February 20, 2017; Detroit News

When Betsy DeVos was sworn in as the U.S. Secretary of Education, the state of Michigan’s public schools became a national resource to be treasured. DeVos entered her new position with a limited background in the actual science and business of education. Instead, she brought to her office the résumé of a successful market-based educational reform advocate with years of effort spent creating a new model for how our nation’s children should learn.

Much of her work focused on molding educational policy in Michigan, which has become a living laboratory for this new vision of public education. By the end of the last school year, more than nine percent of Michigan’s 1.5 million school-age children were attending charter schools. Another 13 percent of the state’s students attended a public school other than their assigned neighborhood school. An additional three percent are estimated to be home-schooled.

The state’s constitution has kept vouchers off the menu of choice options, but with the choice mechanisms that remain available, currently 25 percent of Michigan’s children are attending schools their families have selected. With this level of transformation from the old to the new, are Michigan’s students seeing the promised benefits of this model of education?

In December, NPQ noted that Michigan’s schools had seen measures of educational outcomes stagnate and even fall in some cases. At the same time, disturbingly, school segregation actually increased. This week, we learned about new data confirming that little benefit from reform is accruing to the state’s students.

In the most recent look at Michigan schools, University of Michigan professor Brian A. Jacob analyzed data from the latest National Assessment of Educational Performance (NAEP), often referred to as the nation’s school report card, to see how Michigan schools were doing. According to Detroit News, “The study…found that Michigan students were at the bottom of the list when it comes to proficiency growth in the four measures of the exam.”

Jacob’s work follows by less than six months a separate review of the NAEP data by Education Trust-Midwest, “Michigan’s Talent Crisis: The Economic Case For Rebuilding Michigan’s Broken Public Education System,” which “found Michigan’s students are falling far behind their peers across the nation [and] that Michigan is in the bottom 10 states for key subjects and grades, including early literacy.” Sunil Joy, assistant director of policy and research at the nonpartisan Education Trust, explained in an email that while both studies used NAEP data, “Jacob’s analysis also incorporates factors like state size, population density, median household income and others. Even when controlling for these factors, Michigan still fares poorly.”

Looking through the prism of a very troubled Detroit school’s system, Stephen Henderson of the Detroit Free Press sees the outcome of Michigan’s deep dive into choice quite darkly:

This deeply dysfunctional educational landscape—where failure is rewarded with opportunities for expansion and ”choice” means the opposite for tens of thousands of children—is no accident. It was created by an ideological lobby that has zealously championed free-market education reform for decades, with little regard for the outcome.

Randy Speck, Detroit School Superintendent, adds his perspective:

Because we were focused on penalizing the worst schools with the highest poverty and obstacles to overcome, we forgot there were real children with real needs who needed to be educated…Although money in an equitable manner is desperately needed in Michigan, what is truly needed is the understanding that there is zero urgency.

The overall struggle of Michigan schools to improve is not solely the result of troubles in Detroit or other economically depressed communities. The Education Trust report ended its review of poor test results with this caution:

Let’s be clear: those who think that Michigan’s unacceptable educational performance is somehow due to our large numbers of poor and African American students need only look elsewhere around the country, where other states are making enormous progress and learning gains for their most vulnerable children.

Despite the enthusiastic belief of Ms. DeVos’ and President Trump that choice is the answer to educational success, these less-than-stellar results should be enough to cause them to step back and think seriously about why, at least in Michigan, they seem not to have worked. Professor Jacob has suggested a number of factors that need to be considered, including “a lack of adequate state and local funding for schools, the highly decentralized nature of governance that makes it difficult for the state Department of Education to develop coordinated reforms, the lack of regulation and accountability in the charter sector, and the economic and political instability that has plagued Detroit and other urban areas in the state.”

If the forces that impede our children’s education come from outside the schoolhouse walls, are ones that schools themselves cannot fix, and need to be addressed with a degree of urgency, how can we ignore them? If the purpose of school reform is to improve education, then let’s figure out how to really succeed. DeVos and Trump will quickly see, if they are willing to do the homework, that the lesson the Michigan experiment has to teach is that choice is not a magic bullet.—Martin Levine