Message sent: Fix schools, send us the bill

Michigan residents want better schools -- and they think the state will have to spend more to get them.

That’s among the findings of the largest effort ever to collect and analyze public opinion on K-12 education in Michigan.

More than 7,500 people voiced their views on the state’s public education system, over the course of 12 months in more than 250 community meetings from Monroe to Marquette and in two scientific polls.

Gathering the opinions of that many people on one issue is a “prodigious survey,” remarked Charles Ballard, a Michigan State University economics professor. Ballard’s State of the State survey polls 1,000 people, “and that’s big,” Ballard said. “A lot of polls have a sample size of 600. Your survey will be an accurate representation of public opinion on these issues.”

The results, reported in “The Public’s Agenda for Public Education,” offer the clearest view yet of what Michigan wants from public education:

Money tied to improvements

* The public views Michigan schools as mediocre at best. Almost three in four Michiganians in community conversations gave the public education system a grade of “C” or lower. Only a quarter of community conversation participants felt Michigan’s K-12 education system offers taxpayers a good return on investment.

“Michigan, on average, is passing just barely,” said a community conversation participant in Ann Arbor in April 2012. “In comparison to other states and other countries, we are not doing very well.”

In fact, the United States ranks in the middle of the pack among nations in literacy, math and science proficiency, and Michigan is in the middle of the pack among states.

* Michiganians like their local public schools more than the schools statewide, a view John Austin, president of the Michigan State Board of Education, interprets as a desire to fix, rather than desert, local schools. “People would rather send their kids to their neighborhood schools,” Austin said, but know many of them “aren’t performing.”

* The public believes more money is necessary to improve school achievement -- if that extra money helps reform the system. Seventy percent of community conversation participants and poll respondents said they think Michigan needs to invest more money to improve student learning. That feeling wasn’t universal. Some felt schools could do more with less. “Students’ test scores are bad, but teacher salaries in Michigan are 12th in the nation,” said one community conversation participant in Auburn Hills. “There is something wrong with that.”

* African-Americans and low-income residents are the harshest critics of Michigan schools. In simplest terms, those most in need of high-quality public education to climb the economic ladder feel the least well-served by the system.

“I think the inner-city schools stink. My first-grader didn’t have any of the opportunities kids in close-by districts have,” said a community conversation participant in Okemos, a Lansing suburb, in April 2012.

* The public wants to help educators improve their teaching. Both community conversation and poll participants expressed overwhelming support for improving teacher preparation before they get their first job, and providing stronger support for educators once they’re in the classroom.

* By large margins, the public believes the state should invest more in early childhood education. Research shows that Michigan’s Great Start Readiness Program boosts student achievement through high school. Gov. Rick Snyder and legislative leaders have expressed support for expanding the program to get more 4-year-olds in classrooms.

* Other legislative efforts are viewed with slightly less enthusiasm by the public. Increasing school choice and expanding online learning, cornerstones of a Snyder-sponsored report on education reform, have the least public support among eight potential education reforms -- though at least half the citizens in CFM polling deemed both items "crucial" or "important."

The results match recent education research, and offer a mandate to legislators weighing education reform in 2013, said Austin of the State Board of Education. “This is one of those incredible convergences where what we know is most effective (in education reform) is also what parents and lay people think it is,” Austin said. “This is one of those parades (that) every legislator should get to the front of.”

Michigan’s rankings less than stellar

To stay competitive with other states, Michigan needs to improve its public education system. Michigan ranks 27th in high school graduation rate and 38th in fourth grade math proficiency. We rank 43rd in student-teacher ratio, but 22nd in per-student spending.

Improving student achievement is seen as vital to Michigan’s economy. “Business leaders put K-12 education at or near the top of their priority list,” said Doug Rothwell, president of Business Leaders for Michigan. “The job opportunities they are creating can only be filled if our people have a great education.  Unfortunately, too many Michiganians aren’t getting the amount or quality of education they need which is holding our economy back from growing as fast as it could.”

