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Smartest kids: What Michigan schools can learn from leading states

Editor’s note: Bridge visited four states for this series, “The smartest kids in the nation,” chronicling how four high-performing or fast-improving states are making gains in education while Michigan remains muddled in mediocrity. After profiling Tennessee, Minnesota, Florida and Massachusetts, today we review the reforms that helped improve student achievement in those states, and ask whether these policies would work here in Michigan.

Michigan has a lot to learn about student learning.

Once an education leader, Michigan is now in the bottom tier of states in academic achievement. While Michigan’s public education system is spinning its wheels, other states have raced past us. Massachusetts, has the top public education system in the nation, according the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), known as the Nation’s Report Card. NAEP is a standardized test given to a random selection of students in every state.

Minnesota is a Midwestern state like Michigan, but its students lead the nation in math.

Tennessee and Florida both were education laggards a decade ago, but have since shown dramatic gains in student achievement that Michigan should envy.

What do they know do that Michigan doesn’t?

A lot, as it turns out.

Bridge spent time in schools in those four states, searching for reasons why learning in their classrooms is increasing on national exams, while Michigan students are falling further behind their peers in nearly every demographic.

The answers are not simple and don’t fit into any one political camp. Some successful states spend more on education than Michigan, and some spend less. Some have large, free-wheeling charter movements, and some hold tight reins over a handful of charter schools.

All, though, have written their success stories around common themes – themes that could be copied here, with enough public support and political will.

Clear, tough standards

One of the key commonalities in these four successful states: Clear, tough academic standards.

Minnesota adopted the Common Core standards for English, but kept the state’s own standards for math, because Minnesota’s standards were even higher.

“What we have are firm standards and clarity of standards,” said Dan Hoverman, superintendent of Mounds View School District near St. Paul. “Whether you agree or disagree, it’s there. What that’s done is given a clear direction.”

In Tennessee, every teacher is expected to use the same Common Core standards, and every teacher is assessed using the same rubric and tests. That clarity of expectations benefits teachers and students over the long run, Tennessee education experts say.

Michigan has also adopted Common Core education standards. But Michigan has never provided a statewide training program for teachers in the new standards. “Local districts and (intermediate school districts) have been left to figure out ‒ or not ‒ this training on their own,” said Amber Arellano, executive director of Education Trust-Midwest. “This has led to inconsistent access to quality training and support ‒ and often, no training at all.”

Teacher, teach thyself

A lack of investment in comprehensive teacher training in Michigan is a big difference between education here, and education in fast-improving states.

Florida, for example, has invested heavily in teacher training, particularly in the state’s chosen priority area, early reading skills.

“When teachers receive instruction on how to use aligned material, great things happen,” said Stuart Greenberg, director of student accountability for Leon County Schools in Tallahassee.

“You don’t go to a heart surgeon who doesn’t have training in the tools he’s using. You’ve got to have a plan.”

Tennessee has trained more than 70,000 teachers in Common Core.

John Austin, president of the state board of education, said Michigan needs to invest in the reforms that state leaders say they want in Michigan, and that are working in other states. The state board is pushing for a study that will help the legislature determine what level of funding is needed to meet on a funding system that provides resources based on students' needs. But Austin, a Democrat, has little faith in - and harsh words for - the state's Republican-dominated political landscape. Partisan disagreements in recent years over charter schools and education funding have dismantled reform efforts that started under Engler, he said.

“Unlike Massachusetts and successful states, we did not put serious resources to support implementing high standards,” Austin said. ‘We have demanded reforms, but done nothing to support their implementation.”

“The bipartisan reform agenda [sic] has broken down and been compromised in the last 3-4 years,” according to Austin. “So we are dropping in our test scores and performance relative to other states.”

“To do better we - political and business leadership – need to be willing to stick to an effective education reform agenda; willing to invest meaningfully in its implementation, not just demand reforms; and reject totally the...'marketplace' model for education which is driving us off an educational cliff.”

Getting the biggest bang for your school buck

In high-achieving states, increased learning isn’t always a matter of increased spending – but it is a matter of spending what it takes on priorities.

For example, Minnesota spends about the same amount per pupil as Michigan, but routes more of its funding to low-income schools. Florida spends less than Michigan, but provides more money to schools with low test scores than schools with high test scores, so those schools can hire additional staff.

Massachusetts has a complex school funding formula using 19 factors – ranging from a city’s tax base to its number of low-income students – to determine how much money a district should get. The result: some students get more funding than others according to their needs.

