Lansing fiddles while Michigan’s public schools go to hell

Summer's over ‒ and with the kids back in school, it's a good time to take a look at how Michigan schools are doing.

The news isn’t great. We're farther behind other states than we were 20 years ago. And yet the need for a competitive, educated workforce is much, much greater than in the past.

This isn’t just an inner-city problem. A close look at the data shows that our shockingly bad school performance is widespread, affecting kids rich and poor, minority and white, urban and rural. And this should infuriate all Michigan residents.

The numbers tell the tale:

Since 2003, Michigan has been only one of five states showing early literacy achievement declining; West Virginia is the only one showing a bigger drop.

Poor performance is not confined to minority kids. True: In 2015, African-American fourth-graders in Michigan had the lowest achievement levels in the nation. But white Michigan fourth graders performed 49th in reading compared with white students in other states that same year.

Nor are lagging education outcomes confined to poor families. That same year, fourth grade students in Michigan's wealthiest school districts ranked 36th out of 42 states that provided data on reading scores for their more affluent kids.

Michigan students aren’t catching up later, either. Michigan was 12th best in the nation when it came to eighth-grade white students reading abilities in 2003. A dozen years later, scores for the same group had fallen to a dismaying 42nd.

Nor was math any better. Michigan eighth graders’ math performance also lagged behind other states. Their growth in math skills had fallen to 60 percent below the national average.

Their math scores, in fact, were less than for kids their age in Russia or Lithuania.   

It then should come as little surprise that slightly less than 35 percent of Michigan high school students met the College Readiness Standard in last year’s SAT tests.

This all comes from Doug Ross, a highly respected leading school innovator, in his recent Detroit News  piece, “Fixing Michigan’s schools: Education crisis by the numbers.”

The results are clear. Employers all over Michigan are complaining that they can't find younger workers who can do the math, read the blueprints or understand written instructions.

Parents worry their kids are being systematically shortchanged as they face a global economy increasingly reliant on the skills of educated workers.

And in the meantime, this year's major priority in the legislature has been finding ways to cut taxes. Any urgency in the need to fix our crumbling schools? You can almost hear the politicians thinking, “Nah, there's an election coming up next year and we've got better things to do.”

What about those worried as to how Michigan families are going to prosper in the years to come? They give this major concern only lip service, at best.

If our lawmakers are making any coherent effort to understand why we can't fix our schools, I haven’t seen it.

One consequence of our bad schools problem that isn't usually noticed: Remediation. According to Mike Hansen, president of the Michigan Community College Association, something like 20 per cent of recent high school graduates need to take remedial courses to handle the work at even community colleges.

That costs a lot of money. Figure that something like 100,000 graduates emerge from Michigan public high schools each year.

At a 20 percent remediation rate, Hansen estimates the costs to upgrade their skills to do community college work is in the millions ‒ but hard to pin down exactly because school systems have differing cost structures.

"A significant portion of entering students need at least one developmental course in English or math," says Hansen, who adds that the cost of this falls most heavily on students and their families.

Worse, it's both redundant, and much of this would be unnecessary ... if schools were doing their jobs.

Hansen does say this isn't entirely the fault of the high schools; community colleges could do more to help new students adapt to differing academic standards. But regardless, having to repeat basic material badly taught is both expensive and frustrating for schools, colleges, students and families.

I think much of our inability to fix our schools arises from the complex and inefficient system of education we have allowed to come about in Michigan over the years, the result in large part of our widespread erosion of political will to make the tough decisions, accountability-free management, and passive-aggressive inertia.

Here’s a modest, simple solution: Colleges should charge high schools for each and every graduate they produce who requires remediation to come up to the academic standard to do college work.

High schools will scream, I grant. We would need legislation to make this mandatory. But such a system would, at a minimum, serve to concentrate urgent attention and political will on a problem that simply cannot be allowed to fester, if our state is to have any future.

