Michigan schools’ march to the bottom requires wholesale reform

As our state continues its recovery from the Great Recession, now is the time to double down on the one investment that will yield the greatest benefit for our state: our public education system. If we want our recovery to be complete and robust, we must be clear and disciplined in our focus to create a public education system that’s rooted in quality.

Over the last decade, our students have fallen further and further toward the bottom. In fact, our fourth graders across the state of Michigan are now reading at lower levels than they did ten years ago. If we stay on our current path, Michigan will be 44th in the country in fourth-grade reading before 2030, playing catch up with the nation’s chronically low-performing education states, such as Arkansas and Alabama.

The problem transcends geography, race and income level. Michigan’s white students are on track to perform 49th out of 50 in fourth-grade reading by 2019, ahead of only West Virginia. Our African-American students are among the lowest performing black students in America. Our Latino students are also seeing significant drops in student learning rank, compared to the rest of the country.

Ken Whipple, former CEO of CMS Energy and executive vice president of Ford Motor Company, is chair of the leadership council of the Michigan Achieves campaign. Ken Whipple, former CEO of CMS Energy and executive vice president of Ford Motor Company, is chair of the leadership council of the Michigan Achieves campaign.

In order to get our state fully back on track, we need to address the most pressing issue that will define the next generation. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the task of lifting our entire state’s education system up from the bottom but we can’t afford to get discouraged.

That’s why we have spent many months learning from leading education states such as Massachusetts, and from high improvement states like Tennessee, to see what they have done to dramatically improve their public schools.

We’ve seen a path forward ‒ and we believe that change is possible.

A new plan, Michigan Achieves, lays out concrete steps we can take to start making the fundamental changes our state sorely needs.

Tennessee, for example, underwent a remarkable turnaround in education. It shows us that targeted investments in key areas can reverse losses of the past decade and start giving our kids, and our teachers, the tools they need to succeed.

If we focus on four research-backed areas: teaching quality, higher standards and accountability, and improving learning conditions – such as teacher and student attendance – we can get our kids back on track.

It will not be easy. Small state investments, such as in tutoring or summer reading camps, may produce marginal improvements, but they just can’t cut it in terms of taking us where we need to go. Michigan’s educational performance is so abysmal, the state needs a comprehensive change. Only a systemic shift will transform the current system to a dramatically better system that’s more accountable and higher performing.

The path forward is there for us to see. Now we just need to put in the hard work and get there together. We ask Michiganders to join us in this journey at: michiganachieves.com.

