By Amber Arellano, Executive Director Edtrust Midwest
Like many of you, I’m a native Michigander. I’ve always been proud of what I think are many of our shared Michigan values: a hard work ethic, a passion for the Great Lakes and a shared industrial heritage, and a commitment to taking care of our shared institutions. Our public education system is one such shared institution. And for decades, we could boast of having one of the nation’s better K-12 systems. Sadly, our public schools are not what they once were.
As we lay out in our 2018 State of Michigan Education report, a new analysis by The Education Trust-Midwest shows Michigan’s third-graders are the lowest performing students in the U.S. among peers based on the state’s assessment. Michigan is one of only a few states in the country that actually lost ground in third-grade reading in recent years. This decline has come as state leaders have invested nearly $80 million in raising third-grade reading. What’s more, students of every background — black, white, brown, low-income, higher-income — are among the nation’s bottom ten performers as measured by the most important metrics for learning. It’s a devastating decline — yet it can and must be turned around.
That’s why we launched the Michigan Achieves campaign to make Michigan a top ten education state. Each year, we report on how Michigan is making progress toward that top ten goal for all students not only based on data-driven metrics but also on process: Is the state putting into place the research-based best practices and high-leverage systems that have been proven to work in leading education states? This year, the answer is a resounding no.
For that reason, in this 2018 State of Michigan Education report, Ed Trust-Midwest goes deeper into the “how” of Michigan’s early literacy initiative, an important case study for the state’s larger K-12 improvement challenges. Our team spent two years researching what best practices and implementation looks like in top states. And with input from Michigan educators, we developed recommendations tailored for Michigan based both on best practice and the state’s needs. It’s clear we, as a state, need to improve our effectiveness of the “how” of raising teaching and learning: the implementation of systemic improvement.
Today, Michigan is implementing a third-grade retention law that could potentially hold back tens of thousands of the state’s current kindergarten and first-grade students who aren’t reading on grade level by the end of third grade. My daughter is one of the students who could be held back. There is great urgency for her and every young student who could be held back: students who are held back a grade are less likely to graduate from high school. African American and Latino students are at greater risk of being held back. The end result could mean Michigan’s lack of strategic, wellcoordinated statewide plan and effective implementation — combined with mandatory retention — could exacerbate the unequal outcomes of Michigan’s educational system in one of the worst states in the U.S. to be African American, Latino or poor. Indeed, Michigan’s approach to early literacy improvement leaves it far too much to chance that young students’ reading levels will improve.
Yet there’s a great opportunity in the new third-grade reading retention law, too. Today thousands of educators and parents are digging more deeply into their practices to figure out how they can better educate and support young children’s reading development. Philanthropy is investing in boosting these outcomes. There’s great consensus on the topic of early literacy. That’s the good news. Too often, however, principals, teachers and parents are taking on these efforts without the high-caliber systems of training, regular feedback, and proper support and tools that leading states provide their principals and teachers. That’s not right — and we can change it.
In this report, we lay out how Michigan can build smarter, more effective improvement systems to become a top ten education state, using Michigan’s implementation of thirdgrade reading as a case study of how to do so. Other states have been modernizing their public school systems to prepare all students to succeed in a global knowledge economy. As the recent loss of the bid to win Amazon second headquarters and nearly 50,000 jobs to Detroit and Grand Rapids shows, Michigan must do so, too. It’s essential to Michigan’s democracy and collective future — and most important, to our students’ lives.
We also celebrate some of Michigan’s highest-improving, high-poverty schools that are showing dramatic improvement can happen with the right systems, leadership and strategies. In partnership with the Steelcase Foundation and district partners Wyoming Public Schools and Grand Rapids Public Schools, the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning has brought leading state models for building school-level systems to Michigan. Today Wyoming’s Parkview Elementary ranks among the state’s highest-improving, high-poverty schools for subjects such as third-grade reading and math. In Grand Rapids, district and school efforts supported by CETL have resulted in Stocking and Sibley Elementary Schools becoming not only among the top-improving buildings in their district, but also among all schools in Michigan.
Indeed, I strongly believe we can turn things around in Michigan. Just as Michiganders worked together to turn around our ailing auto industry during the Great Recession and continue to move toward a more vibrant economy, today we need to work together to turn around our P-12 public school system in transformative and effective ways.