Editorial: Examining the crisis in Michigan’s schools

The Detroit News

Since the beginning of this school year, The Detroit News has lent its opinion pages to a variety of voices offering their views on the education crisis in Michigan. By now, we’ve heard enough to know for certain that the crisis is real. And state leaders are not yet moving in an urgent manner to make it go away.

The Fixing Michigan Schools series that appears in most Thursdays’ Think section has affirmed that the problems with education in Michigan go well beyond the urban districts such as Detroit. Suburban and rural districts are also vastly underperfoming their peers in other states.

For context, we’ll repeat some of the findings from the first phase of commentaries:

African-American fourth-graders in Michigan rank last among the 50 states in reading proficiency — below even Mississippi.

Our middle-class and wealthier white students rank 49th out of 50 in fourth-grade reading when compared to their peers in other states (only West Virginia saves us from being dead last).

And things have been getting worse, not better, despite the lofty goal set by the state Board of Education to become a top 10 education state in 10 years. Michigan is one of only three states that saw reading scores decline between 2003 and 2015. The eighth-grade reading scores of Michigan’s white students have plummeted to 42nd in the nation from 12th over the same period, while math scores have dropped to 42nd from 25th.

Rural schools are struggling as much as their urban counterparts. Nearly 40 percent of the 50 lowest performing schools in reading on the state’s M-STEP assessment last year were in rural areas.

What this means for Michigan should be clear. We are not preparing our students to become productive members of the workforce. Lack of skilled workers will mean slower economic growth and fewer opportunities in the state.

We need high school graduates who can go on to college or career training programs equipped with skills such as collaboration, critical thinking, creativity and communication.

And yet less than 35 percent of our high schools students met or exceeded the college readiness score on the 2016 SAT test.

That explains why Michigan ranks 35th in the percentage of its adult population with a four-year or two-year college degree.

An education crisis clearly exists. The next question is what to do about it.

In its first phase, Fixing Michigan’s Schools explored what other nations and states that consistently outperform Michigan are doing educationally.

The series has since turned to poverty, and whether it is possible to deliver education in school districts with large populations of impoverished children.

Nearly one in four Michigan children live in households with incomes that fall below the poverty line. Many of them are clustered in urban school districts that lack economic diversity.

So this discussion of educating poor children is critical to addressing the overall issue of improving Michigan’s schools. If we pretend that a quality education can be delivered to disadvantaged students in impoverished communities with the same resources and techniques as employed by children from more prosperous families, we’re fooling ourselves.

Our intent is to further important conversations about education reform. And to generate a sense of urgency about the need for action.

Fixing Michigan’s Schools

This is part of a series of editorials, columns and commentaries that will appear throughout the school year exploring ideas for improving our state’s schools. Follow along and read pieces you’ve missed at detroitnews.com/opinion.