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

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Tue, 09/12/2017 - 8:28am

Or rather than suggesting we fine high schools for their graduates failure to achieve, ( I doubt you're serious) how about you, Phil, Doug Ross, the MEA etc etc and all these thought leaders with strong ideas on what and how things need be changed for success, get your own charter schools (I'm sure there are plenty available to take over) and show us how it can be done? This isn't meant to to be snarky, and it would be a great showcase for highlighting best practices. I'm certain that with all your connections to foundations and philanthropists getting the funding wouldn't be a problem. All this Monday morning quarterbacking without any experience is tedious. You are all smart people, how about it?

Dr. Richard Zeile
Wed, 09/13/2017 - 8:58am

Doug Ross has organized his own charter school, University Prep, and it is regarded as perhaps the most academically successful in the city. Interestingly, he does this on significantly less per pupil funding than DPS.

Wed, 09/13/2017 - 1:28pm

That is great, we can only hope that he can expand it as far as feasible and then share his secrets with others to replicate. Unfortunately many others out there think what he is doing should be illegal and only available to those who can pay for it entirely on their own.

Juana Green
Fri, 09/15/2017 - 7:15am

It's easy to have fabulous results when you can cherry pick your students.

Fri, 09/15/2017 - 3:03pm


I am curious how they 'cherry pick' the students, could you share what you know about the selection/admission process?

I wonder what is the difference for academic success. The kids in our district seem to be as capable as the districts around us and yet there is a difference in college admissions [some lower, some higher by as much as 50%]. What I wonder what criteria the successful schools are using to identify the preferred students, that may help us understand what to look for and how to teach it.

Le Roy G. Barnett
Tue, 09/12/2017 - 8:57am

All the blame in this opinion piece is leveled at the lawmakers or the schools. In some cases, though, the problem is the student. Using myself as an example, while in high school I adopted a "don't care" attitude, thus deriving little from much of my secondary education. It wasn't until after graduation that I finally got my act together and realized the need for an advanced degree. Consequently, my first year of community college was remedial in nature, in effect learning what I foolishly ignored in high school. This situation was entirely my fault, and in no way should my high school have been punished for my failure to be ready for the university level.

Thu, 09/21/2017 - 12:15pm

Too bad we taxpayers can't send you a bill for the money you wasted.

Thu, 09/21/2017 - 8:51pm


What would the bill be for, how was the money wasted if he has earned a degree and become a greater contributor [paying more taxes, and using less of government programs] than other adults who did what he did in K-12?

I didn't have the 'I don't care' attitude, but I was not a good student, I didn't study like I should [I didn't learn how or why until out of school], I didn't have the interest [my friends were not studying and weren't interested, until I got new friends after school] in learning, I didn't appreciate what an education gave me [aside from my teachers I didn't know a college graduated and how an education was used].

What I have learned is what Le Roy is pointing to, the student is the key factor in learning success. Neither he nor I were academically successful in K-12, but once we realized we needed and education/college degree to get the control we wanted we got interested and did what it took to earn that degree.

As for the bill, as best I can tell the vast majority of kids then and now are not engaged to the level they need for success, so you should be sending the 'bill' to 10s of thousands of former students. Though, as Le Roy, I used what I recalled from school and earned my degree [with an above average salary so I have been paying more tax dollars], my wife and I were more effective with our daughters [they both earned degrees earning above average salaries] instilling the value of education in them, and they are even more effective instilling that desire for learning in their children. I feel I have paid and am still paying that 'bill' because, like Le Roy, I learned it is the student that has the key role/responsibilities for their education and have applied that lesson ever since. The ones that aren't paying that 'bill' are the ones ignoring the students, asking for more other people's money to spend on the system focusing on the adults, and not delivering better results.

Tue, 09/12/2017 - 9:05am

Phil, you raise important issues in your piece, but end with a "simple" simplistic and irrelevant solution. The need for remediation won't be corrected by additional threats to funding. The climate for education needs to change. At the government and societal level, education is not valued. It is invested in as a reluctant duty. In previous articles your publication has shown the staggering decrease in college students studying to education. Nationally and in the state enrollment is down 40%. The cause is not poor teaching at the high school level.
The profession has been denigrated and underfunded for several decades.
Here's a better solution: treat educators like professionals who work to develop the magnificent children of our state. Empower administrators and teachers with job-embedded support that replaces other expectations, rather than in addition to other initiatives. Look to larger systems with higher performance as models. Threats, punishment, and scorn don't improve performance for humans of any age.

