In lame duck, remember schools

By:  The Detroit News

The clock is ticking for the Michigan Legislature, with only a few weeks left in its lame-duck session. Lawmakers face numerous issues of importance, such as road funding, but among those are a few outstanding education bills.

Most of these bills have sat in the Legislature for months and have lost momentum. And even though the Republican majority can breathe a little easier now that it has maintained control of both chambers, that’s not a good reason to keep putting off key pieces of education reform.

Here’s what we’d like to see lawmakers tackle before the holidays:

■ A statewide teacher evaluation model. The No. 1 education priority is finally passing a statewide model for evaluating teachers and administrators. A year and a half after a council of experts submitted its recommendations to the Legislature, lawmakers have yet to agree on such a blueprint.

Back in 2011, when lawmakers made major changes to Michigan’s teacher tenure protections, they called for the creation of a statewide evaluation that would for the first time be required to consider a teacher’s impact on student growth.

A fair and effective evaluation isn’t easy for individual school districts to implement, especially with teachers unions pushing hard against them. Some school administrators have crafted strong systems on their own, but most districts are awaiting the statewide model.

Earlier this year, with broad support, the House passed its teacher evaluation bills, but that legislation sits in the Senate Education Committee.

Given the impact a strong evaluation could have on classroom accountability, lawmakers need to find some kind of compromise to move these bills to the governor’s desk — something Gov. Rick Snyder has also said he wants.

■ A third-grade grading standard. Two bills dealing with third-grade literacy are also stuck in the House. While it seems a basic requirement, too many Michigan students aren’t reading proficiently by this important benchmark. If students can’t read well by third grade, they only continue to fall behind and are less likely to graduate. Snyder has recently made this more of a priority, and education advocacy groups in the state have pushed hard on this issue.

Based on state tests, more than a third of third-graders aren’t proficient readers, but in 2012, less than 1 percent were retained. Clearly, this is a problem.

Some are concerned the current legislation focuses too much on retention and not enough on support to revamp instruction. While it doesn’t do a child any favors to start fourth grade without basic reading skills, retention can have long-term negative side effects on a student. So that should be considered only in the more extreme cases.

■ A better school accountability system. A commonsense bill that would change how the state grades schools has remained on the House floor for the past year. It would change Michigan’s current color-coded report card for schools into a letter grade system.

States which lead the nation in education reform use an “A-F” system, and it’s one that would be much more accessible to parents. The Michigan Department of Education currently rates schools with colors. When a school gets slapped with lime green or red, it’s not nearly as clear as getting a “B” or “F” grade.

The whole point of an accountability system is transparency. This would be a good change, although the Education Trust-Midwest points out lawmakers should make sure the new system would still hold schools accountable for how low-income and minority children are faring.

These are all worthy bills, but if the Legislature has time to address only one education issue in lame duck, lawmakers should devote their energy to teacher evaluations.

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