Pressure mounts on Michigan's K-12 schools

There was a lot of education news last week -- much of it grim, and all of it indicating that this state needs to make big changes. Pronto.

First of all, The Education Trust-Midwest, a statewide policy organization, released a new report that showed academic achievement among Michigan’s higher-income and white students has declined when compared with similar kids in other states. This is highly significant, as much of the debate over school performance has centered on low-income and minority students.

This study showed that Michigan students of all sorts have lost ground since 2003. African-American students ranked last in fourth grade reading among the 45 states that reported in 2011.

But fourth grade math scores for white students, are also 45th, having fallen from 13th in the country just eight years previously. Reading scores are only slightly better, and now 35th nationally.

The Education Trust report concludes, “While our state has taken a few bold steps in the past year to improve our education system, our students still lag far behind their peers nationally, and the performance gaps between them -- across income levels and race -- are both alarming and persistent.”

Amber Arellano, executive director of the Education Trust, remains hopeful. “Our children in Michigan are no less bright and full of potential than the children of other states. The problem isn’t them. It’s us, the adults of Michigan. We need to do better.”

Arellano’s words echoed -- far more politely -- a conversation I had last week with an old friend with extensive experience in both state government and business: “Dammit! We need to have a serious and direct conversation about schools in this state. While the adults are quarrelling and playing games, we’re screwing the kids. I’m thinking it’s time we just blew up the whole system!”


Meanwhile, Gov. Rick Snyder’s budget proposal for fiscal 2013 was released on the same day as the Education Trust report. It drew the predictable reactions, praise from Republicans; criticism from Democrats. But an analysis from Mitch Bean at Bridge Magazine produced a rumpus:

“Let’s start with the way funding for K-12 was described,” wrote Bean, an economist and a well-respected former head of the House Fiscal Agency. “The description in the budget document is that the recommendation for FY 2013 is a 2.5 percent increase, and the ‘planning budget’ for 2014 is a 0.8 percent increase."

But, he added, “the problem with that description is, when you add up what the figures (are) for this year, for FY 2013 and FY 2014, total spending for K-12 declines from $12.74 billion in 2012 to $12.69 billion for 2012 -- and declines again to $12.6 billion in FY 2014.”

He noted: “It will be interesting to watch the reaction when the school lobby figures out that the recommendation for a ‘2.5 percent increase’ in K-12 actually means a small cut in spending.”

Bean will doubtlessly be right about that. However, there’s another part of the education budget I find more interesting: Performance funding. The governor wants to tie increases in student learning with bonus funding for schools that perform well.

Though this has never been tried in any serious way, it makes complete sense. Traditionally, we’ve concentrated on the worst performing schools and thrown money at them or, as present policy calls for, moved them into a separate school district.

Mike Flanagan, Michigan’s state superintendent of public instruction, was enthusiastic about the idea of rewarding better-performing schools. “The key to this budget is performance funding applied to every kid. We’ve developing fair metrics for student growth in multiple measures for all our schools. Superintendents are starting to look at this funding and figuring out what it takes to get some.

“This is bonus, not a penalty. It could be a game-changer, and we’re the first in the country to do it.”

No one should get too excited yet. The precise way in which school districts will be evaluated have not yet been developed. Nor is it clear exactly how much money will be subject to performance bonuses. The devil, as always, is bound to be in the details.

But you have to hope that Flanagan is right. Tolerating continued deterioration in student learning – regardless of race of income – is simply unacceptable for a state struggling to compete.

And there’s little doubt that if the performance funding incentives in the governor’s budget doesn’t play out and pay off over the next few years, there will be even greater pressure.

Pressure, that is, to do nothing less than what my friend suggested: Blow the whole system up and start all over again.

