By Amber Arellano

Michigan’s public education system is in fragile shape. Our leaders have not kept up with leading education states in making the improvements and investments that we need to become a top ten education state. Indeed, we’re not even keeping up with mediocre states’ student learning levels now. Our students are paying the price.

While nearly every state has made progress in the past decade, Michigan has lost ground. Between 2003 and 2013, we were one of just six states to post learning losses in 4th grade reading. During that time, white Michigan students dropped from 13th place in 4th grade reading and math to 45th and 46th, respectively.

This year is a pivotal year for Michigan’s leaders to change this unacceptable trajectory. Here are three of the most important issues Michigan needs to focus on to improve teaching and learning for all of our students.

1. Raising early literacy levels

Leading education states’ strategies share some things in common. One of them: improving teaching quality. Tennessee, Florida, Massachusetts and many others have improved student learning levels dramatically by investing in their teachers’ capacity to teach at higher levels.

Those states’ efforts have made literacy levels truly soar for children. With Michigan’s third-grade reading levels among the lowest in the nation today, it’s high time we did this for our students and teachers, too. We need to better value our educators.

2. Stay the course on college- and career-readiness

For far too long, Michigan has had low standards for teaching and learning. That must change. We are not going to improve our schools by setting low expectations. To achieve more, we must expect more.

This means that Michigan must stay on course in implementing career- and college ready. Michigan’s current plan — to move forward with the stronger Michigan Standards aligned with high career- and college-ready expectations — is one of the smartest investments we have made in public education in more than a decade.

Leading education states, such as Massachusetts, and high-growth states, such as Tennessee, show that raising standards is integral to raising student learning levels. Our new state assessment, coming online this spring, also will deliver honest, comparable information about how well Michigan schools are performing compared to the rest of the country.

Michigan families and other stakeholders haven’t always had honest information about our public schools’ performance. We cannot let that happen again.

3. Charter School quality and accountability

Detroit is ground zero for Michigan’s charter school quality debate, for good reason. The city has made a big bet on choice and charter schools to close its devastatingly low levels of student achievement for more than two decades. Yet many charter schools in the city are actually performing at lower levels than the abysmal performance of Detroit Public Schools.

Detroit’s school crisis will help drive an overdue, statewide conversation about the role of charter schools in our state. This is a much needed debate that is key to improving educational for all of our students, especially for African American and low-income children, who too often lack access to great public schools in neighborhoods across Michigan.

This year, Michigan’s leaders have the opportunity change the course of Michigan’s low-performing public education system. It’s critical to our state’s economic success — and to the lives of every student and their future.

Do you have a guest column on a statewide topic to share? Email Director of Community Engagement Jen Eyer at [email protected].