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Thu, 05/21/2015 - 8:12am
Education reform in Michigan is caught up in a "blame game" cycle where rational discussion can't go far because the parties involved can't see eye to eye on how to fix the problem. When the results of the latest tests that replaced the MEAP are released and they are guaranteed to be dismal the process will begin yet again. There will be much pontificating from politicians who know nothing about education but think they have all the answers.
Steve Smewing
Thu, 05/21/2015 - 10:20am
First off *** is not willing to be identified and should clue one into obviously someone not willing to stand by their statements. I am only responding to the statement because it is so often thrown into the mix and is complete rubbish. If the teachers and or the educational system are so wise then why have they not come out with answer for the last few decades. If politicians, the people in charge of running the governmental agencies such as schools by probably every state constitution in the US, are not qualified then who is? All your comment is, is a baseless complaint and no offer of viable solution. On top of that there is at least one of you every time someone tries to improve education through positive dialog. I wish there was a way to permanently ban such comments, but then I would be living in the world of who wrote this comment.
Thu, 05/21/2015 - 10:37am
Name: John Stone. Satisfied now? I stand by my comments. Where did I say anyone was "wise" in this debate? The politicians are not qualified to make intelligent decisions because they are clueless over how schools work and let political agendas dictate school policy, a very bad system. Who should make the decisions? I don't know, I don't pretend to have all the answers. The current education system in Michigan is in shambles, you can place the blame anyway you want - teachers and politicians there is plenty of blame to go around. I have no problem with the essay as written, I just don't think the political climate in Michigan is conductive to the kind of ideas they have I wish I was wrong but I don't see it happening.
Charles Richards
Thu, 05/21/2015 - 2:11pm
Well done, Mr. Smewing!
Thu, 05/21/2015 - 9:43am
Unless I miss my guess badly, the next call will be a call for money. This will solve nothing. The problem is the decay of our families and a culture of entitlement. Add onto that political correctness and we have a disaster. The reason that Catholic and other religious schools thrive IS NOT that they skim off the best students....it's because they have higher standards and expectations of both students and parents. Let's get back to old fashioned discipline in our schools, and give teachers the power to throw the bums out. See the movie, Stand By Me for what I mean.
Thu, 05/21/2015 - 10:36am
David, your "guess" does miss the mark, and badly. In your years of educational experience, how do you know that money will not at least begin to address some of the issues? Do you know that many schools are struggling to provide educational materials to their students, much less keep up with building maintenance? Do you know that funding for education has not kept up with inflation for the past 10+ years in Michigan? I do agree that there are many struggles that the families of today deal with, including poverty, mobility for affordable housing and employment, and many mental health issues. Many of these are not addressed or managed effectively by community mental health and other agencies and, often times, fall on the shoulders of the schools to manage and/or pick up the pieces. Because dealing with these issues takes more highly-trained and experienced professionals, this also adds to the costs of educating students. I cannot imagine where you come up with the idea that the Catholic and other religious schools are thriving because they are not skimming off the best students. Often times, these students are from privileged families who do not have to deal with poverty, high mobility, employment problems, and/or mental health issues. In addition, these schools are not required to provide "Free Appropriate Public Education" and are not bound by many of the restrictions and mandates with which public schools are forced to struggle/manage. And your last comment of "let's get back to old fashioned discipline in our schools, and give teachers the power to throw the bums out" is very short-sighted. (as an aside, are you talking about Stand By Me, or Stand And Deliver, either way, you're referencing a movie that's about 30 years old!). Public schools are mandated to provide Free Appropriate Public Education to ALL students, and cannot just "throw the bums out". What do you think would happen to all of these "bums" once they were "thrown out"? Do you think they would have some sort of epiphany and completely change their lives around? Or do you think that they would become desperate for food and money and resort to a life of crime, that would no doubt hurt one or more citizens and cost all of us much more annually in prison, than it would to educate and serve the student? No Child Left Behind mandates the use of effective, research-based interventions in the education and "management" of students. There has been NO research base showing that suspension or expulsion is an effective intervention. However, there is a LOT of evidence of all of the adverse effects of suspension and expulsion, including lower graduation rates, higher dropout rates, and higher likelihood of crime and prison time. I point to the work of Russel Skiba out of the University of Indiana, who has done a LOT of research around discipline and suspension, and all of the adverse and long-term effects of these "practices".
Wed, 05/27/2015 - 8:13pm
I would rather save 90% of the kids than to doom a majority of them. We have drugs in our schools; if anything, some are as bad or worse than depicted in "Stand By Me", the story of Joe Clark in a New Jersey school (don't recall the city). Things are not so different as you think they are.
Thu, 05/21/2015 - 10:24am
David Maxwell's comments are spot on. Money is not the answer. Some of the school districts get lots of $ but rank near the bottom. Change in family structure, culture, political correctness, lack of accountability, etc. as David mentions, does not mean more $ but rather a focus on these "conditions". Some will be very difficult. But the article on Hazel Park in this same issue is encouraging in regards to the changes they have seen. Unfortunately they are in dire straits because of severe financial problems. However if they can keep their doors open and continue doing what they are doing, they have a chance for success. Hazel Park, and Tennessee in this article, are mentioned as success stories. School districts should seek out these kind of success stories, tailor it to their needs and then find the wherewithal and leadership to implement. The 'wheel' doesn't have tot be reinvented. But as the article mentions too often those on Boards etc., who often know little about education, are not making good decisions. I repeat --- find out what others have done to succeed. There are only so many original ideas. Don't be afraid to use them versus making up something on the fly which often doesn't play out well.
