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A Betsy DeVos cheat sheet for next ‘60 Minutes’ interview on Michigan schools

In a “60 Minutes” interview Sunday, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos seemed uncertain how public schools in her home state of Michigan are faring.

The long-time Republican donor and education reform advocate from Grand Rapids, who for decades has pushed for increased school choice and charter schools in Michigan, told “60 Minutes” correspondent Lesley Stahl that “I don’t know” if Michigan’s public schools are improving.

“Overall, … I can’t say overall that they have all gotten better,” DeVos said.

Bridge Magazine knows. We’ve been covering the downward slide of the state’s public school system for years. In fact, we’ve compiled the most important K-12 education metrics into a quickie issue guide: Michigan's K-12 performance dropping at alarming rate.

May 2019: Betsy DeVos: Michigan doesn’t have enough school choice

How are Michigan schools doing? The answer is as clear as it is sobering:

  • 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, known as the Nation’s Report Card, offer the most reliable, cross-state comparisons of academic achievement.
  • In fact, over those 12 years, Michigan’s scores declined, according to the analysis by Brian Jacob, a University of Michigan professor of economics and education.
  • On the most recent NAEPs, from 2015, Michigan fourth-graders tied for 43rd in the nation in reading and 42nd in math; eighth-graders fared better – 39th in math and 20th in reading. Michigan was above the national average in all of those categories in 2000.
  • On the most recent state standardized test, the M-STEP, only 22 percent of seventh-graders were deemed proficient in science, 21 percent of fifth-graders were proficient in social studies, and 15 percent of fourth-graders were proficient in science.
  • In Detroit Public Schools, less than 2 percent of fourth-graders were proficient in science. A few miles to the north, in West Bloomfield, one of the wealthiest, highest-achieving districts in the state, just over half of third-graders were proficient in English language arts.
  • Michigan spent nearly $80 million over the past three years to improve third-grade reading scores, yet scores went down.
  • An analysis by Education Trust-Midwest, a Michigan-based education policy and advocacy organization, found that over the past three years, Michigan’s third-grade reading scores dropped the most among 11 states that give similar tests to students.


DeVos told “60 Minutes” that states with a greater school of choice options for families showed academic improvement.

“Well, in places where...there is a lot of choice that’s been introduced, Florida for example, the studies show that when there’s a large number of students that opt to go to a different school or different schools, the traditional public schools actually – the results get better, as well.”

Related: Watch the entire '60 Minutes' interview with Betsy DeVos

Michigan also has a high level of school of choice and charter schools, but school tests scores are not improving like they are in Florida, a point indicated by Stahl.

A study conducted by researchers at Michigan State University found that students who moved to another school district through schools of choice policies didn’t improve test scores. There may be other benefits for students taking advantage of school of choice policies, such as perceived safety or social issues, but improved learning isn’t necessarily one of them.

“It’s hard for me to get mad at anyone who’s in the game to try to make the lives of children better, compared to people who sit on the sidelines and point fingers, even if we disagree,” said Michigan School Superintendent Brian Whiston told Bridge in December 2016. “I support choice and charters, but that’s been the philosophy for 20, 25 years, and it hasn’t improved education.”

Related: Betsy DeVos’ Michigan Legacy

“The whole state is not doing well,” Stahl said to DeVos about Michigan in the “60 Minutes” interview.

“Well, there are certainly pockets where this – the students are doing well,” DeVos said.

Not if third-grade reading is a marker of academic success.

Third-grade reading proficiency as measured by the state’s standardized test, the M-STEP, is trending downward in rich and poor school districts, and among every student demographic:  

  • White students: 58 percent proficient in 2014-15 to 52 percent last year.
  • Black students: 23 percent to 19 percent.
  • Hispanic students: 37 percent to 32 percent.
  • Economically disadvantaged: 35 percent to 29 percent.
  • Non-economically disadvantaged: 66 percent to 60 percent.

“Michigan schools need to do better,” DeVos told Stahl. “There is no doubt.”

A recent Bridge analysis of a Stanford University study found dozens of Michigan school districts where students gained less than five years of academic growth in the five years between third grade and eighth grade. In some districts, students were in effect falling more than a year behind their peers in neighboring districts.

Related: See how your district compares in academic growth.

“Have you seen the really bad schools?” Stahl asked DeVos on Sunday. “Maybe try to figure out what they’re doing?”

“I have not – I have not –I have not intentionally visited schools that are underperforming,” DeVos answered.

“Maybe you should,” Stahl said.

“Maybe I should,” DeVos said.

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