Michigan Achieves Agenda

TO MAKE MICHIGAN A TOP TEN EDUCATION STATE, WE’RE GOING TO HAVE TO DOUBLE DOWN ON THE STRATEGIES THAT ARE MOST EFFECTIVE FOR BOOSTING STUDENT LEARNING AND THE MOST RELIABLE MEASURES OF SUCCESS. Michigan needs to make major changes in K-12 policy and practice to improve outcomes for all students, particularly low-income students and children of color. We need leadership that supports a coherent, research-based agenda, and investment in what it will take to make this agenda happen. And we need better delivery systems of education, especially for our high-poverty schools and communities.

We recommend a policy and investment agenda with four essential pillars of work that will dramatically raise early reading levels in our state. These are based on research and best practices from around the country.

Effective teaching and school leaders for every Michigan student

The Education Trust-Midwest has been a vocal advocate for improving the quality of teaching in Michigan, and ensuring that all students have access to skillful teaching. The reason? It’s the single most influential in-school factor on student learning.

While Michigan has taken some steps to improve its teaching quality, it has been slow to establish systems to improve teaching practices and elevate the profession, including a statewide system of educator evaluation and support that would give teachers the targeted feedback and data to know where they are and what they need to do to reach their goals – the kind of system that was instrumental to improving early literacy in states like Tennessee and Florida. This means that four years since the passage of tenure and evaluation reform in Michigan, almost all teachers in the state are told they are “effective” or “highly
effective” no matter how much their students are learning – and many of them are not getting what they need to improve. The Michigan Department of Education and the Michigan Legislature have both continued to stall on this issue – by failing to adequately implement and invest in a statewide educator evaluation and support system.

This means Michigan’s students are sitting in classrooms every day with teachers who have little knowledge of their performance, compared to what research says is best practice. Students are not benefiting from a professional growth system in which teachers and principals work together to identify weaknesses, attend targeted professional development, and implement more effective strategies in the classroom.

What’s more, because research from around the country has shown that low-income children and students of color are much more likely to be taught by ineffective teachers than their white and higher-income peers, Michigan’s most vulnerable students are bearing the brunt of the state’s inaction.viii This is unacceptable, especially considering the data that has shown that having an effective teacher three years in a row can actually close racial and economic achievement gaps.ix

Our first recommendation for improving education is to implement statewide standards for educator evaluation and support and require districts to eliminate gaps in access to effective teachers. Michigan can do this by starting in the early grades, prioritizing teachers of K-3 literacy, so that the most important teachers in children’s schooling – those who teach them how to read – will get the feedback they need to
improve first.

In the long run, a state system of support, feedback, data, and evaluation is essential for all teachers. But it makes sense to start this commitment and investment in the early grades, where the investment in improving teaching is likely to pay off quickly. We urge the state to not only pass a comprehensive educator evaluation and support package, but also invest in the infrastructure and capacity Michigan schools need to implement the new system well. That means, first and foremost, a data system that can track student growth over time and measure the impact teachers have had on that growth. It also means support for training evaluators on how to interpret student growth data and combine them with measures of practice in order to give teachers the feedback they need to improve.

College- and career-ready instruction and preparation for every Michigan student

College- and career-ready standards are so instrumental to high-performing and high-growth states’ success, every one of them started their educational transformation by working intensively to raise standards first – and then make sure their teachers knew how to teach to these higher new levels. There’s good reason for that: college- and career-ready standards and their full implementation are the biggest
opportunities for transforming public schools that the U.S. has had in more than two decades.

The good news is, despite some delays in implementation, Michigan educators and students are in the midst of their first year of fully implementing Michigan’s career- and college-ready standards–expectations for what students should know and be able to do in each grade. Many of them have told us that the standards provide a welcome foundation for building more advanced, applicable skills in their students.

But they also tell us that the support they have received on how to teach the standards has been spotty, at best. Many teachers have had access to some professional development, but few say they have everything they need to succeed. Following in the footsteps of emerging leader Tennessee, Michigan should support its teachers in reaching our new standards by using high-performing teachers already working in the state as coaches.

If Michigan starts with our K-3 teachers this year, we could train all of our state’s teachers on Michigan’s standards within three years, for about $4-5 million a year.x That’s significantly less than the cost of remediation in middle and high school, and much cheaper than paying for extra years of schooling or special education services for students who would not have needed them, had they been taught to high
levels early on.

In addition, Michigan’s teachers, particularly those who teach our youngest K-3 students, should be trained on the best instructional approaches to teaching literacy, including phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension instruction.xi While many new teachers may have received this training in their teacher preparation programs, 70 percent of Michigan’s teachers have been teaching five or more years, and 30 percent have taught for at least 16 years.xii

That means that our teaching force is largely made up of educators who have not had the benefit of training based on the most up-to-date research on literacy practices. Michigan leaders should consider supporting Michigan’s K-3 teachers by providing them with proven professional development on these strategies. Experts in early learning reform estimate that there are nearly 30 evidence-based elementary reading
programs with demonstrated effectiveness for state leaders to choose from.xiii

This investment in supporting educators to teach to high levels will have a huge impact on all students, but it will particularly help our most vulnerable low-income and African American students, who have historically been cut out of the most rigorous instruction in our public schools. By raising standards for all students, and helping the teachers of all students meet them, we can level the playing field and ensure equitable access to rigorous coursework and instruction.

