by Amber Arellano, Executive Director

Michigan student achievement is in free fall. Over the last decade, every group of students – white, black, brown, higher-income, low-income – has seen student learning drop dramatically compared to other states. Once a top education state, Michigan is now headed to the bottom of all 50 states.

It’s critical context for the new year, as the state Legislature decides how to spend a projected surplus of more than $700 million over what was anticipated for the year. There is no doubt that our state has many needs; continuing targeted investments in improving student learning is a smart investment in our state’s future.

Finding money for infrastructure has been a huge challenge for the Legislature, and the debts run up by the Detroit Public Schools while under state control are growing bigger every day. That debt will need to be addressed, one way or another.

But if we could dedicate a tiny fraction of this surplus to a similarly urgent need in Michigan — spending wisely to improve third-grade reading levels for our students — we could dramatically alter the trajectory of our state and secure a prosperous future for ourselves and our children.

Last year, The Education Trust-Midwest launched the Michigan Achieves campaign with the goal of making Michigan a top-10 education state in the country by 2030. Since we launched that effort, other influential groups and leaders, including the new State Superintendent Brian Whiston, have embraced the same goal.

While we really need major changes across the state to get there, we know it can happen because other states have done it. Leading states like Massachusetts have become global leaders in public education. And states with challenges similar to Michigan’s — including Tennessee and Florida — have made significant gains in student achievement in recent years.

Where to begin? By leveraging strategic investments and learning from the examples of other states, Michigan can become a top 10 state for third-grade reading improvement by 2020. The investment would be relatively modest, with an initial outlay of just over $8 million next year, and appropriations of less than $31 million per year the following two years.

Other states have proven that targeted investments can make huge difference in students’ learning trajectories, including proven capacity-building models to more effectively support teachers and principals; greater accountability for improving performance; improved instructional resources; and better diagnostic tools so teachers, administrators and parents can get accurate assessments of students’ progress in real time.

First, though, we have to acknowledge the seriousness of the challenge we face. In fourth-grade reading, Michigan has fallen from 28th in the country in 2003 to 41st in the country in 2015.