By Rachel Weick, Grand Rapids Business Journal

A nonprofit organization is taking the state to school with its campaign for new strategies and policies to improve Michigan’s public education system performance.

Education Trust-Midwest, a statewide education policy and advocacy organization based in Royal Oak, released a 2015 State of Michigan Education Report May 19, marking the official launch of its Michigan Achieves campaign to make Michigan a top 10 education state by 2030.

Sarah Lenhoff, director of policy and research for Education Trust-Midwest and co-author of the campaign, said the organization releases a report every spring monitoring the performance of Michigan public schools.

“This report is really aimed at looking where Michigan has been over the last decade and projecting out, based on our previous achievement and improvement, where we are likely to end up compared to the rest of the nation in 15 years,” said Lenhoff.

“Our results are pretty devastating. We have actually, on the national assessment, fallen pretty far behind over the past 10 years.”

The “Michigan Achieves: Becoming a Top Ten Education State” report not only measures the state’s current educational performance and progress from kindergarten through post-secondary education, but also outlines key strategies the state needs to implement to improve student learning and accountability to alter Michigan’s current path of landing in the bottom 10 states by 2030.

Education Trust-Midwest informs Michigan residents on the status of the state’s public education system by examining grade-appropriate benchmarks and learning conditions, and comparing student performance to leading states using the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Metrics used include kindergarten readiness, fourth-grade reading achievement, college and post-secondary enrollment and attainment, teacher attendance, K-12 school funding equity, teacher salary equity, and student attendance and out-of-school suspensions.

“We have fallen from 28 to 38 in the country in fourth-grade reading, which is a really important measure of learning because if students aren’t learning proficiently by fourth grade, then they are much less likely to graduate from high school,” said Lenhoff.

“Our Michigan fourth-graders are actually performing at lower levels than they were 10 years ago, and if we stay on that track, we are projecting a ranking of about 44th in the nation by 2030.”

Other key highlights in the report include Michigan’s public education system being ranked in the bottom 10 in terms of funding equity; more than 20 percent of African-American students having been suspended one or more times in 2011; 46 percent of teachers being absent for more than 10 days from 2009 to 2010; and Caucasian students ranking 46th in the nation for NAEP 2013 scores.

“This report is really a call for Michiganders, and it launches a campaign we are calling Michigan Achieves,” said Lenhoff. “It essentially is laying out what the new path Michigan could take: What do state leaders and educators and the public, in general, in Michigan need to start doing over the next several years in order to rectify our decline, and really get on a different path that will put us in the top 10 by 2030.”

By focusing on initiatives and strategies of leading states such as Tennessee, Florida and Massachusetts, Lenhoff said Education Trust-Midwest has evaluated research and best practices to develop principles in which state leaders should be investing for educational improvement.

“We know improving statewide education systems can’t happen overnight, but we actually have some really good examples in the report of states that have really turned things around on an improvement trajectory,” said Lenhoff.

Education Trust-Midwest’s report outlines four strategic areas to transform Michigan’s public education system: effective teachers and principals; equitable access to rigorous coursework and instruction in early literacy and Michigan’s career- and college-readiness standards; accountability for student learning, including charter operations and authorizers; and improving opportunities for all students to learn.

“The key to improving student learning is improving teaching practice,” said Lenhoff. “We have been advocating for several years to institute a statewide evaluator and support systems to make sure educators are receiving accurate feedback on how they are doing and how they are being supported throughout the year.”

Although the state adopted new college- and career-ready standards several years ago, Lenhoff said, Michigan didn’t provide adequate training or support to teachers to change their practices.

“There are local districts that have done what they can to help teachers get on track with these new standards. Tennessee trained virtually all of their teachers on the new standards for about $3 million by using external providers to train high-performing teachers in the state, and those teachers then became the coaches to their peers,” said Lenhoff.

“It is strategies like that we think are potentially powerful and don’t actually mean investing huge amounts of extra funding.”

Lenhoff cited Grand Rapids Public Schools as one of the Michigan school districts that has taken the initiative to adopt best practices, such as its own evaluation system for teachers.

“They have adopted their own educator evaluation system, incorporating all of the right elements. The research suggests you need a really good research-based observation protocol, you need to incorporate student growth data, and it is also important to incorporate student survey data — and GRPS does that at the local level,” said Lenhoff. “They are a real leader in designing a local evaluation system that is really giving teachers the feedback they need to improve.”

Education Trust-Midwest will participate in the Mackinac Policy Conference May 26-29 to speak about the report with business leaders.

“We see the business community as a really important friend in this effort,” said Lenhoff. “Our state leadership in Lansing is going to be extremely important in pushing this agenda forward, and we talk to lawmakers regularly on education issues and work with them on education policies.”

Not only will the campaign focus on building relationships with business leaders in the Detroit area, fostering interest in state policymakers, but also the West Michigan area plays an important role, as well, according to Lenhoff.

“For one thing, it is very business-focused in West Michigan,” said Lenhoff. “There are a lot of important community and business leaders who are really interested in improving education.”

By 2020, Education Trust-Midwest recommends Michigan should implement the following initiatives: pilot and implement effective new teacher and principal induction strategies, particularly for high-poverty urban and rural communities; overhaul the state accountability and support system to be more effective; pilot and innovate new models of school scheduling and use of time to allow for extended learning time; and develop new state delivery systems to play a role in leading high-leverage strategies and targeted investment.

“The main thing is that it is possible to get to the top 10 by 2030. We have seen other states in that kind of timeframe and we have clear action steps to get us there,” said Lenhoff.

“Even though some of the data in this report is pretty sobering, there is a lot of hope here. Michigan is not any different than any other state — our students aren’t less capable, our teachers aren’t less capable. We can do this, and I think there is reason to believe people will rally around that mission.”