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We read 12 reports on fixing Michigan schools. Here are 4 things we learned

May 2019: Will Michigan 3rd- grade reading law hurt poor? Florida’s history says yes

One is a 358-page tome that, when printed out, weighs more than three pounds. Another is a breezy 11 pages with colorful charts and graphics. There’s a report by a Michigan business group. A state advocacy organization. A think tank. And by the governor’s office. Economists have weighed in, as have academics, politicians and corporate leaders.

There have been so many reports written about how to fix Michigan schools, the department of education now has a committee assigned to write a report about the reports. No word yet about how many pounds that will weigh.

As Michigan voters prepare to elect a new governor and members of the House and Senate, candidates will have no shortage of guidance on how to reverse the state’s staggering decline in the classroom.

But politicians are busy people. So Bridge reviewed 12 reports on school reform in Michigan, all but one published in the past four years.

Opinion: Michigan schools’ tests scores aren’t as bad as you think
Got 6 minutes? Highlights of a dozen studies on Michigan schools
Related: Time to row in same direction for schools, says Michigan business group

Total pages: 808. That’s slightly shorter than “War and Peace,” but with a more depressing theme.  

Total weight: eight pounds, 1 ounce. That’s the weight of a human head, if Jerry Maguire is to be believed.

While we’re sure we missed a few, these reports – written by a variety of experts and practitioners – share some remarkably similar recommendations.

Why so many reports? Perhaps to match the volume and gravity of crises that afflict the state’s public schools.

Related: Michigan is failing its students, as state test scores keep tanking
Database: Check out your Michigan school and district M-STEP scores
Related: M-STEP results trouble for most struggling schools in Detroit, statewide

“The urgency could not be greater. While it is difficult to face, the data are clear: Michigan’s public education system is dramatically failing our children,” stated the 21st Century Education Commission, a 25-member group of educators, advocates and business leaders primarily appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder last year.

Michigan is one of only five states in which reading skills declined between 2003 and 2015, according to “Top Ten in Education: Not By Chance,” published in February by Education Trust-Midwest, a Michigan-based school reform advocacy group.

Other reports focus on how poorly educated students bring down the rest of Michigan.

A June 2017 report by Michigan Future, for instance, noted 74 percent of Michigan residents have stagnant or declining income. A 2015 Upjohn Institute report found that our state’s educational shortcomings cost the average Michigan resident $18,000 over a lifetime; that’s about $27 billion for the state as a whole.

Michigan not only lost out on Amazon because of the lack of an educated workforce, it also can’t supply the needs of current Michigan businesses, says another report, released just this week by Business Leaders for Michigan.

Recent Michigan education stories:

“We do not want to look outside the state for workers, yet Michigan’s business community is struggling to find skilled, educated talent to fill jobs,” states the report, “Leading Practices in K-12 Education that can Improve Student Outcomes in Michigan.” “Too many younger workers lack the basic skills they need in literacy and math—and the problem seems to be getting worse.”

Of the dozen reports, one, sounding an early alarm about early literacy, was published in 2002. The other 11 were published in the past four years. Some focused on early literacy, some on college access or career training, others on K-12 policy. But there was a surprising consistency in what they recommended.

Here are four suggestions commonly voiced:

Different spending for different kids

It costs more to educate low-income students, because they generally enter kindergarten already behind in reading skills. To get them caught up with their peers takes more personal attention or smaller classrooms. The same goes for English language-learners. That’s the assessment of reports ranging from the Upjohn Institute, a think tank based in Kalamazoo, to Public Sector Consultants, a Lansing-based research firm, to the Michigan Department of Education.

Issue Guide: Michigan's K-12 performance dropping at alarming rate
Issue Guide: Many Michigan K-12 reform ideas are jumbled, broad, or wildly expensive

More money for teacher training

One way to improve student learning is to pay attention to the people teaching them. Michigan spends less on teacher training than some other high-achieving states.

For more information check out reports by Business Leaders for Michigan, the Michigan School Finance Research Collaborative and MDE.

More (and better) early childhood education

Kids come to kindergarten with huge differences in academic preparation, and that gap is frustratingly hard to close. Part of the answer is to put more effort into preparing kids before they get to kindergarten, from birth through age 4.

While the title guarantees it will never go viral, “Costing Out the Resources Needed to Meet Michigan’s Standards and Requirements”, a report recently released by a collaboration of business, community and school leaders, does a great job attaching dollars to needs. The report estimates the price of a good education for 3- and 4-year-olds at more than $14,000 per year.  

More attention to early childhood learning is also pushed in reports by Public Sector Consultants and Education Trust-Midwest.

MDE’s “Top 10 in 10 years” report sets a goal of publicly-funded preschool for all 4-year-olds by 2020, and for 3-year-olds by 2025.

Issue Guide: Michigan preschool funding has improved, but child care still unaffordable

Better college/career prep

Michigan is below the national average in the percent of adults with college degrees. Those with college degrees make, on average, $900,000 more over their lifetimes than those with just a high school diploma. The state also has a shortage of adults who have the training and/or certifications needed for jobs that require more than a high school diploma but less than a bachelor’s degree.

Gov. Rick Snyder’s Marshall Plan for Talent, unveiled recently, pushes for investment in schools for career tech.

Related: College funding cuts in Michigan have led to fewer students, greater debt

Getting more high school grads into college is recommended by Michigan Future.

But for all the reports and recommendations, those leaders invested in fixing our schools complain that no dramatic change has taken place.

“We have talented people spending countless hours trying to fix our education system,” says the Business Leaders for Michigan report, “but their efforts are rarely coordinated.”

After more than a dozen reports, former state Board of Education President John Austin said it’s time for action.

But he’s not holding his breath.

“The big fix won't happen unless and until a governor election and cascading legislative victories turn on a more or less specific plan that will overhaul our school finance system,” Austin told Bridge in an email.   “Absent elections … or meaningful business-led offensive to shape politicians behavior, we won't see fix.

“But (we) need to keep trying.”

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