Anderson Economic Group Work

Failing Schools in Michigan: The Surprising Scale

Michigan taxpayers pay $14 billion each year in state and local taxes to support the state’s system of public schools from Kindergarten through High School. More importantly, the system is responsible for the education of over 1.6 million students. The parents of those students, and the taxpayers that support the system, increasingly demand that the school districts and state agencies that administer the system be held account-able for actual results.

The demand for results was heightened in the years 1999 and 2000 by the debate over a Constitutional amendment that would have instituted a tuition voucher system in school districts deemed to be “failing districts.” The idea behind the proposal was to offer parents of kids trapped in failing schools an opportunity to send their children to other schools, including private schools. While the voters rejected the amendment, even many of those that opposed the initiative agreed with the effort to identify those districts that fail to fulfill their mission, and take some corrective action.

This analysis identifies those school districts that, using a definition most parents would find quite reasonable, have failed to meet their fundamental mission. Using data reported by the school districts themselves, and the state Department of Education, we detail the number of such districts, the number of students in those districts, and the amount of taxpayer expenditures for these districts.

The analysis shows that the problem of failing schools is of much larger scale than has been commonly portrayed, and much larger than the list of failing schools under the 2000 tuition voucher amendment. It encompasses both urban schools, and suburban schools, as well as rural schools. It includes schools that receive and spend relatively low amounts of taxpayer dollars. It also includes school districts that spend considerably more than the statewide average, even after that statewide average spending level has increased over the years since the passage of Proposal A in 1994.

Excerpt: A Parent’s Definition of Failing Schools

We choose in this analysis to rely on what a reasonable parent would agree is an unacceptable level of performance for a school district in which his or her child was enrolled.

We reject, in this analysis, any definition that relies on “inputs,” such as teacher salaries, student/teacher ratios, training time, computer expenditures; or per-pupil expenditures. Such statistics, while interesting, are a diversion from the much more important issue at hand. No parent, when his or her child reaches 18 years of age, wonders about the student/teacher ratio in the school system, or the per-pupil expenditure level. Every parent wonders whether their child has learned the basic skills they need to enter college, get technical training, or enter the workforce. For our inspiration, we rely on this wisdom of the parent, rather than the statistics of the bureaucrat.

The Four Basic Skills

What are those basic skills? They certainly include the ability to read, to write, to perform mathematics, and to understand rudimentary science. They also include other factors that we rely on families, communities, and churches to impart, but we can’t measure those. We can measure, and have measured for schools across the state, the proficiency of students in the basic four subjects of reading, writing, math, and science.

One uniform measurement of those skills, the MEAP tests, have been administered throughout the state for the past several years. While not perfect no test is perfect they are one good, uniform, objective measurement of what every parent expects from children about to graduate from High School.

A Humble Criteria: Three-Quarters able to meet state standards

We use in this analysis a very humble criteria for defining success: a school district in which three-quarters or more of the high school juniors can demonstrate they met state standards in reading, writing, math, and science. This is not requiring all A students, or even B students. Met state standards means achieving a level 2 score on a test that has 4 levels. Many parents would find such a standard well below their expectations. To be defined as a success under this criteria, a district need not have 3/4 of its students all pass every single test; just that 3/4 of their students as a group achieved a level 2 result in all four tests. Many students even most students could miss state standards on one test, and still have the district be an overall success.

Excerpt: Results: The Majority of School Districts are Failing

When we apply this humble criteria that just 3/4 of the students can demonstrate proficiency in four basic subjects, we discovered a result that should be shocking to every parent, taxpayer, and educator: Most school districts fail to meet even this humble definition of success.

The following table shows the number of districts, and the students within them, which fail to meet this criteria.

  Number of Districts     Number of Students
Succeeding     43 148,397
Failing 480 1,508,575

Looking at a map of the districts that fail, we see the unhappy pattern: there is no pattern. All across the state, in every county, in rural and urban and suburban districts, in the Upper Peninsula, and the Lower Peninsula, school districts are failing to achieve the level of performance a reasonable parent would expect.