Inadequate adequacy study? Yes, but solid points within

Late in the lame duck legislative session of 2014, Democrats won what they thought was a major victory in getting the Republican-led legislature and Gov. Rick Snyder to agree to a study of how much it actually costs to educate a child in Michigan.

Though the study had been long avoided for fear it would suggest schools are way underfunded, Republican leaders traded their support for the study in return for Democrats' "yes" votes for the Proposal 1 highway funding plan, soundly rejected by voters the following May.

Now, three months after its release, the Michigan Education Finance Study remains more an item of curiosity -- think meteor landing -- than the bombshell intended by Democrats and feared by Republicans. To date, it appears unlikely the report's impact on the education/legislative landscape will resemble the crater left by meteor or man-made missile.

True to expectations, the report suggested Michigan does not spend enough on education to achieve the desired proficiency levels or the demands set for students and schools on the MSTEP and the SAT. The report recommends a base foundation of $8,667 per student; most districts receive the current base (lowest) foundation amount of $7,511.

Unfortunately, the study did not provide the information most desired, or expected. Authors Augenblick, Palaich and Associates (APA) are best known for studies conducted in other states that asked how much money it would take to educate all children to the desired level of proficiency. These studies take the desired proficiency levels on the state assessment or, alternatively, on the National Assessment of Educational Achievement (NAEP), and recommend the annual amount of funding required for, say, 80 percent of students to reach the desired achievement level.

Instead of requesting a true adequacy study, Michigan asked the research firm for a study based on the student achievement of "successful school districts," defined by the state as those districts that scored above the state average for all of the standards under the Michigan Merit Standards. The problem with this measure is, if just 40 percent of Michigan's students are proficient in reading, as identified by the NAEP, it is quite possible a Michigan district can significantly outperform its peers and still reflect proficiency rates that are not competitive nationally or among neighboring states. In fact, that's exactly the claim now being made by Education Trust-Midwest, which says Michigan ranks about 40th among the states in achievement and is falling behind in all demographic groups, including middle-class white students.

One need look no further than the Godfrey-Lee school district to understand the shortcomings of a study based on successful school districts. Godfrey-Lee is funded at the current base foundation of $7,511 for the coming school year. Across town, Forest Hills is funded at a level near the $8,667 recommended by the APA study. Receiving Forest Hills funding in Godfrey-Lee would make a difference, but it would in no way bring Godfrey-Lee achievement scores up to Forest Hills levels. Why? Because about 90 percent of Godfrey-Lee students are considered at-risk due to their family income levels, and nearly two-thirds are English-language learners.

Fortunately, the study did identify the state's significant spending deficiency on at-risk and English-language learners. Here, the report says successful states spend 30 percent more than they spend on other students -- those without unique needs -- to provide additional supports and services for at-risk students. They recommend 40 percent more for English-language learners. This is a far better yardstick for policy makers to consider, as $3,000 more for ELL students and $2,250 for at-risk students would make a significant difference in providing the additional support, interventions and instruction necessary for Godfrey-Lee students to approach the achievement levels attained in Forest Hills.

In short, the jury is still out on the Michigan study. It isn't truly an adequacy study, but it does document that money matters. It also points out that we're not spending enough to achieve the goals we've set for our students and schools. Many public education detractors love to find performance data among disparate districts with dramatically different demographics to claim money has little to do with educational achievement.

If we truly are to become a top 10 state in education within 10 years as recommended by State Superintendent Brian Whiston, Snyder and others, adequate funding should be benchmarked against the nation's highest performers instead of the highest performers across town. And our funding levels should also match those of high-performing states and/or countries with demographics similar to our own.

Still, this is a start. We must begin to discuss this deficiency rationally if we are to address our dismal overall student achievement levels as compared with other states and nations.

This commentary originally appeared in School News Network, a site dedicated to news of the Kent Intermediate School district.

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.

