Has education in Michigan hit bottom?
For the first time in state history, Michigan public schools are able to compare their performance in some subjects to nearly a dozen other states across the country based on the state’s new assessment, the M-STEP. Indeed, this new data provide a revealing look at how Michigan schools are performing compared to peers around the country.
A new report published by my organization, the Education Trust-Midwest, finds not only did Michigan’s third-graders show the greatest decline in third-grade reading compared to peers in other states, but these learning declines are about triple that of the next closest state for this measure, despite the fact that state leaders have invested nearly $80 million in recent years to raise third-grade reading levels.
All of this new data suggests — after more than a decade of falling performance compared to other states on the national assessment — Michigan may not have hit bottom yet in terms of educational performance. It’s a sobering reality.
In the coming months, there will be a robust debate about just how Michigan deals with its P-12 educational crisis. Governance changes, increased funding, more competition — count on the usual Michigan solutions, rooted in ideology and special interest politics, being offered.
Here’s what is far too often missing in Michigan: research-based strategies and solutions. They require courage, hard work, political commitment and serious leadership across every sector, especially K-12.
They’re as sexy as a Weight Watchers program and like Weight Watchers, when done right, they work: they move outcomes for students of every background in leading states around the country.
Here are a few of those key levers:
■ Getting honest — and staying honest: Michigan has an embarrassing track record of fudging data when school data look bad. Not surprisingly, there is talk at the Michigan Department of Education of revising or gutting the M-STEP assessment, at the very moment the state has the best comparative data across states in its history. That would be a tragic mistake.
Every leading state in the country has committed to raising standards for teaching and learning, adopting an aligned state assessment that’s nationally bench-marked, and reporting that data honestly so that all stakeholders know how schools are performing against that higher bar. Michiganders deserve such honesty.
The MDE’s proposed move would be a little like going to Weight Watchers and when the news isn’t good, throwing out the scale. It wouldn’t do anyone any good — and would hamper important improvement efforts across the state.
■ Helpful information systems: It’s not enough to report M-STEP data once a year. In top states, state-provided aligned interim assessments provide rich, helpful data to teachers and principals throughout the year, and help them calibrate and improve their instruction in real time. Michigan had planned to adopt this full suite of aligned data until political pressures undermined the move. It’s time to get this data into the hands of teachers. It’s essential for improving classroom practices.
■ Modernizing instructional practices and properly supporting educators: Like Michigan, leading education states moved to 21st century college- and career-ready standards because the world has changed. Memorization and rote learning were good skills for working on an assembly line, as my father and immigrant grandfather did. But those skills have been outdated for decades.
Today the global economy demands deep critical thinking, problem solving, and superb communication skills, among others. Leading states ensure their educators have high-caliber support and training to completely transform the way they teach: they understand the people doing the hard work, with the most impact, are teachers in students’ classrooms, and the principals charged with leading instruction for schools.
As described in our new report, Top Ten for Education: Not By Chance, Michigan has done a downright lousy job at this for years. How states build public schools’ internal capacity to implement best practices makes all the difference. After all, policy changes alone will not help students or educators, if they are not well implemented by capable, well-supported educators.
■ Quality improvement systems, including accountability: Leading states also have thoughtful accountability systems that clearly communicate to parents and schools about what is most important: academic performance and improvement. And they have done so in a clear and concise way.
Most importantly, leading education states have kept these assessments and accountability systems in place over time, providing students, teachers and parents with both predictability of what would be expected, and support to help them improve.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of Michigan.
This is why my organization has joined many other business, civil rights, higher education and student organizations to advocate for strong accountability systems that research shows have boosted student outcomes, especially for students of color and low-income children.
We invite Michiganians across the state to join our movement to make Michigan a top ten education state for every group of students. We can make that happen.
Amber Arellano is executive director of the Education Trust-Midwest.