Why Michigan schools fail, and what to do about it

What’s so amazing about our political system is that the solutions to some issues are not only clear, they clearly have overwhelming public approval ‒ yet our leaders remain utterly immobile and incapable of taking action.

Just take two examples, one national and one from Michigan: Nationally, guns in schools ‒ and here at home, fixing our pothole-strewn roads. People plainly want guns forbidden in schools.  Michigan voters clearly want our disgraceful roads fixed.

Yet nothing happens.

Perhaps the saddest example, however, is the unwillingness of our political leadership to do something about the disgraceful decades-long deterioration of Michigan school performance.

Related: Scores in one West Michigan school district typify state’s malaise
Related: Michigan spent $80 million to improve early reading. Scores went down.

The data are compelling and alarming: Michigan kids are not learning at the same rate as kids in lots of other states.

“Michigan is dead last among states in improvement in math and reading between 2003 and 2015, according to an analysis of data from the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP).  Test results from the NAEP … offer the most reliable cross-state comparisons of academic achievement,” according to an article by Ron French in last week’s Bridge Magazine.

Over those dozen years, 49 states showed at least some improvement in test scores; Michigan’s all declined, according to an analysis by Brian Jacob, the Walter Annenberg professor of education policy at the University of Michigan.

“By just about any measuring stick, the state is losing the race for educational excellence,” reporter French concluded.

Why no action on school improvement ‒ especially when improving the schools is often cited as the number one policy priority for Michigan voters?

There are lots of candidates for blame.  The subject of school reform is intrinsically complicated, made all the more so by being dominated often by self-interested adults ‒ teachers’ unions, charter schools, educational bureaucracy.  Summoning up the political will for change is never easy, especially when thinking about school policy is increasingly dominated by partisan political ideology.

Issue Guide: Michigan's K-12 performance dropping at alarming rate
Issue Guide: Many Michigan K-12 reform ideas are jumbled, broad, or wildly expensive

There’s also never enough money, especially when most school decisions are denominated in dollar terms.

But to my way of thinking, the real reasons for our long-term failure to fix the schools are two, both structurally important and both hidden from the daily cut and thrust of public debate.

1)   The basic school funding mechanism.  Ever since the 400-page Proposal A was passed in 1994, the basic method of funding schools was a “foundation grant” (currently around $7,631 per pupil) paid by the state to school districts based on the number of students in the district.

The catch is that the grant attaches itself to the student; if Sally moves from Farmington to Plymouth schools, the $7,631 foundation grant moves with her.  Advocates for Proposal A argued that this would be an incentive for schools to improve; bad school districts would start losing students (and money) to other districts.

Quite right.  But here’s the unintended result.  Faced with a competitive funding environment (including charter schools, who pick off dissatisfied families and gain foundation grant revenue), school districts are reluctant to talk openly about their failures for fear of setting in motion student flight and financial disaster.  That’s why there is so much lip service from school people about the importance of school improvement ‒ but so little actual change.

There’s no incentive on the upside and lots of risk on the downside for schools to fess up and publicly confront their long-term problems of poor and declining performance.

2)  The basic structure of the state’s school system, which looks as though it was systematically designed to fudge accountability for persistently deteriorating results.

Consider the org chart of our school “system:” Around 539 separate and locally elected school districts, plus an elected State Board of Education, the candidates for which are almost entirely unknown and picked by the major parties for political reasons.

Grand Rapids summit: West Michigan leaders join chorus for state education reform
Detroit summit: Getting past politics to give Michigan the schools it deserves

They do appoint a State Superintendent, who “runs” the Department of Education. But there’s also a governor and a legislature with power over the purse. There are also at least four legislative committees with appropriation and policy authority.

All this is a perfect recipe for a design that practically guarantees policy and administrative chaos. There is no clear locus of accountability, no place where coherent policy can drive decisions, no place for angry parents to insist on reform and improvement.

But both these design characteristics (flaws) are firmly set in Michigan’s Constitution, changeable only either by ballot or by calling a Constitutional Convention.  I’ve always been leery of a new Con-Con, mostly because I worry about some single-issue crazies messing up what is actually a pretty reasonable document.

