Opportunity 10

About Opportunity 10

Longstanding educational inequities compounded by the daunting challenges of teaching and learning through a pandemic bring us to a moment of important opportunity where strong state leadership and significant systems changes are critical for Michigan’s educational recovery from pre-kindergarten through high school. State leaders must take these 10 research-based steps to set Michigan on a path to becoming a top 10 education state, one of our organization’s goals:

1. Invest with Urgency in Michigan Students’ Educational Recovery

Persistent educational inequities existed long before the COVID-19 pandemic, but there is no question that the pandemic exacerbated many of these inequities and created additional challenges for students, parents, and educators. In the wake of this crisis, students are facing unprecedented levels of unfinished learning and we must take steps to ensure all students are on the road to catching up now, not later. State leaders should provide immediate and ongoing support to districts and schools with evidence-based strategies to solve unfinished learning, including through targeted intensive tutoring and expanded learning time.

Targeted intensive tutoring, otherwise known as high-dosage tutoring, is an evidence-based practice that can help students catch up and reach high standards. High-dosage tutoring involves one tutor meeting regularly with students in groups of one or two for an extended period. In these sessions, tutors use skill-building curricula aligned with the school’s core curricula and targeted to the students’ needs. High dosage tutoring delivered in-person rather than through more self-guided virtual tutoring has the most potential to accelerate student learning. Expanded learning time is another evidence-based approach which includes a set of programs and strategies which increase the instruction and learning provided to students. Extended learning time can take place in programs after school, in-school, and during the summer, but such programs are only successful if the extra time is spent in ways that maximize teaching and learning and in conjunction with effectively used time during the regular school day.

District leadership is so critical in this moment. The American Rescue Plan Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ARP ESSER) is an historic infusion of federal dollars to help districts recover from the pandemic. These dollars, if invested wisely, have the potential to support the rapid acceleration of student learning for all students. Districts must act urgently to use these dollars to support learning recovery. Importantly, districts must be held accountable for the money they spend on learning recovery and state leaders should prioritize program evaluation for effectiveness. Rigorous evaluation will ensure that programs and strategies employed by districts have the desired effect of improving student outcomes and accelerating learning recovery.

2. Be Honest about Student Performance

Without data that helps Michigan parents, stakeholders and policymakers know how Michigan children have been affected by the pandemic, it would be extraordinarily difficult to address their educational needs and recovery during a time of unprecedented unfinished learning. Indeed, it’s more important than ever to know how the pandemic disrupted learning so that we understand how best to direct resources and supports to students and communities most in need through investments and solution-based, research-based strategies. This is especially true for children who are traditionally underserved by Michigan’s inequitable education system: Black, Latino, rural students, English Learners, and students with disabilities.

Now is an urgent time for transparency and honest information about students’ learning. We need to know not only where students are academically in the present moment, but also how much learning students lost during the pandemic. The only way to track achievement over time is through data and summative assessment continuity. Now is not the time to switch assessments or make changes to existing assessments that ruin our ability to monitor student performance before and after the pandemic. State leaders should instead prioritize making data from summative assessments available to districts more quickly and in a format that is useful for educators and parents.

In addition to improving the quality and turnaround time of assessment reporting, state leaders should prioritize Michigan’s move to a more sophisticated student growth data system. If it’s done right, a new growth tool will use data from state assessments aligned to national college- and career-ready standards and provide more accurate data on student learning.

Michigan should support our teachers with smart data that actually helps them inform their instruction. Such smart growth tools — especially when generated based on a high-caliber assessment— can provide valuable diagnostic information about students. This tool could be truly transformative for our schools. Educators in leading states not only receive such data on their students’ learning gains, but they also use individual student “projection reports” that signal whether a student is on track to graduate from high school and even how ready the student is for college and career entrance exams — as early as elementary school. Such data would allow Michigan educators to intervene earlier in students’ academic careers, tailor instruction and improve teaching strategies. Most states make student projection reports available to parents upon request, too. Imagine what parents, teachers and school leaders could do, together, if they knew a fourth grader is already off track to be college- and career-ready. The potential for helping our students is enormous.

