Howes: Education decline imperils gains in Michigan

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News

‘Is the American dream dying in Michigan,” asked the subject line of an email that arrived Thursday morning. The second: “Can our education system resuscitate it?”

Not very easily, judging by the numbers Public Sector Consultants harvested from a report it helped produce for the governor’s 21st Century Education Commission. It’s grim reading.

“Until we are honest about current performance in our state,” it says, “we cannot demand the changes our education system needs to more effectively support today’s kindergarteners and tomorrow’s college students.” Exactly right.

College may not be for everyone, but education is. Today’s leaders do tomorrow’s kids no favors by beggaring education spending, weakening curriculum standards and ignoring the mounting evidence of underachievement that amounts to one big, fat embarrassment.

Lurking beneath the surface of scrambling for next-generation mobility jobs in the auto industry, efforts to rewrite trade agreements to benefit manufacturing employment in the industrial Midwest and the campaign to woo would-be foreign investment like Taiwan’s Foxconn Technology Group to Michigan is an inescapable fact: educational achievement across the state is in reverse.

Doesn’t matter that Detroit’s automakers are booking billions in North American profits on a years-long sales tear that began seven years ago. Doesn’t matter that the reinvention of downtown Detroit is powered by entrepreneurial energy and billions in private investment. Doesn’t matter that the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history has fundamentally altered Detroit’s financial trajectory.

All of that is enormously positive, a break in the arc of decline that had seized Detroit and too much of Michigan for too long. But it creates a false sense of security, undermined by the fact that the state that put the world on wheels is doing a dismal job preparing its young people for a globally competitive future.

And, no, President Donald Trump’s economic nationalism won’t be the tonic to revive the Golden Age of Manufacturing that enabled several generations in Michigan and Ohio, Indiana and Wisconsin to earn solid places in the burgeoning middle class with nothing more than a high school education.

That kind of opportunity is disappearing, a trend likely to be accelerated — not arrested — by increased automation, tougher job qualifications and broader deployment of artificial intelligence. Navigating that change and identifying opportunity will require more education and, most importantly, the skills to keep learning.

That’s not a deeply held value in the state’s political culture, shaped as it is by Michigan’s century-long association with manufacturing and rising personal income. Not anymore, despite the rebound in manufacturing job creation — much of it at lower compensation rates.

The numbers tell the depressing tale:

Nearly 93 percent of Michigan kids born in the 1940s earned more than their parents. By the 1980s, that number shrank to 46 percent. The jobless rate for state residents with a bachelor’s degree or higher is 2.7 percent, compared to 14 percent unemployment for those without a high school diploma.

Michigan ranks 37th in eighth-grade math performance and 41st nationally in fourth-grade reading achievement. Strip out the state’s lowest-income students and fourth-grade reading rank slips to 48th, a telling stat that should make a lot of suburban parents and teachers shudder.

State spending on post-secondary education since fiscal year 2007-2008 has declined 14 percent, even as tuition at Michigan colleges and universities has continued to increase.

How that sad reality positions the state to compete for jobs in Autos 2.0, or a burgeoning tech sector, or to shed the work-a-day caricatures of the past is a question parents, education bureaucrats and elected officials should be forced to answer.

And how long? How long will it take for Republicans and Democrats, teachers unions and the education establishment, parents and taxpayers, to coalesce around the cold, hard facts and chart a way out?

A hard lesson of the past decade is that the prevailing culture in this state and many of its cities and towns avoids taking tough medicine until a precipitating crisis leaves them with no choice. Think auto bailouts and Detroit’s bankruptcy, and think what a difference they have made.

If the American dream is dying here, a lot of the fault lies with Michigan and the people who tolerate chronic mediocrity.


Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN, listen to his Saturday podcasts, or catch him 3 and 10 p.m. Thursdays on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM.