Guest Column

Low student achievement is recipe for disaster

November 14, 2014
| By Lou Glazer |
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I recently explored how the story line that Michigan is back is not a reality for many Michigan families (Oct. 6 Business Journal, “Report finds ALICE can’t afford to live here anymore”).

More evidence of that reality comes from the recent release by the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis of 2013 state per capita income data, which indicates Michigan is 37th in per capita income. Even more worrisome is that Michigan ranks 41st in per capita income minus transfer payments.

Transfer payments are payments made by government to or on behalf of individuals. They include Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, TANF cash benefits, food stamps, veterans’ benefits, tuition support like Pell grants and subsidies for college loans, the Earned Income Tax Credit, etc.

You read that right: Michigan is a bottom 10 state in per capita income that does not come from government payments and benefits to individuals. Employment earnings (wages and benefits from work) and investment earnings (dividends, interest and rent) — the other two components of per capita income — combined are $6,500 lower per person, on average, here than the rest of the nation. That’s approximately 18 percent below the national average. Michigan ranks last among the six Great Lakes states.

Transfer payments in Michigan are 10 percent above the national average. Total per capita income in Michigan is 13 percent below the national average. That means on a per-person basis, Michiganders have income that is $5,700 lower than the national average.

These results come in the fourth year of a national recovery from the Great Recession. It’s a recovery that includes a relatively robust rebound from near complete collapse and bankruptcy of the domestic auto industry, which is still the main engine of the Michigan economy.

So the reality is, Michigan is now a structural, not cyclical, laggard compared to the country.

What I want to focus on is the future. Are we poised once again to be one of the most prosperous states, which we were for most of the 20th century?

Michigan is not a state that attracts many young adults to live and work here. It’s a problem we need to address. But unless and until we do, the future prosperity of the state is very dependent on the kids who grow up here. How well children growing up in Michigan are faring is key to the future of the state.

The answer from the 2014 Kids Count report from the Anne E. Casey Foundation is not encouraging. The report measures children’s well-being by state in four areas: economic well-being, education, health, and family and community.

Michigan doesn’t fare well in any of the areas. We rank 32nd in overall child well-being; 34th in economic well-being; 38th in education; 29th in health; and 29th in family and community.

Because education attainment matters so much to the state’s economic prosperity now and tomorrow, I want to highlight the report’s findings in education.

Kids Count found:

  • 54 percent of Michigan children were not attending preschool from 2010-2012. (This should be improved in future years with the expansion of early childhood funding in each of the last two state budgets.)
  • 69 percent of Michigan fourth-graders in 2013 were not proficient in reading.
  • 70 percent of Michigan eighth-graders in 2013 were not proficient in math.
  • 23 percent of high school students did not graduate on time for 2011-12.

Add to the above that Michigan is tied for the ninth-lowest average ACT scores in 2013. (Given that the percent of students taking the ACT in each state varies widely, however, this may not be the most reliable ranking of college-ready high school graduates.) ACT calculates that only 21 percent of Michigan 2013 juniors were proficient/college ready in all four core subject areas.

These findings are consistent with those of Education Trust-Midwest in its Stalled to Soaring report, as well as a report from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation entitled Leaders & Laggards: A State-by-State Report Card on Educational Effectiveness. The Education Trust report gives Michigan an overall grade of D. For academic achievement, the state rates another D, while it gets an F for academic achievement among low income/minority students. Maybe even more disconcerting is that the report gives Michigan an F in both categories for progress since 2007.

This low student achievement, combined with little or no progress, is a long-term recipe for being one of the country’s lowest prosperity states. That should be a major cause for alarm. But so far, it isn’t.

Lou Glazer is president of Michigan Future Inc.

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