Report: Michigan not on track to be a top 10 state in K-12

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News
A new report says Michigan will fall farther behind in student achievement rather than achieving its goal of becoming a top 10 state without substantial changes.

Michigan is not on track to become a top-performing state in K-12 education and won't be any time soon, according to an educational nonprofit that studies school achievement and progress.

On Tuesday, Education Trust-Midwest released its 2019 annual report examining the state of K-12 education in Michigan, saying the state ranked 35th in fourth-grade reading and 33rd in eighth-grade math in 2017 and is projected to drop further in the rankings by 2030 — to 45th and 37th, respectively — if stays on its current education course.

"After the months of analysis our organization conducted for this report, we found that Michigan is not on track to improve on early literacy, nor on other important indicators of student learning," said Amber Arellano, Education Trust executive director. "Instead, if Michigan fails to adopt transformational policies and practices, the state is projected to be in the bottom 10 states — 45th of 50 states — in fourth grade reading in 2030."

Michigan ranks in the bottom third of all states overall in early literacy and among the bottom states for every major group of students — African-American, Latino, white, low-income and higher-income students, Arellano said. In eighth-grade math, only about one in 10 African-American students and two in 10 Latino students are proficient.

“Not only is Michigan failing to close the performance gap between Michigan and leading education states, but achievement and opportunity gaps within the state remain wide,” Arellano said. “This is not surprising, since Michigan ranks 43rd in the nation for the gap in funding between high-poverty and more affluent school districts.”

“Students and families pay the price of this under-investment every day, and so do teachers,” she said, noting that teachers in Michigan’s wealthiest districts are paid about $9,700 more, on average, than teachers in Michigan’s poorest districts.

Former state School Superintendent Brian Whiston set a priority to make Michigan a Top 10 education state in 10 years.

Interim state school Superintendent Sheila Alles called the report irresponsible and premature for assuming Michigan will not develop into a top 10 state.

"We appreciate them reiterating many of the strategies in Michigan’s Top 10 in 10 Strategic Plan, including supporting all children with high-quality early childhood programs, and supports for educators," Alles said. "The top 10 in 10 strategies are being developed and implemented now and many will need the full course of the 10 years to work and show success. To not stay focused on the work being done could disrupt any hope for success."

The state of Michigan has put more than $120 million into early literacy, said Brian Gutman, Education Trust director of external relations, ahead of a controversial third-grade reading law that flags a student for retention if he or she is reading a grade level behind on the state assessment.

"Regardless of how these interventions are being done, at least at a statewide level they don't appear to be effective in a way we would have expected," Gutman said. "I don't believe that anybody puts $120 million in to a problem with the goal of lowering outcomes."

In order to become a top 10 state in education, the report says Michigan needs to:

• Focus on improving equitable access to early childhood education.

• Provide better professional development for teachers.

• Require universal screenings for dyslexia and other barriers to reading.

• Collect and analyze meaningful data on early literacy investments that measure program quality and how dollars are spent.

Michigan also needs to revamp its funding formula to address gaps between its highest-poverty and lowest-poverty districts so all can meet the needs of students, the report said. It also urges policymakers to establish a definition for effective teaching for teacher evaluations.

Gutman said in recent years, a wide range of political leaders, organizations and others and emphasized the need to improve education in Michigan.

"What we haven't seen changed is our scores," Gutman said. "Our scores are still down for achievement and progress. Michigan in most cases has stagnated, still. In ... early literacy, we are one of 13 states that has declined since 2003."

"Talking about it is important but we need to really take evidence-based policy steps to actually change the outcomes for students," Gutman said. "In large part, we are where we were three years ago."

Gutman says his organization believes there is a moment of opportunity, with a governor who is making education a priority, a new state superintendent of instruction heading into office, legislative leaders in both chambers asking for better education policy, and other efforts.

Michael Rice, superintendent of Kalamazoo Public Schools, was selected by the state board to be Michigan's next state superintendent. He is expected to take the post officially this summer.

"Michigan needs bold, visionary leadership to get any of these things done," Gutman said. "I have trouble seeing that happening unless we have a state superintendent and governor at the very least advancing evidence-based policies. We hope that will be the case."

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer wants to overturn Michigan's controversial third-grade reading law, which allows educators to retain struggling third-graders beginning in 2020.

Last week, the Michigan Department of Education announced it will use a new scoring system to make third-grade retention decisions under the state's reading law that could promote thousands of students who still need additional reading help.

State education officials believe the new retention guidelines more precisely pinpoint a third-grader's reading ability and better determine whether a child should be held back.

Only 5% of third-grade students would have been held back under the new scoring system had it been applied to 2018 scores, state officials say. That figure is in dramatic contrast to the 55.6% of Michigan's third-graders — or 56,850 — who scored less than proficient on the English Language Arts portion of the test in 2018.

The new system creates a set of numeric scores to determine whether a child will be flagged for retention in third grade, offered additional supports but not retained, or be promoted to fourth grade without extra support.

In March, a survey by Launch Michigan found nearly a quarter of Michigan educators say their schools are not ready to provide any additional support for students who are held back after next school year under Michigan's controversial third-grade reading law.

The survey, which gathered opinions from nearly 17,000 educators across the state, found that number rises to more than 4 in 10 in some urban districts, especially those with high poverty and low per-pupil spending.