Tue, 09/12/2017 - 9:05am

Maybe reverse and reward for students not requiring remedial assistance.

Tue, 09/12/2017 - 9:32am

Lots of talk about external problems, and very little talk about the student. Good students with a desire to learn will do so no matter what the circumstances. You can throw all the resources at the external problems, but without a student willing to learn, you will still end up with abysmal results.

David Waymire
Tue, 09/12/2017 - 10:54am

When you look at the data, it compares our schools...and other schools...and students. Are you suggesting there is something unique about Michigan students...that they are somehow very different than those in other states? I think that's unlikely.

Wed, 09/13/2017 - 6:01pm

Yes there is something unique about our students, they are all individuals not numbers, they are the ones that learn not the schools. The reality is that we hear nothing about success, even you don't seem to realize we have innumerable academically successful students, that who is populating our universities are predominately Michigan students, and we have students that are going off to academically elite schools around the nation and succeeding.

When you only look for the failure that is all you see and all the general public hears about, and that is where you put the resources and spend them on doing things differently. The more effective way is to learn from the successful students and share the why and how of their successes and help others to use that and make their own successes.

Sustainable success is build on success and striving to improve on that success. It is not built on simply trying to reinvent dissappointments

I knew who the successful students were in my classes, but no one helped me to understand how and why they were successful [my Dad reached the 8th grade, my Mom earn her GED in her 60s so they didn't know], it wasn't until I was into college that I learned how to learn. Our children were much more successful, we help them learn how to learn, their children are even more successful because their parents are teaching them even better ways to learn, why and how. It is success being built on success not wringing our hands about dissappointments.

Michigan politics and news media see failure to the exclusion of success, other states that are being successful seem to be talking about their success rather than their failures, even you are focused on their successes to the exclusion of Michigan's successes. As an analogy consider high school athletics, which gets the most reporting/visibility, the teams as they progress to the State Championship or the teams that don't make post season play? Success or disappointment?

Michigan is different; the focus is on disappointment and the delusion that the strength based manufacturing will return to recreate a 'middle class.' The world has changed, it is a knowledge and skills and responsibility based economy and it is a global competition of success not disappointment.

When you look at the data you fail to see the individual that must do the learning to change the data.

Juana Green
Fri, 09/15/2017 - 7:16am


Tue, 09/12/2017 - 9:38am

The previous comment lacks fact that Doug Ross started what is now a very good group of charter school, university prep here in detroit! Sadly the elected officials have done the most damage to detroit schools over last 2.decades! My suggestion is to pair schools that are struggling with those doing well across all of regions! Also there are some excellent teachers some now retired, give then good paying consultant jobs to work in schools! Finally must engage parents in many ways! Vitti wants to do this and he should! ! Our kids deserve better than many are getting!

Tue, 09/12/2017 - 12:37pm

That is great to hear that he is putting his money where there his mouth is. We should be anxious to see how his thinking changes after doing rather than studying this issue. There are thousands of people who would be good teachers except they didn't take the "education" classes, with the dreadful past results Ed establishment has shown, why not start looking at these people as an option?

Laurel Raisanen
Tue, 09/12/2017 - 10:02am

Not a good solution. People need to accept the fact that the republican party has been systematically dumbing down its students. Why? I'm not sure. Notice the decisions being made by republicans in Washington and you see a mean spirit when it comes to supporting its people. Until we have good responsible (hands on) leaders we will continue to decline.

Tue, 09/12/2017 - 12:28pm

Hmmm?? , Was the last 8 years of Obama administration in Washington, Republican? I hope you are not a teacher.

Linda Heckerthorn
Thu, 09/14/2017 - 10:40am

As a matter of fact, aside from about one year, Congress was Republican then and still is. Thank you for the reminder!

Chuck Fellows
Tue, 09/12/2017 - 10:07am


Please support Manufacturing Day in Michigan on October 6, 2017, see for details. This is a national effort by businesses and local governments to introduce 21st Century manufacturing careers to middle and high school students. As part of this effort the Manufacturing Institute has developed industry recognized skills certificates to address the workforce shortage. Michigan was number one in the nation for event and students participating last year.

