Detroit Free Press Opinion | Legislature should do these things for Michigan students’ educational recovery
As we mark the one-year anniversary of statewide school shutdowns, we’re seeing glimmers of hope, with COVID-19 rates down from peak levels, more children returning to in-person instruction and widespread vaccinations for teachers. And yet, we’re just beginning the educational recovery process that needs to be a top priority for all Michiganders.
That means staying laser-focused on the critical needs of Michigan’s students to identify immediate and long-term strategies to ensure all students recover from this unprecedented period of disrupted learning and accelerate.
Already, researchers predict that academic and opportunity gaps could be widening for Black, Brown and low-income students. Indeed, early research suggests that the existing achievement gaps for these children could widen by as much as 20 percent, amid the pandemic.
In addition to the tragic impact of learning loss, their future career success also is at stake. That could have a rippling effect on the health of our state. For instance, a study from the Brookings Institution suggests that the cost to the national economy could be enormous. For the health of our state and to ensure Michigan’s students can compete on the global stage, we need to come together to build a strong workforce for the future.
As a non-partisan, civil rights organization dedicated to championing opportunity for all students, we encourage state leaders to start with three immediate steps: strong education investments, bold leadership to make real change, and honest data to help inform decision-making.
We encourage state leaders to leverage the state’s economic recovery, including using federal stimulus dollars to avoid worsening longstanding inequities that have been devastating for our most vulnerable children. That includes investing in research-driven, innovative strategies that will drive real progress for student learning.
In our 2021 State of Michigan Education Report, The Urgency of Now: Michigan’s Educational Recovery, we called for a Marshall Plan for public education amid this unprecedented moment. Key strategies should include fair investment; honest information, transparency and public reporting; extended and expanded learning time; quality virtual instruction and access; inclusivity and socio-emotional supports; and supporting student’s transitions to postsecondary opportunities.
State leaders can begin by looking to leading education states that are tackling this crisis with bold plans, like Tennessee where state leaders invested in pay raises for teachers, extended summer school and broad tutoring programs to help students recover, especially in reading. And in Colorado, the governor is using federal stimulus money from the governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund to spur innovations to help the state’s most disadvantaged students.
Yet, some in Michigan say less state funding should be invested in high-poverty and working-class districts because they are getting so much support from federal COVID relief funding. They argue that state leaders should instead invest more in affluent districts to make up for that support. But that would be shortsighted, harming those students that evidence suggests have been the most impacted during this crisis.
Indeed, now is the time to drive critical resources and supports to students that have long been underserved to avoid worsening gaps and shortchanging their futures, as well as the full economic recovery our state.
As the budget develops, Michigan should also remove harmful language that allows it to balance the budget on the backs of low-income students when there is a shortfall by automatically cutting funding for “at-risk” students first, without a vote of the Legislature.
Already, Michigan is now in the bottom five states nationwide for the funding gaps between poor and wealthy districts. And our research has found that Michigan’s K-12 education funding system is neither adequate nor equitable — with the burden falling hardest on students who have special needs, those in low-income and isolated rural districts, and those who are learning English in school.
It’s clear where the need is greatest, and it’s up to our state leaders to ensure those students who are most in need are protected and supported through strong federal investment.
That means continuing to make third grade reading a top priority as part of Michigan’s educational recovery and tackling the barriers that impede children’s ability to read at grade level.
Finally, the Michigan Department of Education needs to do everything they can to understand the effects of the COVID-19 crisis and ensure that this pandemic does not undermine the futures of Michigan’s students. Instead of canceling state assessments, Michigan should take a research-based approach to this issue.
Indeed, honest non-partisan reporting and data are more important than ever. While the state’s school accountability system should be paused for this school year, transparency should not.
Assessments, though imperfect during a pandemic, provide critical information to parents, educators and schools to help them gauge the impact of the pandemic on their students’ learning and develop sound strategies to support them. Michigan can also take advantage of flexibility granted this week by the U.S. Department of Education to conduct assessments later, including this fall, if it makes more sense for them.
Already, Michigan canceled state assessments for schoolchildren last school year, a decision that was understandable amid the nationwide school closures and pivot to virtual instruction. Pausing them again would now mean that educators, parents and policymakers would lose two years of data on students’ performance that is needed to help them recover following this dramatic period of interrupted learning.
This is not just a transparency issue; it is an equity issue. Stakeholders need this information to target resources and supports to students who most need them, especially for students who have long been underserved, including students of color, students with disabilities, children in poverty and English learners.
Particularly now, during this time of national crisis, parents and families also deserve to know whether their children are meeting college- and career-ready expectations and whether the education system is supporting their needs.
Historically, Michigan has had a history of under-doing it, including with initiatives like the ambitious Read by Grade Three Law that lacked the resources and support to help schools meet the targets and, most importantly, ensure students learned to read. Our state also has a track record of being reactive, underinvesting, and lacking the courageous leadership to drive transformational change in education.
We can’t afford to under-perform any longer. The needs during this crisis are far too great, and the futures of our students are far too important.
We ask Michiganders to join us in the effort to ensure opportunity for all students. Now is the time for us to rise to the opportunity and the challenge before us, act with great urgency and invest significantly and equitably in Michigan’s children.
Amber Arellano is executive director of The Education Trust-Midwest. This opinion piece appeared in the Detroit Free Press.