Key Priorities Moving Forward

To change our state’s educational trajectory and move Michigan toward becoming a top ten education state, we need to put a much higher priority on quality implementation, learning from what is working and what is not, then using that feedback to get ever smarter in improving our system. Because, in the end, quality implementation is everything: just as it is hard to produce rapid change without dollars to support that change, simply throwing dollars at a problem doesn’t work either.

Strong Reading Skills for All Michigan Third Graders

We absolutely must focus on early education and get our students reading on grade level by the time they complete third grade. That’s where Michigan students are most in need of support and where investments in education are most cost-efficient. Moreover, if students don’t master the fundamentals of reading by the end of third grade, they more likely to drop out of school and less likely to find regular employment that pays a family-supporting wage.i

To those outside of education, this may sound easy. But in fact, it’s as bold a move as Michigan has ever made in its history. Moreover, we won’t succeed with the one-off investments that Michigan has long tried, including the relatively generous initial investments that the Governor and the legislature have already made this year. It’s going to take a series of interconnected changes in both policy and practice, fueled by strategic investments over multiple years. And these have to be combined with a serious focus on quality implementation, a careful monitoring of data to understand what is working and what is not, and a willingness to act on what we learn, recalibrating and trying again.

Getting all Michigan students reading by third grade will require an unprecedented transformation of the state’s early grades’ teaching force; full implementation of the state’s college- and career-ready standards for teaching and learning in early grades’ classrooms; and real accountability and oversight to ensure that this happens. It will require that long outdated and unaccountable delivery systems – including some at the Michigan Department of Education (MDE) – be rethought and overhauled with support from the best leaders in the nation.But we can do this if we really focus.

As the other priorities below show, there are many interconnected changes in policy and practice that must occur for all Michigan students to be reading at grade level.

Next Steps

  • Michigan needs a robust multi-year plan that takes a holistic, systemic approach to changes in policy and practice – many of which are outlined below – that are needed along with a serious focus on quality implementation. The plan should include the retraining of Michigan teachers on the nation’s most up-to-date reading instructional practices; ensuring students who are behind in reading, according to Michigan’s college- and career-ready standards and aligned assessment, have additional time to learn during the school year and through the summer from well-trained, effective teachers; and to hold schools and districts accountable for improving early literacy achievement, including the state’s school accountability system.

Committed and Sustained State Leadership

Michigan’s educational system is in dire shape, to be sure. Every actor involved in the system – from state, district and school leaders to teachers and parents – has a role to play in its recovery. But that can’t even start without strong, committed state leadership that rises above partisan politics, special-interest agendas and ideological debates. Instead, our state leaders must be guided by research, rigorous analyses of education data and lessons learned from best practices in fast-improving states.

Unfortunately, we’re not even close. Take third grade reading, for example, an important new initiative led by legislative leaders and the governor to ensure all Michigan students master essential reading skills in the early grades. Roughly $25 million in new state funding was allocated in the state budget last year for this initiative; a comparable amount is likely to come in this year’s state budget.

Yet weak implementation already is undermining the impact of this smart public investment. Leading education states have strong quality controls, data collection and accountability mechanisms in place to ensure the highest-quality implementation of such strategies. In Tennessee, for example, efforts to build schools’ capacity to raise learning levels in early reading look starkly different than those in Michigan. Indeed, MDE’s implementation signals it’s business-as-usual in Lansing. Education stakeholders in raising early reading levels cannot look at the data to see what the impact of the state investment is so far because the MDE didn’t create a mechanism to evaluate the impact – or even collect the data to do so. No one can do a comprehensive, high-quality statewide evaluation so our strategies get smarter and improve dramatically over time.

Leading states use high-caliber data to inform and improve their policies and practices, and continually learn. Michigan must, too.

Meanwhile, we also need to rethink how our improvement efforts are structured, and make sure they are systematically building more equitable opportunities to learn. Indeed, MDE needs to consider serious restructuring to move it from a bureaucratic organization focused on processing federal education dollars to one that is a leader in supporting statewide transformation efforts. Both Massachusetts and Tennessee have made such organizational changes over time, with Tennessee, in particular, investing time and resources in ensuring its regional delivery centers – equivalent to our intermediate school districts – are more effective, efficient and helpful to local districts and educators, and held accountable for their performance.