3. Create a Fair Funding System

Michigan has long been among the worst in the nation for resource gaps between wealthy and low-income school districts. Now, after years of unfinished learning amid the pandemic, the need to invest in Michigan’s historically underserved students is more urgent than ever. National research has shown that historically and on average, Michigan’s highest poverty districts have received five percent less state and local funding than Michigan’s lowest poverty districts, despite serving a student population with significantly greater needs. Indeed, the allocations for low-income students that are part of Michigan’s current formula are very low compared to what leading states provide, and the level of funding that research recommends.

Money especially matters for students from low-income backgrounds. Increases in spending have been shown to improve educational attainment, lead to higher wages and reduce poverty in adulthood, particularly for students from low-income backgrounds. According to one estimate, the lifetime earnings of Michigan’s current K-12 students could increase by $27 billion if their educational achievement matched the national average. In a state that is rebuilding and transitioning its economy and tax base from a manufacturing-based, old economy model to a robust knowledge-based economy, there is perhaps no more important investment to make to ensure our Great Lakes State becomes a Great Education and Great Economy State — and catches up with the rest of the nation and the world both economically and for talent.

Researchers estimate that funding systems should provide at least 100% more funding for students from low-income backgrounds than for students from higher income backgrounds. Students in Michigan from low-income backgrounds are supported by an additional 11.5% of the statewide average foundation allowance, which, in FY20, was about $960 in additional funds per eligible student. That 11.5% is well below what is recommended by research to close opportunity gaps. Michigan can significantly increase money for low-income students over time by changing the structure of how at-risk dollars are distributed to districts.

An opportunity index, which uses weights to provide additional funding to students with greater need, would provide Michigan with an opportunity to be fairer to students across the state. Massachusetts, the top performing state in the nation, prioritized equity over adequacy in its 2019 Student Opportunity Act with funding weights of up to 100% for students experiencing poverty, and its elementary school foundation amount is several hundred dollars lower than Michigan’s. State leaders should use ETM’s Principles of Fair and Equitable Funding Systems and commit to weights of at least 100% more for low-income students, 75% more for English Learners, and additional funding for special education. These weights are based on research and best practices from leading states. We know that the experience of being a low-income student in Okemos and Birmingham is different than the experience in the Upper Peninsula or in Lansing. An opportunity index accounts for concentrations of poverty and ensures that those students who face the greatest barriers to learning success receive the most resources, no matter whether a student lives in a rural community, in a suburb or in town.

For more on our comprehensive plan for overhauling Michigan’s school funding system, please see our 2020 Report “Michigan’s School Funding: Crisis and Opportunity.”

4. Develop a Strong System of Fiscal Transparency and Accountability for Spending

Having the appropriate resources is necessary, but alone it is not enough. To improve student learning and outcomes, those resources must also be spent efficiently and effectively to drive improved learning outcomes. An important first step toward more equitable student funding in Michigan is directing any new additional resources first towards high-needs schools and districts. The state must also ensure that the necessary legal and regulatory frameworks are in place to ensure these additional dollars get to the schools where vulnerable students attend and are spent in ways that improve classroom learning.

Transforming Michigan’s funding structure should be accompanied with a strong new system of transparency regarding school and district spending that is desperately lacking today, especially if there is significant new state investment in high-needs student groups or a school funding overhaul, to ensure that dollars targeted towards equity actually reach historically underserved students. This is also necessary to avoid the tough lessons learned in other states that have made major shifts to their funding systems in recent years, such as in California. In an evaluation of California’s Local Control Funding Formula, researchers found that only about half (55 cents) of every dollar sent to schools to support high-needs students was spent at the schools with the most high-needs students.

In Michigan, unprecedented federal funding provided to school districts through the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) were intended to provide a lifeline to schools suffering from the incredible disruption from the pandemic, which were forced to shutter in Michigan and across the nation amid COVID-19. Broadly written spending guidelines allowed districts to spend a portion of the money on regular operating costs and to save some of the unspent fundings in district reserves. Unfortunately, putting ESSER dollars away for the proverbial rainy day means those dollars are not being spent on evidence-based recovery strategies to improve student outcomes right now. The murky ESSER spending experience demonstrates the critical need for better systems to monitor district spending — and ensure dollars intended for students are spent on evidence-based strategies and practices that will improve student outcomes. Now is the moment for greater fiscal accountability in Michigan — and a commitment to improving the system’s transparency and effectiveness — to build trust in state government and the public education system.

5. Prioritize Educator Recruitment, Retention, and Support

To truly improve outcomes for all students, Michigan also should be leveraging data from the statewide teacher evaluation and support system to better support teachers and their needs as professionals. The system should be better used and tailored to ensure educators have access to quality coaching and specific, individualized feedback and consistent support, especially early career teachers and new principals.

