Guest Column

Michigan education: Uphill battle for officials, not just students

July 8, 2016
| By Lou Glazer |
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The recently released 2016 Kids Count report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation ranks Michigan 40th in educational achievement in 2016. That’s down from a not-so-good 32nd in 2012.

Another new report from Ed Trust Midwest called Michigan Achieves! provides the details of Michigan’s poor and declining performance from 2003-15. In a terrific piece, Detroit News business columnist Daniel Howes summarizes the reports’ findings:

“The biggest shocker to all those predisposed to believing the worst about minority academic achievement is the collapse in the academic performance of Michiganʼs white students on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, tests. In fourth-grade reading, white students ranked 49th out of 50 last year, down from 13th in 2003; in fourth-grade math they dropped to 47th from 13th in 2003; in eighth-grade reading, to 42nd from 12th.

“For blacks and Latinos, the decline in performance was less precipitous. But the overall message stands: educational achievement in Michigan continues to slip further behind rival states. They are doing more and achieving better results, underscoring just how much the state needs to improve to catch up.”

It’s clear Michigan has an all-kids student achievement problem. What should we do about it?

First and foremost, alarm bells need to be going off — particularly among business, political and media elites. That they are not is a big problem.

As for what to do, I start with two pillars in thinking about education, whether it is just K-12, or more broadly from early childhood through higher education.

The first is that all kids deserve the same education no matter who their parents are. Without that we cannot live up to the core American value of equal opportunity for all. We are on the opposite track at the moment as both a country and a state. The education that is delivered to affluent kids is designed and executed differently than it is for non-affluent kids. One system is delivering a broad college prep education; the other increasingly is delivering a narrow education built around building discipline and what is on the test, or preparing children for a first job.

The second is that none of us has a clue what the jobs and occupations of the future will be. Today's jobs are not a good indicator of what jobs will be when today's pre-K-12 students finish their careers in the 2050s or 2060s. So the purpose of K-12 education (maybe even pre-K-16) is to build foundation skills that allow all Michigan children to have the agility and ability to constantly switch occupations. Our analogy: preparing rock climbers rather than ladder climbers in a world where known and linear career ladders are rapidly disappearing.

In terms of the specifics, here is my take on principles that matter most and then the actions that will have the greatest impact on student achievement.

My principles are:

1. The goal of pre-K-12 for all kids, not just affluent kids, is a broad education that prepares them for good-paying, 40-year, unpredictable and nonlinear careers anywhere on the planet.

2. To do that, non-affluent kids need an education that is as focused on non-cognitive skills and the rigorous 4Cs (critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity) as it is on content-specific cognitive skills that are on tests.

3. Non-affluent kids need/deserve more funding than affluent kids.

4. Unregulated markets lower — not raise — student outcomes. We need choice and regulation with high student-outcome standards for all education providers.

Build an education system around those four pillars, and all kids have the best chance to enjoy middle-class-and-above careers. If that doesn’t happen, you end up with the education caste system that we increasingly have today, where kids growing up in affluent households are prepared to succeed in the 21st century and other kids overwhelmingly are not.

My four high-leverage specifics:

1. Organize schooling around the 4Cs, not what is on the test. And use assessments that are aligned to the 4Cs.

2. Increase funding for all non-affluent kids by $5,000 per year from birth through high school.

3. Make the Michigan Department of Education the only authorizer — just like Massachusetts, which is the state with the best student achievement by far.

4. Measure K-12 schools by post-secondary success of their graduates, not tests. If you don’t have a high school — which all charters should be required to do — still hold them accountable for the post-secondary success of their 8th graders.

Lou Glazer is president of Michigan Future Inc.

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