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Finley: Michigan has the schools it deserves

Nolan Finley
The Detroit News

A dozen years ago, then University of Michigan President Mary Sue Coleman came to our offices for an editorial board meeting and said something I had never heard before:

“There is no culture of education in Michigan. It’s not a priority here.”

So I decided to see if she was right. Working with the Michigan Education Association and other groups, The Detroit News commissioned a series of surveys of education attitudes in the state.

The most startling finding: Just 28 percent of parents believed a college education was essential to the success of their children. Michigan was clearly still clinging to a past era when the route to a comfortable middle-class life was just as likely to go through a factory as it was a college campus.

Since then, Michigan has paid a lot of lip service to getting its students ready for a work world that demands post-high school training, and has launched a score of initiatives to improve classroom performance.

There’s no updated poll to gauge whether state residents today hold education in higher regard. But the actual results would suggest they don’t.

While other states, including former education backwaters, have made progress in improving student outcomes, Michigan has slid. Its schools rank in the bottom 10 states, and that’s across every demographic and income group. Even our best schools in our richest communities perform worse than their peers in other states, according to the Education Trust-Midwest.

Taking Michigan from the bottom to the Top 10 is the very lofty goal of the governor, the state board of education and business leaders. I’ve joined a couple of efforts over the years to help figure out how to get there. Gov. Rick Snyder convened a commission to develop a strategy for achieving the goal, and its recently released report echoes the approaches taken by states like Florida and Tennessee that are making sharp gains.

This isn’t a quest for the Lost Ark. Best practices for bettering school performance abound. All we need to do is adopt them.

But we don’t have the will. We lack the urgency that real change demands.

Currently, the Legislature is at work gutting the Michigan Merit Curriculum, put in place only after an intense political battle, because many parents grumble it’s too rigorous, and demands too much of those students who aren’t headed to college.

State school Superintendent Brian Whiston, bowing to the public school establishment, just relieved schools of evaluation by letter grades, a measure parents could clearly understand, in favor of an opaque system that lacks clarity, and thus value.

In Detroit, parents and community leaders are rallying and suing to save 16 schools identified by the state School Reform Office as chronically failing. In some of these schools, there aren’t enough students proficient in reading and math to fill a single classroom.

Parents ought to be surrounding these failure factories with hammers and plywood to keep their children out.

There are a lot of reasons our schools continue to underperform in Michigan. But the biggest is that we don’t care enough to make them better.

Nolan Finley’s book, “Little Red Hen: A Collection of Columns from Detroit’s Conservative Voice,” is available from Amazon, iBooks, and Barnes & Noble Nook.