Michigan's lagging achievement prompts calls for school reform

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News
Flagship Academy third grader Shantinique Brown, 8, reads Hansel and Gretel with seventh grader Rebecca Murray, 13, during the school's after school program. Middle school students at Flagship Academy charter school in Detroit are participating in Teen Trendsetters, a mentoring program.

Michigan faces lagging student achievement in nationwide rankings, prompting calls for reform from political, educational and business leaders.

The educational malaise has been blamed on issues including teacher shortages, ever-changing accountability measures, controversies over curriculum requirements, improving literacy and questions about the state's system of public school choice.

Former Republican Gov. Rick Snyder and GOP legislative leaders have pursued reforms including fewer restrictions on charter schools and a grading system for school district performance. But Democrats, led by new Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, have argued that schools need a heftier state funding boost and greater support for teachers, among other initiatives.

The issues are coming to a head at the Mackinac Policy Conference, where the sponsoring Detroit Regional Chamber has dedicated several Thursday sessions to school issues.

Political, educational and business leaders are seeking a “very deliberate and thoughtful way to find a path forward" through programs like Launch Michigan, a group of leaders from across careers and disciplines seeking "a joint solution for what we consider to be an education crisis," said Sandy Baruah, president and CEO of the Detroit chamber. 

“The K-12 system is the first element of the talent pipeline,” Baruah said. “Business is too competitive these days to handle sub-optimal talent development.”

Some experts say Michigan's educational problems can’t be addressed without an infusion of cash, specifically an increase of funding strategically targeted at students and schools most in need of the resources.

“I would feel very confident that if we provided the resources that are needed that we would see big movement in student outcome,” said David Arsen, professor of education policy at Michigan State University.

But others say money doesn't always fix everything. Families need to be given as many choices as possible among schools while holding educators responsible for achievement results.

Equitable funding is a building block to educational improvements in Michigan followed closely by uniform accountability systems like the A-F grading system approved by legislators last year, said Dan Quisenberry, president of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, a group working with Michigan’s roughly 300 charter schools.

“It’s an important component of moving Michigan forward,” Quisenberry said. “It’s hard in any endeavor to achieve something when you can’t define what that is.”

Dismal scores, lagging funding

Michigan used to be a Top 10 state or close to one in per-pupil school funding two decades ago.

In 1998-99, Michigan's $7,234 in per-pupil spending ranked No. 11 in the country behind states such as Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont and Wisconsin, according to the Census Bureau.

But the decline of the state's manufacturing sector during the first decade of the 21st century, plus the Great Recession, has prompted the state to slip. Michigan ranked No. 23 nationally in 2017 at $11,907 per pupil, being overtaken by states including Ohio, North Dakota, Illinois and Wyoming, according to Census Bureau statistics.

Pattengill Elementary School students Sam Dunlap (left) and James Berry work on an extreme earthquake simulation at the Berkley, Mich. school.

As recently as last week, Michigan ranked 35th in the country for fourth-grade reading and 33rd in eighth-grade math in 2017, according to the National Assessment for Educational Progress.

Student performance is expected to drop lower still in the coming years without significant changes. Based on the state's rate of decline since the early 2000s, the Education Trust-Midwest projects Michigan's fourth-graders will rank 45th nationally in reading and eighth-graders will rank 37th in math. 

The achievement problem comes despite Michigan's $120 million infusion into early literacy in Michigan ahead of a controversial third-grade reading law that aims to retain students lagging a grade level behind in reading on the state assessment.

Michigan's divided government provides an opportunity to reverse the trends by boosting state funding paired with increased accountability measures — ideas important to both Democrats and Republicans, said Amber Arellano, executive director of Education Trust-Midwest.

But the question remains, she said, “Will leaders on both sides make the most of the moment?” 

While school spending has increased overall, those dollars buy less because of inflation. State schools have experienced a 30% decline in inflation-adjusted spending in K-12, or 22% per pupil, since 2003, Arsen said.

The state needs to funnel more money into the system — in part by revamping school financing to address socioeconomic disparities among districts, he said. Some students are more expensive to educate, so increased per-pupil funding needs to be targeted at areas with more low-income, at-risk and special needs students, Arsen said.

“Michigan has tried to improve schools by accountability and choice schools while ignoring funding, trying to improve schools on the cheap,” he said. “We didn’t look back at the funding to adjust it to the outcomes expected by the state.”

Quisenberry agreed that equitable funding is essential, but argued a multi-pronged plan is needed to address Michigan's complex education system. Families across Michigan need to select among public schools, and each of those choices should be adequately funded, he said.

"Education and making it what Michigan communities deserve is a very complex thing," Quisenberry said.

Whitmer’s proposed budget includes a weighted formula in the per-pupil allowance to provide for students considered at risk, special needs or English language learners.

Currently the average state aid per pupil in Michigan is a little more than $8,000. Students requiring special programming currently are provided for through separate appropriations, but educators said the money could easily be stripped out or reduced every year if it isn’t tied to the per pupil foundation allowance.

To address the issue, Whitmer’s budget would pledge a $102 million increase for economically disadvantaged students, an estimated $894 per eligible student. It also would spend $50 million on career and technical education students, or about $487 per eligible student, and $120 million for special education services, which would increase state reimbursements from 28% to 32%.

The Legislature has yet to act on the proposals. 

The funding formula is a step forward to address those inequities, but more is needed to address the state’s large populations of at-risk students, said William Schmidt, a professor of statistics and education at MSU.

Roughly 760,000 of Michigan’s 1.5 million K-12 students are considered economically disadvantaged, 199,620 are special education students and 113,000 are enrolled in a career or technical course.

A failure to address at-risk students could spell doom for other state initiatives seeking to raise student achievement, Schmidt said.

“The standards are challenging,” he said. “They are where they should be. They are internationally competitive. The issue is making sure that this is done not just within our elite schools within the state, but across the board.”

Students Justin Ngo, left, and Alex Seba, assemble their go-kart inside the power technology lab at Novi High School.

Teachers, choice, accountability

Funding equity among schools ranks high alongside stability in the education system and teacher preparation, said University of Michigan School of Education Elizabeth Birr Moje.

Teachers need more preparation, more ongoing training, more respect and more than the “suppressed pay” that’s been the general standard in districts across the state, Moje said.

Michigan frequently ranked among the top five states in the country for average teacher salary in the 1990s, according to National Education Association. But it has since slipped, ranking No. 15 in 2017 at an average of $62,287, according to the NEA.

“The supply of well-prepared teachers is probably the most crucial issue facing the entire state,” Moje said. “It’s already a challenge in our more challenged districts. But it will become an even greater challenge across the state as teachers retire.”

Even persistent changes in accountability standards and assessments could be overcome with more spending, Moje said.

Like the A-F grading system, the third-grade reading law was ushered in amid controversy but, for better or worse, is forcing the state to look toward literacy, Quisenberry said. 

Arellano agreed, noting the law will increase the emphasis on early literacy as the retention components are put in place this fall and parents begin experiencing the impact of the bill on their children.

“Schools will be feeling that pressure,” she said.

Solutions to the state’s education crisis are not easily debated, legislated or implemented, but are worth the struggle, Quisenberry said.

“In the last decade or more, Michigan has tended to look toward single-answer solutions,” he said. “But everybody understands this is complex and we need a cohesive, coherent strategy."


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