Opinion | Demand that candidates explain their plan for Michigan schools

Jack Smith is professor of education psychology at Michigan State University

For anyone who cares about the quality of education in Michigan, our statewide races matter much more than directives from the federal government. Our K-12 education system is primarily shaped, funded, and controlled by state government. Our state’s elected officials have the power to support our teachers and students wisely or not.

Why is education a central issue in this year’s election cycle? In a word, Michigan is doing poorly. In a political climate with few points of agreement, there is refreshing consensus among business, political, and educational leaders on this point. We are not where we were as a state even 20 years ago, and we are headed in the wrong direction. Fortunately, Gov. Snyder and other state officials have declared the goal of returning Michigan to the “top 10.” That makes it much more difficult for candidates not to care about education.

This election cycle creates an excellent opening for ordinary citizens to support public education. They need to ask candidates for statewide office, “What will you do to improve the quality of our schools?” and assess their responses. Responses like, “We need to support our schools” are fine but insufficient. Basic issues of financial support and raising the quality of teachers’ instruction are at the heart of things.

Our Educational Quality Has Fallen Steeply

Few disagree about the poor state of Michigan education because we have an accepted measure of success—the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the “nation’s report card.” To cite two NAEP statistics, Michigan ranked 46th among states in the percentage of fourth-graders reading at proficiency or above in 2015, and 37th in eighth-grade mathematics. In the 1980s and 1990s, the state ranked in the top 15.

Related: Michigan's K-12 performance dropping at alarming rate
Related: On nation’s report card, Michigan students remain in back of class
Opinion: Michigan schools’ tests scores aren’t as bad as you think

NAEP scores are not the only useful measure of educational quality, but they have great impact because they allow direct comparisons between states. Employers weighing location in Michigan consider both the quality of the current workforce and school performance. K-12 educational quality predicts the likelihood of access to the skilled workforce of the future.

Why Have We Fallen?

If Michigan has fallen steeply and now compares poorly to other states, the obvious questions are why and what can be done about it. We need to ask candidates about both.

Simple answers aren’t possible, but state financing for K-12 education is a major factor. Revenue from the School Aid Fund fell from its high in the early 2000s and has remained roughly flat since 2010. Where Gov. Snyder has pointed to increases in education funding, those modest increases have at best kept up with inflation. In inflation-adjusted dollars, schools have fewer financial resources.

Though it is difficult to specify the per-student cost of a “good” education, evidence suggests the state’s basic student allotment of $7,631 is insufficient. The recent School Finance Research Collaborative report estimated the per-student cost at $9,590, excluding transportation costs. (The costs for preschool students, English language learners, and children living in poverty were considerably greater.) Voters should ask candidates about the SFRC report and their views of the gap between the two figures.

Candidates may respond that providing more state money for education does not guarantee better outcomes. Where that claim has a measure of truth, it is also true that without sufficient funding, there can be no high-quality education. So, ask candidates, “What do you think a sufficient basic student allotment is, and why?” These questions can push candidates to be much more specific in their stated positions.

Where Funding Meets Instructional Quality

Through my work in schools since 2000, I have seen their capacity to support high-quality education decline. Due to decreases in funding, local leadership and expertise to support teachers’ practice (curriculum specialists and instructional coaches) has dried up. These positions have either gone unfilled or the responsibility has shifted to staff who already have full-time jobs (typically principals). High-performing states have found the will and resources to provide this kind of local expertise. When professional development is available, Michigan schools have struggled to find substitute teachers willing to teach for $90 a day. These factors, among others, have led to a serious decline in teacher morale and the perceived status of the profession.

It will take time to rebuild schools’ capacity to educate our children well. But in this election cycle we can begin to move in a positive direction. We can’t simply hope that our elected officials will make prudent long-term decisions on their own. The best hope for higher-quality K-12 education in Michigan is informed and active voters asking the right questions and forcing more attention and commitment to this important responsibility.

Related: Sweeping study proposes major changes to how Michigan schools are funded

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Tue, 06/12/2018 - 7:08am

If there is any response expect nothing more than the cliche solutions and concerns mentioned many times in the past. Political campaigns are not about detailed explanations but simple rhetoric that can be put in a quick political ad.

Tue, 06/12/2018 - 10:31am

Then we use past precedent by the senator or representative seeking office. Were they in the past a contributor to the problem or did they cause a positive change to take place that improved our schools. In Michigan's recent past history there were no Republican leaders or followers that had a positive effect of improving education so the voters need to sweep out the old for their lack of effort and put qualified applicants in their place. There is a reason why companies like Amazon went out side Michigan to invest Billions. They investigated our school system achievements and found no reason to suspect that Michigan had created or would create a worthwhile pool of educated workers so they went elsewhere where states saw value in educating students to be the best they could be. If we voters are to change this long time Republican tradition of the poorest education less money can buy we need to get to the polls in November and sweep them out - they deserve it.

Tue, 06/12/2018 - 5:53pm

Very creative Zeke, except that's not what Amazon said and just amounts to Democrat Teacher union talking points. Interestingly if you look at Amazon's Washington workforce, not that many even grew up in Washington, most came from other states! So this tactic of blaming Michigan schools for Amazon not coming here is a MEA fantasy talking point. It'd be like blaming high union participation in Detroit for their not coming here.