Business leaders have a special role in making sure these changes happen. They need to step forward, demand greater performance from our system and assure that the routines and structures are in place to support continuous improvement.

Next Steps

  • State leaders should engage the best experts from inside and outside of the state in reengineering the state’s improvement structures to provide better support to schools, districts and on-the-ground educators.
  • Better use of data and the creation of fast-cycle feedback loops must be at the heart of the new system, so our efforts support continuous improvement and get ever smarter over time.
  • New resources should be focused on high-leverage, targeted strategies to improve system performance and student achievement, but quality implementation is essential.

College- and Career-Ready Instruction for All Students

Every top-performing and high-growth state in the nation started its educational transformation with higher performance standards for students and schools, for good reason. When states set low bars for teaching and learning, that is exactly what they get in return: low achievement.

The good news is, Michigan has adopted and begun to implement its first college- and career-ready performance standards, along with an aligned assessment. As they have a chance to work with the standards, teachers and principals have been embracing them as challenging but absolutely the right stuff. And because the M-STEP assessment was fully aligned with the standards, the state finally has begun to produce truly honest data on where our students really are performing on college- and career-ready standards – exactly the honest data that both parents and students need.

But progress on this front is fragile: serious threats may derail this effort and undermine implementation. The absence of dedicated funding to support educators in implementing these dramatically different standards is particularly egregious: unlike leading education states, Michigan has invested almost nothing in proper training and support.

Yet absence of quality support for educators isn’t the only problem. Just as we finally put a high-quality aligned assessment in place that not only tells our teachers and parents where we are, but also allows us to benchmark with other states, along come opponents arguing that Michigan should somehow build its own assessment – something that we have a weak track record of being able to do well – or purchase a preexisting off-the-shelf system that likely doesn’t actually align with the full breadth and depth of Michigan’s standards and the highest standards in the nation today.ii Along with the constant threat to abandon the standards themselves and replace them with something different, the net effect is to jerk Michigan’s educators and families around, discouraging them from making achieving the rigorous standards a priority.

To build a world-class, globally competitive education system, Michigan needs world-class standards and an aligned, high-quality assessment system that tells us where we are and allows us to benchmark progress both within the state and with other states.

Next Steps

  • Michigan should stick with its rigorous college- and career-ready standards. Scores of Michigan teachers and leaders were involved in developing them. Many more, along with higher education leaders in the state, helped vet them. They are the right work for our children and our schools to be doing. And we should simply stop jerking educators and families around.
  • Similarly, Michigan needs to continue administering a fully aligned, independently reviewed, high-quality assessment like the initial iteration of M-STEP. Such an assessment produces data comparable with other states, and its continuity ensures Michigan will have honest data and information about how its students are performing against the highest performance standards in the U.S. today. The state should, however, buy the whole system, not just the summative tests.iii The state could provide local schools and districts the high-quality diagnostic tools and benchmark assessments they need to tell them in real time how their students are progressing during the year. This has the potential to save districts tens of thousands of dollars every year, and assure a much much stronger set of benchmarks than those dollars are currently purchasing.
  • Michigan should take standards implementation much more seriously. Michigan must find the resources to support its educators by:
    • Using proven providers from leading states, implementing a “train-the-trainer” model to enlist master teachers to be trainers of all Michigan teachers and principals – starting with K-3 – on implementing best college- and career-ready and literacy classroom practices;
    • Providing similar training and ongoing support to principals to support them in becoming instructional leaders on the new performance standards; and
    • Supporting efforts to help teachers and administrators analyze the quality of classroom assignments, identifying and correcting problems along the way, including gaps in quality between low- and high-poverty schools.
  • Business leaders should lead a statewide conversation about the importance of sticking with the rigorous standards and aligned assessment, ensuring Michigan business, civic and policy leaders and parents understand the high-quality standards and their importance in preparing our young people to thrive and compete in a global economy.