In regard to students not meeting the college readiness standard, why is this the "gold standard" for life success? Employment projections through 2020 indicate that five million highly paid, skilled U.S. jobs will not be filled. Lack of a skilled labor force will drive those jobs to other nations that have education and training programs that support development of skills instead of an academic degree.

Schools do not need fixing, the system of education needs a paradigm shift. (See Ken Robinson, "Changing Education's Paradigms" at

The current system is stuck in a 19th century version of education that did a good job of moving America from agricultural to industrial employment . This model no longer works; yet our educational leaders refuse to accept a newer model that reflects what we have learned about learning through neurosciences, education models that address the individual's learning needs and life context and the realty that those who do the work, teachers, student and parents, are the ones best equipped to incrementally improve learning outcomes.

Examples of what is working abound in hardcover, video, social media, research and actual school environments. If we want a future for our children we all better start paying attention and communicate our "learning" to the politicians and academic leaders. That means all need to write, call and message to those in charge that meaningful change that allows teachers to drive change is necessary. My gosh, we might have to start respecting the profession. (like they do in other countries).

Tue, 09/12/2017 - 10:55am

Expecting a positive action out of legislators that have systematically devalued the education profession is unlikely. They have legislated to decrease teacher pay, teacher benefits, teacher pensions, and denied teachers collective bargaining as a remedy. Meanwhile funding cuts result in larger classes, and social services cutbacks leave teachers to deal with children from unstable or abusive families, without much support outside the school. The answer is not to fine schools for "underperforming" under restrictions that make it difficult to succeed; the answer is to fire the legislators, and get a new crop of legislators who actually value education and educators. Education for all, including remedial education for workers displaced by technology over their lifetime, is part of the human infrastructure needed to maintain a society and an economy capable of competing on a global, technologically advanced platform. If your legislators do not accept and understand that, they have no business making laws that deny the importance of education.

Bob Sornson
Tue, 09/12/2017 - 10:58am

Thanks to you and Doug Ross for getting the facts out. We are in a dismal state of affairs in our Michigan schools, and nothing is happening which will change these miserable outcomes. Until we realize that we are using an antiquated standardized one-size-fits-all educational model that is designed to produce exactly what we are getting, and move to a personalized competency based learning model, we can expect more of the same.

Elizabeth Welch
Tue, 09/12/2017 - 12:17pm

If you take a graph of classroom funding and run a line over it with our test scores, there's almost a direct correlation. Classroom cuts have not surprisingly resulted in a decline in test scores. Every district in this state---affluent and not---has had to cut deeply. Remedial services have been cut and "extra support" (such as one-on-one reading help, extra para-pros in classrooms to assist struggling readers). While other states have ramped up funding of key programs, Michigan has chosen policies to deeply defund our classrooms. The data correlates directly. If you cut reading support, it isn't surprising that reading scores suffer.

Tue, 09/12/2017 - 1:45pm

Sorry Elizabeth and Pat, we've been fretting about our failing educational system by at least starting in the Reagan administration, 40+ years ago. Remember "A Nation at Risk"??? This historical revisionism is breath taking. Further tracking spending, money spent and has not proven to have any real significant correlation. On a national basis the US spends at the top of all developed OECD nations while getting mid and lower mid results. Not that money is irrelevant but only small part of the problem.

Cynthia Miller
Sun, 09/17/2017 - 9:53am

More than 20 percent of our kids live in abject poverty! Many districts have much higher rates. When children live with uncertainty every day, they can hardly focus. We must provide a haven for children, including nurses and social workers. We also have cut the fine arts programs, and applied arts programs, in lieu of standardized testing, testing, testing. We have more students crammed in each public education classroom than any other state in the nation. We used to be the best; no more. Thank you, Lansing. I can't even think about the hundreds, if not thousands, of anti-public education laws that have been written over the past thirty years to disenfranchise our students in favor of the for-profits (charters) which have grown exponentially. As far as teachers go, they have left. After all, poor healthcare, poor retirement, and poor salary. Have no idea why they have gone to other professions. Have you checked out our substitute teachers lately? Sad, but teachers who have been vilified do not want to return to this hostile work environment.

