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West Michigan leaders join chorus for state education reform

Leaders in West Michigan have reached much the same conclusion as leaders in Southeast Michigan: The state’s public schools are in crisis.

“There is a deep and fundamental crisis in this state,” said Mark Murray, vice chair of Meijer Inc., a former state treasurer, budget director and president of Grand Valley State University.

Video: Watch the full conference archive here

“Less than half the kids in every grade in every subject in the state of Michigan are at basic proficiency,” Murray noted at a Grand Rapids Solutions Summit conference convened Friday by The Center for Michigan to examine possible reforms to the state’s troubled public schools system.

He repeated that statement a second time, for effect.

Detroit conference: Getting past politics to give Michigan the schools it deserves

Co-hosted by the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce, the conference was the last in a series of policy conferences the Center and Bridge Magazine are hosting as a kickoff to the Center’s 2018 Michigan Truth Tour, intended to present Michigan voters with the factual background to make informed decisions about candidates running for state office in November.

It followed a similar conference focusing on state education policy held in Detroit on Thursday.

Related Michigan education stories:

These are among the facts facing Michigan students, educators and state policymakers:

  • Michigan fourth graders ranked 28th in the nation reading in 2003 – but fell to 41st by 2015.
  • African American fourth graders fell from 38th in reading in 2003 to 41st in 2015.
  • White fourth graders dropped from 13th in reading in 2003 to 49th in 2015.
  • Michigan fourth graders who were not in poverty fell from 24th in reading in 2003 to 48th in 2015.
  • Reflecting these deficiencies, 27 percent of Michigan college students take at least one remedial college class. That’s projected to reach more than 50 percent by 2030 in the absence of education reforms. (Remediation rates for African-American students already exceed 50 percent.)

Documenting failure, conference speakers agreed, is the easy part. The bigger, more difficult, question: How to turn around Michigan’s public schools?

Several solutions were urged.

Help teachers get better

Experts called for improved teacher accountability and support, an approach that helped Tennessee turn its K-12 system around.

Over the past decade, Tennessee adopted a consistent, statewide teacher evaluation program, made major investments in a performance data collection system, and installed a rigorous program of teacher training. The result: Tennessee, far behind Michigan in 2003 in fourth-grade math, raced past Michigan by 2013, ranking 37th to Michigan's 42nd. It led the nation in highest improvement in several key subjects.

Contrary to predictions that these measures would sow chaos among teachers, 81 percent of Tennessee educators report they feel appreciated under this system, with 88 percent saying they feel encouraged to participate in school leadership.

Pilot programs for students in poor districts

Working in partnership with the Steelcase Foundation, Royal Oak-based Education Trust-Midwest opened the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning, to develop more effective teaching and school leadership in three West Michigan districts.

Education Trust-Midwest reported that one Grand Rapids Public Schools elementary school, Sibley Elementary, ranked among the highest improving schools statewide in third-grade reading and math. In 2016, reading proficiency rates for low-income third graders at Sibley outpaced Kent Intermediate School District and statewide proficiency levels for low-income students.

More Michigan education stories

Disrupt state leadership of education

Dave Campbell, Superintendent of the Kalamazoo RESA, called for changes from the current, more decentralized education leadership model in Michigan. It's a sentiment shared by some lawmakers, with one bill in Lansing that would abolish the State Board of Education and allow the governor to appoint the state superintendent. (The state superintendent is now appointed by a politically elected board.)

That bill, which would require an amendment to the state constitution, faces heavy obstacles, since it would require a two-thirds vote by legislators and approval by voters.

Campbell does not want to see the state board abolished, but shares the sentiment of other critics who say the current system spreads accountability for the state’s troubled schools, meaning that no single entity ever takes responsibility or is held accountable for their failure.

Campbell said Michigan would be better served if state board members were appointed, rather than the current system of being nominated at partisan party conventions – Michigan is the only state in the nation to do so.

Campbell also argued that Michigan’s legislative term limits law, adopted in 1992, hampers the Legislature’s ability to adopt serious school reform. He favors its repeal, though that also would require voter approval.

Improve university training for future teachers

An eight-bill package passed Thursday in the state House would require instructors in the state’s schools of education to complete 30 hours of continuing education annually for the school to be certified as a teacher preparation program.

It would also require education schools to offer a “warranty” to teachers who are determined to be ineffective teachers in their first two years of teaching. These struggling novice teachers would have to enroll in the warranty program to improve their skills, with the school paying for it.

Other bills address how to improve the apprenticeship that future teachers typically undergo in school classrooms. The measures require schools of education to make a $1,000 stipend available to mentor teachers to help develop the skills of a student-teacher in their classroom, and would require student-teachers to complete at least 400 hours of classroom experience.

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