Editor’s note: Former newspaper publisher and University of Michigan Regent Phil Power is a longtime observer of Michigan politics and economics. He is also the founder and chairman of the Center for Michigan, a nonprofit, bipartisan centrist think–and–do tank, designed to cure Michigan’s dysfunctional political culture; the Center also publishes Bridge Magazine. The opinions expressed here are Power’s own and do not represent the official views of the Center. He welcomes your comments via email.

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Big D
Thu, 02/16/2012 - 8:38am
You have to reapportion funding, because more funding isn't in the cards (or the budget). (Stop whining about a shortage of revenue--you've already gouged the pensioners and reneged on a "temporary" income tax increase.) You have to convince the MEA of that. That all depends on what happens in Wisconsin. What a wonderful world.
Chuck Fellows
Thu, 02/16/2012 - 8:44am
Performance funding has already been tried in Washington DC and has been used in the private sector for years with some unfortunate long term outcomes - the meltdown of the ultimate performance funding schemes, our financial industry, is a good example of the risks this type of incentive contain. Hooray for someone pointing out that a real problem, not the only one, is the squabbling of the adults in the room! With that admission maybe we can begin the long and agonizing work of listening to the people that actually do the work - that would be students and their teachers! Students, with the support of professionals, can be really good teachers. Gee, ever notice that when you teach someone something you learn too! There are examples of what works all around us and, as an unlikely as is seems, the AFT (one of those damn unions) has taken the initiative to study some of them, share their perspective ( they do not demand you agree), work with groups willing to experiment with innovation and continue to look for solutions in a meaningful way. Maybe instead of posturing we can begin to have a dialogue, you know, sharing meaning through the use of words. Kudos to Mr. Power and Ms. Arellano for the courage to point out the obvious! Here's hoping the conversation can begin.
Jeffrey L. Salisbury
Thu, 02/16/2012 - 8:44am
Oh my goodness Phil - what a rant. Dismal scores for 4th graders? In education we'd say that what poor scores for 4th graders on a standardized tests PROBABLY means the school's curriculum is not aligned (for a variety of reasons) with the test(s). What it DOES NOT mean is that 4th grade scores are accurate predictors of the end-result eight years later. So... How about let's focus on how MI schools are doing in terms of the end-result - preparing and sending grads off to college - we can leave a discussion of how well we're doing with the non-college bound for another day. Hint: It's quite dismal. Now... Keeping in mind MI is one of 8 states that requirse ALL juniors to take the ACT - college-bound or not - special or regular education - students who took a college-prep-core curriculum or not - About 116,823 of our graduates, which is 100% of our graduating class, took the ACT last year. And note that from 2007–2011, the number of ACT test-taking graduates increased by 49.5%. That means a few years ago, about half of all HS grads planned to attend college or at least a college that required the ACT. Avg Composite Score Avg English Score Avg Math Score Avg Reading Score Avg Science Score Michigan 20.0 19.3 19.9 20.1 20.3 Worth noting that our composite score means nothing - nada - zip - zero - what matters is how did our college attendees score on the ACT? Top Michigan Colleges ACT Scores at my alma mater - MSU - 25% of the incoming students averaged a 23 while 75% averaged a 27 composite - 7 points above the 100% average composite score. I think Michigan Schools are doing just fine. Should we all be concerned about 4th graders' scores? Maybe. Maybe not. I'd want to do some research on the test and what it's asking my students to do.
Thu, 02/16/2012 - 8:50am
BLOW THE WHOLE SYSTEM UP and privatize... It would appear that the gov nor his legislative partners have a clue what to do besides blame the teachers and there union(s) for the failure of the schoool systems. In the last year there has been so much thrown at the schools for "competition", "special schools" for those that don't meet the gov's standard, finacial cuts over how many years, and on and on and on. Is it no wonder that are children don't have a clue. When the fools at the top of the heap would rather advance their ideological agendas over an honest debate this is what you get. BLOW THE WHOLE SYSTEM UP and privatize, may be the only option.
Rex O'Connor, Jr.
Thu, 02/16/2012 - 10:20am
