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The Lost Decade

Now he tells us.

In an extraordinarily introspective interview with The Bridge online magazine, state superintendent Mike Flanagan recently acknowledged Michigan was “10 years behind” high performing states such as Massachusetts and Minnesota in education achievement gains.

Lost decades have typically referred to economic collapse and/or stagnation, beginning in Latin America in the 1980s and rolling through Japan in the 1990s and this nation and much of the Western democracies in the first decade of this century.

We’ve suffered no collapse in education, despite the assertion of some, but there is significant stagnation compared to other states and nations.  Flanagan needn’t take all the blame, however.  There’s plenty to go around.

Mostly it’s the result of our national obsession with education as “the future of our economy” and our fear that we’re being left behind in an increasingly competitive global marketplace.   Despite election-advertising induced fears our economy continues to struggle, Business Insider reports the economy grew at the fastest rate in the second quarter – 4.6 percent – than at any time since 2006 and employee productivity is the highest of any mature economy.

Still, as China is poised to pass the United States as the world’s largest economy, a data point driven by its huge population, the fears that our students will be unable to compete prompt a huge amount of churn in education policy, in Michigan and nationally.

Research conducted by Education Trust Midwest, an education research and policy think tank indicates Massachusetts, Minnesota, Tennessee and Florida, four states that are either leading the nation in student proficiency or in student gains on the National Assessment of Education Policy, are states that set education standards and stuck with them. Massachusetts and Minnesota adopted education funding policies that provided more resources for students with the greatest needs.  In Tennessee and Florida, state achievement standards were set in the 1990s and haven’t been changed since, so educators know what they’re shooting for and were given the time necessary to adjust their practices to improve performance.

In Michigan, a recent report indicates inflation adjusted funding is down 9.5 percent since the economic collapse of 2008 and there is little differentiation in funding for students of poverty, English language learners, or others in high-need categories.  For the most part, you get the same amount of state funding for each student at every grade level.  Our accreditation systems have changed several times since the mid-1990s, as have the “cut scores,” or achievement levels on standardized tests that measure student proficiency. 

Nobody with whom I work is against accountability, but the constant churn in tests, in cut scores, in accountability measures and the continued inequities in funding make it very difficult to meet increasingly difficult standards of achievement.

Flanagan told The Bridge that he believes we’re not far off.  I would agree.  But, as the State Board of Education looks to replace Flanagan, the nation’s longest serving chief state school officer, they should look for someone more prone to tweaking than wreaking (havoc) on the policies already in place.  That goes for the next governor and Legislature as well.  


Michigan 10 Years Behind Leading States

What Michigan Schools Can Learn from Leading States

Most States Still Funding Education below Recession Levels

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Ron Koehler
Ron Koehler
Ron Koehler is the Kent ISD Assistant Superintendent and offers his commentary on issues in education. Read Ron's full bio


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