James Thornton
Sun, 06/17/2018 - 6:18pm

"You Get What You Pay For". Companies do not want to come here because we prove we are stupid and do not think. Stupid Ill trained kids are what they want?. We gain nothing from having low cost schools. We end up with low standards. We get nothing in the end. A few wealthy people are the only ones to make out.

Tue, 06/12/2018 - 7:46pm

Well wait a second, you are the one supposedly teaching the future teachers, you tell us what is not being done right. Interestingly one of the recent past commentators was singing the praises of Finland and pointing at their teaching methods and success. Very interesting and yes they're worth looking at. What wasn't conveniently mentioned by her and to your points, with Finland's success, they spend 30% less than us! What can we learn from them?

abe bubush
Sun, 12/02/2018 - 6:45pm

Did you really compare Finland's social benefits system to the US and then say school costs less there? I find that attitude to be myopic cherry picking and can only assume you are a predatory anti-taxer who would just as soon kill the poor as educate them.

Tue, 06/12/2018 - 9:22pm

Yes, we should not waste the work or forget the recommendations of the School Finance Research Collaborative. We should expect the candidates to be familiar with the report and be able to address how they might insure implementation of the recommendations.
We should also ask them why online education providers are receiving the same per pupil foundation allowance that we give to public schools while providing minimal services of often questionable value and with little record of student success. It is a license to allow school aide dollars to be taken away from students and given to providers, often for profit providers.
Just saying the State is making unprecedented investment in schools over and over again doesn't produce results. The fact is that public schools were in a vicious cycle of program cuts and staff reductions for most of the past 15 years. The recent increases have not restored schools to a level of funding adequate to provide the necessary level of staffing, programming and support for our students.

Erwin Haas
Wed, 06/13/2018 - 9:22am

The article is boilerplate and not worth reading; I didn't. The gist is more money to mold children into "Ein Volk."
Bad idea.
Public Schools (PS) were started in the 1870s to try to turn smart farm kids into dull factory workers and Catholic/Jewish/Lutheran into good Americans. It was during the industrial revolution and patterned after manufacturing-bolting stuff on to make it more valuable. Betsy DeVos and others probably call it the factory model schooling.
The result was suspect enough that many folks didn't bother their kids with schooling until the state cracked down around 1900. Schools remained small and neighborhood based until the 1950s when the "centralization" moochers and schooling became linked to national technologic destiny-Sputnik and the rest. The "educational"dogma since has been that we teach STEM, political correctness and other academic simpering to all, and that we can measure "effectiveness" of schooling with NEAP and the like. None of these tests probes how well graduates function in life.
The educational theorists, made newly rich by the manna from expanding governments, resorted to lies because there is so much money in the scam preached "The more education you have, the more money you'll make."
Folks who get more schooling are smarter, more motivated (albeit for dysfunctional reasons), richer, have supportive families, are part of professional or business owning strata and would succeed in any case. I argue that they would do better if they didn't spend money on gender studies and avoided the student loans.
I have visions of millions of kids, all knowing the same things, repeating the words that they hear on NPR or Fox News, all tumbling off the assembly line of these overpriced PS diploma mills like so many Barbie dolls, none able to conceive of an outside- the-box opinion.
I'm running for state senate (libertarian) so I need to propose some better solutions.
The most obvious is that family, neighbors, interactions with local businesses and religious leaders is the most powerful source of real education. We ought to progress to one room, neighborhood schools where a child can listen to everything that he will have to learn for the next 8 years as the teacher instructs the various grades. Parents can watch what the teacher is doing and influence the process if it goes against their convictions.
Children ought to be able to test out if able to and go on to study something that interests them or do an apprenticeship, or design their own lives. After 8 grades, kids are on their own; some will not know how to read or write, but how is that different from graduates of Detroit's PS where 50% are illiterate. And just think of texting on smartphones; why even the dimwits will be able to use this if they feel the need.
Those who want to continue the current, failing models are going to have to explain to us skeptics how they explain Geo Washington training himself as a surveyor at age 12, never having gone to school. Or how Abe Lincoln became a brilliant lawyer, also never having gone to school (some insist that he had, but no one knows the name/location of the school, teacher or classmates.)
The great danger is not that kids won't learn everything but that they learn and believe all the same nonsense-groupthink.

Chuck Fellows
Wed, 06/13/2018 - 3:41pm

The NAEP is not to be used to compare states or schools. The rankings look stark but the reality is that the range, or spread, of the scores is really small. The article begins with an incorrect premise - failing schools - and runs off to la, la land from that point.
Reality is that the NAEP trend over time is up. Reality is that teachers and local schools, despite all the continuously changing prescriptive directives from politicians and expert pundits, (moving the goal posts, or the ball, Lucy style) teachers have been able to improve what goes on in the classroom, especially in minority communities.
We do have a morass in education caused primarily by those who would "reform" it.
Instead of reform how if we listen intently to those that do the work of learning, the teachers and the students. Listen to understand, not to respond. Share your understanding to confirm that you actually understand. Act on that understanding.
Reference: https://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/pdf/coe_cnj.pdf