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On the wrong track: Michigan education policy

By • on April 10, 2014

Two new reports make clear again that Michigan is on the wrong track when it comes  to education policy. Both k-12 and higher education. Given the increased alignment between education attainment and state economic prosperity, getting education policy right should be an economic growth priority.

As reported by DBusiness a new study from Demos ranks Michigan 47th for higher education affordability. DBusiness writes:

According to the report, written with support from the Troy-based Kresge Foundation, the average tuition for a public, four-year college in Michigan in 2011-’12 was $10,527, up 15 percent from the 2007-’08 school year. State funding also dropped about 34 percent during this time. In comparison, the national average for tuition was $7,701 in 2011-’12.

“If you want to make Michigan globally competitive, nationally competitive in the 21st century, we’re going to have invest more in education,” says Bill Moses, managing director of education at the foundation. “It’s going to be difficult for Michigan to become one of the better educated states in the country if we’re investing less in higher education on a per capita basis than states like Mississippi, Arkansas, or West Virginia, let alone states with really high college completion rates, like Massachusetts.”  (Emphasis added.)

… The Dēmos study also found that tuition at four-year public universities now averages 15 percent of the median family income in 26 states, and nearly 23 percent of the median family income in Michigan.

You can read the complete Demos report here.

Susan Demas in a MLive column sums up Michigan higher education policy this way: “… the state is spending far less on higher education that it has in the past, slashing its support 33 percent from 2008 to 2012. So students are paying higher tuition and are at the mercy of folks with political axes to grind. Michigan has been known for having one of the finest public university systems in the country. Now our philosophy has been reduced to: less money, more meddling. You don’t need to have an M.B.A. to realize that’s a pretty poor tradeoff for students.” Not smart!

The k-12 report comes from Education Trust-Midwest using data from the past ten years from the National Assessment of Educational Progress. The Detroit Free Press wrote about the report’s findings this way:

A new analysis of student performance on a rigorous national exam shows that not only are Michigan students not keeping pace with the rest of the nation, but many states are soaring past Michigan and showing faster improvement. Results from 2013 show Michigan students scoring below the national average in math and reading. … More concerning, though, is that if you look at improvement over the 10-year period, Michigan students are at the bottom or near the bottom. Michigan was ranked 49th out of the 50 states, the District of Columbia and Department of Defense schools in improvement in fourth-grade reading since 2003. Other Michigan rankings: 51st in fourth-grade math improvement, 38th in eighth grade reading improvement; 39th in eighth-grade math improvement.

The Eduction Trust-Midwest report makes clear that this under performance is not primarily happening to poor, minority kids or in traditional public schools. The all too common excuses for our poor results. They find that: “(1)Learning levels are similar in both Michigan’s charter school and traditional public school sectors. (2) Across all groups of students — white, African American, Latino, low-income, higher-income — Michigan’s student achievement rank has fallen in the last decade.”

You can read the full report here. Recommended!

Human capital/talent is the asset that matters most to future economic success. For a state like Michigan, that attracts very few high education attainment adults from elsewhere, the human capital of the state’s future workforce will largely be homegrown. States like Minneapolis with the Twin Cities and, even more so, Illinois with Chicago, which are major talent magnets, can recruit from across the globe at scale their future workforce. But Michigan, without a vibrant central city that is essential to attracting mobile talent at scale, is highly dependent on the quality of its schools to build the skills needed in an increasingly knowledge-based economy.

Unless we get serious about improving the quality of our education system (from early childhood through college) there is almost no chance that Michigan will return to high prosperity. As theses two studies make clear Michigan has not yet gotten serious about making the investments needed to improving education outcomes. If we care about our future economic success, its time for that to change.

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Unlimited charters: still not smart

By • on February 24, 2014

Every time I write about charter schools I feel a need to start with the reality that Michigan Future has been from the beginning a big supporter of charter schools. Currently our Michigan Future Schools initiative has funded and is working with nine new college prep high schools in Detroit. One is  a DPS school, the other eight are charters.

That support for the concept of charters does not stop us from being disappointed in the results of far too many charters. And those disappointing results has meant that we have not been supportive of policy that allows unlimited charters––including virtual schools––without quality standards to open a first charter and even higher standards to be allowed to operate multiple charter schools. (For more on our take on charters check out this previous post from last August.)