Legislators considered several sweeping education reform measures in the lame-duck session in December, and similar measures are likely to be re-introduced in coming months. The Oxford Foundation, at the behest of Gov. Rick Snyder, presented legislators with a far-reaching reform package that included expansion of online learning opportunities and a cafeteria-style approach to school funding, in which state funds would follow students to whatever public schools (and classes) they choose.

The Center for Michigan’s report adds the public’s voice to that debate.

“Public support is critical to reforming education because parents want to know the changes being made are in their kids’ best interests,” said Rothwell.

Public wants to help teachers be better

Better teacher preparation at universities and more support for teachers once they reach the classroom were considered “crucial” or “important” by more than 75 percent of community conversation and poll participants. Both reforms received overwhelming support from every demographic group – rich and poor, white and minority, students and retirees, workers and employers.

Expansion of early childhood education programs was popular among all groups, with highest support among minority and low-income families, employers and workers.

Austin said he was “delighted” with the report’s findings, which reveals the public desire for increasing teacher support and expanding early childhood education.

“It’s a reinforcement of why we should be making those the headlines in any and all education improvement efforts,” he added. “Consistently we know the things that move the needle the most is, first, teacher quality, which far and away has the most profound impact on low-income students; and second is early childhood (education); everything else comes after that.”

The increased school funding supported by the public has an unexpected benefit, explained Amber Arellano, executive director of Education Trust-Midwest, a reform group. “Michiganders are willing to pay more for things that will work,” Arellano said. “We know in terms of effectiveness, it helps students learn more when parents are willing to invest more.”

BLM’s Rothwell views the results differently, noting that most participants felt Michigan taxpayers aren’t getting a good return on their investment.

“The public recognizes that money isn’t necessarily the answer to making our schools better,” Rothwell said. “It doesn’t mean that they and business leaders don’t passionately support public education.  They do.  But, they recognize that we need to spend more money in the classroom and less on overhead, do a better job of preparing people to be teachers and have higher expectations from what we spend.”

State Board of Education member Richard Zeile said the report represents the “conventional wisdom of the education community,” which in Zeile’s opinon addresses the symptoms rather than the root problem.

“The elephant in the room no one wants to acknowledge is family values and family circumstance is the biggest factor in student achievement,” Zeile said. “Efforts to pour money into schools is like saying we have a problem with the brakes, but we can’t do anything about the brakes so we’re going to tinker with the engine.”

Roger Kahn, R-Saginaw Township and chairman of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, was briefed on the highlights of the report last week. Kahn said he will be interested to see how the public priorities for education reform mesh with the priorities now being considered by the Legislature.

Kahn is an outspoken advocate for increased spending on early childhood education, and said the overwhelming public support for the program makes him believe we “need to do it now.”

“I’m optimistic in what your community conversations reflect,” Austin said. Michigan residents “value education; they get that it’s the most important thing we could do.”

*The Center for Michigan is the parent organization of Bridge Magazine. 

Senior Writer Ron French joined Bridge in 2011 after having won more than 40 national and state journalism awards since he joined the Detroit News in 1995. French has a long track record of uncovering emerging issues and changing the public policy debate through his work. In 2006, he foretold the coming crisis in the auto industry in a special report detailing how worker health-care costs threatened to bankrupt General Motors.

