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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.

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