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Michigan teachers: Standardized tests are useless and classes are too big

May 30, 2019: Calling Michigan teachers! How would you improve 3rd-grade reading skills?

Michigan’s standardized tests don’t accurately measure student learning, schools aren’t ready for third graders who will flunk because they are poor readers, and there are too many kids stuffed into classrooms.

Oh, and only one in four educators would recommend the profession to others.

That’s according to a survey of more than 16,000 Michigan educators, released today by Launch Michigan, an education reform alliance of business, education, labor, philanthropy and community organization leaders.

The online poll, which included teachers, administrators, support staff and para-professionals, may be the largest ever conducted of Michigan educators.

Related: Michigan Teacher of the Year: Bring teachers into reform talks

It demonstrated that many priorities of front-line teachers differ from the policies pushed by Michigan politicians, but also some areas of agreement with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

(Editor’s note: The Center for Michigan, the parent organization of Bridge Magazine, is a participating organization of Launch Michigan)

For example, the survey found support for expanding high-quality early childhood education and for allocating state funds based on student need – both priorities of the first budget of Whitmer, a Democrat.

About 65 percent of survey respondents said more high-quality early childhood education would make a “large impact.” Whitmer is pushing to increase the family income level to qualify for taxpayer funded pre-K for 4-year olds. Whitmer wants the income cap raised to 300 percent of the federal poverty line, or $77,000 for a family of four.

About 5,000 more 4-year-olds would qualify for the program with the increased income cap, according to the Whitmer administration.

The governor’s budget also moves toward a weighted system of school funding rather than Michigan’s current system that provides schools a flat amount per student. The Whitmer budget proposes an $894 state payment for next school year to schools for each economically disadvantaged student, a 20 percent increase in funding for low-income students.

The survey found that 59 percent of educators considered “allocating funding by student needs” to have a “large impact” on learning.

On other issues, front-line educators are disgruntled.

Just 25 percent of educators (and just 20 percent of teachers) would recommend education as a profession to young people today. Why? Lack of support from politicians and policymakers was cited by 72 percent; lack of respect for the profession, 66 percent; excessive bureaucracy and paperwork, 64 percent; and excessive workload, 64 percent.

“What we saw was folks saying, ‘I love the kids, but this career has gotten harder and harder over time; more workload, more demands, more criticism,’” said Emma White, of Emma White Research, which conducted the survey.

A majority (56 percent) rated Michigan schools in general as fair or poor, but were more positive about their own schools (59 percent good or excellent).

The M-STEP, Michigan’s standardized test, gets a failing grade from educators. Just 21 percent consider the test even “somewhat useful” in measuring learning.

Michigan students score poorly on the state’s standardized test, given to students in multiple grades. The test has been changed several times in the past decade.

Third-graders who are more than a year behind in reading skills face the possibility of being held back in grade beginning this fall. Only one in five educators say their school is substantially prepared to help those children, despite a two-year run-up to implementation of the policy.

The highest priority of educators by a large margin: reducing class size.

The average number of students per Michigan class, according to the survey, is 26. Among respondents, 80 percent said reducing class size would have a big impact on learning. Also, teachers with larger classes were more likely to say they wanted to leave the profession.

Reducing class size isn’t among the highest priorities of the Whitmer administration, which has emphasized early learning and low-income student support and increased college financial aid.

Studies are mixed on the impact of class size on learning. A review of academic research found that class size influences learning. Other studies found class size matters in early grades, but question the cost versus the benefit.

Garnering less support among educators: literacy coaches to help teachers. Whitmer’s education plan would triple the number of literacy coaches, as a way to tackle the reading gap between low-income students and their wealthier classmates.

Just 38 percent of those surveyed said they thought literacy coaches would have a high impact in classrooms.

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