Column: Embrace data-based ed solutions

Amber Arellano and Brian Gutman

For more than two decades, the best states for public education have shown the importance of providing the public with honest data on how well schools are serving students. They have shown the power of data — to inform parents and community leaders, and make sure that schools actually improve. And these states have proven time and again that when we set a high goal and support students and teachers, achievement follows.

As places like Massachusetts and Tennessee were showing how to get the most out of public education investments, Michigan was modeling exactly what we shouldn’t do.

For years, we’ve lessened accountability and sent confusing signals to parents and schools. Michigan has played with test data to make our schools look good while failing our students. And far too often, the most vulnerable students in Michigan — especially students of color and low-income students — have had less access to high quality schools and educational opportunities. During the same time, we’ve seen the quality of education in Michigan quickly decline, to where we are now a bottom 10 state for important measures, like early literacy.

In recent years, our state has begun to make important changes to overcome this troubling history. We’ve raised expectations for all students and moved to a state assessment that sets a high bar for kids and focuses on 21st century skills, like critical thinking and problem solving.

Two years ago, our state was presented with the opportunity — and responsibility — to build on our foundation and finally begin to improve. Through a bipartisan law called the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), Congress required state education departments to chart a new plan to improve the quality of education for every student. Despite early signs that Michigan would become a leader in evidence-based improvements, the final product largely fails to do so.

Instead of learning from the lessons of leading education states that have dramatically improved and maintained student learning, Michigan proposed a plan that lacks thoughtful accountability for student learning. Where other states set high goals, Michigan set a low bar for learning. And following years of confusing accountability systems, Michigan digs deeper into the failed policies of the past and gets rid of accountability altogether.

The concerns about this plan are not new and are not unique to The Education Trust-Midwest.

Gov. Rick Snyder has voiced concerns about the lack of accountability in this plan. Lt. Gov. Brian Calley objected to negative impacts that the plan would have on students with disabilities. Objections were raised by leaders from the civil rights and business communities. And a group of more than 30 educational experts from across the political spectrum gave Michigan’s plan the lowest possible ranking on seven out of nine factors considered. Despite this feedback, the final plan largely failed to address concerns raised.

Even the U.S. Department of Education pushed back on significant problems with Michigan’s plan. In a recent statement approving the plan, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos urged Michigan to do better, saying, “Michigan must not view this as a ceiling, but rather as a baseline upon which to build, strengthen and expand. ... I urge Michigan’s leaders to continue to find new and innovative ways to help students succeed.”

Every Michigan student — no matter their race, family income or disability status — needs and deserves a great school. Each parent should be able to understand whether the local school is serving students well. And schools must be expected and accountable for educating their students.

To be a top 10 education state, we need top 10 practices. For more than 20 years, top education states have figured out the most effective ways to support students and improve outcomes. At the same time, quality in Michigan has slipped from national average to bottom ten.

As Michigan moves forward, we have an important choice that will impact students and our communities for years to come: We can either repeat the mistakes of the past or learn from the lessons of leading states. This should be an easy choice.

Amber Arellano is executive director of The Education Trust-Midwest. Brian Gutman is its director of public engagement.