State Superintendent Mike Flanagan has concluded that Michigan is “10 years behind” states with high-achieving schools.
In a blunt, at times stunningly self-critical review of his performance as schools chief, Flanagan told Bridge that his office was “perplexed” by Michigan’s poor performance on national tests, too slow to question the performance of charter schools and “frustrated” with the legislature. He said he wondered, after nine years as superintendent, whether he’d overstayed his welcome and reduced his influence with political leaders.
“I’m the longest-serving state superintendent in the country,” said Flanagan, who took office in 2005. “I think the sweet spot is about six years. After that, it’s like a president after six years ‒ everyone hates you.”
On Michigan’s tepid performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which tests students in 4th and 8th-grade math and reading, Flanagan said, “It’s a mystery to me.”
“You can’t deny it,” he said of the scores, which now place Michigan among the lowest-ranking states nationally. But, he said, “I think that’s going to take care of itself” over time.
Flanagan’s office contacted Bridge last week to make Flanagan available to talk about his office’s success over the past decade. The call was in response to a recent Bridge series that chronicled education reforms taking place in states that have reached higher or grown faster than Michigan in student achievement.
For the series “The Smartest Kids in the Nation,” Bridge visited Massachusetts and Minnesota, considered national leaders in student learning, and Florida and Tennessee, two states that had lower test scores than Michigan a decade ago, but have since seen student learning skyrocket. Michigan, where NAEP test scores have flattened, now ranks among the bottom tier of states for student learning, both among low-income students and students of color, and among higher-income and white students.
Defending his record
In a phone interview, Flanagan talked with pride about the state’s 2006 passage of the Michigan Merit Curriculum, which raised high school graduation requirements for all Michigan students and which Flanagan credits with increasing state scores on the ACT, which is taken by high school students.
But Flanagan was by turns reflective and self-reproaching when discussion turned to the state’s lack of progress in raising student achievement on the NAEP, while other states are receiving accolades for bold education reforms.
“The series itself helped me quantify what we’re doing here,” Flanagan said. “We are clearly a decade or so behind Massachusetts and some of the other places.” Even so, Flanagan added, “the plan (for Michigan education reform) is largely in place.”
Flanagan said he sees promise in two areas: rising third-grade reading scores on the test given in Michigan known as the MEAP, which the state is phasing out; and steady progress on the ACT.
“Our third-grade reading scores are going up, and our ACT scores were up 10 percent this year,” Flanagan said.
On reading, Flanagan was likely referring to state MEAP reading tests that were actually given to 4th-grade students in the early fall of the 2013-14 school year, which tested what students learned in third grade. That year, 70 percent of students were rated proficient or higher in reading, compared with 63.5 percent reaching proficiency the previous year.
The percentage of Michigan students considered “college ready” on the ACT increased from 17.3 percent of those taking the ACT in 2011 to 20.0 percent in 2014. (That’s still well below rates nationally, where 26 percent of students were considered college ready in 2014.)
“It takes patience,” Flanagan said. “It’s not magic.”
Baffled by scores
What about other states that have captured some magic and experienced rapid improvements, some over the course of just a few years?
Flanagan said his department has no empirical insight into why students in Michigan are lagging behind much of the nation on fourth and eighth-grade reading and math. Flanagan said he is skeptical of states like Tennessee and Florida that have witnessed stunning improvements in NAEP scores.
“I’m suspect of some states that made overnight gains,” Flanagan said. “We don’t teach to the NAEP. Maybe other states do? That’s one theory in-house (in the Michigan Department of Education). I could write it off as our kids blowing off the test...but they probably blow off the test in other states, too. I don’t know if they’re giving them donuts or what. It’s perplexing. I don’t fully understand it.”
Flanagan also acknowledged that Michigan’s plans don’t yet include some key elements of successful reform in other states, highlighted in the Bridge series. In Massachusetts, Tennessee and Florida, for instance, state government has invested heavily in teacher training. In Tennessee, more than 70,000 teachers have been trained in how to effectively teach to the Common Core State Standards through state-sponsored programs. In Michigan, which has also adopted Common Core, the number of teachers trained through state-sponsored programs is zero.
“The teacher P.D. (professional development) thing, we’ve got to catch up,” Flanagan said. “That’s an area we’re weak on. The locals and the ISD’s are struggling,” he said, referring to local and intermediate school districts in Michigan. “I’m never been one for (requesting) money for money’s sake, (but) in the case of teacher training, that needs to be a state allocation of money at some point.”
Slow to check charters
Flanagan also said his department should have done more to monitor low-performing charter schools in Michigan, instead of reacting only after a lengthy investigation of charter school practices was published last summer by the Detroit Free Press.
As Bridge noted in the Smartest Kids series, state officials in Massachusetts keep a tight rein on charter schools, which they say explains why Massachusetts charter students, on average, outperform students in traditional public schools on standardized tests.
Flanagan said that Michigan has lagged on efforts to hold charters accountable for student performance.
Flanagan recently announced a proposal to ban additional charter schools from opening under the umbrella of charter authorizers that are underperforming.
Why did it take nine years?
“It’s a fair criticism, I could have jumped on that earlier,” Flanagan said. “I met with them (charter school authorizers) last February and put them on notice. And candidly, the Free Press series gave us good timing.
“We’re going to do it in a fair way, this isn’t a gotcha. (But) they’re not managing themselves.”
The Bridge series also highlighted how in leading states, including Minnesota, state leaders emphasized that reforms only work when there is the political will to see them through long-term. That hasn’t always happened in Michigan, where the legislature “stuck with” Common Core, but got cold feet over approving a new state standardized test that is aligned with Common Core, called Smarter Balance, leaving the state’s testing landscape in limbo.
Frustrated by lawmakers
Flanagan said he is “frustrated” with the Legislature’s refusal to approve the aligned test.
The legislature also has yet to move forward in developing statewide standards on teacher evaluation, or provide a credible way to tie evaluations to student growth on standardized tests. While states such as Tennessee and Florida have been able to tie student learning to teacher evaluations for years, Michigan's schools are left to figure out on their own how to meet the state's teacher evaluation requirements through at least 2016.
“We’re going to have lame duck,” Flanagan said, referring to the unpredictable legislative session after November elections and before new legislators take office in January. “What’s going to happen? If they let us continue the path, I think we’ll be just fine. If they pull the rug out from under us, like with testing, that will be problematic.”
Flanagan was named school superintendent by the State Board of Education in 2005. A former former superintendent of Wayne county’s intermediate school district and the Farmington/Farmington Hills school district, he also served as an advisor to then-Gov. Jennifer Granholm.
Flanagan’s three-year contract expires on July 1. The state board expects to have a list of candidate names by December and his replacement under contract by March, according to reports last week in Mlive.com.
When asked what Michigan’s goal should be for public education, Flanagan said the state and its children may need to “settle” for trying to compete with the best states in the nation, while top-achieving states have goals of competing against the top student learning countries in the world, like Finland.
“Massachusetts wants to compete internationally. What I would settle for now, and that’s not “an attractive word, but I’d settle for catching up with Massachusetts. We’re 10 years behind.”
Flanagan said improving education in Michigan has not been easy.
“I’m a little frustrated at times,” he said. “They (other states) didn’t go through a depression like we did, they don’t have the poverty numbers we have. But that doesn’t mean we can’t make progress. … We need to keep the progress, keep patience.
“Bad news is helpful,” he said, “because it keeps our feet to the fire.”