Column: How Michigan can be a leader in education

Amber Arellano

In 2015, the Education Trust-Midwest launched the Michigan Achieves campaign to make Michigan a top 10 education state by 2030. Since then, tens of thousands of Michiganders have enlisted to be part of an action network of organizations, parents and educators getting involved to ensure Michigan’s P-12 education system is no longer declining compared to other states, but again becomes one of the best states in the U.S. for student learning.

The data are clear: Michigan’s education system is facing a true crisis. While leading education states such as Massachusetts were once performing at similar levels of student learning that Michigan did more than 20 years ago, today Massachusetts is so high-performing, if it were a nation it would be considered top six in the world. Michigan, on the other hand, has gone from being an above average education state to mediocre and even a bottom 10 state for many important metrics of learning quality and educational opportunity. As we have seen clearly illustrated by the recent failed bid for an Amazon headquarters, this dramatic decline has real costs to Michigan’s students, communities and future economic prosperity.

As one of the nation’s leading policy and advocacy organizations, Education Trust and Michigan-based Education Trust-Midwest have also conducted years of research on what works to raise learning and close achievement gaps for all students. And while the bad news is that Michigan is not currently providing many students with the opportunities and tools to succeed during their K-12 years and after high school, the good news is that leading states demonstrate that that does not need to be the case.

High-leverage strategies and investments can change our state’s educational trajectory with the right leadership, focus and commitment. This begins with leadership that supports a coherent, research-based agenda, and is willing to provide the stability and tools necessary to implement this agenda well and provide educators with the supports that they need to succeed.

There are four key priorities that leading education states have embraced, and we believe those strategies will work in Michigan.

■Strengthen our teacher and principal workforce: Becoming a top 10 education state means becoming a top state for teaching and school leadership. Indeed, every leading education state has zeroed in on comprehensive systemic changes to make their teachers and principals much more effective, productive, and supported. These changes require systems to be improvement-oriented and working together such as high-caliber support, feedback and evaluation system that helps educators identify their strengths and weaknesses; high-quality professional development; and meaningful opportunities for Michigan’s strongest educators to take leadership roles without having to leave the classroom. And it means closing the teacher salary gaps between affluent districts and working-class and low-income districts, the latter which often struggle to attract and retain educators due to low salary levels.

■Invest adequately and equitably: Michigan has a long and honorable history of being among the top states for school funding. However, we also have among the nation’s largest gaps in school funding between affluent and high-poverty schools, which undermines the capacity of the schools and educators to serve the students who most need more support. This gap has been documented by national studies in recent years.

■Invest smartly and effectively: We need to ensure that resources are invested on high-leverage, evidence-based practices. Throughout the recent well-warranted conversation about equitably funding schools, we must also consider the transformative, systemic changes needed to produce the results that our students need and deserve. That means re-thinking many of the systems used to deliver services and supports to educators and students, which have become antiquated and often, are not data-driven nor held accountable for their performance — and ensuring dollars are meaningfully building the capacity of educators and schools for improvement efforts.

■Insisting on meaningful accountability for all major K-12 actors: Traditionally Michigan has been a weak state for accountability systems for schools, educators, and other actors such as charter authorizers including Intermediate School Districts. The lack of data-driven, thoughtful improvement and accountability systems has been a great disservice to educators and students and Michigan families. There must be much greater accountability for performance and outcomes for all of the major stakeholders in the K-12 system.

■Empowering parents with honest information: Finally, we must do much more to empower parents with honest, accessible information about how their public schools are performing against comparative national benchmarks. Part of the reason why Michigan’s public education decline has gone on for so long is due to the lack of honest, transparent public reporting to parents. Today the MDE deserves credit for being on its way in building such a system now. That good work should be applauded, not disrupted.

We can do this. Let’s get started. Join us at michiganachieves.com.

About the author

Amber Arellano is the executive director of the Education Trust-Midwest.