Michigan leaders also should ensure systems of feedback, professional development and evaluation are strongly aligned with national standards of college- and career- readiness and imagine innovative new strategies to leverage these data to inform supports to teachers and principals and ensure that historically underserved students have access to the state’s most effective educators. Educators deserve and need honest feedback that is aligned with those standards – and parents deserve to know teachers and principals are getting such feedback.

The roles and responsibilities in which many teachers serve—such as mentor, coach, master teacher and others—should be formally recognized and given opportunities for higher pay and greater recognition. Indeed, teachers should be paid for the many roles that they play.

The state should make every effort to be part of the solution. Steps should include significantly expanding salary incentives for both new and veteran teachers, especially in underserved districts; programs to close the teacher salary gap; support for districts in establishing “grow your own” teacher pipeline initiatives; and overhauling Michigan’s deeply inequitable funding system. In 2020-2021, the Michigan Legislature enacted a new section to the State School Aid Act, 99z, which set aside $5 million dollars for teacher retention bonuses of up to $1000 dollars for teachers in high poverty school districts. This kind of incentive program is critical during an era of acute teacher shortages that we know are that much worse in high poverty urban and rural districts. Differential bonuses for high poverty urban and rural districts are important tools the state can use to address teacher salary inequities between more and less-resourced school districts. Michigan state leaders should invest heavily in this type of retention program and create annual bonuses of $7,000 to $10,000 per teacher to ensure all districts in the state can retain, attract, and support top talent.

6. Ensure Full Access to Rigorous Coursework and Preparation for All Michigan Students

When students graduate without necessary fundamental skills, they are ill-prepared for both the workforce and post-secondary education. Advanced Placement (AP) courses provide students with exposure to collegiate-level work and with the opportunity to earn college credits by passing an end-of-course exam. In Michigan’s public schools, students of color are underrepresented among students who take AP courses. Even more troubling, students of color who do enroll in AP courses are less likely to sit for AP exams than White students. Without access to rigorous coursework, underprepared students often need to enroll in remedial courses which can mean additional costs for students, plus more time to complete their degrees and a higher likelihood of dropping out. In 2006, Michigan passed a comprehensive set of graduation requirements, known as the Michigan Merit Curriculum (MMC), designed to make students’ high school experiences more rigorous and to better prepare Michigan students for post-secondary success.

Crafted with noble intentions, the MMC implementation faced many challenges. In a report on the MMC’s early implementation, the Center for Local, State, and Urban Policy found that nearly half of schools surveyed had trouble aligning their courses with state standards, while still others struggled with fully staffing new courses with qualified teachers. State leaders, including the Michigan Department of Education, should and could have played a stronger role with implementation and with supporting districts’ efforts, particularly in rural and urban communities that have faced considerable staffing challenges. Over the years, several bills aimed at rolling back the MMC requirements have become law.

Despite these legislative changes and a lack of state support and leadership on implementation, research has found that, under the MMC, the average Michigan student takes about one additional semester’s worth of math coursework and passes these additional classes about 88% of the time. The increase in students taking and passing more advanced coursework was driven largely by students in economically disadvantaged schools. Researchers also found that more well-prepared and economically advantaged students saw increases in college enrollment in the years following high school graduation. Positive effects for students of diverse backgrounds bolsters the possibility that the MMC could be a powerful policy tool to improve outcomes for all of Michigan’s students.

Michigan has the opportunity now to double down on the foundational beliefs of the MMC: all students should have full access to rigorous coursework that prepares them well for college and career opportunities not only in the immediate term but for their lifetimes. State leaders can build on the MMC’s already positive impact by taking proactive steps like ensuring equitable access to advanced coursework and qualified teachers in typically hard to staff areas like world languages. We do not need to keep tinkering with the MMC—we need to be more assertive and thoughtful about implementing it well and strengthening it through rigorous end-of-course tests aligned with state standards.