I would entertain a complete destruction of the current K-12 public education system in Michigan provided that it begins anew with per pupil funding that is equal from Copper Harbor down to Temperance. As a parent with kids in Benzie Central Schools, I would also welcome the opportunity for our district to compete for added funding $$$ based entirely on required results with a level playing field.
Thu, 02/16/2012 - 11:01am
Performance funding will only be successful if it is rewarded to the parents. This issue is not just a result of the educational system, but of the family. The people that continue to blame the schools and teachers, need also to look at the home.
Thu, 02/16/2012 - 11:09am
When K-12 education is valued by all parents, we will see our students doing better. Students coming from homes where parents are more interested in their own pleasures over their child's success in school has a strong impact on student performance. Acquiring K-12 education requires parental sacrifice and student hard work. These factors, coupled with an educational system that is properly funded and staffed with a quality group of teachers and administrators, is not a new concept. We will never again be successful as we were in the past - our value systems have changed. Legislatively we no longer work for the common good, we work for the party line. Educationally, we expect high performance from kids who come to school hungry, kids who have drug addicted parents, kids who come from broken homes and kids who come from very dysfunctional families. We think that by creating competition between schools the quality of schools will improve - we have equated schools to the same level as manufacturing. Unfortunately, schools have no control of what each child brings to the schoolhouse door. As the incoming students value systems change and education becomes the high priority it once was so will their educational outcomes.
Staton Lorenz
Thu, 02/16/2012 - 11:59am
Phil, When will the focus turn to getting students to graduate from high school? It's far too easy to drop out and then these former students are on the fast track to nowhere and to being on the receiving end of the "fair share" of the fruits of those who did graduate and move on to either college or a trade school. The first "hand out' is the FREE education that K-12 students receive at taxpayers expense...remaining in school should be the first requirement for; obtaining a drivers license (emphasis on license...not a right) and further education opportunities at state-suppported institutions that would include a myriad of trade schools...not just college. Truancy has to be be reined in before it leads to dropouts which can only lead to a life of poverty. Creative ways of stimulating students to stay in school could be an industry itself and a good investment funds. It's sad that in countries like Bolivia and Haiti, where families must scape together modest amounts of money (by our standards) to send their children to school...the interest in learning is intense and here we have so much disregard for the importance of learning. Michigan has wonderful schools, excellent teachers and curriculum but lacks publicly-stated objectives...goals to reach for at every level of the education ladder. If we can reach for the moon in ten years...why can't we set a variety of education goals to achieve in stages as well? How about zero tolerance for dropping out? Set one, two, three and four year objectives. Everyone benefits, first the student and then the community.
Thu, 02/16/2012 - 1:17pm
As a father of four, I felt it was my responsibility to get my children educated. I chose to partner with the wonderful teachers in our district who used their tremendous knowledge base and techniques to achieve my youngsters' growth. Two of my four are college graduates.I felt very good about the quality of the educational experience because I was involved in it. As a high school teacher, I saw the connection between concerned parents and good progress with uninvolved parents and minimal performance. Parents have to step up. Higher expectations from the parents will keep the student in the game. Get rid of texting, excessive cell phone usage, unsuperved television watching, and accepting lame excuses.
Thu, 02/16/2012 - 9:54pm
I graduated in 1960 at the bottom of my class I know why and it was not the schools or the governments fault. It wasn’t my parents fault because they didn’t know any better since they didn’t get an education either so how could they guide me. I was fortunate enough to marry someone that understood the need for an education. I always give my wife most of the credit for the success of our children. The only reason I was able to survive was because of having a lot of natural ability even though I did not have even a good basic education. That is not good enough today the kids need our help or we will fail as a state and possibility a country. It is time for the parents to try their best to support their children. We need to help each other and get past our differences in order to make us a great country again. I failed to mention that we had 7 children all collage educated 3 engineers 1 teacher 1 physicians assistant 1 supply chain management 1 marketing. And by the way we never made over $45,000 a year. Life is a challenge and if we all accept that challenge only good things will happen. The lady owner at our old general store said about a project the community did. Her words of advice was just did it.