Tue, 09/19/2017 - 12:38am

As much as I may like the concept of 'havens,' I am hesitant to support such an approach until I hear more about the idea and listen in on a conversation about and ideas how to implement it.
I am interested in what criteria to use for deciding when a child needs a 'haven'. I wonder what an acceptable 'haven' should look like?

Tue, 09/12/2017 - 12:38pm

As a retired educator it has broken my heart to watch the fall of our schools. Once it was determined that business managers know more about what is best for students than educators- the rapid decline began.

Tue, 09/12/2017 - 1:36pm

So in turn, should the high schools be paid by the middle schools and so on a so forth? High schools received children without basic skills without funds/time/staff for appropriate remediation but yet they are blamed for causing the problem. We can't socially promote and expect academic success to naturally take place. Serious reform is in order. Attendance, class size, qualified staff and children living in poverty are all variables to be discussed that public schools
must address without adequate funding. Blame is not the solution.

Dennis Wentworth
Tue, 09/12/2017 - 1:53pm

I agree we need to improve our schools but how about some real solutions. The state has more control then ever over the schools that has not helped. Charter schools and school of choice seem to have little influence. We need more local control and freedom. State and federal dollars are full of inefficient mandates and reporting.

Tue, 09/12/2017 - 3:02pm

Here we are again, one more ride on the merry-go-round of the educational blame game, and the grab for more of other people's money to throw at more government programs.

I can see why the news media fails, why government programs fail, and why spending is driving people away from funding government. No where in this article is there even a question about what role and responsibilities the student has in their learning. No where is there a question if the students are being taught about what it takes to take control of their lives after school, are they being taught how to learn, why to learn, when to learn, are they being taught what the basic skills are to compete in an ever changing world/economy/environment.

Mr. Power is simply echoing the political call for blame and pointing the finger at Lansing [those dastardly elected officials in Lansing] with no interest in learning why students succeed in spite of all that is complained about.

If Mr. Power and other truly wanted to have our students learn and succeed then all would be engaged in understanding what makes students want to learn, want to studying, want to have choices when they graduate. The reality Mr. Power and others fails to grasp is that a teacher, a school system, an education department can't simply open up a student's mind and pour in the need knowledge and skills. The student has to want to learn, the student need to know how to learn, they need the social support for learning. All Mr. Power and others want is play the political blame game.

Mr. Power's idea of charging public schools for student under performance would we just another reason for voters to resist paying more taxes [because they will be the ones who would ultimately pay Mr. Power's taxing for colleges].

If The Center for Michigan wants to change the learning results in Michigan, they should break from what others are doing, they should hold a few conversation with students [both those who are succeeding and those who aren't, from successful schools and disappointing schools] asking them if the like to learn [why or why not], if they know how to learn [why or why not], what are their barriers to learning [for those that have succeeded how and why have they overcome them]. And simply collect the information, not try to chart it and use it to manipulate those in Lansing, but to offer to all that are interest and ask what they see in it, if it will change how they do things, and if they will include students will be include in what they develop.

The most important thing to remember it is not how Lansing is manipulate, it is what the students do to learn.

Tue, 09/12/2017 - 4:05pm

Wow! Phil presents a large amount of data about Michigan's failing schools and his solution is to fine the high schools! I can't believe that he believes this will solve the problem. He is a typical finger pointer, quick to criticize, without a solution. The solution is NOT simple. Improvement will occur when issues such as teacher education (colleges), parent support, clear achievement standards, financial support, removal of competition as a model for improving schools, meaningful professional development, and accountability for administrators, teachers, and parents.

Tue, 09/12/2017 - 5:51pm


I notice no mention of the students, don't feel they have a part if not a critical part to play in the learning?

