Michigan’s beleaguered K-12 public education system continues to take a beating from the state’s business groups.
A March study released by Business Leaders for Michigan, the statewide business roundtable based in Detroit, found that Michigan placed at best middle of the pack nationally in a number of key metrics and ranked toward the bottom in fourth grade reading ability at 46th.
Michigan’s K-12 education system — and how to fix it — also was the focus of a half-day “Solutions Summit” hosted by the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce and Ann Arborbased think tank The Center for Michigan earlier this year.
Speakers at the summit used the words “crisis” and “failing” multiple times in regard to the state’s educational system. But despite what many describe as a dire situation, public education stakeholders believe the current dismal results could actually help drive real change.
“Our first reaction is one of encouragement in the sense that there just seems to be kind of a critical mass that’s growing around the need to improve education outcomes in the state of Michigan,” John Helmholdt, executive director of communications and external affairs for Grand Rapids Public Schools, said of the BLM report.
Helmholdt added that GRPS increasingly works regionally with other school districts and business organizations to search for solutions.
“I think what we really need to look at is how do we align around one common plan that the business leaders, educators and policymakers have really united behind,” he said.
Helmholdt is among the ranks of public education advocates who find some good in the BLM study and other reports that paint a bleak picture of the state’s education system.
Amber Arellano, executive director of Education Trust-Midwest, a Royal Oak-based nonpartisan K-12 research and advocacy organization, also sees more collective action around finding solutions as the studies continue to pile up.
“I’m excited because I feel like this is really a moment when we’re seeing a shift in the state,” Arellano said during the Chamber summit. “I think we’re seeing a shift from awareness to urgency and a shift from urgency to deep collaboration across many sectors, and we’re seeing a shift to action.”
While some stakeholders believe a turning point is imminent given the consensus around the need for K-12 education reform, the BLM report and others note the situation likely will get worse before it gets better.
“Michigan’s K-12 performance lags well behind that of most states, even those long known for their poor educational outcomes,” according to the BLM report, which noted that only one in four high school graduates in Michigan is deemed “college or career ready.”
“Worse yet, Michigan’s results continue to stagnate or drop, even as other states move ahead,” according to the report.
‘WE KNOW WHAT WORKS’
Michigan’s worsening education trend has been the talk of business leaders, education stakeholders and politicians for years.
In 2016, Gov. Rick Snyder convened nearly two dozen people from around the state in various sectors to serve on the 21st Century Education Commission, which delivered its full report in February 2017.
The report outlined 32 recommendations with a particular focus on “learning, the creation of a strong culture of success and how to build a coherent, connected education system from prenatal into adulthood,” according to the governor’s office.
Kevin Stotts, executive director of Talent 2025 Inc., a Grand Rapids-based consortium of business leaders focused on education and workforce development, served on the commission.
Speaking during the Chamber summit, Stotts noted the approach of assembling stakeholders and getting alignment on common education goals could be scaled in communities statewide.
“We know what works at a building level,” Stotts said, noting that focusing on instruction and career readiness should be top priorities. “That’s the difference in what (West Michigan is) doing compared with what has typically happened, especially in Lansing. It’s so adversarial and political, but we know what works.”
Business leaders and education stakeholders commonly cite legislative dysfunction in Lansing when talking about Michigan’s education system.
David Campbell, superintendent of the Kalamazoo Regional Educational Service Agency (RESA), sees systemic political problems holding back the state from pushing forward with education reform.
“You have to have a credible decision-making body,” Campbell said at the Chamber event.
With a term-limited legislature controlling school funding and a politicized statewide board of education, the system seems set up for failure, he said.
“We do policy really poorly because there’s so many cooks in the kitchen that you can’t possibly cook the kids a meal that’s worthy of eating,” Campbell said.
NOWHERE TO GO BUT UP
While Lansing politicians make easy targets for education advocates, policy really only tells part of the state’s story, said Arellano with Education Trust-Midwest.
Arellano noted in her talk that Louisiana has the same system of governance as Michigan, but is greatly outpacing it in key metrics like third grade reading.
Moreover, Michigan ranks fairly well in other metrics, like average teacher salaries and perpupil funding, Arellano said.
“We don’t leverage our investments well,” she said. “We have to think about how we leverage those existing resources to improve outcomes in meaningful ways for kids. That’s important because we can’t just say, ‘It’s about more money or it’s about changing our governance.’ We use those things sometimes as excuses for not getting smarter about the work we’re doing.”
As stakeholders continue to move toward action on education, Helmholdt hopes GRPS can serve as a model because of its close working relationships with groups like Talent 2025, regional collaboration and a mindset toward career readiness.
Ultimately, Helmholdt remains hopeful the state’s K-12 educational outcomes will improve.
“We can’t go much lower,” Helmholdt said with a laugh. “As sad as that is, it is a reality. We need to be transparent about that. There needs to be accountability, there needs to be resources and there needs to be a plan that we’re going to stick to.”