Honest and Reliable Data

In education as in other matters, accountability systems are critically important. Good ones set clear goals, and signal to both schools and the public when progress is inadequate. Indeed, good accountability systems are our best means for creating urgency around important education problems. But while Michigan has made important strides toward honest data and better accountability in recent years, we still don’t have an accountability system that will drive and support the improvements we need.

To be clear, accountability alone doesn’t bring about  improvement: educators, in particular, need support and development, and the poorest students often need extra help as well. But if our accountability systems are incomprehensible, award decent marks to schools even when low-income students or students of color in those schools are not progressing, or define as “acceptable” any amount of progress – no matter who makes it – both educators and students are unlikely to get the support they need. Good school and district leaders will lose the leverage essential to driving improvements and no amount of clamoring from communities will be sufficient to dislodge other, ineffective leaders.

With the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) by Congress last year, Michigan has an opportunity to redesign its accountability system over the next year.iv

This is another place where business leaders can help, by insisting on much clearer goals and public reporting. But we also need the voices of parents and civil rights organizations throughout the state, to make sure that the progress of all students matters in our
accountability systems.

Next Steps

  • With advice and participation from business, civil rights and improvement-oriented educators, state leaders must redesign Michigan’s school and district accountability system. The new system must set a clear expectation that schools improve academic outcomes for all groups students, not just some; that schools focus attention and resources on the full range of student needs; and that there is action whenever schools don’t meet expectations for any group.
  • Because of the critical role – and poor performance – of charter school authorizers in our state, state leaders also must develop policies to ensure Michigan charter authorizers are dramatically higher performing; low-performing authorizers are held accountable for their performance, including facing closure; and the nation’s best operators are attracted to
    serve the state’s neediest students.

Strong Leaders and Excellent Teachers

It was great news when Michigan adopted its first statewide educator evaluation and improvement system in 2015.v Without honest feedback and support, our teachers won’t improve in the ways we need them to.

But experience in other states shows that this is another place where investment in implementation – and careful monitoring, with real-time adjustments – matters a lot.

Next Steps

  • State leaders should effectively and fully implement the blueprint developed by the Michigan Council for Educator Effectiveness (MCEE) and plans for a new statewide system of evaluation and support for State dollars should be invested in external providers with proven track records to ensure key components of the new system are effectively delivered.
  • A council of Governor-appointed education, business and non-partisan leaders should provide oversight of the state agency responsible for the implementation of the new system, and work with external providers including experts in leading states to address gaps in recommendations left undone by the MCEE.
  • Longer-term, as part of a comprehensive strategy to improve the teaching and principal professions, Michigan leaders should fully implement a quality statewide educator evaluation and support system based on leading state models, including a vision and common definitions for effective teaching; and greater capacity-building for districts to deliver effective annual evaluations and data-driven feedback to support educators’ professional development.
  • Michigan also needs to develop and implement a robust plan for ensuring the state’s most vulnerable students have access
    to highly effective educators, which is one of the most important levers available today to closing long-standing and unacceptable achievement gaps.state’s most vulnerable students have access to highly effective educators, which is one of the most important levers available today to closing long-standing and unacceptable achievement gaps.

Fair School Funding

Michigan ranks an abysmal 42nd of 47 states in the fairness of its funding system, with significantly fewer dollars spent per student in the highest poverty districts than in the lowest poverty districts.vii That is not just an affront to the values of Michiganders, but a recipe for long-term burdens on our state’s taxpayers.

To ensure Michigan becomes a top ten state for all students – including those who enter school behind – Michigan must take the steps necessary to ensure both adequate and equitable funding system, just as Massachusetts did when it started its journey to the top in the early 1990s. Instead of ignoring the fact that it simply costs more to educate low-income students to high standards, we need to act on that knowledge.

One particularly important example related to early reading: Because poor children and English-language learners often enter with limited vocabularies, schools that serve concentrations of such children may need materials beyond the standard curricula – materials that will help build vocabulary and background knowledge – as well as extra learning time.

