Opinion | If our kids get graded A-to-F, then our Michigan schools should, too

John Kennedy is chairman of the West Michigan Policy Forum

Jan. 3: Michigan’s A-to-F school ratings on ice until attorney general weighs in
Update: Michigan A-to-F school bill gets passing grade in Senate; on to Gov. Rick Snyder
Dec. 21: That's a wrap! What bills passed, died in Michigan lame duck for the ages
Related: See what Michigan lame-duck bills we're tracking

Getting your money’s worth.

It’s a saying we are all familiar with. Unfortunately, when it comes to improving the education system in Michigan, we clearly have not gotten our money’s worth. As Michigan continues to face a shortage of talented and qualified workers, we need to find a way to change this trend or risk losing all the positive economic momentum we’ve established in recent years.

A full review of the data demonstrates that a lack of spending on schools is NOT the problem. In terms of total education expenditures, Michigan spending on education reached an all-time high this year. And, other states have demonstrated they perform better while spending less money: Florida spends less than $9,000 per pupil while Michigan spends more than $11,600 per student.

Related: Michigan may soon rank schools A-to-F. Will it help? Nobody knows.
Related opinion: Bill to grade Michigan schools A-to-F is a horrible idea

Part of the problem is that while we’re spending more, too much of our spending is not going into the classroom.  Due to things like pensions and administrative costs, only 51 percent of Michigan’s education funding goes directly into the classroom.  Other states, like Florida, spent at least 5 percent more in the classroom.

Top performing teachers should most certainly be well paid.  A national study by WalletHub found that when adjusted for cost of living, Michigan teacher pay was tops in the country.

Improving results must start with improving accountability. In recent years, we’ve been spending more and more money, and yet more than half of our third graders cannot read at grade level.  And this number is not just an issue in certain districts; these disappointing results are consistent across the state, regardless of location. At the recent West Michigan Policy Forum, hundreds of business leaders voted that one of their top priorities is implementing an A-to-F letter grade system for schools to increase quality and accountability in education. Given the importance of education to students, families and our entire state, this is a priority that needs be acted on now.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush spoke at the West Michigan Policy Forum conference and talked about how he oversaw massive reform to the Sunshine State’s schools, changes which took Florida from near the bottom of the national rankings to the top 10. Florida demonstrated that through big and bold change and a commitment to accountability, rapid improvement is possible. Here are several steps that Michigan can take immediately to more efficiently use the dollars we are spending and to get better results.  

  • A-to-F letter grade school rankings. Urge your legislators to support legislation to create a simple A-to-F grading system for our schools.  This important step should be based on student performance and provide clear results. Doing so would improve accountability and quality in our schools. There will be pushback on this as there always is anytime school rankings are discussed but letter grades are a universally understood system that will create clear accountability.  These grades will measure both performance and progress and will be based off rigorous and consistent criteria.
  • Reward schools for either high achievement or strong growth.   
  • Measure and reward growth of the lowest performing students in each school.
  • Streamline Michigan’s school bureaucracy.

There is no silver bullet that will instantly and magically improve Michigan’s education system. Rather, everyone involved, whether in government, business or the schools themselves, need to commit to the same level of boldness that has helped turn around Michigan’s business climate. A-to-F accountability is a clear and essential next step.

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Thu, 11/29/2018 - 8:39am

They need to stop taking money from the public schools and giving it illegally to their charter schools!!!

Thu, 11/29/2018 - 9:16am

A-F grades (or any “simple” rating system) is not appropriate for schools. There are too many nuances. To create a grade, you first have to decide the factors that are weighted most. Is it teacher to student ratio, is it academic growth as measured by tests, is it the achievement as measured by tests , is it graduation rate, is it pursuit of college education, etc. Of course we would say that all of those are important, but the reality is that someone has to decide how much each of those factor into the “simple formula.” If we were to grade parents, or legislators, or companies with an A-F system, we would have to decide what matters most. As an example, if a legislator introduced 30 bills and only got 2 signed into law, is he/she effective? The answer is, “I need more information to be able to judge”. The same thing exists for schools. Michigan already has “dashboards” that allow citizens to evaluate and even compare schools in a variety of ways. The information exists. An A-F system essentially allows someone else’s judgement to REPLACE that of a parent or community member.

Thu, 11/29/2018 - 12:09pm

I agree that there are too many nuances, but I disagree that the information exists in a way that the public can access it. At a untelevised work session our district had, I learned that the students at the top of the grade often did not even make a full year's growth. This information is not published on our district's website that I've been able to find, nor is it available from the state. It is information vital to me for making a good decision, but I can't find out which districts have the highest growth for the top 10% of students, nor other related information equally vital to me.

Thu, 11/29/2018 - 11:21am

Spoken like someone who did not choose to dedicate his life to teaching children. And why would MI want to be more like FL?

Thu, 11/29/2018 - 11:27am

Just another West Michigan hit. The West Michigan Mafia strikes again. If they keep saying they know that people will start to believe it. Why would anyone want to go into the teaching profession these days? I wonder how much money Devos has given this guy to voice her opinion!

