Call for urgency in fixing schools in Michigan

Call for urgency in fixing schools in Michigan

(Mich.) As one of the few states in the nation with declining reading scores for more than a decade, Michigan officials are considering a plan to do away with traditional grade levels and instead to promote students only after they’ve shown mastery of content.

A blue ribbon panel appointed jointly by Gov. Rick Snyder and legislative leaders has also suggested adoption of new achievement measures that would include better readiness assessments for early leaners, third grade reading proficiency standards and performance goals for all eighth graders in math and science.

“It is easy to look for excuses or to believe that our local schools are doing fine—to believe that this is only a problem in other districts or for someone else’s children,” the members of the panel wrote. “We need not blame people or the past; we need to transform the system.”

The panel, known as the 21st Century Education Commission, made a call for urgency in both tone and substance. They noted that Michigan’s 4th graders rank 41st in reading performance–a trend line that has been declining since 2003.

 The problems, the commission pointed out, are not limited to low-income schools. Even when students who qualify for free- or reduced-price meals are removed from the analysis, the state’s 4th graders still rank near the bottom nationally.

The answer, the commission said, is for the state to set some lofty goals to be completed by 2025 including:

  • 70 percent or more of all 25-year-olds will have completed a college degree, occupational certificate, apprenticeship, or formal skill training;
  • Test scores overall for Michigan children will score in the top ten among U.S. states on the bi-annual National Assessment of Educational Progress in reading, math, and science; and
  • The high school graduation and postsecondary enrollment gap between low-income and middle-income children in Michigan will have disappeared.

Among the ideas that the commission floated in their report is the novel concept of basing student progress though the system on competency rather than time.

“The current system struggles to accommodate the diversity of achievement levels among students (whether a student is performing above or below grade level) especially as students move from lower to higher grades,” the report said. “This creates needless instructional complexity for educators, and means that meeting each student where she or he is academically and developmentally is virtually impossible.”

If a mastery-based system was adopted, they said, “a student could be learning at an ‘eighth-grade’ math level but a ‘fifth-grade’ reading level.”

They pointed out that already some districts in Michigan are using the competency-base system including Upper Peninsula and West Michigan. They suggested the state create incentives to help encourage the transition.

“In Michigan’s current system, students have a set amount of time to master content; they are moved on when that time is over, whether they have learned it or not,” the commission said. “Time is the constant, and learning is the variable. Michigan should move to a system where learning is the constant and time is the variable.”

The commission also said the state should focus on key choke-points in the system where special attention might help close the achievement gap. They called for more and better use of performance data to guide instruction and the use of new assessments that are aligned with college and career readiness goals.

Among the areas of focus:

  • Developmentally-appropriate readiness at the start of kindergarten;
  • Third-grade reading proficiency in preparation for reading to learn;
  •  Proficiency in math by eighth grade in preparation for science, technology, engineering, and math classes in high school;
  • Using college preparation test scores (such as the PSAT, SAT, or ACT) for the option to pursue enrollment at a university and qualify for merit-based financial aid; and
  • Need for remedial coursework upon enrollment in college.

Although many of the proposed changes will no doubt prove costly and politically challenging, Gov. Snyder gave the commission’s report his tacit backing.

“If we are going to have a P-20 education system that truly prepares our children for the 21st century in Michigan and the world, we must be willing to admit where that system is falling short today,” Snyder said at a news conference last week.

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