Chuck Fellows
Thu, 05/21/2015 - 11:57am
"If we focus on four research-backed areas: teaching quality, higher standards and accountability, and improving learning conditions – such as teacher and student attendance – we can get our kids back on track." What, turn schools into labor camps? Oh yeah, thanks to all the testing and our accountability mania schools already are! The education "public" monopoly is a "system" of interdependent parts.(Ken Robinson does an excellent job of describing this paradigm) Those who know best how children learn and how to create an environment within which children can learn, are the teachers. (Piaget & Dewey did a pretty good job). Teachers represent the same group that well meaning pundits and special interest reformers completely ignore. Context is everything - pundits choose to ignore. (Look at the "context" for the Massachusetts and Tennessee 'miracles' - are these similar to the "Texas Miracle" which gave us No Child Left behind?) Those who view teachers and children as the problem know absolutely nothing about a "system" nor do they understand what learning or quality is. They, along with others in the award winning media, abuse and torture statistics and twist factual information while promoting their definition of the problem and the fix of the month. challenge their thinking and you immediately see the deer in the headlights look! Although, the fix of the month is getting a little boring, more quality, work harder, more accountability, rank and rate, reward and punish, standardized test and teacher evaluation metrics & merit pay. LOL if it weren't so sad.. In a phrase, they too play a political game to insure their survival. None of this has anything to do with real learning or real change. Things like 0 to K preschool, funding based on need instead of headcount, budgeting at the school building level, blended and project based learning, engagement with the general and business community outside the safety of the schools four walls, ending seat time as a criteria for earning credit, disconnecting age and learning rate from an arbitrary calender, recognizing that metrics without context are meaningless. (which applies to most if not all metrics used in education today),and ending standardized testing to name a few real changes that will have a positive impact on children learning. Teachers know this. Too bad we don't listen to them.
Patrick Shannon
Thu, 05/21/2015 - 12:10pm
When will the education policy experts look to the communities where the children are living to get an understanding of why public education struggles? In health care, policy advocates evaluate the social determinants of the health of the community including economic stability, the neighborhood (crime), access to health care, social community context and education. However, in education the experts rely upon tests to identify whether the schools or the children are failing. Most of the time these tests could never be used in a courtroom and are really nothing more than junk science. Yet the experts point to these tests year after year to complain. Education experts have to get out of their silo and look at the health of the community within which the children are living and where the schools are located. The issues surrounding education policy are greater than a yearly top to bottom list based upon junk science testing. We need to look to the health of the communities to get a better picture of how our children are doing academically and how to address the community issues surrounding a child's education. Education is but one part of the health of a community and its population.
Fri, 05/22/2015 - 1:43am
It appears Ms. Allenrano and. Whipple made no effort to talk to students to find out how and why they succeed in spite of all the barriers Ms. Allenrano and Mr. Whipple claim prevent students from learning? If Ms. Allenrano and Mr. Whipple don’t know why and how student success happens, why should we believe their claims for change? Why should we think they could recognize if the changes were succeeding? Rather than having a ‘grand plan’ they have borrowed from elsewhere, why not try understanding how and why students in Michigan are succeeding, are learning, and develop the means for the individual to use to learn? It’s as if Ms. Allenrano and Mr. Whipple can only see failure in Michigan and won't try to find success here. I wonder how they explain all of the college graduates, do they doubt Michigan univeristies have Michigan students or that those students are earning those degrees by using what they learned in K-12?
Martha Toth
Fri, 05/22/2015 - 4:10pm
I did read the entire “Michigan Achieves: Becoming a Top-Ten Education State,” the 2015 Michigan Education Report from the Education Trust-Midwest. There is definitely a problem, judging by NAEP score trends, but I wonder how much of it is traceable to a generation of this test-and-punish regime? We actually know, from research and from experience elsewhere, what works to help students learn better and faster. Most of us agree that teachers are the key — the one aspect of a complex process that we might significantly improve within a reasonable time frame. How to do so, however, is usually seen through a lens of preconceptions. Decades of demanding results, not enabling real change, and punishing perceived failure have NOT succeeded. Education Trust-Midwest documents the ongoing failure of this approach. Here are some aspects of the report that I have NOT seen widely quoted in the news coverage of it: • “The percentage of Michigan low-income students has climbed steadily, jumping from 36% in 2006 to 47% in 2014.” • “Our state currently ranks 42nd of 47 for funding equity, [with] some of the biggest gaps in resources between high-poverty and low-poverty districts.” • “We see similar gaps in how well we pay our teachers in high-poverty schools.” Michigan fell sooner, faster, and farther than most states during the Great Recession. Our public schools suffered with every other sector, we have yet to recover, and that long-standing disinvestment did not allow us to cope properly with our now-needier student population. Teachers who did well with upper-middle-class students who had home support are generally not doing as well with our more economically disadvantaged student population today. They need a new bag of tricks — professional development to help them upgrade and refine their skills to deal with new challenges. The success Florida has had with early literacy was rooted in a significant and ongoing commitment to just that. Investment in training and supporting professional teachers to continually improve their practice is the obvious solution we have yet to really try here. There were other under-reported lessons from the Michigan schools cited as successful despite the statewide climate for public education. For example, Brimley Elementary’s teachers are working “to inspire a new generation to love reading.” In fact, “the big reward for good behavior is getting to read for an hour.” Imagine that! Instead of the scripted instruction, rigid “close reading,” and the inflexible ideal of writing pushed by reformers — which threaten to turn off an entire generation to the joys of reading and self-expression — these teachers have produced proficient readers by encouraging and allowing them to love reading. At similarly successful North Godwin Elementary, teachers collaborate, share best practices, and reflect constantly on their own teaching. In other words, they don’t obsess over test scores; rather, they work together as professionals to refine their teaching practices. Respecting and encouraging professional expertise, enabling meaningful professional collaboration, providing adequate resources — and, yes, paying professional wages to those who work in our most challenging communities — are approaches that have worked elsewhere and have yet to be tried here in Michigan.