Our concerns with Michigan charter policy are articulated well in a recent post by Robin Lake, Director of the non partisan Center for Reinventing Public Education. Like us, an organization that is supportive of charter schools. An organization who funders include many of the big national pro charter foundations including The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation.

Lake’s post entitled A Tale of Two (Charter) Cities is about the consequences of Michigan charter policy on students in the City of Detroit. It is the epicenter in Michigan (if not the country) of the consequences from unlimited charters. Lake writes:

But while Detroit charter schools slightly outperform district-run schools (according to CREDO’s study), that is saying very little. Most of these schools are doing nothing to change the life trajectory of Detroit’s children. Of course, given that I’ve studied charter schools for nearly 20 years, I know that there are many low-performing ones. But it was disturbing to hear firsthand about parents’ unfulfilled struggles to get their kids a good education and civic leaders’ futile efforts to get control of quality.

There are dozens of Detroit charter schools that should probably be closed immediately. Competition for students is so vicious that schools are reportedly bribing parents with iPads and cash to drive up enrollment. Yet despite all of this competition, charter school quality is stagnant, and more charters are being approved every year by university and community college sponsors who operate outside the city and with little or no accountability for their actions. 

Lake clearly believes this is largely the result of bad state policy. She compares Michigan to Washington State when she writes:

Choice has been unleashed in Detroit and tightly harnessed in Spokane. Both of these approaches have downsides, but I know which downside I feel more comfortable living with. This National School Choice Week, when I inevitably read celebrations online of choice as an end in itself, I will think of my trip to Detroit, where, as in some other cities, an unregulated marketplace is undoubtedly hurting the families who need choice most.

So let’s celebrate school choice, but let’s also be as outraged about its shortcomings as we are about failing districts. Unregulated school choice is a nightmare for parents and very difficult to fix. …  We need civic, state, and national leaders to step up and take responsibility for schools that never should have opened in the first place and are not losing enrollment fast enough to close without government intervention. We need to pass thoughtful laws that create accountability for authorizers and districts. And we need to work at the grassroots level to rally parents to rise up in cities where both charter and district schools are failing their students.



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College access

By • on February 6, 2014

There is a growing––but certainly not universal––understanding that the economic well being of the country and state are now highly dependent on the proportion of adults in the workforce with a college––particularly four year––degree. That human capital is the asset that matters most and is in the shortest supply for economic growth and prosperity.

And that a––if not the––key to rising college attainment rates is students from families where no adult has a college degree. So-called first generation students. Many will be minorities from lower income families. This is particularly true in a low education attainment state like Michigan where only 28% of adults have a four year degree or more.

Understanding that reality, the President and First Lady recently hosted a college access summit. Lawrence O’Donnell on his MSNBC show provided extensive coverage of the event. O’Donnell featured a young man growing up in New Orleans who couldn’t read at 14 but made it to Bard College and introduced the First Lady at the White House. Pretty amazing!  You can watch here and here. Worth watching.

The New York Times previously published two columns from African American students who made it from central city schools to the Ivy League. You can read them here and here. Worth reading.

Travis Reginal in his Times piece wrote: “For low-income African-American youth, the issue is rooted in low expectations. There appear to be two extremes: just getting by or being the rare gifted student. Most don’t know what success looks like. Being at Yale has raised my awareness of the soft bigotry of elementary and high school teachers and administrators who expect no progress in their students. At Yale, the quality of your work must increase over the course of the term or your grade will decrease. It propelled me to work harder.” (Emphasis added.)

One of the commitments the White House announced at the summit is a partnership we have developed with Alma College. It will provide scholarships initially for qualified students from the DEPSA Early College of Excellence to Alma. Ultimately the hope is we can extend the program to qualified students in all of the Michigan Future Schools high schools. This will provide Detroit students at the MFS high schools with the ability to earn a degree at a high quality small private liberal arts college. Where there is growing evidence that first generation minority students have the greatest success in earning college degrees.

Clearly we need more colleges to step up as Alma is doing to the affordability challenges faced by many high school students. Better yet we need state policy makers to stop disinvesting in higher education. Increased public investment in higher education is the best way at scale to make college more affordable.

