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Our View: Michigan can learn from other states how to end its 'education recession'
By: Sentinel editorial board
April 20, 2014
We all know about Michigan’s painful economic recession. It began well before the national recession and cut much deeper — of the 2 million jobs lost in the United States between 2000 and 2009, roughly half were in Michigan. Less well known is Michigan’s educational recession — the slide in our national ranking in student testing over the past decade. And while our economy has turned the corner, the educational recession continues today.

That’s the conclusion of a recent report on education in Michigan by Education Trust-Midwest. It makes for sobering reading. The report is packed with charts showing Michigan near the bottom of national educational rankings. Michigan ranks in the bottom five states in student achievement improvement between 2003 and 2013 in the key areas of fourth-grade reading and math, as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress; we were one of six states that actually lost ground in fourth-grade reading over the past decade. Ours has been an equal opportunity recession — white, African-American, Hispanic, rich kids, poor kids, charter schools and traditional public schools, all have fared poorly.

The report compares Michigan with Massachusetts, the nation’s leading state in educational performance, and Tennessee, a historically low-performing state that has made huge strides in the past decade. There’s no silver bullet those states are using to increase learning, but Education Trust-Midwest believes they both offer lessons for Michigan.

Massachusetts, which would rank second in the world in math if it were its own country, is known for its rigorous standards and its demanding high school graduation test. The state emphasizes professional development for teachers, funnels extra funding to school districts with high concentrations of poverty and imposes strict standards of quality and accountability when authorizing charter schools.

Tennessee has developed a long-term, comprehensive, research-based reform effort with an emphasis on evaluating and improving teachers, while drawing support and input from all stakeholders, from educators to the business community to students themselves.

What the two states have in common is a sustained focus on reform, based on data instead of politics, and a recognition of the importance of quality teaching. Michigan’s educational reform efforts have come in fits and starts (our strict high school graduation requirements are one positive in our favor). But much of the public policy focus on education over the past decade here, Education Trust-Midwest notes, has been on charter schools and school choice, which, as the statistics indicate, haven’t done anything to improve actual student achievement. And our state has made little progress in developing a coherent policy on evaluating teachers and helping them improve.

It’s painful to read how poorly our state is faring compared to the rest of the nation, but it’s information we need to know to improve. We’ve spent so much time here comparing school districts to one another that we seldom look at the bigger picture. We can improve the quality of classroom teaching, demand accountability and direct state funding where it’s needed most, but doing so will take cooperation from educators, legislators and other stakeholders, with a focus on results instead of ideology and a commitment to stick with reform over the long haul. Our economic recession has passed — we’re long overdue for our education recession to end as well.
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