Accountability for student learning, including in charter operators and authorizers

If we’re going to hold our students accountable for reading by third grade, the state must hold adults accountable for doing everything they can to get them there. Leading states like Tennessee and Massachusetts have shown that a key to real reform is ensuring that teachers and principals are held accountable for their students’ academic success. This means creating an accountability and assessment system that can accurately measure student performance and growth in reading and giving schools the
support – and accountability – they need to raise levels of reading performance. At the same time, accountability should pertain to all students in Michigan, not just some. Michigan in 2013 had a nearly 25 percentage point achievement gap in fourth-grade reading between white and African American students. This type of gap cannot be tolerated, and our schools must be held accountable for closing these gaps.

In addition, Michigan’s accountability policy must adequately take into account the importance of charter
operators and authorizers, especially for high-poverty communities such as Detroit and Flint. Michigan’s charter schools serve mostly young elementary school students, and roughly half of all charter students are African American. That means that they are an essential part of the problem of our state’s underperformance – and an essential part of the solution. Michigan’s new accountability and assessment
system should hold charter schools, operators, and authorizers responsible for their performance and prevent poor-performing actors from expanding across the state.

To learn more about charter school authorizing, see our report, Accountability for All: The Need for Real Charter School Authorizer Accountability in Michigan.

Improving learning opportunities for all students

Low-income students and students of color are given less of the things that matter most in schools – effective teaching and school leadership; rigorous standards, coursework, and assessments; and strong accountability for learning at high levels, especially in early literacy. But our most vulnerable students miss out in other ways – big and small – that have a cumulative effect on their opportunities to learn throughout their educational careers. Michigan must choose the path toward progress and make strides in narrowing and eventually closing the gaps that consign far too many of our young people to lives on the margins of the American mainstream. Below are several of the ways Michigan must change course.

Teacher Attendance

In 2009-10, about 46 percent of teachers in Michigan were absent from their jobs more than ten days. That’s about 6 percent of the school year, which is equivalent to a typical 9-to-5 year-round employee missing more than three weeks of work on top of vacation time. To provide perspective, Utah has the lowest rate of teacher absences, with 21 percent absent more than ten days throughout the school year.

All of us know that when the teacher is absent, students don’t learn much. Substitute days often are days to mess around in school or, at best, catch up on work. And anyone who was ever a substitute teacher will tell you that it’s really difficult to jump right in to another teacher’s lesson plans to teach effectively to an unknown group of students. For our youngest learners, these missed days of instruction mean missed opportunities to learn the basic skills they will need to succeed in the rest of school.

Student Attendance and Discipline

Not only are Michigan’s teachers missing too much school, but our students – especially our African American students – are missing far too many days of school, often against their will. According to the 2013 national assessment, 21 percent of Michigan’s eighth-grade math students said they had been absent from school three or more days in the last month – five percent more than the top states.

But perhaps even more disturbing are the new data on out-of-school suspension rates. Michigan ranks 40th overall and 47th for African American students in out-of-school suspensions – meaning we suspend students at much higher rates than most of the rest of the country. In fact, in 2011, 21 percent of Michigan’s African American students had been suspended one or more times out of school.

Michigan must take action to ensure that more teachers and students are in school every day. Bills addressing school discipline policy are sitting in the Michigan Legislature right now, and should be addressed this session. But school districts should also be more proactive in establishing sensible teacher absence policies, as well as creating environments where school discipline issues don’t lead to missing instructional time. Especially perplexing are policies that suspend students for being truant. Where’s the sense in that? All school and state policies should be focused on keeping students in school as much as we can, and teaching them all that we can while they are with us.

Equitable School Funding and Teacher Pay

Michigan has fallen tragically behind the rest of the country in funding our lowest-income districts at equitable levels. We now rank 42nd of 47 in the nation for funding gaps that negatively impact low-income students. A recent report by The Education Trust found that, on average, Michigan schools serving the highest rates of students from low-income families receive about 6 percent less in state and local funding than more affluent schools. When adjusted to take into account the additional cost of supports needed to serve our most vulnerable students, we find that schools serving the highest rates of students from low-income families, on average, receive 16 percent less in state and local funding than more affluent schools.xiv

This is the exact opposite of what should be happening. Michigan should be investing the most in the schools and students with the greatest need, taking a cue from states like Massachusetts. In the coming years, Michigan leaders are likely to revamp our state’s school funding formula. As they do, they must consider the impact of our current system on our poorest students, and find a way to ensure that the students with the greatest needs receive the most support.