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Fri, 09/16/2016 - 4:03pm
Is it really a "start" if the legislature is basically ignoring the whole thing?
Kevin Grand
Sat, 09/17/2016 - 10:32am
Actually, Asst. Supt. Koehler makes a good point: the republicans acted stupidly and got hoisted on their own petard when they made their deal with the democrats. It remains to be seen what damage they have done to their own numbers in November. The Michigan Senate isn't in play, but the numbers in Michigan House will be taking a hit. Stay tuned.
Sun, 09/18/2016 - 5:07pm
As described the study had one purpose, justify more spending. That makes it worthless, even harmful to kids learning. Whom ever believes that money is the sole barrier to student learning is at best delusional and more likely self-serving caring little for the students and the residents of Michigan. If a student doesn't pick up a book to read, it they don't/can't listen in the classroom, if they don't do the homework, they will not learn. Anyone that claims that isn't true and it is only more money that will make kids learn is doing a disservice to students. Mr. Koehler promotes this idea of money over student when he says, "the study did identify the state’s significant spending deficiency on at-risk and English-language learners.", because he is ignoring the role/responsibilities the student has in their learning. I learned over a career when a person speaks only of money and not how it will achieve the desired results you only want money and any results are incidental If Mr. Koehler had talked about what it takes for a child/anyone to learn and then describe what the educational system activities that address the student learning and then talked about the cost for those activities, he could have made a case for under-funding, but he didn't, he only talked about money and his point was he and others want more of other people's money without constraints. It is as if the point of our education is spending and the students, rather their performance, is the justification for get more money. If Mr. Koehler can show me how a disinterested to student will learn, a distracted student will learn, a discouraged student will learn, a talented student that is disinterested/distracted/discourage will learn simply by other people giving him and his peers unlimited moneys to spend then I will open my wallet wider. I am skeptical because through our my life I have found [about myself, about my family, about those who I went to school with, and who I worked with] that it a person with even one of those conditions would fail to learn until that condition was replaced with interest, focus, with encouragement. And the reality is money alone is not enough to overcome any of those three.
Fri, 09/16/2016 - 7:57pm
"Ron Koehler is assistant superintendent of Kent Independent School District." Actually, he's assistant sup @ the Kent Intermediate School District.
Nancy Derringer
Sat, 09/17/2016 - 1:58pm
Ouch. Thanks. Fixed.
Jim tomlinson
Sun, 09/18/2016 - 7:06am
Another example of Post modern republican party ethically challenged and morally corrupt
Chuck Jordan
Sun, 09/18/2016 - 10:47am
There is no way the state of Michigan is going to pay more for at risk and English Language Learners.
Sun, 09/18/2016 - 2:23pm
Mr. Koehler says, "Instead of requesting a true adequacy study, Michigan asked the research firm for a study based on the student achievement of “successful school districts,” defined by the state as those districts that scored above the state average for all of the standards under the Michigan Merit Standards." This is the approach that the Democrats would typically be interested in; they are more interested in equality than excellence. He goes on to say, "These studies take the desired proficiency levels on the state assessment or, alternatively, on the National Assessment of Educational Achievement (NAEP), and recommend the annual amount of funding required for, say, 80 percent of students to reach the desired achievement level." But he does not say whether the recommended increases in funding had the desired results. And, it should not be difficult to translate funding for successful districts into the funding levels necessary for a given level of proficiency. Obviously, money matters; the crucial question is: how much? He quotes Education Trust-Midwest as saying that ?Michigan ranks about 40th among the states in achievement and is falling behind in all demographic groups, including middle-class white students" He carefully does not note where Michigan ranks in spending. It should be noted that Massachusetts, whose education system is highly ranked, found that charter schools in minority areas had far more applicants than they had openings and had to allocate those openings by lottery.Apparently, "targeted funding" was inadequate. , .
Lee W
Sun, 09/18/2016 - 8:45pm
I have an 8th grade grandchild who still cannot do simple math such as add, subtract, multiply or divide single digit numbers without a calculator. The level of dependence on calculators is scary. Also cannot tell time on a standard clock/watch dial. Can only relate to a digital time display. Yet, they are doing algebra and are doing acceptable work. They are learning advanced concepts but have not yet mastered the basic building blocks of math. Elementary schools should not allow the students to rely on calculators.
Tue, 09/20/2016 - 10:05am
This debate always troubles me whether it's about cursive or calculators or analog clocks. When the tractor was born farmers no longer needed to know how to work with a mule. In my seminary days I studied Latin for seven years but few priests use it today to preach to the faithful. Officers carried swords in the civil war, but mostly they just waved them around, since taking a sword against a 12 pounder was usually grounds for a Darwin Award. There are still swordsmen and scholars who use Latin and folks who raise mules, but the ordinary citizen has no need for those skills. And my grandkids will always have a calculator and time piece in their pocket and will not need to sign their name to make a purchase.
Mon, 09/19/2016 - 8:19am
What Asst. Superintendent Kohler fails to mention is that his ISD, like most across the state, receives property tax money from their entire region which is designated specifically to fund services and supports for students with special needs. The Special Education millages active in almost every Michigan area, in addition to the designated state and Federal Special Education funding, provide closer to 50% additional funding each student with a disability and English Language Learner. These amounts are in addition to the per-pupil foundation allowance for those students. So there is significantly more than the recommended 30% available to spend on those special needs students. Another "solid point" in the adequacy study as produced by APA was that, based on their research into successful Michigan school districts, it took about $1,000 per pupil to improve student proficiency scores across a school district by 1%. In terms of a mid-sized K-5 elementary school with 3 classrooms per grade level and a (relatively low) 20 students per class, that means spending $360,000 more per year in *just* that school to help 4 ( actually 3.6, but we'll round up... ) more students make it over the bar to score at a proficient level for their age. Michigan ranks 24th in the nation in total per-pupil spending, but only 42nd in student proficiency levels. Student achievement has continued to fall, even as education funding has returned to pre-recession levels.
Mon, 09/19/2016 - 11:56am
The problem with these studies, (and much of modern social science in general) are that they are built on the assumption that if you take group X of people with all their specific cultural, intellectual, and experiential attributes and by throwing enough resources at them we can make them into group Y of people. This has been tried in countless ways, with little success since ancient and well into modern times. You can absorb a culture (and especially individuals) into another thereby changing by eliminating it, E Pluribus Unum, but not keep it and change much it to match the other one for the better. Our penchant for multi-Culturalism wrecks these efforts.
Sat, 09/24/2016 - 2:30pm
It is unfortunate that the conversation about how to improve student achievement in Michigan always begins and ends with a discussion about funding. As a former school board president who led changes in how reading is taught and how principals act as academic leaders of their buildings I can assure you that student learning can improve without large increases in funding. The changes we made created measurable improvements the first year they were enacted and we continue to see gains every year. Only when the discussion changes, from one about money, into a discussion about what happens inside school and classroom walls will any measurable statewide gains be made.