Guest column: Time to play 'Moneyball' with K-12 funding

By Brendan Walsh/Grosse Pointe School Board treasurer

When he proposed Michigan’s largest-ever cut in public education spending last year, Gov. Rick Snyder cited a statistic that only 16 percent of the state’s high school graduates were college-ready.

“Michigan’s education system is not giving our taxpayers, our teachers, or our students the return on investment we deserve,” he said.

This jarring statistic is based on ACT results, a standardized test that aims to predict a student’s ability to obtain B’s or C’s in college in English, math, science and reading coursework. The test is meant, then, to be a lead measure for colleges, but is really a lag measure for K-12 school districts. Once the ACT test-takers are juniors or seniors they are essentially out of the system. Actual college graduation rates would be the colleges’ lag measure and the true measure of college readiness.

Those statistics make for some interesting comparisons. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2009, 24.6 percent of Michigan citizens 25 years and older had at least a bachelor’s degree -- a rate 41 percent higher than in 1990. If actual college attainment is the measure of public education return on investment, we are moving in the right direction.

The plot thickens when reviewing The College Board data, which shows 36 percent of Michigan citizens between the ages of 25 and 34 have a college degree. The rate would be even higher if half of recent Michigan graduates would not leave the state after college, as has been documented.

Michigan’s college attainment is undeniably trending up and yielding college graduates beyond the predictions of the ACT test. Our schools are not perfect. Michigan’s national rankings in these measures are lower than national averages and in the lower half of states. But will policies aimed to increase ACT test results yield higher college attainment rates?

Researchers from Stanford and the University of Chicago would advise against that. Their research of ACT test results by the four subject areas concluded that the ACT's “Reading and Science essentially provide no predictive power regarding college outcomes.”

This is significant because for the ACT, and policy-makers like Snyder, students are college-ready only when they demonstrate proficiency on all four sub-tests. Only 26 percent of Michigan ACT test-takers demonstrated proficiency in science compared to 58 percent in English and 35 percent in math, the two ACT sub-tests that the same researchers concluded “tightly correlated to college success.”

Michigan policy-makers should view such research as a breath of fresh air amidst mantras of the far left, to disregard all standardized tests, and the far right, to let them serve as the ultimate lag measure of our investment in public education. State policy needs a middle path that gives credence to the reliable aspects of standardized tests, but places equal emphasis on other more reliable and actionable lead measures.

Research, not political or financial motives, should inform our policy and measurement system. We have plenty of options.

Research from Wright State University found a “strong positive relationship between student achievement … and building attendance averages.” Perhaps one way to increase attendance is through robust extracurricular options, since the National Center for Educational Statistics concluded that “it is clear that participation [in extracurricular activities] and success are strongly associated as evidenced by participants' better attendance, higher levels of achievement, and aspirations to higher levels of education.”

We have more options. The Harvard Graduate School of Education found that “parental involvement is associated with higher student achievement outcomes.”  Brown University’s “Beyond Test Scores: Leading Indicators for Education” encourages measurement of early reading proficiency, enrollment in algebra, attendance and suspensions and student engagement (among others) to better act on meaningful data to improve student achievement.

Similar to Michael Lewis’ “Moneyball” message that “conventional thinking about baseball had acquired the authority of fact,” public education policy-makers, like the sabermetricians in baseball, should question the reliability of traditional measures of success.

Like the sabermetricians, they should broaden the use of research-based data to develop a holistic measurement and accountability system in which all stakeholders can trust, regardless of political interests.

Bridge welcomes guest columns from a diverse range of people on issues relating to Michigan and its future. The views and assertions of these writers do not necessarily reflect those of Bridge or The Center for Michigan. Bridge does not endorse any individual guest commentary submission.

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Tue, 05/08/2012 - 8:59am
This article makes some excellent points. It is unfortunate that extracurricular activities are not encouraged more and are even being cut back by many school systems. The one question I would have is whether college graduation rates are a good measure of educational attainment. It seems that science and math are more important than ever but at both the high school and college level it doesn't seem like we are improving the knowledge level of our students
Tue, 05/08/2012 - 4:28pm
As to participation in extracurricular activities ... correlation does not prove causation. Extracurricular activities may just be a filter for intact two parent families which also tend to push children for better academic performance and push children to attend college. What is the correlation between high school grades and college grades and high school grades and ACT scores?
Ed Haynor
Tue, 05/08/2012 - 4:39pm
Mr. Walsh’s article is excellent and well researched. It's about time that board of education members start taking the initiative and publish articles that are critical for getting the public to understand issues affecting public education that are truthful and to the point. Unfortunately, too often articles from media pundits about public education have a political bias. Being a long serving board of education member, myself, has gotten me to realize that the biggest problem with public education today is that it has been so politicized, mostly by republicans, to the point where schools aren't given the means to affect their own destiny. I believe that public education is a pillar of our democracy and one of the great equalizers of citizen opportunity. Michigan citizens need to take charge of making sure their children and grandchildren are well educated in order to complete in a global economy, before the politicians completely destroy public education, therefore weaken our democracy and way of life. Just one question of Mr. Walsh, though. When is he running for governor?
Wed, 05/09/2012 - 7:25am
Matt, I agree that in all these matters correlation is not causation. The point is that by not gathering and correlating more reliable data points, schools surrender any opportunity to identify problem points and means of improvement. Let's not get hung up on extracurriculars. That's just one example. The point about grades is much more valid. How often are school districts evaluating this data? How many know where the "B" in Biology from one teacher or school is the same as another? How many know the relation between grades and test results or college acceptance or college success? Literally hundreds of hypotheses should be tested, and very few are as too many bow at the altar of the ACT/MME/MEAP. Brendan Walsh