Mike R
Fri, 02/17/2012 - 3:10pm
I applaud Phil and those commenting before me who accurately point out the complete lunacy of pitting schools and districts against each other. The laissez-faire capitalism so deified by conservatives and business people is not even close to being a model for success in public education (and education MUST remain public; it is one of the core functions of government, no less than infrastructure and defense). Teachers cannot work miracles and they cannot "make chicken salad out of chicken s--t". Rewarding those schools and teachers who toe the political line, "teach to the test", and have the good fortune to be located in affluent or nurturing communities necessarily means taking funds away from schools and districts who cannot, through no fault of the system, meet those criteria. We would condemn to an educational death spiral the students in those schools where the families don't have the means or will to give children the food, clothing, and support they need. I do not understand how anyone can think that siphoning money away from poorly performing schools will make them better; it's like denying a starving man food until he proves he's gotten stronger.
Sat, 02/18/2012 - 8:50pm
Martha's got it right. We teachers have done all that you ask, learning new methods, attending many hours of inservice, evaluating students for many hours each week. We fit many many hours of reading, writing and math into our days, cut science and social studies and recess. Eventually it will be recognized that it's not us who is the reason for declining performance. Look at the families. Look at what kind of conversation is going on around dinner tables. It's nearly impossible to make changes there, but if we keep ignoring that and keep pressuring the school staff, we will not see the improvements we want.
David J
Sun, 02/19/2012 - 5:11pm
Phil, While I have bought into the whole Michigan Center/Bridge "mission"/intent of providing the citizenry with "independent, high-quality, credible public affairs journalism" (often predicated on the fine reporting standards of individuals like Lessenberry and French), THIS missive of yours has proved disappointing. You appear to have "bought into" the whole premise and substance of a "New Report" by the Education Trust Midwest, citing their "findings" as NEWS (vs. what would offer up a fine example for students studying current events as "PROPAGANDA/bias by statistics"). Their SELECTIVE examples from the NAEP tests are the SOLE basis in drawing the conclusion that the achievement levels (especially in reading, math, and science) are/have been in a downward spiral. The inferred implication is that this is the result of the failure of our public schools. Significant controversy exists over the validity of this test (especially due to the small sampling of students upon which the data is based). In just a cursory attempt at getting into these test results for Michigan, I "saw" Michigan's scores mostly aligned with "peer states" and/or the national average. average.""I am not a test disaggreation specialist, but I would LOVE for the Truth Squad to "take this one on!"
David J
Sun, 02/19/2012 - 5:25pm
An addendum to my previous post: I "Googled" Education Trust Midwest and discovered they are funded (virtually) wholly by the Kellogg and Skillman Foundations. These are leading proponents/supporters of the Charter School movement, and the Education Trust Midwest exists for the purpose of furthering this AGENDA!. I am very suspect as to the intent of such a "NEW REPORT." Should I be equally suspect in questioning your intent, Mr. Powers, in providing Bridge with this editorial?
Jeffrey Poling
Mon, 02/20/2012 - 10:29am
The education discussion constantly emphasizes only one thing - money. Throw more money at education and the problem will be solved. How much more, $10,000, $50,000, $100,000 per student? The sponges in the system will only soak it up and demand more. Why isn't the discussion centered on the real problem - lack of parent envolvement, lack of discipline, and the general decline of social values including misdirected priorities - "You don't need schooling. Math and engineering are too hard and just a waste of time. Sell drugs instead or be a rapper, or a singer, or shoot a basketball and "earn" millions and notoriety." We have to stop over emphasizing more money as the end all, be all solution. You can throw all the money you want into education until there is none left but until we re-establish values, the problem is only going to get worse.