Where politics and faith dance in the shadow of the windmill.

Barely Passing

The Grand Rapids Press opens with an interesting account of Michigan’s standing relative to other states when it comes to educational testing (and ranks).  The news is especially grim for Michigan’s minority and economically disadvantaged communities.

Becoming a Leader in Education is the first report from The Education Trust -Midwest. Clearly they bring a passion for supporting the educational opportunities for minority youth, and Michigan certainly needs that.  However, even more we need to be clear headed about the educational situation facing our State.

Room for doubt

So is Becoming a Leader on the up and up?  Perhaps.  To generate a sense of urgency Education Trust-Midwest compares and contrasts MEAP and NAEP scores.  So scandals errupt about Michigan’s underperformance, most notoriously in their report,

Though 84 percent of parents of Michigan fourth-graders are told by the state their children are proficient in reading, only 30 percent of those same students scored proficient on the national reading exam.

Surely troubling.  Then again when Michigan is compared to national NAEP data for reading, the state’s performance is, well, average.  The problem may be more to do with our own testing, as other reports have born out. For instance, this spring we had another report saying perhaps the MEAP was too easy.  This malleability of MEAP scores makes them less than useful for comparison from year to year — one of their great disadvantages compared to the NAEP.

As to unreliability, there is also the sure temptation to “teach to the test.”  The top performing school district for the eight grade math test among African Americans was …. Inkster?  Seriously, if that were true, then shouldn’t the case study be from that district?  The fact that the report picks on North Godwin as much as admits the data cooking.  (Secondarily, one might ask how representative a small district like Godwin can be.)

Third, it should be pointed out that the state-level NAEP tests are done through a sampling of students in a given state.  The data generated are  not robust enough to bring down to a district level, let alone individual schools — the location where parental choice would have the most impact.

Such doubts, however should not blind us to the real dangers.  We need to be especially clear sighted here.

The real dangers

The one danger in the report that should stand out is Michigan’s competitive position relative to the other states in the region.  Whether the ranks of NAEP performance is statistically significant, the nominal ranking nonetheless provides a quick snapshot or the state’s challenge.  While Michigan scores for Grade 8 Math for higher income students compares well with Florida, our state is far behind all the other Great Lakes states.  That is not a good sign at all.

An even more worrisome problem shows up Education Week’s Quality Counts report.   Although Michigan is not portrayed as the complete basket case that Education Trust-Midwest would have it, the various data sets point to the challenges.  Among them, Michigan lags in AP programs.  Where nationally, 20 percent of 11th and 12th graders will get a 3 or better on (at least one) AP test, in Michigan the number is 15 percent.  This is not especially surprising for observers in Michigan, particularly with the large number of rural districts and the hammered urban districts, nonetheless, such under performance places a huge roadblock before any community seeking to make itself attractive nationally.

Perhaps the most troubling data provided by Becoming a Leader is the lagging performance for Kalamazoo Public and Grand Rapids Public Schools on the fourth grade reading tests.  At the very least, we will need to see more data here.  A failure to raise these scores only puts added pressure on the current administration.  So what can be done?

These Are Solutions?

Although Becoming a Leader seeks to provide solutions, their six point agenda does not go terribly far, as much bromide as anything else.  What is perhaps most remarkable is that each solution bears little relation to the identified problem of minority underachievement in our state.

  1. Provide honest information for parents and public. For poverty impacted communities, is this a solution?  Perhaps it is for Forest Hills or Rockford, but what about the single mom in GRPS?
  2. Learn from success. The  notion that there are these schools out there that have cracked the code — what is this but magical thinking.  The evidence is that reform takes persistent leadership.
  3. Focus on quality not structure. In the report’s understanding this means no more charters, a dubious theme.  The broader point is true: educational reform will take multiple shapes.  Yet there is also a begging as to what would constitute this “quality;” quality outcomes certainly need greater clarification.
  4. Improve and support teacher quality. This is a push for the Education Trust’s favorite solution, “value-added” evaluation.  Politically this probably deteriorates into more evaluation of teachers and a reduction of tenure safeguards — but then those who know Michigan can see this coming already.
  5. Focus on college access and success. The recommendation of Georgia is especially ironic since they are cutting back their program.  The underfunding of Michigan’s higher education institutions is well-known,  the University of Michigan’s budget is as big as the entire state appropriation for higher education.  Better colleges and universities? The solution is so broad as to be little more than pixie dust.
  6. Support innovation and revamp state bureaucracy. Now we’re talking.  This is the key proposal, the one they evidently want to see enacted.  Along with revamping the Department of Education (Gov. Snyder, are you listening?), there is an embrace of state take over of of failing systems, the so-called “Recovery School District.” Here, the report gets close to naivete in its assumption of a deep under-utilized pool of civic social and fiscal resources for the schools.  On the west side, this private-public relationship is already in full swing.  (And how can one even write such a report without mentioning the Kalamazoo Promise?)

As an outline of where the Education Trust wants to go, these solutions are passable.  But considered as anything approaching policy for the new administration let alone the local school districts?  Michigan needs to rebuild its schools, this is vital, but this report is not likely to take us very far at all.



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