7. Reimagine Early Literacy

More than 15 years of research has resulted in a much better understanding of the needs of young children in becoming strong readers by the time they reach third grade. The literature shows that many early literacy efforts nationwide have either failed to be successful or to produce sustainable results. Three major obstacles facing early literacy educators contribute to these failures: (1) The risk of educators’ focus on “easier-to-learn” reading skills at the expense of vocabulary, conceptual knowledge and content knowledge, and reading comprehension strategies, or what are commonly known as “core knowledge.” (2) A lack of expertise among educators on how to teach these deeper-level skills and (3) Limited time in the school day and year to meet new expectations. Despite Michigan leaders’ stated intentions to prioritize early literacy, the state’s overall lack of a strategic, coherent system of implementing best practices far too often left it largely to chance for students to get the instruction they needed to become strong early readers.

In 2021-2022, 5,600 Michigan students received reading scores low enough that they could be required to repeat third grade—a 20 percent increase in retention-eligible students. Worse yet are the disparities: Black students are 4.5 times as likely to be retention-eligible than are White students. As leading education states demonstrate, Michigan will require innovative approaches in systems change—and greater thought and attention to aligned and coherent standards, assessment, instruction and capacity-building and more effective implementation—to reach this ambitious goal. Michigan’s current investment in early literacy strategies do not reflect such alignment and coherence, resulting in problematic implementation for educators and principals, especially in high-poverty schools where students often are most behind in reading.

For ETM’s more comprehensive recommendations regarding early literacy, please see our 2018 report, “Top Ten for Education: Not by Chance.”

8. Identify Students with Dyslexia and Ensure They Receive the Support They Need

The most recent 2022 M-STEP results show that more than half of Michigan’s third graders are behind in reading, reinforcing the point that Michigan struggles with an early reading crisis. Decades of research shows that promoting early literacy is key to improving education overall. If students read well by third grade, they have a better chance to succeed in school, are far more likely to go to college, participate in the job market and even have greater lifetime employment earnings.

One key group of students who struggle to read on grade level are those students who have dyslexia. Currently, there is bi-partisan legislation to help students with dyslexia improve their reading skills by requiring schools to screen early elementary students for characteristics of dyslexia and provide multi-tier levels of support for students who demonstrate those characteristics. Additionally, the legislative proposal requires teaching colleges to provide specific training on dyslexia and to ensure that all current teachers receive professional development on how to provide the necessary resources for these students using evidence-based instructional methods and interventions to teach reading based on the science of reading.

Passing this legislation is critical to changing the trajectory for Michigan’s youngest readers by addressing one of the most common barriers to reading success: dyslexia. This learning disability is said to impact as much as 5-17 percent of students. In a state that has significantly faltered in early reading instruction, passing this legislation would be a major win for all of Michigan’s students.

9. Invest in Post-Secondary Innovation

For Michigan’s students to fulfill their true potential and be the leaders of tomorrow, more must enroll in postsecondary training, whether that be at a trade school, community college or a four-year university. In the fall of 2018, about 65% of Michigan’s high school graduates enrolled directly into college, which put Michigan slightly above the national average for post-secondary enrollment right out of high school. Increasing access and pathways to success for underserved populations, rural students, and first-generation students will require investments in innovative programming, including dual enrollment, student-centered supports, and digital technologies. To increase the number of Michigan’s students pursuing post-secondary training and meeting their fullest potential, Michigan must commit to additional investment and innovation into post-secondary pathways.

10. Strengthen Early Childhood for Students who are Underserved

Recently released 2022 national assessment data clearly demonstrate opportunity gaps between groups of students as early as fourth grade. Unfortunately, those disparities often form far earlier in many children’s lives – and they persist for far too long. High-quality early childhood education serves as an effective tool for intergenerational empowerment and social mobility for many students who are otherwise disadvantaged by the educational system. Unfortunately, early learning programs in Michigan too often fail to meet students’ needs – even as Michigan’s education advocates, state leaders, and policymakers have made great strides with advocating for improvements in early childhood education.

State leaders should focus on strengthening five foundational elements, discussed in detail in this report, to ensure that Michigan’s early childhood education system meets the needs of all students:

  1. Quality
  2. Access and Affordability
  3. Funding Structure Improvement
  4. Data
  5. Workforce Recruitment, Compensation, and Retention Strategies

The coordination of policies and programs across all five foundational elements, rather than a narrow focus on any single element, will foster progress and long-term benefits for historically underserved students. Together these foundational five elements provide the critical support that is needed to foster students’ seamless transitions from early childhood education to elementary school.
In our report, we dive deeply into the early childhood landscape of Michigan and the foundational five recommendations for strengthening early childhood transitions into preschool and kindergarten.