Next Steps

  • Greater resources must be found now for targeted state investments in systemic statewide strategies to improve student achievement levels.
  • State leaders must begin the process of overhauling the school funding system as necessary to assure fairness across different kinds of districts.
  • Business and civic leaders should work together to help the public understand the need for investment in systemic improvements and equity in Michigan.

Improved Access and Opportunity for All Student

To meet the needs of our students and set them up for lifelong success, we need to be near the top ten in improving the conditions of our schools and classrooms. But experience across the country teaches us that generalized improvement efforts won’t be enough. We have to dig underneath the data to understand the experiences of different groups of students, and act aggressively to close the opportunity gaps that lead to large achievement gaps.
One such gap revolves around access to rigorous coursework in high school, one of the best ways to ensure more students are college-and career-ready. Research shows that just taking AP and IB classes – even if a student does not earn college credit – increases the likelihood that the student will go to college.viii Unfortunately, Michigan currently ranks 29th of 46 states in access to AP courses, and our African American and Latino students get fewer opportunities to take these courses than do their white peers.ix

Another gap involves the disproportionate assignment of inexperienced, out-of-field and ineffective teachers. As in many states, such teachers are concentrated in high poverty and high-minority schools in Michigan, dramatically affecting the achievement of such students.x

One other problem area that affects the achievement of students of color in our state is the overuse of suspension and expulsion. According to data from the national Civil Rights Data Collection, Michigan has the third highest out-of-school suspension rate of African American students in the country.

So across-the-board improvement efforts aren’t enough. Our state needs to dig underneath the averages and make certain that every child has an equal opportunity to learn and achieve.

Next Steps

  • Every student – regardless of where they live, family income, race or background – deserves a great teacher. Our state needs sophisticated data systems more aligned with college- and career-readiness to ensure the right teachers are serving our students and being supported effectively.
  • Knowing that a key predictor of student success in college is whether or not they have a rich course of study in high school, we must ensure all students, regardless of race and class,  participate equally in rigorous courses that lead to college.xi
  • Ensure student discipline policies are sensible and just – focused on keeping students in school. There is a lot to be learned from the efforts of leading school districts.
i. Jason Breslow, “By the Numbers: Dropping Out of High School,” (Boston, MA: Frontline, 2012).
ii. Nancy Doorey and Morgan Polikoff, “Evaluating the Content and Quality of Next Generation Assessments,” (Washington, D.C.: Thomas B. Fordham Institute, 2016).
iii. Matthew M. Chingos, “Standardized Testing and the Common Core Standards: You Get What You Pay For?” (Washington, D.C.: Brown Center on Education Policy at Brookings, 2013).
iv. The passage of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) in December 2015 established a new framework for school and district accountability nationwide – replacing No Child Left Behind. For more information on ESSA, please visit:
v. MCL 380.1249
vi. Michigan Council for Educator Effectiveness, “Building an Improvement-Focused System of Educator Evaluation in Michigan: Final Recommendations,” (Ann Arbor, MI: 2013).
vii. The Education Trust’s analysis looks specifically at state and local revenues to better understand how states allocate their resources. Upon closer examination, the differences in funding between Michigan’s highest and lowest poverty districts reveal 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.
Natasha Ushomirsky and David Williams, “Funding Gaps,” (Washington, D.C.: The Education Trust, 2015).
viii. Saul Geiser and Veronica Santelices, “The Role of Advanced Placement and Honors Courses in College Admissions,” Expanding Opportunity in Higher Education: Leveraging Promise (2004): 75-113.
ix. Christina Theokas and Reid Saaris, “Finding American’s Missing AP and IB Students,” (Washington, DC: The Education Trust, 2013).
x. U.S. Department of Education, “Michigan Educator Equity Profile,” (Washington, D.C.: U.S Department of Education, 2014).
xi. Cliff Adelman, “Answers in the Toolbox: Academic Intensity, Attendance Patterns, and Bachelor’s Degree Attainment.” (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education, 1999).