When my child passes me his schoolwork folder, the stuff inside looks convincing — worksheets and handouts with math and reading exercises that seem appropriate for a second grader.
But what do I know? I’m a parent, not a teacher, and I have experience with exactly two school districts — the one I graduated from, and the one my child goes to.
I like my son’s teacher. She’s bright and energetic. She replies promptly to my emails, seems to genuinely like my child, and at our parent-teacher conferences offers assignments and test results that show that he is making consistent progress toward the goals she’s set.
It all seems kosher to me. But what do I know?
Test scores in Michigan are falling. Not just among impoverished kids in struggling urban districts; high-income kids and white kids are losing ground even faster than children we’d generally describe at-risk. That’s what the latest analysis of third-grade reading scores on the state M-STEP exam, released last week by education policy and research organization EdTrust Midwest, discerned.
Third-grade reading is considered a key predictor of future academic success — so important that Michigan recently adopted a law that would require schools to hold back all third-grade students not reading at grade level.
I’m happy with my child’s school, his teacher and the education he is getting. Those middle-class white kids whose test scores aren’t so great? Not my kid, I tell myself.
That’s probably what you’re telling yourself, too.
Some of us are wrong.
There is now a mountain of evidence that proves beyond any reasonable doubt that we here in Michigan are screwing school up, badly.
For more than a decade, student performance on national tests has fallen. In the early 2000s, Michigan kids were smack in the middle of results on the National Assessment of Educational Performance, taken each year by a selection of kids around the country. We’re now a bottom-10 state.
The state has shied away from adopting a simple letter-grade system, that would allow parents an easy way to know whether a school’s performance is up to par. Some state officials say it’s too reductive, distilling the complexity of educational outcomes to a deceptively simple ranking. There’s another theory — that a true accounting of Michigan schools, tied closely to test scores, would yield an uncomfortable number of Fs.
And on the M-STEP, the first exam administered to nearly all Michigan kids, and similiar enough to other states’ tests that comparison is possible, results are even more grim.
Michigan changed its education standards, and the test it uses to determine whether kids are reaching those goals, about three years ago. Amber Arellano, EdTrust’s executive director, says it’s not uncommon for states that have adopted more rigorous standards, and a correspondingly rigorous exam, to see test scores fall.
But that’s normally a one-time phenomenon, she said: Test scores fall in year one, but improve in subsequent years. In three to five years, most states have regained lost ground, and begin to see improvement.
That’s not happening here.
Three independent reports — one commissioned by the Legislature, a second produced by a commission created by Gov. Rick Snyder, and a third issued by a statewide collaborative of school, business and labor leaders — have found that Michigan doesn’t spend enough on education. Nor does the state have the kind of tiered funding that might allow districts to adequately educate kids with learning disabilities, who live with the challenges of poverty, or who don’t speak English.
Snyder has proposed a $233-per-pupil increase in this year’s budget, but it’s unclear whether the state Legislature will go for it. That’s far from the kind of significant investment that would yield real results. And specific programs, like that third-grade reading retention thing (which, absent real resources, will almost certainly require an absolutely unacceptable number of children to repeat the third grade), are almost never accompanied by sufficient dollars to make them effective.
Or to fund the purchase of adequate classroom materials. In Detroit, a curriculum audit the Detroit Public Schools Community District requested to determine whether the classroom materials it is providing teachers are suited to the state’s education standards scored the district’s English curriculum astoundingly low, awarding just three of 21 possible points. The district’s math curriculum was worse, so outdated auditors couldn’t even evaluate it.
It’s shocking, and horrible. Detroit’s planning to fix this problem; Superintendent Nikolai Vitti says the district will spend millions on new materials.
But most districts don’t ever perform this kind of audit, and the state Department of Education doesn’t track whether the curricula districts use align with state standards.
In theory, it’s a self-policing system: Districts want good test scores — that’s what attracts parents, boosts student enrollment and property values — so they’ll spend the cash to ensure curriculum delivers results.
In practice, it doesn’t always work that way.
What’s the problem, in your district? Maybe it’s funding. Maybe it’s curriculum. Maybe it’s teacher pay, or a teacher shortage. Or maybe, like my son’s school, yours is fine.
But what do we know?
Nancy Kaffer is an opinion columnist and member of the Detroit Free Press Editorial Board.