this, the Michigan Department of Education developed a number of initiatives to address and hopefully rectify the issue of equity in education. Below are a few examples, although, certainly, this is not an exhaustive list. 

In 2021, MDE hired Rané Garcia as the first Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion to lead a department responsible for creating and supporting initiatives designed to foster what MDE calls increased “fairness and inclusion” in Michigan public schools. MDE also leads the African American Student Initiative (AASI), a professional development program for Michigan educators designed to encourage personal and professional transformation through a more comprehensive understanding of issues of race, racism, power, privilege, and systematic barriers. 

Also in 2021, MDE approved two innovative alternative routes to teacher certification. Detroit Public Schools Community District (DPCSD) On the Rise Academy was approved to support employees of DPCSD, including para-educators and academic interventionists, in obtaining their teaching certification, as well as current DPCSD teachers who want to obtain additional teaching endorsements in mathematics, science, and elementary education. The program at DPCSD is research-based and includes job-embedded professional development as well as coaching for newly certified teachers. 

In addition to the efforts of MDE, other organizations and causes have stepped up to help address inequities in Michigan public education. One such organization, New Paradigm Schools, focuses on recruiting, training, and retaining high-quality educators of color in Michigan public schools. This program is intended to increase the diversity of Michigan educators in Detroit as well as statewide. 

No single initiative or program can end decades of inequity in Michigan education, but steps can be taken to start addressing the problem of inequity, specifically in online education in Michigan. One such step could include providing equitable opportunities for high-quality online courses. Students of color and low-income students should have the same access to high-quality online courses, taught by Michigan-certified teachers, as white and affluent students. Online education has the unique opportunity to expand educational opportunities and offerings for students; however, this potential will not be fully realized until all Michigan students have access to high-quality online learning. 

Additionally, while Michigan requires all students taking an online course to be assigned a mentor, these individuals are intended to serve as onsite support for students, whereas actual levels of support vary greatly across districts and schools. Schools need to invest in success and provide high-quality onsite support for students enrolled in online learning, from helping advocate for students during enrollment to supporting online learners in their online courses. 

There is much work to be done to move Michigan closer to providing equitable online education for all students. This work is considerable, though not insurmountable. The problem of inequity has been well-identified. Now, it’s time to invest resources and time to develop and implement solutions. 


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