But the current policy environment is a mess.  The subject of school improvement is intrinsically complicated, shot through with competing adults who disagree.  The structure of the school system in Michigan is incoherent. That’s one reason why so many people simply throw up their hands when confronted by the problem.

But solving it is so vitally important to our future … and the future of our kids.  Can the job be done by coherent, coordinated legislation? Perhaps … but that would require a sustained, well-financed, public-spirited, powerful citizen-led movement to fix our schools.  Whether that can be created and whether it can flourish is something that ‒ hopefully ‒ will be decided in the election this fall.

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

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Mary Fox
Tue, 03/06/2018 - 10:53am

First, underfunding and the loss of reading recovery programs hurts. Second, the quality of teacher you get depends on funding. You cannot expect people to pay 60000-100000 getting training and then leave them with poverty wages in their beginning years. Lack of health care, pensions, benefits leads the best and brightest to leave the profession. Stop trying to make it a business. It isn't one. Additionally, income insecurity in families and low wages are killing children's lives. They and their families are under stress. When your population is earning 6000 a year less working in Michigan, yet your bills are just as high as the rest of the country, you don't do the things and give you kids the attention and opportunities they need. Poverty matters. Lastly, libraries in schools don't have professional librarians. It's showing. Libraries need pros with the aptitude to match reading material to the programs and supply libraries with a variety of interesting books, programs that promote reading, and opportunities to use the library under the guidance of a pro.

Jim Rudolph
Tue, 03/06/2018 - 1:28pm

In general the members of local elected boards of education are (1) neighbors that are well known to the public and are trusted to make important decisions about the schools and (2) are reasonably knowledgeable about the problems, concerns and successes of the schools. I think that I would be more trusting of a system where these members of local boards of education would elect the state board than the present system, or than one where the governor would appoint the state board.

Dennis M. Haffey
Tue, 03/06/2018 - 4:38pm

Disappointingly, this article fails to deliver on the title’s promise to explain “Why Michigan schools fail” or explain the “clear” solutions that “clearly have overwhelming public approval.” Specifically, this article offers no cause-and-effect relationship between deteriorating school performance and the “two reasons” discussed in the article. Merely to say (1) that local school management has no incentive to candidly disclose decline in school performance and (2) that the byzantine statewide systems conceal “accountability” does not explain “why schools fail.” What is the cause-and-effect link between those two systemic problems and the failure to adopt specific solutions that would have prevented educational decline? Correcting the two systemic “reasons” might allow more efficient and informed decision-making, but the article does not explain what those decisions should be to reverse the educational decline. What are the specific “clear” solutions that “have overwhelming public approval” but were not adopted due to the article’s “two reasons”? Preferably, the public dialogue on this critical issue of school performance should be more solution-focused, and involve more cause-and-effect analysis, rather than merely identify the usual suspects, such as class size, inadequate resources, uneven teacher quality, teacher unions, educational bureaucracy, outmoded teaching methods and focus, charter schools siphoning off motivated students and parents, etc. Those might be valid, but they are not unique to Michigan, and did not alone put Michigan in 50th place.

Tue, 03/06/2018 - 7:35pm

Very good article pointing out the two most important issues surrounding the school mess. As you state in the article, there is enough blame to go around, but ultimately the buck stops with the governor.

This governor had no experience in public service and is a good example of what happens when leaders are self serving instead of serving the people. The mess with the charter schools led by the DeVos family is tragic, and yet because they are such big donors they get their way.

Money, greed, and lack of competence has led to Michigan being at the bottom of all quality of life indicators (education, water, infrastructure and the list goes on.) If I was raising children today I would leave Michigan in a heartbeat.

Wed, 03/07/2018 - 4:39am

This is a societal problem and the schools alone can't fix it. Money won't fix it but it will help. It is like a mechanic who you ask to fix your car but he doesn't have all the tools he needs. Teachers are expected to be miracle workers. Address inclusion,mainstreaming, or what ever term is now used. You can't have 30 plus kids in a classroom and have the teacher address all the students needs. We don't need special education until age 26. R.L.

