Catching Up With the Class: Why Michigan Schools Are Underperforming and What’s Being Done

Michigan students' test scores are lagging nationally. While other states have innovated their education systems, experts say, we've fallen behind. Where do we place, how'd we get here – and what's being done to help our kids?

When it comes to children’s education, every parent wants the best of the best. After all, the education a child receives follows him or her through life – and a quality one can open doors.

For Michigan parents, though, giving their children a top-notch education may be a bit tougher than they realize. That’s because our schools simply aren’t up to snuff with those in other states.

In fact, the most recent report by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) – which ranks states based on the results of an academic test taken every two years by a selection of fourth and eighth grade students from each state, along with other factors – puts our state’s public education system in spot number 36. That’s up two slots since 2015, landing us in the bottom third of the country.

But we didn’t always rank so low. Back in 2003, Michigan was number 28 in the nation.

So, what happened?

According to Brian Gutman, director of external relations at the nonpartisan research and advocacy organization The Education Trust–Midwest based in Royal Oak, we didn’t keep up with other states that were working toward educational improvement.

“When we really take a look at the data, what we really see is that Michigan has not so much fallen behind but that other states have rushed much faster ahead,” he says. “What we’ve really seen is stagnation.”

And what’s to blame? Likely a number of mistakes, Gutman says.

“When we take a look at Michigan policy and Michigan investments, it’s not any one single thing we’ve done or not done,” he says, “but, rather, a combination of things.”

Test trap

Michelle Fecteau, who is an elected member of the Michigan State Board of Education, says one part of the issue could be what she calls the “reform movement.”

During this movement, she says, the state opted for a loosely regulated system that allowed parents to choose which schools their kids went to, whether traditional public, charter or cyber.

It also heavily focused on high-stakes standardized tests scores, which are strongly tied to a community’s socioeconomic status.

According to a 2017 report by the National Bureau of Economic Research, a Michigan reform plan implemented in 2012 would identify the lowest-scoring schools in the state and then require those schools to implement certain changes.

If schools did not improve, they could face staff changes or even closure.

“We now have some of the lowest numbers of people going into the (teaching) profession,” Fecteau says, “and we have this turn of teachers – and turn of students also – going from school to school in certain districts, which then pulls down the average of the state.”

Now, rather than closing poorly performing schools outright, the state uses “partnership district agreements” with low-achieving schools.

These agreements outline an improvement plan for each school. Then, each school gets 18 months to show progress in immediate measures and three years to show overall academic improvement, according to the Michigan Education Department, or MDE.

If a district fails, consequences up to and including closure are outlined in the agreements. Teachers at low-performing schools who are rated ineffective after three end-of-year evaluations must be dismissed.

Funding fail

But the hyper-focus on testing, and the loss of teachers, isn’t the only issue our schools have been facing.

Alycia Meriweather, deputy superintendent of the Detroit Public Schools Community District, says the way in which the state structures its educational budget is also flawed.

To decide where educational funds go, the state legislature and governor approve per-pupil expenditures for each school year, which is then distributed to the districts.

What’s it cost to educate a K-12 kid in Michigan? About $9,590 per pupil, says a 2018 study by the Michigan-based School Finance Research Collaborative. This “base” cost doesn’t include transportation and food services, among other things.

The actual average a state spends per pupil can be hard to tally, since education funding is so complex. But an MDE analysis published in February 2018 reports that the state spends $6,231 per pupil on instructional expenses like basic programming and teacher salaries. It also notes another $1,629 goes towards extras like school admin and staff support.

Smaller amounts go to anything from sports programming and employee benefits to transportation and other student services.

And we’re set to get a bit more. Before Gov. Rick Snyder left office, he approved $14.7 billion in K-12 funding. That includes the state’s biggest per-pupil school allowance bump in 15-plus years, The Detroit News reported – up $120-$240.

“When you look at Michigan and you look at other states and how their schools are funded, there’s a huge difference across the United States,” Meriweather says. She adds that Michigan’s funding for at-risk students, those with special needs and those learning English as a second language lags behind other states.

“The students we have in our classrooms today present with very different issues and concerns,” explains Dr. Robert Glass, superintendent of Bloomfield Hills Schools. “We’re seeing a significant increase in students with mental health and trauma needs that were a rarity in schools 20 years ago, and schools are not always equipped to address these mental health and trauma needs.”

And when ample funding isn’t coming in to support programming for these students, schools must either find extra money in their budgets to support them or let their vulnerable kids go without.

Likewise, school districts that serve underprivileged areas and utilize older buildings in need of work must also find the cash to create a safe and healthy learning environment for their kids.

“The way our finances are in our state, local communities have to raise the money for infrastructure,” Fecteau explains, by way of millage taxes that go before voters. “If you’re in a poor community, that three mil (increase for schools, for example) isn’t going to give you enough money that you need.”

To fill in these gaps, many districts pull from their general funds, but this just leaves gaps in other areas that general fund dollars should be going toward.

Low teacher turnout

In addition to budgeting issues, Glass says our state’s teachers are seeing low levels of support, which causes more issues for schools.

The average compensation for Michigan public school teachers sits around $62,000, according to MDE data published in February 2018. This sits firmly above the national average of about $60,000, per the National Education Association – but behind higher performing states like Massachusetts and New Jersey, which pay an average of about $78,000 and $76,000, respectively.

