I have read “Michigan Achieves: Becoming a Top-Ten Education State,” the 2015 Michigan Education Report from the Education Trust-Midwest. (How odd that none of the news articles based on the press release that I have read actually linked to it. Find it at midwest.edtrust.org.) I find the headlines (example: “Michigan May Drop to Bottom in 4th Grade Reading”) unduly alarmist, as the dire predictions are about where they project we may be in 15 years. I do not, however, deny that there is a problem. National Assessment of Educational Progress assessments have shown our students to be, I some cases, losing ground, while those in other states make good progress. The trend is not good.
I am distressed at the selective reporting on both the problems and the potential solutions in this report. It appears that those summarizing it for news outlets have done a cursory skimming, picking out just the most alarming tidbits and the proposals that align with what they already assume to be true. Some important things have been largely ignored, such as “the percentage of Michigan low-income students has climbed steadily, jumping from 36% in 2006 to 47% in 2014,” and “our state currently ranks 42nd of 47 for funding equity, [with] some of the biggest gaps in resources between high-poverty and low-poverty districts,” and “we see similar gaps in how well we pay our teachers in high-poverty schools.” Michigan fell sooner, faster, and farther than most states during the Great Recession. Our public schools suffered with every other sector, we have yet to recover, and that long-standing disinvestment did not allow us to cope properly with our now-needier student population.
In the 1980s, I volunteered for thousands of hours in elementary classrooms. There, I saw a skilled teacher with a master’s degree in reading instruction diagnose and remediate specific problems children were having with reading. It almost looked like magic — but was, of course, expertise. Today, we assume that at-risk children are better off in charter schools, often taught by uncertified Teach for America instructors with just a few weeks of training. It makes no sense to think they would be better at this than someone with expertise borne of training and experience — as, indeed, results show they have not been. Investment in training and supporting professional teachers to continually improve their practice is the obvious solution we have yet to really try here.
The popular reporting on lessons from more successful schools, districts, and states tended to focus on more testing and accountability. The actual report also notes that Michigan has failed to invest in implementation of systemic reforms — we want to punish schools and teachers for not reaching new standards, without investing in training and support to help them do so. The cited states that have had more success have actually invested in implementation; we have not.
There were other under-reported lessons from the Michigan schools cited as successful despite the statewide climate for public education. For example, Brimley Elementary’s teachers are working “to inspire a new generation to love reading.” In fact, “the big reward for good behavior is getting to read for an hour.” Imagine that! Instead of the scripted instruction, rigid “close reading,” and the inflexible ideal of writing pushed by reformers — which threaten to turn off an entire generation to the joys of reading and self-expression — these teachers have produced proficient readers by encouraging and allowing them to love reading. At similarly successful North Godwin Elementary, teachers collaborate, share best practices, and reflect constantly on their own teaching. In other words, they don’t obsess over test scores; rather, they work together as professionals to refine their teaching practices.
We actually know, from research and from experience elsewhere, what works to help students learn better and faster. Most of us agree that teachers are the key — the one aspect of a complex process that we might significantly improve within a reasonable time frame. How to do so, however, is usually seen through a lens of preconceptions. Decades of demanding results, not enabling real change, and punishing perceived failure have NOT succeeded. Education Trust-Midwest documents the ongoing failure of this approach. Respecting and encouraging professional expertise, enabling meaningful professional collaboration, providing adequate resources — and, yes, paying professional wages to those who work in our most challenging communities — are approaches that have worked elsewhere and have yet to be tried here in Michigan.