Fixing Michigan's schools: Education crisis by the numbers

Doug Ross

The Detroit News editorial page just made a major commitment to explore the state of Michigan’s public education system, as well as ideas for fixing it. The basis of this multi-month campaign is the belief that the state’s public education system, especially at the K-12 level, is in deep crisis; that Michigan’s schools are being outperformed by most American states as well as a majority of the developed countries of the world.

Is it true? And if our schools are falling badly behind the competition, does it really matter?

If student academic performance is the best measure of how well our schools are doing, the data makes clear we are in trouble.

■ Michigan is one of only five states that has seen early literacy achievement decline since 2003, with only West Virginia experiencing a bigger drop.

■African-American students living in Michigan had the lowest achievement levels in fourth-grade reading in the nation in 2015.

■Michigan’s white students performed 49th in fourth-grade reading when compared to white students in other states in 2015.

■Belying the widely held belief that the state’s education problems are mostly a reflection of the academic struggles of low-income students of color, students attending schools in Michigan’s wealthiest districts in 2015 ranked 36th out of the 42 states that provided data on their wealthiest students in fourth-grade reading.

Unfortunately, this devastating academic achievement performance for younger Michigan children doesn’t get better as they get older.

■The state achievement ranking in reading for eighth-grade white students fell from 12th best in the nation to 42nd between 2003 and 2015

■That same ranking for eighth-grade math for white Michigan students fell from 25th to 42nd between 2003 and 2015

■Michigan’s eighth-graders experienced growth in math at a rate 60 percent below the national average between 2003 and 2015

■On the recent international TIMSS eighth-grade math performance rankings, Michigan eighth-graders scored below 39 other states and most developed countries including Russia, Israel, Finland, Lithuania, and virtually all of the east Asian nations

■Only 34.9 percent of Michigan high school students met the College Readiness Standard on the SAT in 2016

Finally, when it comes to college attainment, Michigan ranks 32nd among the states in the percentage of citizens over 25 with a four-year or community college degree

It’s hard to dispute the data as it comes from multiple sources and has been consistent. So assuming the numbers are accurate, should these outcomes worry us?

In 2017, perhaps the best predictor of a state’s prosperity and its residents’ affluence is the percentage of adults with college degrees. Of the top 15 states in America in per capita income, the 12 that don’t rely on oil or natural gas for their wealth are all in the top 15 for college attainment. In 2015 Michigan ranked 32nd in college attainment (39 percent of Michiganians over 25 have an associate degree or higher) and, not surprisingly, 32nd in per person income. The path is pretty clear: If a state wants to be richer, it needs to increase the proportion of its young people who graduate from college, and we are increasing this number at a lower rate than most states and nations.

A part of the American dream that played out so dramatically in Michigan over the past century is the belief that, with hard work, each generation of children will do better than their parents. That was certainly the experience of those who migrated from the rural south and much of Europe in the 20th century to Michigan’s booming manufacturing plants.

For those born in the 1940s, 93 percent earned more than their parents at comparable points in their work lives. However, for those born in the 1980s, less than half are doing better than their parents. Except for those with college degrees, 80 percent of whom are doing better.

As the recent report of the Governor’s 21st Century Commission on Education declared:

“Once regarded as having a strong public education system, Michigan’s schools — those in our most affluent suburbs as well as our rural areas and inner cities — are now quickly falling behind those of our competitors in Europe, Asia and much of the United States. Most distressingly, we see a public education system unable to position our children to achieve the American Dream — to do better than the generation before them. The urgency could not be greater.”

The data appear to back them up.

We will spend the coming months on this page inviting the views of educators from around the nation and the world, no matter how controversial or their ideological bent. We will send staff to visit high performing systems and schools, and interview their leaders. Our goal is to ensure that our readers have the most facts and the widest array of ideas to draw upon to rebuild Michigan and Detroit’s schools to make them among the best in the world.

Doug Ross is a former U.S. assistant secretary of labor, founder of the University Prep Schools, former chief innovation officer of Detroit Public Schools and co-founder of American Promise Schools.

An ongoing series

This is part of a series of editorials, columns and commentaries that will appear throughout the school year exploring ideas for improving our state’s schools.