posted November 30, 2012

Is the School Aid Act rewrite a solution in search of a problem?

No. This is a good question to ask, and certainly a criticism that's been launched in the popular press. We think this is a faulty platform and an errant attempt to silence an important debate. The fact is, there are structural issues with our state’s public school system, and addressing them systematically is long overdue. This effort, while perhaps not THE answer, tackles several of these problems head-on and  deserves genuine consideration.  

Problem #1—Our current system isn’t preparing students to meet the demands of the 21st century.

We are strong supporters of public education. Most of us at PSC are products of Michigan’s public education system,  and many of us have children who are current students or spouses who work in the field. We work closely with educators, school associations, school districts, ISDs, and the state. We have great respect for the individuals who are committed to making a difference in the lives of our families.

However, as policy analysts, we are compelled by data which paints a harsh reality of the outcomes produced by our current system:

  • Only 34% of Michigan third graders are proficient in math and reading on the state assessment (MEAP).
  • Only about 75% of Michigan students graduate in four years, and only 17.7% of Michigan students are considered “college ready” by the ACT.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t matter which metric you use. The story is the same: As a state, our students are falling behind.  Earlier this year, the Education Trust-Midwest looked at Michigan’s student achievement data and reached the same conclusions. It warned, “The conventional wisdom in Michigan holds low-income, and black and brown children responsible for our state’s low averages.” While the trends for low-income, minority students show them lagging behind their national peers, “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.”

And, this story hasn’t changed in almost 30 years. In 1983, “A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform”  was released with this admonishment:

“We report to the American people that while we can take justifiable pride in what our schools and colleges have historically accomplished and contributed to the United States and the well-being of its people, the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people.”

Our system continues to look to past studies and data point after data point to frame accomplishments and assure ourselves that the system is just fine. But the system is not fine. Change is difficult and uncomfortable, but that is no excuse for limiting our children to mediocrity when we can offer them opportunity.

Problem #2 – Incremental reform hasn’t produced dramatic results.

 Nothing we have articulated here should be interpreted to suggest that education leaders have been sitting around waiting for a silver bullet. On the contrary, our state’s leadership has embraced a wide range of education reforms and school improvement efforts designed to improve teaching and learning. The list is exhaustive and includes efforts such as school-wide reform, merit pay, charter schools, standards-based education, schools of choice, accountability, teacher evaluation, and technology. Some of these efforts have made a difference. Others have not. We’re not going to debate the merits of these initiatives or question the importance of having rigorous common standards, quality instruction, well-trained teachers, and high-quality early learning experiences. But we will say that none of these initiatives have been able to go fully to scale or demonstrate dramatically improved student learning across the board. In other words, they have simply not been enough. 

Over the past 30 years, we’ve invested hundreds of millions of dollars in efforts to change our education system by tinkering around the edges. Rather than challenge how we think about schooling or what a public education looks like, we have expected dramatic results from operational corrections. Reform after reform has failed to address the underlying structural issues.  

Again the words of “A Nation at Risk” almost 30 years ago are perhaps more relevant today: “History is not kind to idlers. The time is long past when American's destiny was assured simply by an abundance of natural resources and inexhaustible human enthusiasm, and by our relative isolation from the malignant problems of older civilizations. The world is indeed one global village. We live among determined, well-educated, and strongly motivated competitors. We compete with them for international standing and markets, not only with products but also with the ideas of our laboratories and neighborhood workshops. America's position in the world may once have been reasonably secure with only a few exceptionally well-trained men and women. It is no longer.”

The fact is, Michigan’s students still go to school roughly 180 days a year for 6 or 7 hours a day. In most cases, they sit in front of a single teacher, in a single building, in a single local school district that offers their full academic experience. Students progress through grades on the same pace as their peers, and they all, regardless of interest or aptitude, graduate with roughly the same experience. Until we’re willing to challenge, update, rethink, or uproot that paradigm, we will continue to get incremental results.

Solution in search of a problem? We don’t think so.