Sun, 05/24/2015 - 12:14pm
What are we going to do when those residents who failed to receive a valid education decide to sue the State of Michigan for failure to provide an education that allowed them to prosper? Will those elected government officials who failed to provide funding or solutions be held responsible for their failures of fifty years?
Sun, 05/24/2015 - 12:21pm
Michigan schools have been largely neglected and cut by the political leaders in lansing during the last decade and there has been many political changes to rest control of our local community schools into the control and the hands of "big government." Also all of the bad policies at the national level, including many very bad trade agreements, the Wall Street/banking economic collapse, etc. has devastated our Middle Class families. Also there has been other cultural changes leading to far more kids being born into poorer and single parent households that are often transient. The teachers across our sate are working harder than ever despite what many feel has been not only a lack of cooperation from Lansing but an outright "war on teachers" by the state GOP lead by the billionaire DeVos family, the Koch Brothers and the far right-wing propaganda mill the Mackinac Center. Our schools would be much better if Lansing simply provided proper funding and returned to local control in which communities, school boards and teachers can put together the best nonprofit education program for their communities. Also since Michigan students have zero accountability for their test scores, and they know it and often bubble in random answers, we actually do not have an accurate understanding of what they do or do not know at the state level. Our classroom teachers know best the needs of the students and they need to be supported in their heroic efforts to help our students improve.
Chuck Jordan
Sun, 05/24/2015 - 12:45pm
Thanks Ms. Toth. Right on. Accountability Reform beginning with NCLB have not worked and more of it will not either. Critical thinking, reading complex texts (whole books not excerpts) understanding the context and historical background, writing clearly and coherently have all decreased because of the emphasis on more multiple guess tests. Less emphasis on history, science, art, and literature (because not tested) will continue to diminish what students need to learn to be successful. I'm not saying we need to go back to the olden days which no longer exist. We have to teach students in poor and minority schools with the same quality as those in our best schools.
Tue, 05/26/2015 - 12:21am
Mr. Stone, I am concerned that you are confusing 'accountability' with the poltical manipulation of the term 'accountability.' The linked article does not desribe what is truly involved in 'accountability.' 'Accountibility' is a practice that is design as a tool for those programs/organizations that are designed to deliver desired results. A well design 'accountablity' protocol benefits the people activily involved in achieving the desired results, and provides them with the means of modifying practices and protocols to be most effective in their efforts. NCLB is nothing more then a political ruse perpitrated on the piublic in the guise of 'accountablity.' The principles of 'accountibility' include the establisment of clear and specific description of purpose [so all have the same understanding], it establishes clear and specific expected results to be achieved, it establishes clear and specific responsibilities with the necessary authority to deliver the expecations, it is design for those directly involved in delivering the results having the means/authority to modify the system to be more effective in deliverying the expected results. For this to be truly effective it must include those who are actively implementing the programs in the development of the 'accountabilty' protocol. There 'accountability' protocol must be design to be applied to the local program situations/needs/resources. No effective cross function/cross governmental/independent organizations 'accountability' program can be designed for the detailed application for activities that can't be standardized. 'Accountability' is not about fault finding, placing blame, or otherwise focusing on the individuals. 'Accountability' is about programs/organizations. I have had the opportunity to work for an organization that for my whole career activily used 'accountability' and it proved most effective for achieving results that the industry, even the government felt were unattainable. 'Accountability' was a means for people to take control of the programs/practices/training so they could deliver exceptional results. As best I can tell nothing in that linked article mentioned any of this. Please reconsider thinking that political manipulation of 'accountability' is in anyway actually about 'accountability.' As for the title of the article, "Accountability from above never works, great teaching always does ," is flawed. Without support of accountiblity of programs/orgainzations from 'above' great teaching will always be battling past practices and will not be able to try innovated approaches for our ever changing educational needs.
Thu, 05/28/2015 - 7:55pm
Michigan Citizens this story sounds like Political lies, to me! According to this story. "If we focus on four research-backed areas: 1 teaching quality 2 higher standards and accountability, and 3 improving learning conditions – such as 4 teacher and student attendance..." [1]Teacher quality is not the issue. What the issue is, is what teachers are being forced to teach. [2] Teachers do teach to standards and those standards are useless to student success as statistics prove. Also teacher are held accountable to the state standards which fail students for the past decade and Common Core is building even poorer standards! [3] Learning conditions? Nice schools don't improved bad educations objectives or policy. [4] Attendance is a result of poor teaching standards put fourth by a system of group thinking educators. What good standards? Looking for good successful programs; see what home school programs offer students. It's not the place but the education.