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How to make Michigan a top education state

Publication date: May 31, 2016

by Amber Arellano and Ken Whipple

Michigan is facing a historic moment for the state and its children, a moment when our citizens and leaders must choose whether we will make Michigan a top education state again, or whether we will continue to suffer a dramatic demise.

In little more than a decade, Michigan has gone from being a fairly average state for student achievement to the bottom 10 in key school quality indicators such as fourth-grade reading. Michigan is suffering systemic failure across racial, ethnic and socio-economic groups in early reading and middle-school math, according to a new report just released by The Education Trust-Midwest.

And it’s not because Michigan has more poor students or more minority students than other states nor simply because of school funding levels. Tennessee, for example, has a similar school-age poverty rate as Michigan, as well as a lower statewide per pupil spending level than Michigan. Yet over the last several years, Tennessee has gone from being a mediocre education state to among the top states nationwide for improvement in fourth-grade reading. Michigan should be taking notice.

Michigan’s affluent and white students are witnessing dramatic learning declines compared to the rest of the U.S., too. White students in Michigan’s higher-income communities today rank 50th in fourth-grade reading, compared to peers across the country.

In a global economy — and an increasingly global talent pool — Michigan’s faltering K-12 system puts students at a huge disadvantage when it comes time for our students to apply to college or compete for family-supporting jobs. Money alone will not solve this crisis, either, though more investment in our low-income students is essential.

The good news is that Michigan is beginning to implement some of the top systemic improvement strategies that have propelled leading education states and high-growth states such as Massachusetts and Tennessee. Last fall, lawmakers approved the state’s first statewide educator evaluation and support system. The state is on track to invest about $50 million in efforts to bolster reading levels by third-grade over the next few years. And Michigan is now wrapping up its second year of assessing student achievement on college- and career-ready standards, the most important and proven of the new statewide improvement efforts.

The bad news is that poor implementation and lack of commitment among state leaders is undermining the very high-leverage systemic improvements that have paid off so dramatically for students’ learning in other states. Some leaders are threatening to sabotage efforts to raise performance standards for teaching and learning, sending Michigan back to the time when families had no idea how the state’s schools were performing compared to other states. Weak implementation plans are hurting third-grade literacy efforts and the new educator evaluation and support system. Lack of accountability remains a massive problem.

In leading education states, the business community’s voices have been critical to ensuring their state leaders get on a positive track — and then stay on track — in the implementation of research-based, high-leverage improvement strategies that pay off for all students. That’s why our growing initiative, Michigan Achieves, is asking business leaders and organizations around the state to be part of the solution.

Michigan students are just as talented, bright and capable of learning at high levels as the children of other states. It’s time for Michigan leaders to ensure our system is teaching them at the high levels of achievement they deserve.

Amber Arellano is executive director of the Education Trust-Midwest. Ken Whipple is the chair of the Michigan Achieves leadership council.

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