Column: Is there an education crisis in Michigan?

Richard Zeile

Michigan has had a “crisis in education” for decades. According to the media, we have been in education crisis for two or three generations. I am acutely aware of how important our children’s education is, and of the need for constant attention to what affects it, just as a driver must always pay attention because it is possible at any moment to go off the road. But unless we consider driving to be a daily crisis, I believe it irresponsible to proclaim as “crisis” every significant issue that arises in education. The notion of “crisis” suggests reactive thinking when what is required is a strategic perspective. Jumping to emotional conclusions in order to prod the political process characterizes too much of the discussion of Michigan’s education policy.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores have been paraded as cause for alarm because Michigan’s rank has slipped in comparison to other states. I noticed that Michigan’s scores were 5 points or less from the mean on a 500-point scale indicating that there is a 1 percent difference or less between Michigan’s scores and the national average. The 50 states’ scores fall within a narrow band of 40 points (8 percent) of the scale, and thus are bunched up like horses in a race separated by less than a length. Such ranking is less meaningful than the gaps within the states themselves, including Michigan where gaps between districts can be as much as 60 points. The eighth grade male to female gap in reading is a full 10 points, a gap as big as our lag behind the highest performing state, New Hampshire. Should there be an outcry that our schools are shortchanging our boys?

Two years ago the state Board of Education invited some 20 education advocacy organizations to propose solutions to the dilemma of losing ground to other states. Few took note of Michigan’s loss of population the previous decade, and not a one mentioned that during the decade of losing ground, other states had raised the age for kindergarten admission from turning 5 on Dec. 1 to turning 5 on Sept. 1. This means that our students were on average 5 percent younger than those in other states. It cost us nothing to raise that age, which we finally did two years ago, but it will be another nine years before all our K-8 students will be on par developmentally with the other states. I believe that this is one reason why Superintendent Whiston is confident Michigan will be one of the “Top Ten states in Ten years.”

It is claimed that there is a funding gap between our best performing schools and our lowest performing schools. It is true that the 20 percent or so of our highest performing schools have the highest per pupil funding. But the lowest performing quintile of our schools have on average the second-highest per pupil funding. This means that 60 percent of our Michigan schools are performing better with significantly less money. You cannot run a school without money, but more money will probably not solve academic problems. I believe in funding good ideas and programs, but merely increasing spending is neither a good idea nor an effective program. It is an illusion that government spending can replace the parent’s role in a child’s development. Education cannot be delivered like pizza, without effort, engagement, or commitment on the part of those receiving it.

We must give up the illusions of crisis and control. The Titanic sank because the captain did not realize how much time and distance it would take to turn the big ship around. There will be no overnight solutions to Michigan’s education challenges, and no substitute for thoughtful, probing analysis based on multiple perspectives. Loose talk of crisis distorts that process, and the illusion of control denies the limits within which we must labor to enable autonomous beings — our children — to learn things worthwhile.

Dr. Richard Zeile is co-president of the state Board of Education.