Our recommendations for redesigning Michigan’s education system

Last month we released our first ever state policy agenda. In it we offered a set of recommendations for how we redesign our pre-K to 16 education system, create places where talent wants to live and work, and broadly share prosperity, all with the goal of raising living standards for all Michiganders. Today we’re releasing the first of three detailed reports – in each focus area – providing ideas for how state policymakers can implement our recommendations. The first report, Improving student outcomes from education, birth to college, details our recommendations for redesigning Michigan’s education system. Click here to download a pdf of the report. 

There are two essential understandings that drive our recommendations. The first is that the economy our students will be entering is one marked by rapid change. Smarter and smarter machines are increasingly taking on more and more tasks that humans once did. No one knows what the jobs of tomorrow will be.

To thrive in this ever-changing economy, individuals need to be really good at all the non-algorithmic skills computers aren’t good at yet. The best definition we’ve found for this complex set of skills comes from the book Becoming Brilliant, by learning scientists Roberta Michnick Golinkoff and Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, who label them the six Cs: collaboration, communication, content, critical thinking, creativity, and confidence. It’s these skills that will enable students to complement rather than be replaced by machines, and prepare students not just for a first job, but for a forty-year career.

The value of the 6 Cs is, in large part, why the returns to a four-year college degree have increased so considerably over the past 40 years. A four-year college degree signals to employers that you’ve spent four years certifying your credentials in 21st century skills: writing analytically, collaborating with classmates, thinking critically about important issues, conducting research, and directing yourself to complete a rigorous four-year project. It’s theses skills that will continue to hold value no matter how the labor market changes.

The second essential idea underpinning our recommendations is that everyone deserves the education described above. Yet today, it’s only the affluent who have access to it.

Both nationally and here in Michigan, we have a two-tiered education system. Childhoods in affluent families are marked by stimulating and nurturing experiences, and heaps of enrichment activities; less affluent children receive less enrichment, with the poorest children often experiencing toxic levels of stress and neglect. In K-12, affluent suburban schools and prestigious private schools have expansive curriculums, and mission statements that focus on curiosity, creativity, self-discovery, and the joy of learning; non-affluent students attend schools that spend all their time and energy focused on a set of narrow skills measured by standardized tests, and are often told that college isn’t for everyone. Affluent children have access to the nation’s most selective higher education institutions, while non-affluent children largely attend open-enrollment two and four-year institutions with low completion rates, if they pursue postsecondary education at all.

This can no longer be the case. The goal of our education system must be the same for all students: to equip them with a broad set of skills that will enable them to pursue whatever it is they want to do with their lives. Our report offers some ideas for how we might do that.

The report is broken into three sections. The first section outlines what needs to change in our current education system. This includes broad access and quality in early childhood care and education, starting at birth; a K-12 system built around rigorous, relevant, and engaging projects, taught by instructors who are masters of the 6 Cs themselves; an accountability system that holds schools – and the management that run schools – accountable not to a narrow band of math and reading skills, but to a student’s long-term success; and a funding system that, from birth through college, eliminates the ever-present funding gap between affluent and non-affluent students.

The second section focuses on the one aspect of our education system upon which just about everything else depends, namely the individuals working in and supporting our schools. A career working in education is not an appealing prospect for top talent coming out of our colleges and universities. Pay is low, criticism is high, and career pathways are often non-existent. We won’t have a top education system, focused on developing curious, creative, critical thinkers, until we get top talent working in and supporting our schools, and we need to adjust our education policies to that end. Included in our recommendations are ideas for how we invest in teachers, so they’re compensated as professionals; make the work of teaching more appealing by changing both what gets measured and what we’re aiming for; and build the educational institutions that can provide stable professional development and pathways for individuals who want to spend their careers in education.

Finally, the third section outlines how we can achieve greater socioeconomic integration in our neighborhoods and schools. If we had to pull one lever that would most dramatically change life outcomes for non-affluent kids, it would be to place them in low-poverty neighborhoods and have them attend low-poverty schools. Education research since the 1960s has found the composition of a school’s student body to be more strongly related to achievement than any other school factor. And in addition to attending a low-poverty school, living in a low-poverty neighborhood positively impacts virtually every aspect of a child’s life, from exposure to crime to health outcomes to the perception of order – all of which have a dramatic impact on a child’s chance of success in life. Included in our recommendations are ideas for how we strategically use federal funds and alter zoning laws to integrate neighborhoods; encourage voluntary school integration through targeted school investments and regional coordination; and offer non-affluent students greater access to college experiences while still in high school.

The central goal behind all our work is to raise living standards for all Michiganders. The best way to do that, by far, is by both increasing educational attainment and designing an education system that builds the 6 Cs. We hope that the ideas in this report help to stimulate a conversation around how we do both of those things. We’re eager to hear feedback and other ideas, and we hope you’ll join us in the conversation.

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