But as Travis Reginal writes we also need far more high schools to overcome the soft bigotry of low expectations, that is so endemic in many of our high schools, particularly in central cities and rural communities, that most of their students can’t succeed in college. At its core that is what the Michigan Future Schools initiative is all about. Investing in and working with new college prep high schools in the City of Detroit that are committed to all of their students (1) graduating from high school ready for admission to colleges like Alma and (2) ultimately earning a college degree.

Meeting that standard is hard work. No one across the country has gotten there yet. But there are urban high schools across the country that have made substantial progress. None of this is possible if those in charge don’t believe that all kids can earn a college degree (not that all kids need a college degree, but all deserve a k-12 education that gives them the opportunity to pursue a four year degree if that is what they want). Higher expectations and the accountability for educators that go with it are not only vital to the economic well being of the students but also to the economic well being of Michigan and the country.


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Mayor Heartwell

By • on January 20, 2014

Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell’s latest State of the City Address is terrific. Worth reading. It lays out an agenda for making Grand Rapids a place where people from across the planet want to live and work. Its an agenda that other Michigan cities should want to adopt as their own. And the state too.

Heartwell begins his agenda with Champion of Diversity. With an emphasis on friendly to immigrants. He says: “Immigration is crucial to our economy and immigration is a bedrock principle of our American life. We have always been a people who throw our arms wide in welcome.”

Then talent. He says: “Talent comes in all shapes and forms and colors and ethnicities. It is home grown and it finds its way here from someplace else. It is the young entrepreneur and the seasoned research scientist; the designer, the architect, the programmer, the doctor, the professor. In a knowledge economy such as ours talent is wealth. The cities that retain and attract talent are winning; the others are losing. … Talent today is measured in post-secondary degree attainment. We must do better.” (Emphasis added.)

Exactly! His formula: better schools from early childhood on and, because talent is increasingly mobile, retaining talent after they graduate from college. He recognizes that the provision of quality basic services and amenities are crucial to retaining and attracting residents. Specifically he speaks of the importance of parks; roads; transit (including considering street cars!); biking and walking friendly and street lighting.

On all these issues the city is hindered by state policy. The Mayor emphasized the Legislature’s unwillingness to increase transportation funding. Which matters a lot, but so does a decade or more of revenue sharing and education (particularly higher education) cuts. And an ambivalence, at best, about being welcoming to all (including, but not limited to, immigrants).

We need state, regional and city policy across the state that starts with as the Mayor puts it: “In a knowledge economy such as ours talent is wealth.” That is the starting point of constructing an agenda that will put Michigan back on the path to prosperity. Because unless we increase the education level of those who choose to live and work here we are going to be one of America’s poorest states.


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We don’t need to be 49th for another decade

By • on January 9, 2014

Ron French writes in his terrific Bridge article on projected Michigan job growth from 2013-2023: “Bridge Magazine economic projections paint a Scrooge-like portrait of the state economy over the coming decade. But that’s just one possible future. In the Charles Dickens story, Scrooge is scared enough to change his ways. Is Michigan prepared to change?”

Exactly the right conclusion–– Michigan doesn’t have to be one of the worse states for job growth the next decade––and the right question. Because we won’t do better unless we dramatically change the course we are on.

French continues with what the needed change looks like to him: “It won’t be easy. For Snyder and other state leaders, it means facing some uncomfortable truths about Michigan’s future, and taking steps that might not always be popular in the short run. More money for education, starting with toddlers’ first steps and continuing until they walk across a stage with a college diploma. More money to repair and replace our crumbling roads and bridges over which new business and new residents must travel. More of a willingness to invest in the present, to stave off a Dickensian future.”

French interviewed Michigan State University economics professor Charles Ballard on the changes we need. The answer:

To Ballard, it includes investment in roads and schools. And by investment, he means taxes. “Tax cuts have overwhelmed all other policies for the past 20 years,” Ballard said. “You certainly don’t want to raise taxes and throw the money away. Nobody loves to pay taxes. But I’d be willing to pay more taxes for better roads. The expansion of early childhood (education), that’s one success. Education and fixing roads and bridges are very important in positioning ourselves for economic growth. But we have continued to have massive disinvestment in higher education.”