Tom House
Tue, 09/12/2017 - 9:20pm

Phil, I can't believe what I just read came from you in a Bridge piece. Blame and punish the school for the greater systemic and political failure of our State to properly organize and fund our education system. That is what we have been doing for years, and that is the main reason we find ourselves in the mess you described. Do you really think witholding more resources from public schools will suddenly wake educators up and decide to do a better job. How ridiculous! This is the sort of thinking that has led to changing assessments every few years, giving full foundation allowances to online education providers of questionable quality, creating a crushing volume of often superfluous and duplicated reporting and recording requirements and regulations, making schools public schools compete with charter schools that don't always need to follow the same rules or accountability measures, robbing the school aide fund and diverting funds dedicated by the vote of the citizens in 1994 for public schools, and impugning educators and devaluing their work and their profession. That is how we arrived at this sad place in our State whose public schools were once the envy of the nation. You know better, and you are dead wrong. High schools may not scream as you predict. They have been very accustomed to being whipped and are likely to groan and move on.

Wed, 09/13/2017 - 7:53am

I did my student teaching in 1990 and the students panicked when I didn't tell them to bring their calculators when I asked them to do some simple math...or at least simple to business class. They didn't have the logic of how to take 10% of a number. So I had to explain how to move the decimal, etc. When I asked how can students not know simply math the person I ask told me to forget it there was no way to change the system. So much for all my teachers telling us we were the ones to make changes.

Dr. Richard Zeile
Wed, 09/13/2017 - 8:55am

Two years ago the State Board of Education invited some 20 education advocacy organizations to propose solutions to the dilemma of Michigan's losing ground to other states. Few took note of Michigan's loss of population the previous decade, and not a one mentioned that during the decade of losing ground, other states had raised the age qualifying for Kindergarten from turning 5 on December 1 to turning 5 on September 1. This means that our students were on average 5% younger than those in other states. It cost the state nothing to raise that age, which we finally did 2 years ago, but it will be another nine years before our K-8 students will on par developmentally with those of other states. I cannot help but believe that this is one reason why Superintendent Whiston is so confident that Michigan will be one of the “Top Ten states in Ten years.”

Wed, 09/13/2017 - 10:13am

So you think our underfunded high schools should have to pay financial penalties to colleges for the penury of our Legislature? I think that makes the problem worse, not better. It's like taking food from a starving man.

This is a great explanation of the problem, but maybe you're pinning the blame in the wrong place.

Thu, 09/14/2017 - 7:59am

You forgot to mention the comprehensive Top 10 in 10 education plan Michigan has in the works. You make it sound like nothing is being done about education when there is actually a lot going on. Your story is thus biased.

Paul Lipson
Fri, 09/15/2017 - 3:29pm

Phil, you are a respected news person. But,you aren't telling the whole story. How are schools going to increase test scores when not only the tests change every few years, but the governing forces in education in our state are so fragmented, that schools aren't sure of curriculum or policy from one year to the next. We have one of the worst educational governing constructs in the nation. Instead of blaming the kids or the schools trying to teach the kids, let's look more carefully at things like the failure of Charter Schools and the manner in which our public schools are led. We need leadership!

Thu, 09/21/2017 - 1:34pm

Michigan's own Hillsdale College has launched many very successful classical charter schools throughout the U.S., but has only seen one come to fruition here in Michigan through a local school district. University-based charter school authorizers need to pay attention to the significant success of these Hillsdale-affiliated schools and do what it take to authorize more of them.

Sat, 10/14/2017 - 10:09am

Children learn half of what they will learn in their lifetime before they enter Kindergarten. Many children require remediation immediately. They do not know up from down or left and right, their basic colors, counting to 10, or their alphabet. Working parents do not get to these things which makes preschool necessary. If a child does not learn to read in 1st grade, that child is in deep trouble. I am a retired elementary teacher.

Wed, 11/15/2017 - 4:56pm

Let’s look at testing and the correlation to academic performance decline in Michigan.
Teachers make easy political targets.

Mary Fox
Wed, 11/15/2017 - 6:42pm

This is the dumbest thing I have ever come out of Bridge. We have a sadly underfunded system at both k12 and community colleges spread so thin with more and more teacher flat out quitting because the working conditions from pay to ridiculous work load. Sham on you all for failing to address the underfunding. Many community college instructors are working poor having their wages stolen, expected to put in overtime hours and getting hideously low wages. Shame on you! K12 teachers are fleeing the disgusting wages and working conditions they cannot address because the motive is to replace the whole system with for-profit gain. Sickening