Panelist: Education in Michigan schools in ‘free fall’

Shawn D. Lewis
The Detroit News

Kati Haycock on Thursday painted a bleak picture of education in Michigan.

“Free fall” was the descriptive word the founder and CEO of the Education Trust used several times during a school funding session at the Mackinac Policy Conference. The trust is a nonpartisan research and advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C.

“Kids in Michigan are in a free fall relative to kids in other states,” said Haycock, citing the trust’s education data analysis released in a report last month. “We were 28th in the United States in 2003 in reading and 41st in 2015.”

She added 1 in 3 white fourth-graders are reading at grade level, coming in at 49th in the country, according to the analysis.

“But that rate is three times that for African-American students with a 9 percent proficiency in reading,” she said. “Middle-class white students were 17th in the country in 2003, compared to other states, and they now rank 50th in the country just in reading.”

She added: “No matter how you look at the data, the picture is one of a system in free fall.”

Haycock said more funding is essential in getting the state prepared for 2020-2025.

But, she cautioned, “more money without more reform and accountability will not get you where you want to be.”

The session was moderated by Detroit Free Press Editorial Page Editor Stephen Henderson. Michael Sentence, consultant in education reform, was the other guest speaker for the session.

He discussed reform in Massachusetts districts, saying Detroit is about four years behind Boston in academics.

“Many of the challenges you see in Detroit, you also see in Boston,” he said.

“If you’re going to have a successful school district, you have to have your thumb on the scale for urban districts, not just because they have older infrastructures, but because they are all in competition for the best principals and teachers, and if they make it more attractive in urban areas, the students will have a better chance.”

Haycock also discussed teacher assessments, saying educator accountability once felt like a “gotcha system.”

“Any time teachers didn’t do well, there wasn’t much help provided when they were struggling,” she said. “But Michigan now has a great opportunity with the federal government just passing a redesigned accountability system that doesn’t just look at test scores, but also at other quality measures.”

But the focus on Thursday remained on the necessity for early reading proficiency.

“There’s very strong interest from state leaders to teachers and parents about taking on the early reading problems,” she said. “Not only in preschool, but also after that. We need to make sure all third graders are solid readers. That is a priority from my perspective.”