More public investments, which require higher taxes, is at the core of Michigan Future’s policy framework. (With being welcoming to all.) Three years ago in a post on what was likely to happen in 2011 I wrote:

… If 2011 is to be a start of a long term Michigan economic recovery it will be because Governor-elect Snyder gets us on the path to the Michigan 3.0 he promised in his campaign. The challenge is that most of the legislature that got elected with him campaigned on restoring Michigan 2.0. The decision we make on which direction to go is what matters most in 2011. It will go a long ways towards defining our economic future.

Move towards Michigan 3.0 and we can once again be one of the most prosperous places on the planet. Stay as Michigan 2.0 and we will continue to lag the nation. What appears to be the preeminent vision of a successful future Michigan is an economy still anchored by factories, farms and tourism. And a policy agenda to get us back to our past success largely through smaller government and weaker unions. If I had to predict where we will go in 2011 it is towards that vision and agenda.

But if we go in that direction I also predict it won’t work.

There are some hard truths that Michiganders needs to confront: Michigan’s prosperity in the last century was built primarily on good-paying, lower-education attainment jobs. Those jobs are gone forever. …  If the Michigan economy of the future is built on a base of factories, farms and tourism we will be a low-prosperity state. The world has changed fundamentally. We either adjust to the changes or we will continue to get poorer compared to the nation.

The alternative – Michigan 3.0 – is a Michigan concentrated in the knowledge-based sectors of the economy: health care, education, finance and insurance, professional and technical service and information. These are the fast growing and high wage sectors of the American economy today and tomorrow.

To get there requires first and foremost that Michiganders get better educated. Nearly all the states and regions with the highest incomes will be those with the highest proportion of adults with a four-year degree or more. The policy agenda to create Michigan 3.0 is focused on public investments in education and quality of place. With a particular emphasis on higher education and central cities. The first to prepare Michiganders for the economy of the future, the second to retain and attract mobile talent which increasing is choosing big metros anchored by vibrant central cities.

The Michigan turnaround, compared to the nation, will start only when we focus on improving our ranking of thirty fourth in college attainment. That is our fundamental challenge. Low education attainment regions and states will be low prosperity regions and states. We can do better! But it will require us letting go of what made us prosperous in the past and getting on a new path: one that is aligned with new realities.

Unfortunately the prediction that policy makers (Administration and legislature) would choose 2.0 and a policy agenda “to get us back to our past success largely through smaller government and weaker unions” turned out to be true. And by choosing that vision and agenda they have chosen to take us in the direction of slow job and personal income growth. Staying on that path is what leads to being 49th for another decade. Its time to get on a new path.




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Not time for a celebration II

By • on January 6, 2014

As we explored in our previous two posts, on every major measure of employment and income Michigan is today a national laggard. To make matters worse, the odds are great that we will continue to lag the nation for another decade.

One of the main causes of Michigan’s poor economic standing today is low education attainment. And unless that changes it will be one of the major causes of our lagging the nation into the future.

When it comes to education attainment, this clearly is no time for a celebration. As we detailed earlier, on the nation’s report card of student achievement––the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP)–Michigan did substantially worse than Minnesota on all of the 4th and 8th grades reading and math tests.

Turns out that Michigan on every test had the worse scores of all the Great Lakes states. That means on 4th and 8th grade reading and 4th and 8th grade math students in Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin did better than Michigan students taking the same test on every test.  And the reason for Michigan’s horrible performance is not our minority/urban kids. The oft repeated excuse for Michigan’s low student achievement. White kids in Michigan did worse on all four tests than white students in each of the five other Great Lakes states. Our white kids were less proficient in reading and math than their counterparts in every Great Lakes state. (On the 8th grade reading test Michigan white kids tied Indiana white kids for last in the Great Lakes.)

And the trends aren’t encouraging either. From 2003-2013 Michigan ranked in test score improvement 47th on 4th grade reading, 36th on 8th grade reading, 49th on 4th grade math and 37th on 8th grade math . Michigan improved less on all four tests than every other Great Lakes except for Wisconsin on the 8th grade reading test.

