What Our Students Deserve: Facing the Truth About Education in the Great Lakes State

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An honest look at public education in Michigan reveals both hopeful and dismal news. While our state has taken a few bold steps in the past year to improve our education system, our students still lag far behind their peers nationally, and the performance gaps between them — across income level and race — are both alarming and persistent. Michigan cannot rebound economically if all our students are not prepared to participate fully in the global economy. It’s time to get honest and get to work creating the education system that our students need and deserve.

In 2011, the State Board of Education bravely decided to raise cut scores to better align with the expectations students will face in college and the workplace. The more rigorous state standards revealed that only 40 percent of our fourth-grade students met expectations for math on the Michigan Educational Assessment Program, which contrasts sharply with the 92 percent of fourth-graders who met or exceeded the previous year’s cut scores for the subject.

Today, Michigan’s cut scores more closely mirror proficiency rates on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.  In eighth-grade math, we see 29 percent proficiency on the MEAP and 31 percent proficiency on the NAEP.

What’s more, Michigan consistently ranks in the bottom of states in both performance and improvement on national reading and math tests — overall and by racial group and income-levels, in both fourth and eighth grades.

Faced with the state’s educational shortcomings, too many observers, policymakers, school leaders, and teachers in our state tend to lay blame, rather than take meaningful steps to fix the problems. The conventional wisdom in Michigan holds low-income, and black and brown children responsible for our state’s low averages.

Indeed, African-American children here achieve at the lowest levels of black students nationwide, urban Latino students lag behind their peers in other cities, and low-income kids are falling in national proficiency rankings. But those troubling trends do not tell the whole story. Michigan’s underperformance transcends our communities of color and low-income neighborhoods. Compared with other states, white and higher income students here also are sinking in academic achievement.

Fortunately, a few bright spots remind us of what our schools could accomplish. African-American students at one Inkster, Mich., elementary school (see story pg. 4) are making marked academic gains, despite rising poverty in their community. Many of Baylor-Woodson Elementary School’s students are already surpassing state standards. In 2011, 73 percent of the school’s fifth-graders scored as advanced in math, compared with 45 percent in Michigan. Meanwhile, 63 percent of fifth-graders tested as advanced in reading, compared with 44 percent statewide.

Helping more of our schools perform like Baylor-Woodson will require policymakers and educators to:

1. Set high expectations for curriculum, instruction, and achievement.
2. Support and provide honest feedback to our teachers.
3. Improve low-performing schools across the state.
4. Build strong support and accountability systems for all our schools.

Michigan’s students are falling behind their peers across the nation because their schools are not preparing them for success. Even as parents must recommit to helping their children succeed in school, state political and education leaders must offer the leadership and resources needed to turn around student performance.

The Education Trust–Midwest is a team of passionate Michiganders who care deeply about Michigan. Our state is internationally renowned for its Great Lakes, and we are committed to an education agenda that will make Michigan a Great Education State as well. This report offers a road map to help us get there.

Publication date: 
February 9 2012