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Education Experts: Reform Needed Now as Michigan Students Fall Behind

Drawing on best practices from programs across the country, education experts Kati Haycock, CEO of The Education Trust; and Michael Sentance, education reform consultant and a former education secretary for Massachusetts, issued a stern warning that Michigan’s students are falling behind and major reform is needed.

“The data very clearly paints a picture of a school system and kids who are in a freefall relative to kids in other states,” Haycock said.

Referencing The Education Trust-Midwest’s report, “Michigan’s Talent Crisis,” Haycock said in 2003 the state ranked 28th in early reading and now ranks 41st. She also said roughly one in three white, fourth-grade students are reading at a proficient level, or 49th in the country. African-American student proficiency hovers at 9 percent. Haycock said the numbers do not correlate to economic income, adding that middle-class white students dropped from 17th in 2003 to 50th in early reading.

The numbers are equally bad for mathematics, Haycock said. Michigan eighth graders rank 38th in the country.

“Frankly, 38th is not a place you want to be in a country that is itself 27th out of 34 countries in the developed world,” Haycock said.

“If you take one lesson away it is this: More money without more reform and accountability will not get you where you need to go,” she added.

So what can Michigan do?

As one of the major architects of education reform in Massachusetts—which leads the country in reading and math—Sentance drew on lessons from the state’s historic Education Reform Act of 1993. The bipartisan plan focused on increasing spending, particularly in poorer districts; raising assessment standards; and making certification exams for new teachers more difficult.

Sentence acknowledged that at the time, the decision was unpopular. However, as partisan politics in other states shifted funding elsewhere, Massachusetts doubled down on education.

Haycock acknowledged that Michigan has already put in place critical building blocks for improvement, including high quality standards for student success, strong teacher assessments, and quality support systems for instructors. The problem, she said, is when leaders continually change standardized tests and standards year after year.

“When you do that, you are essentially jerking your teachers around and that undermines any sense of momentum,” she said. “If we know anything about the places that improve it’s that they pick a course and they stay that course.”

Regarding funding distribution for schools, Sentance said successful education systems “have their thumb on the scale” of urban school districts that historically require more funding.

“… It’s not simply because those students in urban districts have profound challenges in life or those districts have older infrastructure. The fact of the matter is, school districts are all competing for talent—principals and teachers—and if you make it more attractive in the urban areas, you have at least a chance to get that quality person to come into the schools to teach.”

Absent that, Sentance said, Michigan will end up with a more expensive, but not necessarily better, education system.

Finally, Haycock said Michigan should take a closer look at unequal revenue funding for schools that receive less in areas with lower property taxes.

“The majority of states take their resources that they allocate to schooling and concentrate them more heavily in poverty districts,” she explained noting that Michigan does some of that, but not nearly enough.

The panel was moderated by Stephen Henderson, editorial page editor for the Detroit Free Press.