David Arsen, a researcher at the Education Policy Center at Michigan State University, said he believes one reason Michigan lags behind states like Massachusetts in closing the achievement gap because it hasn’t addressed the different funding needs between schools in, for example, low-income Flint and high-income Novi.

“It’s not rocket science,” Arsen said. “The recognition of cost differences as a critical dimension of equity has been one of the dominant themes in school finance both in research and litigation for the last 15 years,” Arsen said. “It’s like this whole thing just passed Michigan by. Why hasn’t this been part of the conversation in Michigan? I can’t answer that.”

Michigan has adopted some of the same education reforms as successful states, but hasn’t followed through with funding of those priorities. The state, for instance, is one of more than 40 states to adopt Common Core, but teachers complain there is not enough funding or training for teachers to learn and be able to teach the new standards. In Tennessee, by contrast, more than 70,000 teachers have received state training in Common Core instruction in recent years. Those teachers then became instructional leaders in their own schools.

Michigan also adopted a tough new teacher evaluation system in which teachers are being told they will be held accountable for student growth, and in which teachers will receive more thorough classroom observations than in the past. But state political leaders have yet to provide schools with a uniform statewide system for evaluating teachers, so there is still no way for parents to know how teachers in their community compare with those in other areas across Michigan. The state hasn’t provided funding for training for either beyond a pilot program.

Michigan also lacks a funding formula that doesn’t take into account poverty or test scores (though about 50 mostly wealthy “hold harmless” districts receive additional funding in Michigan).

The bottom line: Michigan may or may not need to spend more, but it certainly must spend smarter.

“You have to have these two conversations together – just as Massachusetts did,” said Arsen. “A funding conversation without a vision for high standards and what the system is supposed to accomplish is an invitation to spending money in ways that aren’t effective. On the other hand, a conversation about high expectations without the resources to back it up is an exercise in magical thinking.”

Arguing too much, and about the wrong things

Even in leading states, reform hasn’t come easy. Yet in places as different as Massachusetts and Tennessee, business, education and political leaders have come together to agree on a coherent vision for improving schools, then stuck with the plan when students struggled to meet higher expectations. In Massachusetts, education reform has survived Republican and Democrat governors, as leaders ignored initial outcries about low test scores. Instead of making the test easier, they made it a requirement for graduation. In Tennessee, reform has weathered Democrat and Republican administrations, and Florida stuck by its regimen of intense testing and third-grade “read or be retained” standards despite withering protests.

Those states eventually saw educational improvements by taking the long view, rather than focusing on political expediency.

“The way this stuff gets done is two or three or four or five governors in a row keep plugging away at stuff,” former Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen told The Commercial Appeal newspaper in Memphis.

That hasn’t happened yet in Michigan, where education reform vision often dissolves into political polarization, from fights over charter school authorization to name-calling about teacher unions.

“What worries me about what I read is going on in Michigan is that (education reform) strategies have become tools of political battle rather than instruments for improvement,” said Paul Reville, a former Secretary of Education in Massachusetts who now teaches at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Don Wotruba, director of government relations for the Michigan Association of School Boards, said Michigan lacks leadership when it comes to fixing schools.

“I would say there is no attempt to create a plan between the policy makers in Lansing and the school people who carry out changes,” Wotruba said. “So what we have is new legislation or edicts handed down on how schools should do things and often with conflicting directions.

“Some real discussion on what is mutually agreeable and some time to actually implement would really help our schools, Wotruba said, “but few in Lansing have the patience to allow reforms to happen.”

Many options

Things are far from perfect in the states Bridge visited. Minnesota is still battling a large achievement gap between white and African-American students. There’s a growing backlash against high-stakes testing in Florida. Teachers in Tennessee say the state embraces education reform but disrespects teachers (One teacher who wrote Bridge is earning $33,000 a year after five years on the job).

Whatever their imperfections, kids in Massachusetts and Minnesota are eating our students’ lunch in academic performance; and students in Tennessee and Florida are climbing national rankings while our students can only watch as other states pass them by.

“The question is whether or not what you’re doing has worked over the past 10 years,”said Robin Lake, executive director of the University of Washington’s Center on Reinventing Public Education, referring to Michigan. “If not, maybe it’s time to look at some outside ideas.”

Experts at CRPE and the Fordham Foundation, based in Washington, DC, wrote eight guiding principles for school accountability in an open letter to state superintendents and governors.

