State of Education Today

Over the last fifteen years, Michigan’s relative rank has fallen dramatically in early reading and math student achievement compared to the rest of the country. Gains made by the nation are not being shared in Michigan. Data suggest Michigan’s K-12 education system is witnessing a systemic failure. Indeed, Michigan is on its way to becoming ranked among the worst education states in the country, even worse than traditionally abysmal states such as Mississippi and Nevada.

Two trends are at work behind this decline. First, in fourth-grade reading, instead of making the necessary growth to ensure success, Michigan students’ achievement has largely stalled. Second, several other states – investing in high-leverage strategies and systemic improvements – have produced much stronger gains in student learning. These states have outpaced Michigan’s improvement – in some cases dramatically – leaving Michigan’s rank to fall increasingly behind since 2003. Some states, like Massachusetts, have been on an ambitious track for more than two decades.i Others, such as Tennessee and Alabama, are relative newcomers as education leaders but with strong state, business and K-12 leadership, their public schools are producing strong improvement in learning for their children.

Consider for fourth-grade reading:

  • Michigan students’ national rank has fallen from 38th in 2013 to 41st in 2015 in reading, according to new data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). That’s remarkable, given Michigan’s performance was at about the
    national average – or ranked 28th – in fourth-grade reading in 2003.
  • If current performance trends continue, Michigan’s fourth-graders are projected to be ranked 48th in the country by 2030.ii
  • What’s more, Michigan is one of only five states that has declined in actual performance on the national assessment since 2003.
  • Michigan student performance has declined across several groups of students, including white, African American and Latino – since the last national assessment in 2013.

For eighth-grade math, the news is still sobering:

  • Michigan students’ rank in eighth-grade math has continued to decline from 34th in 2003 to 38th compared in 2015 to other states nationwide.
  • Since 2003, Michigan’s low-income students also have fallen in relative rank from 34th to 46th in 2015.
  • Similarly, higher-income students have fallen from 34th in 2003 to 41st today compared to their higher-income peers around the country.
  • White students show a decline in actual performance on the national assessment since 2013.

The numbers are particularly devastating for low-income and minority students.

Only 9 percent of Michigan African American students are proficient in fourth-grade reading compared with 32 percent of white students, according to the new national assessment results. And we see an almost 30 percentage point gap in proficiency between low-income and higher-income Michigan students in eighth-grade math.

But our low-income students and students of color don’t just perform below our higher-income or white students: they often perform below low-income students and students of color in other states, falling near or at the bottom in some cases.

Michigan’s African American students – for decades horribly under-served and under-supported by the public education system – are either at or near the very bottom in reading and math compared with their peers across the country. And while the relative rank of Michigan’s Latino students compared to their peers nationwide has been a brighter spot at times over the years, the state still faces steep achievement gaps between white and Latino students. For example, the percentage of white students proficient in eighth-grade math is nearly double that of Latino students in Michigan. Similarly, in fourth-grade math, white student proficiency rates are almost double that of Hispanic students in Michigan, a nearly 20 percentage point gap. This is even more startling given that Michigan’s white students rank 47th in the nation compared to their white peers nationwide in fourth-grade math.

And let’s be clear: those who think that Michigan’s unacceptable educational performance is somehow due to our large numbers of poor and African American students need only look elsewhere around the country, where other states are making enormous progress and learning gains for their most vulnerable children.

In our 2015 Michigan Achieves report, we noted Michigan students in all student groups needed to catch up with top states in fourth-grade reading. Since then, Michigan has not produced the necessary gains in performance to reach these top states. If Michigan does not dramatically change its course, becoming a top ten state will become even more difficult by 2030, or even impossible.

For example, Michigan’s low-income students have fallen in relative rank from 37th in 2013 to 45th in 2015 for fourth-grade reading compared with their peers nationally. Indeed, based on the necessary growth needed, if Michigan does not change course, the state could not become top ten for fourth-grade reading for low-income students even by 2051.iii

But the crisis doesn’t just affect students of color. Michigan’s white students now rank 49th in the country in fourth-grade reading compared to their peers – and 42nd in eighth-grade math – according to new national assessment data.

And for those who believe Michigan’s educational woes are due to poverty, the data tell a far different story. In fact, our higher-income students in Michigan rank 48th in fourth-grade reading and 41st in eighth-grade math compared to higher-income students in other states. Indeed, our higher-income students now trail the performance of the combined student population in Massachusetts in both fourth-grade reading and eighth-grade math.

Even Michigan’s white higher-income students now rank 50th in fourth-grade reading, down from 45th in 2013 and 17th in 2003. That is a stark comparison to white higher-income students in Massachusetts, who ranked first in the nation in 2015. Such vast differences in student learning outcomes can result in big differences of knowledge and skills for young adults competing for jobs and college seats.

In Michigan, conventional wisdom often holds that our state’s lower achievement is understandable, given our poverty rates and struggling urban communities in a post-manufacturing, global economy. Poverty alone, however, does not explain the differences separating the performance of our children from those in other states.

For example, despite similar rates of poverty for children, Tennessee students outpace Michigan students in fourth-grade reading, including among low-income African American and Latino students.iv

That’s remarkable, given that Tennessee was a lower-performing education state not so long ago in fourth-grade reading – and is powerful evidence of what we could do if we really focused.

What’s more, many Michiganders think Detroit is the state’s worst performing school district. In truth, other districts – including Grand Rapids, Flint and Pontiac – were performing worse than Detroit Public Schools for African American students in eighth-grade math according to the 2013 state assessment.v

i. Mitchell D. Chester, “Building on 20 Years of Massachusetts Education Reform,” (Malden, MA: Massachusetts Department of Elementary & Secondary Education, 2014).
ii. In our 2015 report we tracked Michigan’s progress compared to top-performing states when possible in key academic and opportunity indicators. To determine Michigan’s projected performance – if we stay on our current path – we calculated the improvement rate for each prior year of data. We then averaged each of those improvement rates to establish an average improvement rate for each state, for each metric. We then applied that average improvement rate to each future year we are expected to have new data to estimate our performance in 2030.
iii. In our Michigan Achieves 2015 report, we calculated the baseline necessary growth Michigan would need to enter top ten status by 2030 (using available NAEP data at the time – 2003-2013 data). We determine which year Michigan could become a top ten state based on the necessary growth calculated in the last report and the newest available data from NAEP – 2015 results.
iv. National Center for Education Statistics, “Table 102.40” (Washington, D.C.:Institute of Education Sciences, 2014).
v. Sarah Lenhoff and Amber Arellano, “Stalled to Soaring: Michigan’s Path to Educational Recovery,”(Royal Oak, MI: The Education Trust-Midwest, 2014).