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.”
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.
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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
- Many Michigan K-12 reform ideas are jumbled, broad, or wildly expensive
- Michigan preschool funding has improved, but child care still unaffordable
- College funding cuts in Michigan have led to fewer students, greater debt
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.
“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.”
KEEP DIGGING: MORE INFORMATION ON K-12 PERFORMANCE
- 21st Century Education Commission: “The Best Education System for Michigan’s Success”
- Education Trust-Midwest: “Michigan Achieves! Becoming a Top-Ten Education State”
Explore the Facts & Issues Guide:
At A Glance
Education & Talent
- K-12 Student Performance: Michigan's K-12 performance dropping at alarming rate
- School Reform: Many Michigan K-12 reform ideas are jumbled, broad, or wildly expensive
- Early Childhood: Michigan preschool funding has improved, but child care still unaffordable
- Higher Ed: College funding cuts in Michigan have led to fewer students, greater debt
Economy & Prosperity
- Economy: Michigan business climate improves, but educated workforce is shrinking
- Jobs & Labor: Demand for Michigan workers is very high, but many have given up looking
- Incomes: Michigan income growth hindered by lack of college graduates
- Business: Business incentives cost Michigan millions, and it’s uncertain they work
Quality of Life
- Public Health: Michigan's adverse health trends track along racal, poverty lines
- Health Care: Health care in rural Michigan communities suffering, despite Obamacare
- Safety Net: $1B of Michigan’s welfare money goes to college students who aren’t poor
- Water Issues: Michigan's Great Lakes are good, but water concerns include lead and Line 5
- Lands & Energy: Michigan battling 22 invasive forest species, high electric bills
- Michigan Tourism: Does state make $8.33 for every $1 spent on Pure Michigan campaign?
- Infrastructure: Michigan needs $4B more per year for infrastructure, but how to pay for it?
- Cities: In Michigan, more than 150 communities are financially distressed
- Rural Michigan: Limited Internet in rural Michigan depresses student, business opportunity
- Public Safety: Michigan pays 18% less per citizen than nat'l average for public safety
Government & Reform
- Michigan Taxes: Michigan gives more tax breaks than it collects for schools, government
- State Spending: Big government? Michigan's state, local workforce 2nd smallest in nation
- Ballot Issues: 2018 Michigan ballot initiatives may decide marijuana, gerrymandering
- Gov't Reform: Despite low trust of gov't, Michigan legislators have done little to change