Our Editorial: School reform lacks unified vision

The Detroit News

If it feels as if Michigan schools are being tugged in multiple directions, that’s because they are. And while all the attention to improving outcomes of the state’s schools is positive, the dearth of a comprehensive vision will render these efforts useless.

The governor, Legislature, State Board of Education, Michigan Department of Education and the School Reform Office are all involved with creating and implementing school policy in this state, and that has led to a confusing mix of proposals and benchmarks for schools.

And as we’ve said before, without clear direction, accountability goes out the window.

Exhibit A is the state’s education plan recently submitted by state Superintendent Brian Whiston to the U.S. Department of Education, a requirement for states to receive federal education dollars. In most states, this accounts for 8 percent of the total school budget. That’s sizable in Michigan, which spends roughly $14 billion a year on K-12 education.

The updated Every Student Succeeds Act — Congress’ latest iteration of the No Child Left Behind law — gives states more flexibility and does away with the unreasonable academic goals in the previous law.

But states still must prove they are committed to keeping their schools accountable and offering parents a transparent assessment of school performance.

On some key measures, Michigan’s plan misses the mark.

One example is the fairly straight-forward concept of A-F letter grading for schools. Other states like Florida have used this system and parents like it. Michigan’s current rainbow ranking system is strange and not helpful to the average parent or interested citizen in deciphering how their local school is doing.

Whiston had originally backed the concept of letter grades, but last month stepped back from it when the State Board voiced concerns — right before the board was going to evaluate his contract.

The final state plan includes three potential grading options, with the default being a dashboard system, unless the Legislature steps in first. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos could also send the plan back to Whiston, and she may do that, considering her interest in her home state and her commitment to clear accountability measures like letter grades.

Gov. Rick Snyder also acknowledged that he would prefer an A-F grading system in his response to Whiston’s proposal.

“A 2014 national survey conducted by McLaughlin & Associates found that 84 percent of parents supported assigning schools a letter grade regarding how well they educate students,” Snyder wrote. “We owe it to our students and parents that we celebrate success and address low performance, even though school accountability can be uncomfortable.”

Snyder is exactly right. Yet while he raised a few concerns, he still signed off on the plan.

“Unfortunately, Michigan’s new education plan is a big step in the wrong direction,” stated Sunil Joy, assistant director of policy and research at The Education Trust-Midwest, which supports the A-F system.

The Legislature did not need to give its approval, but some lawmakers would have liked to offer input.

And right now, the state’s best chance at getting a better school grading system is in the Legislature.

Senate Education Chairman Phil Pavlov, R-St. Clair Township, is working on a comprehensive plan to grade schools and handle failing schools.

That’s a good step. But this fight over school grading is a perfect example of why the state needs to overhaul its school governance. Most states offer the governor much more direction on schools.

This would mean asking voters to change the state constitution. But it’s a vital step to improving Michigan’s schools.