For a state like Michigan, that attracts very few high education attainment adults from elsewhere, the human capital of the state’s future workforce will largely be homegrown. States like Minneapolis with the Twin Cities and, even more so, Illinois with Chicago, which are major talent magnets, can recruit from across the globe at scale their future workforce. But Michigan, without a vibrant central city that is essential to attracting mobile talent at scale, is highly dependent on the quality of its schools to build the skills needed in an increasingly knowledge-based economy.

Human capital/talent is the asset that matters most to future economic success. Unless we get serious about improving the quality of our education system (from early childhood through college) there is almost no chance that Michigan will return to high prosperity. End of story!

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Massachusetts: student achievement

By • on December 12, 2013

As we explored previously Massachusetts’ students rank amongst the best in the world on international math and science tests. The recently released 2013 NAEP–the nation’s report card–results for 4th and 8th graders on reading and math solidify  Massachusetts’ standing as the leader in k-12 student outcomes.

Massachusetts ranks first in the proportion of students scoring proficient and above in 4th and 8th grade reading and 8th grade math. In 4th grade math the state ranks 3rd. (Michigan as we explored in my last post ranks between 33rd and 40th on the four tests.)

The notion that Massachusetts does well because of demographics–specifically a small number of African Americans–is not supported by the data. The gap between Massachusetts and Michigan for all 4th graders in reading is 15 points, for white students only it is 17 points. For 8th grade reading the gap is 11 points for all students and 14 for whites. On math the gap between the two states for all students is 16 points in the 4th grade and 21 points in the 8th grade. On those tests the gap for white students is 16 and 20 points respectively.

The NAEP profiles of the two states also includes data related to state k-12 policy. Massachusetts spends $14,670 per student. Michigan spends $10,378. Massachusetts has 72 charter schools, Michigan has 300. (Massachusetts has about 60% of the k-12 students that Michigan does. That would, on an equal number of students basis, reduce the number of Michigan charter schools to around 180 compared to 72.)

More evidence, as I wrote previously: “Certainly not a ringing endorsement of the funding cuts, let just about anyone open a school (including virtual) without any quality standards, ambivalence on high academic standards policy approach we have taken, particularly the last three years. …  Seems like it is time for us to adopt policies that are getting the student achievement outcomes we all want. Massachusetts has developed the framework for best practice state k-12 policies. Its time we reverse course and follow their lead.”

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Michigan and Minnesota: student achievement

By • on December 9, 2013

The nation’s report card on student achievement is the National Assessment of Education Progress. It measures how well students across the country perform on high standards tests. The results for the 4th and 8th grades in reading and math were just released.

Given the importance of education attainment to both individual and state economic success I decided to see how Michigan was doing on this vital measure. The answer is clear: not well.  And found, once again, that across the board Minnesota was performing at a much higher level. Here are the rankings (out of 51 including DC):

  • 4th grade reading: Michigan 38th, Minnesota 8th
  • 8th grade reading: Michigan 33rd, Minnesota 9th
  • 4th grade math: Michigan 40th, Minnesota 1st
  • 8th grade math: Michigan 38th, Minnesota 3rd

In every test Minnesota was above the national average in the proportion of students proficient and Michigan below the national level. And the gap grew larger between 2011 and 2013. Here is the percentage of students proficient and the change over the past two years:

  • 4th grade reading: Michigan 31%/0, Minnesota 41%/+6
  • 8th grade reading: Michigan 33%/+1, Minnesota 41%/+2
  • 4th grade math: Michigan 37%/+2, Minnesota 59%/+6
  • 8th grade math: Michigan 30%/-1, Minnesota 47%/-1

My guess is many in Michigan think the difference between the two states is predominantly demographic. So I looked at the results for white kids and non poor kids. For both groups on all four test Minnesota scores better than Michigan. The gap in all tests is actually wider for white kids than black kids. You read that right: white kids in Minnesota are doing even better than white kids in Michigan than the gap between all kids in the two states.

Seems to me one can make a case that this is not just a report card on our students, but also of our policy makers. Certainly not a ringing endorsement of the funding cuts, let just about anyone open a school (including virtual) without any quality standards, ambivalence on high academic standards policy approach we have taken, particularly the last three years.

The odds are over whelming that Michigan kids are as capable as Minnesota kids. The difference in performance almost certainly has far more to do with the expectations that educators and policy makers have of kids and the quality of education that the two states provide.



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