Thu, 11/29/2018 - 1:14pm

I sort of respect that Bridge is willing to give these people at platform, but they really shouldn't. So many of the editorials from big money think tanks and astroturf fronts are comically terrible

Thu, 11/29/2018 - 11:55am

The point is to improve the education of the children, not to give a grade. There are several things that are a problem with the A-F grade:
- they are based on multiple choice tests (that companies are making a lot of money on from schools that need the money for counselors and libraries instead). Multiple choice tests only measure rote memorization, which is short-term learning only. An education should consist of long-term learning with a good background that a student can than effectively use to solve problems - a higher level of learning that multiple choice tests don't measure.
- the stress on % growth without any differentiation of the different schools situation. That is a problem for two reasons: 1) if you start from a high percentage, your % growth is by definition low (basic statistics that everybody in the country needs to understand, thus all schools need to teach until every student can apply it). 2) If a school get's punished because of less growth percentages, that doesn't help (and might hurt) the learning of the students in the school.
- so instead of grading schools without taking the situation into account to make it fair or even measure the correct thing (i.e. student learning on a higher level), it would be more useful to take the money that is slated for the commission, hire education specialists that identify the individual problems that schools have that prevent higher learning of their students and then make funding of school flexible enough to put the money where it is actually needed and solve those individual problems, one school at a time.

Thu, 11/29/2018 - 11:57am

My district would likely get an A in every column - yet it has been a failure for my children.

My children don't fit the average student profile and in every school district likely about 20% of the students will fall outside the norm in one way or another. They may be special needs, gifted, have physical or emotional struggles, or in some other way be unique enough to require modifications to curriculum or instruction. Parents of these children need to know as well how the school district helps these students and A-F usually doesn't cut it.

What if your child earned a C in reading, but that was all the information you had? The report card doesn't say if it is trouble with letter recognition, sounding out words, understanding the vocabulary, or figuring out what a sentence means. Turns out it is dyslexia, but the teacher didn't have training and your child wasn't diagnosed or helped. Did the letter grade provide helpful information? Wouldn't breaking the C down into its individual components be better? Shouldn't you know if it isn't the right place for a child with dyslexia?

So, give our district an A. Find out that special needs parents rate it a B-, gifted parents rate it a D, and emotionally impaired parents rate it an A+. Find out that demographically, most of the students would be doing A work no matter which district they were in and adjust for that. And then report out all that information so that parents can make an informed choice.

Since we did not have that information when moving in, our options have been putting two of our three kids in schools outside the district and paying $1500 a year for a math class for the third kid. The information that was available wasn't sufficient for us to know that this "A" district was going to be wrong for our kids.

Ed Haynor
Thu, 11/29/2018 - 12:54pm

Before we start any more grading systems in Michigan, I suggest the creation of a grading system on our legislature on various measures of performance, accountability, transparency, etc. Then the legislature can determine how important state-wide grading systems actually are.

Thu, 11/29/2018 - 1:02pm

"At the recent West Michigan Policy Forum, hundreds of business leaders voted that one of their top priorities is implementing an A-to-F letter grade system for schools to increase quality and accountability in education. "

Well of course because these so called "business leaders" really understand the complex nature of how education works and want to simplify everything in this manner. Any time I read "business leaders" and "education" in the same article I just shake my head and say "here we go again".

Mike Colucci
Thu, 11/29/2018 - 4:25pm

Grades are no better for schools than they are for students and they are counterproductive for students who shift their focus from learning to getting a grade.

The research quite clearly shows that kids who are graded – and have been encouraged to try to improve their grades – tend to lose interest in the learning itself, avoid challenging tasks whenever possible (in order to maximize the chance of getting an A), and think less deeply than kids who aren’t graded,” Kohn explains. “The problem isn’t with how we grade, nor is it limited to students who do especially well or poorly in school; it’s inherent to grading. - Alfie Kohn author of Punished by Rewards and Schooling Beyond Measure

Fri, 11/30/2018 - 6:48am

Michigan teacher pay averages are thrown way out of whack by the rich counties south of the bridge. Yes, Michigan teacher pay is near the top in the nation which is a lot like being given an award for being the tallest while attending a little people convention. Ever try listening to actual teachers about what can be done to help the kids?

Chuck Jordan
Fri, 11/30/2018 - 9:34am

Letter grades for schools will only measure wealth of a school district's parents. Letter grades for different categories to make the dashboard simpler would help parents. A grade for test scores, a grade for building adequacy etc. One grade is just simplistic. How will it improve schools with D or F grades? What do you do with those students?

Sat, 12/01/2018 - 4:00pm

How dare you mention "money's worth" let alone in the standalone opening paragraph? LIAR!

Leander Richmond
Wed, 12/12/2018 - 3:11pm

Schools in MI cheat. The ranking will never be accurate until there is a law criminalizing their lack of reporting of certain situations within the schools, removal of penalties for teachers based on performance. This alone with the teachers is the biggest offense accomplishing an accurate reporting and grading platform. No child left behind.... Geez. This would be great if all children were created equally.

Fri, 01/18/2019 - 5:19am

You are trying to simplify a complex problem. Quite often ignorance is given the most power when in comes to school policy. The people who work with children should be given a voice in education. I have 20 years experience teaching elementary students. I know their families. I understand their struggle. Kids are more stressed than ever before. The anxiety begins in kindergarten. Schools are not properly equipped to educate the increasing numbers of kids with mental health issues and special needs. Michigan is too busy spending money on testing programs, evaluation tools, and one misguided law after another. Teachers have fled from this career path and we are already facing a shortage of qualified new teachers. The policy makers in Michigan have failed. Clearly the F grade belongs to them. The legislators that attacked educators with useless retaliatory laws are also at fault. F. Let's not spend a penny more of our tax money on ridiculous punitive policies such as this. There is a new Sheriff in town and she has a new legislative posse. If you want to know how to fix education, it's time to ask the educators that work with the children every day. Imagine that.