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Tue, 01/22/2013 - 11:33am
MORE MONEY to MOTHERS that teach at home. HOMESCHOOLING is the answer.I know of 2 children that are/where homeschool and at the age of 16 entered College..SO quit wasting Taxpayer money ....PAY Mothers..
Tue, 01/22/2013 - 11:39am
There is no "FIX" to the has to be seen and heard exsample. best school in Michigan /INTERNATIONAL ACADEMY in Bloomfield Hills,,, teach all the children "to fish by giving them a POLE"! And learn more then two languages....The World is TOOO Small!
Tue, 01/22/2013 - 11:39am
Shocking that a Center for Michigan education survey would call for more money to be thrown at the same basic system! Also it's not surprising that while you acknowledge the middling results Michigan gets for it's educational efforts reletive to other states and nations, you forget or ignore that we in the US (and Michigan is right in the middle) spend more money on education than almost any OECD nation out there! ( I believe Switzeralnd might beat us?) Just Goggle it and take your pick! This is just another predictable example of how the Center for Michigan is becoming nothing more than an echo chamber for the public employee, left and the educational establishment so entrenched in maintaining their position in the old dubious ed system.
Anna Gregory
Tue, 01/22/2013 - 1:27pm
If Snyder would stop taking taxpayer money to fund all these unlicensed charter schools, we would be good. As he takes monies away from our children to fund these charters, our children are getting the short end of the stick while charters are making money hand over fist! Remember: charter schools charge tuition! So, why? is our tax money going to them? Keep our money out of charters Snyder!
Jeffrey L Salisbury
Thu, 01/24/2013 - 8:19am
7,500 Michigan residents named --- 1. teacher training, mentoring and evaluation (Other than citing the need for a college degree, the average resident could not describe one specific component of teacher training, mentoring, or evaluation) 2. stricter teacher certification standards (I dare any average resident to cite one current certification standard) 3. expanding access to early-childhood education (Of course they do. Parents always want more free services--this is an expansion of child care during working hours)
Thu, 01/24/2013 - 4:37pm
Michigan residents may value education, but it's also clear that many don't think they are getting good value from the system as it operates today. Too many of the teachers in our schools have inadequate knowledge of either content or teaching techniques. Too many teachers hide behind the belief expressed by the state school board member who said "family values and family circumstance is the biggest factor in student achievement". Charter school after charter school after private (mostly religious) schools have succeeded with students from poor families, with parents who may be un-educated but care about the future of their kids. Our school system(s) can not and will not be improved by simply throwing more money at them. We need to re-think both what lessons are taught and how that content is delivered. Time on task matters to learning, but time in school has become less task oriented than ever before due to school-wide fund raisers, shortened school days for testing (both teacher-created and standardized), and assemblies to deliver anti-drug, anti-bullying, multi-cultural, pro-millage and other propaganda for the education establishment. Many students are not well served by having all subjects taught at the same grade level without regard to their actual knowledge or understanding of material "taught" earlier. Our school districts are terrified of relatively pure parental choice, such as the "Any place, any time, any level" initiative introduced by Governor Snyder. If that initiative could include some private specialist education providers, such as Speech and Language Pathologists, ABA therapists, martial arts, music, and art instructors, licensed OT and PT practioners, many parents could do a much better job of matching an educational program to their students' needs, even for special education students. We should give home-schooling parents and parents who need therapists and tutors some reimbursement or tax credits for the time and money they spend directly on their students' education.
Hedlun Walton
Sun, 01/27/2013 - 8:09am
The most important point of the article: “The elephant in the room no one wants to acknowledge is family values and family circumstance is the biggest factor in student achievement,” Zeile said. “Efforts to pour money into schools is like saying we have a problem with the brakes, but we can’t do anything about the brakes so we’re going to tinker with the engine.” This deserves more attention. Thank you, Mr. Zeile for making it part of the conversation.
Chuck Jordan
Sun, 01/27/2013 - 11:23am
A lot of cognitive dissonance here. Education reform requires working together and focus on neighborhood schools working with charter schools as they were first intended. The so-called education reformers are dividing and breaking down the public schools with competition. More money may be needed, but first we have to find the programs that work and throwing more money into testing that further divides us is silly.
Richard Cole
Sun, 01/27/2013 - 12:16pm
There seems to be so much despair and helplessness reflected within these comments and throughout the conversations conducted by the Center. A sense of helplessness breeds anxiety that often results in striking out against the very institutions most capable of empowering us. We need to begin to focus more on positive images, and demonstrating that we are not helpless, and proving how much well resourced schools can do for all of us. If you have not yet seen the documentary BROOKLYN CASTLES, I recommend that you do so as soon as you can. You are guaranteed to leave the theater with greater hope than that with which you entered. Brooklyn Castle tells the story of how chess transformed all aspects one of the most poverty-stricken middle schools in New York City. It's just one example of how great administrators, teachers, parents and kids can teach lessons that go beyond the classrooms and into our hearts and