Needed: new state education policy

As we explored previously Michigan has lousy k-12 student outcomes and is making little progress if at all. A recipe for long term economic decline.

The state which has the best student outcomes is Massachusetts. Massachusetts k-12 policy was put in place in the early 1990s on a bi-partisan basis and has been continued without much change since. At that time Massachusetts student achievement was middle of the pack, just like Michigan as Bridge Magazine reports:

But until the state began the hard work of reforming its education system, Massachusetts’ K-12 schools didn’t reflect those advantages. The state used to be, as Kati Haycock (President, The Education Trust) put it, middling ‒ not much different from Michigan in student achievement and education spending. In 1992, Michigan’s eighth graders scored at the national average scale score of 267 in math on the NAEP, with 19 percent considered proficient. In Massachusetts that year, eighth graders scored 273 on math, with 23 percent meeting proficiency standards.

So what’s happened to the six-point gap that separated Michigan and Massachusetts in eighth-grade math in 1992? It has widened fivefold. In 2013, Massachusetts eighth graders had an average scale score of 313 on the math NAEP test, while their Michigan peers stood at 280, 33 scale points behind. Michigan’s average eighth grader had a math scale score one point lower than Massachusetts’ average poor eighth grader.

(This trend of Massachusetts becoming the national leader and Michigan tumbling compared to other states is true in all NAEP tests, not just eight grade math.)

Rather than learning from what they have done to achieve the results we all want, Michigan policy makers in many ways have gone in the completely opposite direction. Not smart!

So how has Massachusetts achieved these nation leading student achievement results? Four recent articles provide an overview of the Massachusetts approach to education policy. All worth checking out:

So what did Massachusetts do? The NY Times article describes their approach this way:

The three core components were more money (mostly to the urban schools), ambitious academic standards and a high-stakes test that students had to pass before collecting their high school diplomas. All students were expected to learn algebra before high school. …  Also noteworthy was what the reforms did not include. Parents were not offered vouchers for private schools. The state did not close poorly performing schools, eliminate tenure for teachers or add merit pay. The reforms did allow for some charter schools, but not many. Then the state, by and large, stayed the course.

As EdTrust-Midwest describes in their Massachusetts fact sheet the state’s approach to charter schools is: “In the early 1990s, Massachusetts leaders decided to open the state’s first charter schools – on a hugely important condition: accountability for both opening and for expansion would be strong. This included intentional, regulated high-quality charter school creation with high standards, strong accountability, and a state-guided quality authorizing process.”

Another key feature of Massachusetts k-12 policy is taking teacher quality seriously. Raising standards for teachers combined with professional development of teachers on the state’s rigorous standards. As Ed Trust Midwest writes: “Accountability and high standards can only do so much; without support for teachers in the classroom, students are unlikely to learn at the high levels they need to be prepared for life after high school.”

So Massachusetts has achieved the nation’s best student achievement through:

  • setting rigorous standards for all kids and not lowering those standards when kids had trouble meeting them
  • testing aligned with those rigorous standards
  • developing teachers prepared to teach all kids the standards
  • state funding that provides more resources for poor kids
  • a limited number of charters that must meet rigorous quality standards to be able to operate (open, stay open and replicate) in the state. 

Michigan, of course has gone in a completely different direction. We have been ambiguous at best about rigorous standards and aligned tests. Have not invested in developing educators to teach rigorous standards. Moved away from preferential state funding for low income students. Instead we have relied on parental choice as the prime lever to drive student achievement. Culminating in the elimination of the cap on charters without any quality standards.

The bottom line: the Massachusetts approach has worked, Michigan’s hasn’t. The United States Chamber of Commerce Foundation Leaders & Laggards: A State-by-State Report Card on Educational Effectiveness gives Michigan an overall grade of D. For academic achievement a D and for academic achievement low income/minority an F. Maybe more concerning, the report gives Michigan an F in both categories for progress since 2007. Massachusetts received an overall grade of A. For academic achievement an A and for academic achievement low income/minority an A. In terms of progress since 2007 the report gives Massachusetts a B for academic achievement and an A for academic achievement low income/minority.

Seems like its time for Michigan to move away from unregulated school choice and to learn from the state with the highest student achievement in the country.

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Lou Glazer

Lou Glazer is President and co-founder of Michigan Future, Inc., a non-partisan, non-profit organization. Michigan Future’s mission is to be a source of new ideas on how Michigan can succeed as a world class community in a knowledge-driven economy. Its work is funded by Michigan foundations.

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