Jerry Sullivan
Wed, 03/07/2018 - 2:52pm

To fix this problem:
1) Go to county wide school districts, from some 500+ down to 83, one per county.
2) Fund schools by total county population, not per-capita student.
3) Elect school board members for a 5 year term, via direct general election in "off year" elections.
4) Fund "Charter Schools" at 1/2 the reimbursement level of the public schools, as the charter schools do
not usually enroll "special ed" students (academically challanged) and/or "gifted" students.
5) Qualifications to run for school board, i.e. some university education classes, education finance credentials.

Kathi Geukes
Sat, 04/07/2018 - 4:37pm

Amen to this!! With one exception......no money for "charter" schools....if Betsy Wetsy wants them in MI then SHE can subsidize them!!!!!

Leon L. Hulett
Thu, 03/08/2018 - 6:30am

Here are two ways to help communities, schools, teachers, parents and students, "to confront their long-term problem of poor and declining performance."
Either Bridge, or local school newspapers, could publish to their communities annually a chart showing the performance of the school by grade level. The title of the chart might have two lines, one for the name of the school and one that says, "Performance by Grade Level." Along the bottom would be a title, "Grade Level." And spaces near the bottom of each column for the grade levels taught at the school, say K thru 12, or 9 thru 12. On the left would be "Percent of Students at Grade Level."
This one chart then presents the case to each family for them to confront and fully understand the situation.
For Bridge to make up such a chart they would have to have access to NAEP raw data, and the cutoff scores that represent Grade Level requirements in Michigan per the state standards. You obviously do have this NAEP raw data already for Proficiency levels for students at 4th, 8 th and 12 th grades. You could make such a chart with that data.
Back in the 1990's I presented a chart like this to our local School Board and asked them to fill in the information for our local school and publish it to the community. I asked them to do this for the four basic subjects; Reading, Writing, Math and Science. Back then there was a quote from the NAEP people that said, as I recall, "50% of students in America drop out of Math each year, and by graduation, only 5% are at grade level." So I drew in such a line and asked them to draw in their line for comparison. I expected the "drop out rate" to be the same Math, Reading, Writing and Science. Since that time I have started calling this point "the inability to learn."
For sure this would take some confront to do this. Compared to what is being done now, it might be too much too ask. What do you say, Mr. Power? Will you place the Bell on the Cat?
A similar chart could be made up for the State level, and intermediate schools districts.
Parents and children could discuss this chart over dinner. Maybe if we started with the State level chart and then local ones later, that would be less of a shock.

Leon Hulett
Fri, 03/09/2018 - 10:46am

A second suggestion, a matching suggestion, is to provide a clause, add one additional line in each teacher's Contract, something like this, "I promise to teach each student to grade level by the end of the year, or I will provide a Tutor to accomplish this, before the start of the next school year." Now for sure this is a lot for an individual teacher to confront. So let's assume that her Principal has entered into the spirit of this initiative, and he or she, assigns only students that have successfully completed "second grade", to each "third grade" teacher. Now the task assigned by this clause for each teacher is for her or him, to successfully teach a class of students that are ready to learn their next grade level.

Fri, 03/09/2018 - 1:05pm

So regarding your issue with current funding system, your complaint is that funding decreases as students leave a given school? Is you solution that funding stays even though parents being unhappy with results leave having schools being paid for students they aren't educating? Shouldn't educators first and foremost be accountable to the parents of the students they are educating making all these boards of Ed irrelevant or nearly so? I fail to see why a or any board would be more concern with my kid than I am. Maybe the biggest problem is getting the parents to have a realistic idea of what they should expect from educators, their kids and visa versa? Seems that in spite of lip service to the contrary maybe we're expecting our schools to be too many things, and other in ways too few, to too many kids with very different abilities? We're constantly told our European competitors trounce us in academics , what are they doing that we aren't?