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There’s hope for education reform in Michigan

Publication date: May 19, 2015

By Amber Arellano and Ken Whipple

Michigan is truly at a crossroads. After years of hard work to recover from the Great Recession, Michigan is beginning to rebuild its economy, and many of our fellow Michiganders are getting back to work. While our recovery is fragile, there are economic signs of hope blossoming this spring.

Our public education system is not on the rebound. Michigan’s student learning has plummeted over the last decade. Since 2003, Michigan has fallen from 28th in the nation in fourth grade reading to 38th. If Michigan stays on its current course, we will be ranked 45th nationwide for student learning in both reading and math by 2030, according to a new analysis conducted by the Education Trust-Midwest. Within six years, if nothing changes, Michigan will be trying to catch up with what had been America’s chronically low-performing education states like Arkansas and South Carolina.

And for those who think that Michigan’s education problem is isolated in our urban communities with large low-income, African-American and Latino populations — the data prove them wrong. Since 2003, Michigan’s white students have fallen from 13th to 45th in fourth grade reading achievement, according to the national assessment. Today, if Michigan stays on its current path, the state is on track to be 49th in the country by 2030 — ahead of only West Virginia. That is a tragic and shocking decline.

We can continue to maintain the status quo, and become one of the nation’s worst states for public education, or we can choose a new path.

Our 2015 State of Michigan Education Report, Michigan Achieves: Becoming a Top Ten Education State, lays out a comprehensive plan to lift Michigan up from the bottom and into one of our nation’s top ten by 2030.

We do this by targeting investment in key areas that research shows have the best results. Leading education states have shown that a focus on teaching quality, higher standards and school accountability can truly put us on the path to success.

The road is long and it will not be easy, but change is possible. The first step is putting Michigan into the top ten for student achievement. In order to get there, we need state leadership that invests in, supports and holds the system and its actors much more accountable. It means state leadership — including the Michigan Department of Education, state legislature and Intermediate School District system — that supports local districts in meaningful and effective ways, which is practically unheard of at the local level. It means shedding ideological baggage, local control excuses and partisan rhetoric that typically reflect the interest groups that pay for many state elections on both sides of the aisle. In short, it means doing things very differently, just as leading education states have done.

Tennessee, for one, only recently was a worse performing education state than Michigan. Now it’s America’s top state for student growth. Even its African-American students’ academic growth is soaring in key academic subjects. Tennessee’s leaders have made investments in the right levers for change.

Other states have shown how systemic change is possible and now Michigan must follow through. This report tracks how our students have performed over the last decade and projects how Michigan will compare to the rest of the country in 2030, if we do not change. It also lays out an alternate path — a better Michigan with a top education system — along with a roadmap on how to get there. Finally, we review the status of Michigan’s state-wide educational improvement plans and implementation — or lack thereof — and provide a roadmap for improvement over the next ten years based on research and proven practices from leading education states.

Now more than ever, all Michigan children need a world-class education to ensure their success in life. Too often today, Michigan employers must go out of state or hire workers from other countries to get the talent that they need, while underprepared Michiganders, educated in Michigan public schools, go underemployed or struggle to move up the ladder of opportunity. That’s not who we are, historically, as a state or as a people. Once Michigan was a place families came to find new opportunities, good public schools — to live the American dream. We can be again. We must work as hard to rebuild our public schools as we did our economy.

It won’t be easy, but it’s do-able. Other states have done it. Michigan can, too.

Amber Arellano is the executive director at Education Trust-Midwest. Ken Whipple, former CEO of CMS Energy and executive vice president of Ford Motor Company, is the chair of the leadership council of the Michigan Achieves campaign.

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