This leaves districts struggling to find passionate professionals who may be leaving the state in search of better pay or to new career paths altogether.

“There is a persistent shortage of talent entering the education profession, (and) finding highly qualified and talented staff is becoming increasingly more difficult,” Glass says. “We are competing for talent with the private sector, particularly in the areas of math, technology and science. There simply isn’t the incentive to become a teacher like there is to become an engineer.”

When districts struggle to find professionals to fill roles within their schools, kids miss out on a quality education – and that could have a dire effect on the state’s future.

“The reality is the students are held accountable for the education they receive, and they will be long after high school,” Gutman says. “If they aren’t prepared, it will be more difficult for them to get into college or more likely that they’ll need remediation, which makes earning that post-secondary education more expensive and leads to higher dropout rates.”

And less graduates means fewer opportunities for the state as a whole.

“I think the short-term consequence is how well our students are (doing) compared to their peers,” he adds. “Longer term, that translates to the strength of our workforce and our communities.”

Budgeting for success

Because funding has such an impact on a school’s performance, Fecteau believes taking a closer look at funding and investing more in our kids could help.

“We really need to look at investing more in education in Michigan because, compared to other states, we are behind in the increases we have given to education over that time,” she says.

That said, we have to do more than simply throw money at education. It requires strategic spending.

“Adding more money does not fix the problem,” Meriweather explains. “Funding should match up to the district’s priorities, whether you’re talking about academic improvement, finding talent or stewardship programs.”

She adds that looking at each school and funding them based on their needs – so that all Michigan schools are operating on the same level – would be beneficial.

“I would first identify the way (a school’s) budget is structured and how we fund a school,” she explains. “The state should take a look at each individual district and identify the needs of the students within the district – and those that need more funding, get more funding.”

Providing teachers with appropriate compensation and support is also a must.

“We know from leading education states – states that have long either been top performing in the country, like Massachusetts, or places like Tennessee or Louisiana that are not top performing but are among the fastest improving – that there are certain strategies that work,” Gutman says. “For example, we know that the single greatest in-school factor for improving student learning is the quality of teaching and instruction at the classroom level.

“(Better performing) states are insisting that professional development is high-quality and closely aligned with the needs of the classroom teacher.”

Boosting communication

Another area to keep improving is how lawmakers and school officials communicate and work together.

“The State Board of Education has tried to take a more holistic approach and let parents and the community have a voice, and then build,” Fecteau says. “(This helps us) focus on what we should be prioritizing as opposed to just focus on testing.”

Parents also need to be involved in these conversations.

“They are their child’s first and forever teacher. They are a valuable component of this process,” Meriweather explains. “The education of a child doesn’t start and stop at the school. It’s all around them, (and) the parent has a primary role outside of school time.”

Parents should be making it their priority to know what’s going on in their child’s school district and advocating on behalf of their child.

“Show up to meetings and demand what’s best for (your) child,” Gutman says. “Policymakers need to hear from parents about what’s going on in communities.”

They should also keep up with data, which is accessible through the Parent Dashboard on the state of Michigan’s website.

“Very often in Michigan, we hear about educational challenges and assume that it’s somewhere else. And while it’s true that Michigan has large achievement gaps that need to be addressed, it’s also true that education is not strong for any of our students,” Gutman adds.

“Parents should understand where their child’s school is doing well and where they are facing challenges. Then, they should press their school leaders – their principals and their school board members – on what’s being done to improve it.”

The Ranking Process

The National Assessment of Educational Progress’ (NAEP) state ranking system is based on a test taken every other year by a sampling of students from each state.

This test scores students on performance in fourth and eighth grade reading and math, along with several other subjects including art, civics, U.S. history and writing.

The rankings also consider outside factors like graduation rates, accessibility of advanced coursework, success rates in advanced coursework, college acceptance rates and college success rates, says Brian Gutman of The Education Trust – Midwest, which is based in Royal Oak.

Students’ performances are reported as scale scores at or above three levels: basic, proficient and advanced.

This measurement is not foolproof. Factors such as a student’s socioeconomic status, the number or students in a district and other student demographics are not necessarily taken into consideration during a state’s assessment but can affect a state’s score.

Grading Michigan Schools

In December of 2018, the Michigan legislature passed House Bill 5526, which creates an A-F grading system.

Under this system, each school gets a letter grade for proficiency in math and English, growth in math and English, growth in English as a second language, graduation rates and performance compared to similar schools. No overall grade is given.

This system works alongside the online Parent Dashboard and the school index system already in place.

Proponents of the A-F grading system say that it will help schools identify their weaknesses so that they can improve and let parents compare their child’s school with others in the state.

Meanwhile, opponents say the system is unconstitutional because it features requirements that conflict with the federally approved Every Student Succeeds Act, among other counterpoints.

Whether this controversial system will help the state of our education or not remains to be seen.

Top 10 in 10

From 2015 to 2018, Michigan did see a slight improvement in national ranking due in part to work being done on the state level, including the state’s Top 10 in 10 Years policy put into place by late state superintendent Brian Whiston.

This long-term overhaul of the system aims to develop a “coherent and cohesive” strategy that provides every Michigan child with high-quality education by building strong relationships with the community and following a child-centered model.

The ultimate goal of this policy is to launch Michigan to the same level as top-performing Massachusetts within 10 years and to give more kids opportunities for educational advancement.

Art by Lainey Yehl


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