Jacques: Pitch for education reform targets Mackinac

Ingrid Jacques
The Detroit News

Business leaders will be getting the hard sell on Mackinac Island this week on their need to engage in the drive to make Michigan a Top 10 education state. School reformers are armed with distressing statistics they hope will shock the state’s corporate powerhouses into responding.

Here’s what they’ll hear:

■ In the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress standardized test, Michigan fourth-graders rank 41st in reading.

■ In fourth-grade math, the state ranks 42nd.

■ In eighth-grade math, 38th.

■ African-American students scored the lowest in the U.S. in several grades and subjects.

But before anyone thinks this is just an urban or minority problem, Michigan scored at or near the bottom in every grade level and demographic group, including white and affluent students.

Attendees of the Detroit Regional Chamber’s annual policy conference, which formally opens Wednesday, will be beat over the head with a report from the Education Trust that shows Michigan’s student performance has fallen steadily over past the decade and is not keeping up with the progress being made in other states.

As noted, the academic free fall is a statewide problem. In the important benchmark of fourth-grade reading, Michigan’s white students have plummeted to 49th in 2015 from 13th in 2003. That negative trajectory applies in others grades and subjects, too. It also holds true for higher-income students.

These numbers should serve as a wake-up call to the business leaders. The Education Trust-Midwest wants to use the gathering of more than 1,600 attendees to convince the business community that Michigan’s schools won’t improve without its support.

It’s a tactic that has proven effective in other states that have far surpassed Michigan.

Ken Whipple, former CEO of CMS Energy and executive vice president of Ford Motor Co., upholds Massachusetts as good example of how business groups can spur positive change. In the early 1990s, that state was a far cry from being the nation’s academic leader. So the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education put together a detailed plan for reforming schools.

“Change wasn’t possible without the outside help,” says Whipple, who serves as chairman of Michigan Achieves, an initiative of the Education Trust-Midwest to make Michigan a Top 10 state. “They did the whole thing.”

The alliance, which is still active today, built budgets for each district, adding in money for schools with high levels of poverty and special needs students. They also pushed for tougher standards and a stronger curriculum.

Now Massachusetts not only leads the U.S. in K-12 outcomes, but if it were a country, it would among the best in the world.

Michigan’s schools have a direct impact on the economy. As the report states, if all students were “meeting basic mastery for core reading and math skills on the national assessment, the economic benefit to our state would be enormous: an estimated increase of about $860 billion in gross domestic product.”

Many of Michigan’s CEOs have heard the numbers, but there hasn’t been a unified, consistent effort yet to push for a K-12 overhaul.

“It’s not a new story, but we are not making progress fast enough,” says Doug Rothwell, president and CEO of Business Leaders for Michigan.

And it is not simply a money issue, as some in the education establishment claim. Rothwell points to how the state is in the Top 15 for school funding, but in the bottom 15 for performance.

Clearly, it’s a matter of how that money is being put to use.

Rothwell says the state has put some good measures in place, such as adopting Common Core and creating a new state standardized test — the M-STEP — that is a more accurate reflection of how students are doing. But he says parents and local school boards must take ownership of demanding better results from their schools.

“The best thing is to keep a spotlight on the issue,” says Rothwell of the role business in future reforms.

Sandy Baruah, president and CEO of the Detroit Regional Chamber, notes, “We’re going the wrong direction. The world is getting smarter but Michigan is getting dumber.”

He would like the business community to coalesce around tougher education standards and accountability, and he thinks schools should place more focus on STEM education (science, technology, engineering and math).

Baruah says Michigan has lacked a cohesive vision for education reform from business groups and that companies have taken on issues in a “piecemeal process.”

Kati Haycock, CEO of the national Education Trust, will be on the island meeting with business leaders. She also points to Massachusetts as one of the best examples of a business-led turnaround. But similar efforts have taken place in Texas, Tennessee and Kentucky, too.

“The clear lesson is that external pressure is essential,” says Haycock, who is speaking Thursday at the conference.

And that demand for improvement should come from businesses, citizens and civil rights organizations, she says.

“The hope in Michigan is that business leaders are more likely to be heard and that they can build a business voice and create a new accountability,” Haycock says.