Taking note that not every reform works for every state, the researchers concluded that effective states use strict accountability to enforce their rigorous standards. For instance, Lake said, Tennessee, Florida and Massachusetts set consistent expectations that were eventually attached to well-defined consequences for teachers (through evaluations) and students (through the graduation exam in Massachusetts).

“If schools don’t meet the standard something happens. That’s very simplistic,” Lake said.

“Their accountability systems really set incentives and consequences to help reinforce those standards and create a safety net for kids where the schools are failing them. All of these are ways to identify quickly what’s not working and take steps to address it.”

Lake added that of all the reform strategies, providing adequate support for teachers and principals was probably the most overlooked.

Wendy Zdeb-Roper, executive director of the Michigan Association of Secondary School Principals, disagrees strongly with the use of the NAEP test as the sole measure of Michigan’s schools. Michigan has a higher average ACT score (20.1) than Tennessee (19.8), a state that is out-pacing Michigan on some NAEP subjects, she points out. (Florida students’ average ACT is 19.6; Minnesota, 23.0; Massachusetts, 24.1)

“Why do we always focus on the negatives and not the positives?” she said. “Tennessee can stand to copy us on the high school level.”

Still, Zdeb-Roper thinks Michigan should take some direction from others states that do a better job interpreting and managing student test scores. It’s time for Michigan to invest in a data management system that tracks individual student progress, not just one that looks at whether a child is proficient, Zdeb-Roper said. For example, schools in Massachusetts are ranked according to individual student progress on the state tests, called student growth percentiles. Educators in several states Bridge visited touted student testing data that teachers could quickly access throughout the school year to see which students were struggling with particular lessons and adjust their teaching accordingly.

“Our assessment system is not balanced,” Zdeb-Roper said. “If this has already gotten off the ground in other states, we can do it here. It seems like the blueprint to do this properly is already out there.”

Michigan education leaders have no shortage of ideas on how to improve student learning. Gary Naeyaert, executive director of the Great Lakes Education Project, pitches a third-grade retention policy similar to that used in Florida. That policy would retain kids in third grade if they are not at least “partially proficient” in a reading assessment, and would include intervention and mentoring for students who are struggling.

Eileen Wiser, a Republican member of the State Board of Education, suggests numerous reforms in a guest column in Bridge, including tougher certification requirements for aspiring teachers.

“It’s a myth that state and local political and education leaders can do little to raise student learning,” writes Amber Arellano for the Education Trust-Midwest. “Leading states prove this over and over again.”

What needs to happen?

Looking at high-achieving and fast-rising academic states, it’s clear there is no one magic bullet. Minnesota puts efforts in early childhood education and toughest-in-the-nation math standards; Tennessee counts on tough teacher accountability; Florida focuses on early grade reading skills. Massachusetts on rigorous standards and a high school exit exam that all students must pass.

But all these states started near or below where Michigan is now. Then, a group in each of these states looked hard at what their schools were producing and decided that wasn’t good enough. Each took a long, hard look in the mirror and decided changes needed to be made. And, usually, that change started outside the education community.

In Florida and Massachusetts, business leaders rallied around education improvement as key for economic improvement. Influential education advocacy groups in Tennessee (SCORE, founded by former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist) and Florida (Excellence in Education, founded by former Gov. Jeb Bush), built coalitions that supported reforms.

“Don’t assume that government or education or any single partner can get this work done alone,” advised Jamie Woodson, executive director of SCORE in Tennessee. “You’ve got to put your partners at the table and hold each other accountable.”

One of those partners needs to be a governor or powerful legislator willing to take the heat for some tough choices. “You have to have key leaders and political will,” said Florida Republican State Senator John Legg. “If you’re going to make significant changes in education, you need a strong governor willing to put his political capital on the line. The economic future of our state relies on it.”

The potential exists in Michigan to build consensus for education reform. Both Gov. Rick Snyder and Democratic challenger Mark Schauer say education is key to the state’s economic recovery. And a large, diverse coalition of business leaders has already shown their coalition-building skills when they helped push an increase in funding for the state’s preschool program for low- and moderate-income families, the Great Start Readiness Program.

Could a coalition build in Michigan around other reforms, as it has in other states? Can Republicans and teachers, Democrats and corporate leaders, put aside generations of political mistrust and turf protection to reach consensus? And just as critical, will they have each other’s backs when the inevitable backlash hits? It may depend on whether Michigan is ready to look in the mirror.

“I don’t think tinkering with the edges will get you the gains you’re seeing in Tennessee,” Woodson, of SCORE, told Bridge. “Go big or go home.”

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