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EdTrust Gives Advice to Michigan Policymakers

Education Trust, a Washington public policy group, recently prepared a report about education reform in Michigan. A reader asked me to review it, and I turned to William Mathis of the National Education Policy Center to write an analysis.

Now, given that Governor Rick Snyder is working with an external group to defund public education, these recommendations must be seen in the light of a governor and a legislature that will do whatever they can to outsource funding and education to private entrepreneurs.

Here is Mathis’ take on the Education Trust report:

“Invest in What Works: An Education Road Map for Michigan Leaders.”

EdTrust Midwest

In a new report by The Education Trust – Midwest, the authors spell out what they describe as a “common sense” agenda for the reform of Michigan schools. They set forth a six part program – one with which most reasonable people would agree. However, since the proposal is at a high level of abstraction, the devil is in how the details get worked-out. For example, the report calls for a more adequate funding system as well as for a better accountability system. Will policy-makers adopt a better funding scheme or will they adopt a harsher accountability system?

This 20 page report is heavy on photographs, charts, borders and boxes. The reader would be well advised to check their supply of color ink cartridges before printing. Instead of research (which gets a vague nod in places), the report supports its recommendations by state and district level anecdotes.

The paper sets up the problem in the time-honored and much used “Nation at Risk” format, which can be summarized as “Ain’t it awful!!!” The problems with Michigan education are catalogued using NAEP and state testing results. As can be predicted, the charts are cherry-picked to show Michigan as the lowest performing of the selected comparison states.

As contrasted with other reports in this expanding genre, the report surprisingly lays the blame for this mediocrity on an unusual source:

“Michigan’s primary strategy has been to expand school choice by allowing charter and virtual schools to proliferate, regardless of quality. Michigan has largely counted on choice to dramatically raise achievement – and that strategy hasn’t paid off.” (p. 4)

The report then presents four pages illustrating that the charter and virtual schools have received heavy public emoluments but have simply not delivered on their promises.

Having laid the ground-work, the report then sets forth its six point program.

The first is a “sustained focus on implementation and quality.” True to the “common sense” motif, few would disagree that reforms need long-term and sustained support. Many would lay a good part of the short-comings of NCLB to such a lack of support.

The second is “effective teaching and school leadership.” Again, few would disagree. State leaders are said to have failed to step up to the plate. The authors are undoubtedly correct when they note that districts lack the resources or expertise to carry-out teacher improvement systems. Does this mean test-based evaluation systems? There is an allusion to such a system in the text and the anecdotes but the reader is left adrift on this point. They dodge the issue.

The third is “rigorous college and career-ready leadership.” Although parroting the federal line, the authors recognize that “adoption of these policies is not enough.” Support systems to make this a reality are not in place.

Fourth is “improve school accountability and support.” At some point, the education policy community will become weary of the now meaningless, chest-thumping phrase, “held accountable.” While a school evaluation system is certainly a universal requirement, repeating the empty mantra does not provide useful insight. Recognizing the need for school improvement capacity, the authors do say the schools need “support for improvement based in research and proven expertise, rather than wishful thinking.”

Fifth is to ”revise school funding formulas.” The authors raise the funding adequacy issue particularly for the neediest children. Since 2008 (and the recession) the question of financial adequacy has been eclipsed by the mentality that accountability systems will solve all problems. In fact, some pseudo-research from right wing think-tanks say schools have enough funds (The money matters argument was effectively resolved by 1995 but that doesn’t keep it from resurfacing).  The authors are to be commended for raising this vital point.

The final point is “strengthen relationships with parents and communities.” This point can be found on just about anybody’s list. It seems to be a requirement of all task force reports to bow in this direction.  How this is to be done is left basically unanswered.

If taken in the whole, the “road map” could be quite helpful. Although supported by anecdotes rather than research, many of the points enjoy a strong research foundation. Particularly unusual for the genre, EdTrust Midwest is to be commended for (1) pointing out the shortcomings of charter and virtual schools, (2) highlighting the call for adequate funding particularly for the neediest children, and (3) consistently noting that the school improvement agenda has not been adequately supported.

While applauding the authors for highlighting these findings, the danger of this report (or of any such report) is that, like the report itself, it can be cherry-picked by policymakers to support pre-existing political opinions. This is a danger of reports and recommendations at such high levels of abstraction.

William J. Mathis

National Education Policy Center

April 23, 2013

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