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Many Michigan K-12 reform ideas are jumbled, broad, or wildly expensive

Some 1.5 million students attend some 3,000 public schools in Michigan. As academic performance has lagged, competing school reform proposals have sprouted like Michigan summer corn.

At the K–12 level, Michigan leaders have long debated rigorous standards, reconfigured state achievement tests in controversial ways, and worked on accountability measures like teacher tenure reform, teacher evaluation systems, and third-grade reading proficiency. In higher education, the new Michigan Transfer Network aims to make it easier to transfer credits between colleges and help students move toward graduation.

Those steps are just the start. Stakeholders on almost all sides consider education reform unfinished business – and a topic of high public and political interest in the 2018 statewide elections.

Related: Michigan is failing its students, as state test scores keep tanking
Database: Check out your Michigan school and district M-STEP scores
Related: M-STEP results trouble for most struggling schools in Detroit, statewide

Reform Ideas Everywhere. Which, if any, Will Take Hold?

In 2016, State Schools Superintendent Brian Whiston released A Michigan Department of Education Strategic Plan calling for deeper student learning, more individualized learning, deeper professional development support for educators, and other things.

K-12 policy in Michigan is a jumble including a state superintendent and state board of education aimed at setting broad policy, and a governor and legislature with full control of the purse strings and lawmaking ability.

Related education coverage from our 2018 Michigan Issue Guide

A year after Whiston launched his strategic plan, Gov. Rick Snyder’s bipartisan 21st Century Education Commission issued its recommendations – including the idea of getting rid of the elected state board of education. The Snyder education commission, comprised of business and education experts, called for dozens of reforms, including better teacher preparation, efficiencies in school operations, school consolidations, higher school funding for poor communities, and universal access to both preschool and community college. The total cost of the recommendations: upwards of $2 billion more per year.

Neither the Whiston strategy nor the Snyder commission strategy were implemented as of early 2018.

Making Michigan a Top 10 State

Education Trust-Midwest, an education data tracking and reform group, also has a strategy called “Michigan Achieves.” It calls for making Michigan a Top 10 education state by 2030. How? Equitable funding across school districts… Thorough and transparent tracking of student outcomes… Ensuring low-income students have access to high-quality teachers… Training teachers in all grades on college- and career-ready standards… Ensuring equitable discipline policies… And examining the role, functions and effectiveness of the Michigan Department of Education.

Reporting & Transparency Changes

Each state, by law, submitted plans in 2017 for meeting federal standards under the high-stakes education law called the “Every Student Succeeds Act,” which in 2015 replaced the former No Child Left Behind law. States that fail to meet standards could see their federal funding cut. The plans must show how states will make improvements in areas from teacher training to educating at-risk and special needs children.

Michigan’s plan promises to reform the accountability system for rating schools and holding educators responsible for outcomes. The state will institute a data dashboard to show how each public school performs on a list of indicators. The state is getting rid of a past top to bottom ranking of schools. Instead, Michigan will use a 100-point system to identify the lowest 5 percent of poor-performing schools.


The state’s largest school system happens to be the worst-performing urban district in term of scores on the National Assessment of Educational Performance, also called the Nation’s Report Card.

The Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren, comprised of foundation, business, teacher union, community and parent leaders was influential in creating the 2016 law that reformed the governance of the Detroit Public Schools, paying off $500 million in debt and restoring an empowered, elected board. The Coalition’s next reform recommendations: reduce chronic absenteeism… improve third-grade proficiency… provide more vocational and career training… fully fund special education programs.

How Much Does It Cost to Educate a Child?

School funding debates are a constant across the state – from local school board meetings to the State Capitol. In 2018, a new “adequacy study” aims to clearly define how much it costs to educate students and propose new models for school funding in Michigan. The work of the School Finance Research Collaborative may further substantively frame school reform debate during the 2018 statewide election campaign – and in the State Capitol thereafter.


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