Our Editorial: School reform stalls in Michigan
A new report showcases some alarming statistics about the performance of Michigan’s schools. With so much doom and gloom regarding the state of education here, many may be tempted to shrug in despair.
That would be the wrong response. Giving Michigan students a quality education that prepares them for a competitive workforce must be a top priority.
The challenge now is bringing everyone together, from politicians to the business community to parents, in a unified mission. In Michigan, however, where there is no clear leadership on education (or accountability), comprehensive change remains elusive.
And that’s likely to remain the case until a constitutional overhaul of school governance — one that would grant the governor more direct control over who is running public schools and put Michigan in line with most other states.
The Education Trust-Midwest’s report, released last week, offers an excellent example of how this lack of leadership at the top is translating to declining student performance at a time when other states are seeing their test scores go up.
The education advocacy group, along with numerous others, is pushing for the state to become a “top 10” in academics (currently Michigan is near the bottom).
What’s frustrating is that most of these organizations and experts point out the achievement problems yet avoid tackling the root causes of the shortfalls here.
And it mostly comes back to governance. Gov. Rick Snyder’s 21st Century Education Commission, which released its report last year, came closest to hitting on this issue — making governance one of the top nine areas they highlighted for reform. Yet since that report came out, no one on the commission seems to be actively following through with that key recommendation.
One of only six states where the governor can’t choose the school chief or appoint the education board, Michigan is an outlier.
As the Education Trust-Midwest highlights, Michigan’s drop in reading scores is emblematic of the governance shortfalls. In the past three years, Michigan schools showed the largest decline in third-grade reading levels among 11 states that use similar tests. About 56 percent of third-graders did not pass the state reading test in 2017. In Detroit, that number spikes to more than 90 percent.
In 2016, the Legislature passed third-grade reading legislation that was meant to stop or at least slow down the social promotion of students to fourth grade if they aren’t hitting reading targets. Since that time, the state has spent more than $80 million in additional funding for these literacy efforts to help schools meet the additional testing and tutoring requirements needed for struggling young readers.
Any big reform takes time to implement and see results. But the Michigan Department of Education isn’t keeping good track of how schools are actually testing kids to catch problems early as required by the law, says Rep. Tim Kelly, chairman of the House Education Reform Committee. And considering the deadline for retaining students comes in the 2019-20 school year, schools need a lot of coordinated support.
For Kelly, R-Saginaw Township, these breakdowns happen all the time on the school front, and often lead to legislative reforms going nowhere — especially if they weren’t existing priorities for the State Board of Education and Education Department.
“We’re all over the place,” Kelly says. “Everyone’s making policy. We don’t have clear, cohesive leadership where everyone is on board.”
Therein lies the problem.
If Michigan doesn’t overhaul its education governance — now — expect to see a lot more gloomy school reports.