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Michigan's K-12 performance dropping at alarming rate

If K-12 achievement in Michigan were a trendline, it is clearly pointing the wrong direction. By just about any measuring stick, the state is losing the race to educational excellence.

The 2017 report from the Gov. Rick Snyder’s 21st Century Education Commission put it this way: “The urgency could not be greater. While it is difficult to face, the data are clear: Michigan children are falling behind.”

April 2018 update: On nation’s report card, Michigan students remain in back of class 
Opinion: Michigan schools’ tests scores aren’t as bad as you think
Related: Detroit is ranked worst on the national exam. Again. Can schools improve?​

A Slide Across the Board

Contrary to some misperceptions, Michigan’s K-12 achievement gap spans racial economic and racial spectrums. It's not just poor and minority students who are failing to learn.

“White, black, brown, higher-income, low-income – it doesn’t matter who they are or where they live, Michigan students’ achievement levels in early reading and middle-school math are not keeping up with the rest of the U.S. and world,” stated the Education Trust-Midwest, a Michigan education data-tracking and reform group.

More Michigan education stories:

In 2003, Michigan’s white higher-income students ranked 17th in the nation in fourth grade reading. By 2014, they ranked 45th. By 2015, they ranked 50th. Overall, Michigan fourth grade students dropped from 28th in reading in 2003 to 38th in 2013 and 41st in 2015.

Michigan is one of only five states that declined in actual performance in reading since 2003. Experts agree that early reading is critical to success later in life, as reading proficiency is tied to overall academic and vocational achievement. Conversely, early illiteracy is linked to higher dropout rates and a greater probability of incarceration.

Similar problems persist in eighth grade math performance.  Michigan’s nationwide rank fell from 34th in 2003 to 38th in 2015. Higher-income eighth graders dropped from 34th in 2003 in math to 41st in 2015.

Last in Reading

Michigan’s minority students continue to face a considerable K-12 achievement gap. Just 9 percent of black students were proficient in fourth grade reading in 2015, compared to 32 percent of white students. Michigan’s African-American fourth graders rank last in the nation in reading. Michigan’s low-income eighth graders rank 46th in math.

    College Remedial Work

    K-12 achievement deficits show up in costly ways down the road. High school grads who enroll in college without basic skills proficiency must take remedial coursework – at a cost to students, schools, and taxpayers of up more than $100 million per year.

    Twenty-seven percent of Michigan college students take at least one remedial college class. That’s projected to reach more than 50 percent by 2030 without education reforms. Remediation rates for African-American students already exceed 50 percent, reflecting a steady upward climb since 2010.

    Related education coverage from our 2018 Michigan Issue Guide

    Falling Behind Other States

    For global perspective, Michigan could look to Massachusetts, which ranks just behind high-achieving nations like Japan and Singapore in eighth grade math. Michigan eighth graders trail even eighth graders in Slovenia and Lithuania in math.

    Michigan could also look to Tennessee – a state with comparable demographics.

    Tennessee fourth grade African-American students gained 11 percentage points in reading from 2003 to 2015. Massachusetts fourth grade African-Americans gained 10 points. Across the nation, the gain was 9 points. In Michigan, it was just 4 points.

    Tennessee was far behind Michigan in math for all fourth graders in 2003, but by 2013 it had raced past Michigan, ranking 37th to Michigan's 42nd. It led the nation in highest improvement in several key subjects.

    Analysis by Education Trust-Midwest attributed much of its progress to a statewide teacher evaluation system, major investment in a statewide performance data collection system and a rigorous program of teacher training.

    Recent Michigan Reforms

    In some respects, Michigan’s elected leaders have, in recent years, attempted to take the long view in addressing education performance. They approved the nation’s largest expansion of public preschool, enrolling thousands of additional four year olds to get a jumpstart on learning. They also approved a law requiring students to proficient readers before earning advancement to fourth grade.

    Focus: Children? Or Adults?

    Michigan’s recent trend of K-12 investment is near rock bottom nationally – down 7 percent between 2005 and 2014 when, nationally, it rose 3.6 percent. With fewer Michigan college students pursuing teaching, recruiting and retaining high-quality teachers is a future concern. Teacher pay in Michigan is 11th highest in the nation. But the state’s student-teacher ratios are eighth-worst in the country – meaning students in other states may get somewhat more individual time and attention from teachers.

    Much education policy attention in Michigan centers on adults rather than students… School finance debatesTeacher evaluation debatesTeacher pension debates.

    “Years of debate over funding, performance, equity, accountability and competition has resulted in significant mutual distrust,” Karen McPhee, a veteran school administrator and the governor’s former senior education adviser wrote in Bridge Magazine in 2017. “Labor vs. management. Republican vs. Democrat. Educator vs. legislator. Traditional vs. charter. Business vs. education. There is no end to the arguments that divide us as we seek to convince others of what’s really happening in our schools. Sometimes our 1.5 million students are barely mentioned in these sparring matches.”


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