Education Trust Midwest has just released its study on third grade reading and, predictably, the results aren’t great. This study uniquely compares Michigan data to other states, and according to Ed Trust’s Amber Arellano, “It’s telling us that we haven’t made progress toward improvement. We’ve actually fallen behind.”
Historically, the response to such results is to look at where to affix blame, and this traditionally falls on teachers and schools. We can be assured that this will happen again, and there will be much bluster about “failing” schools, and teachers who are “failing” our kids.
What there will not be is a broader discussion about the context that our schools and teachers are working within. If Michigan student test scores have declined over a period of time, it might be important to look at how the conditions that create the context for learning have changed over time also.
Here’s a start.
Teacher Working Conditions (= Student Learning Conditions)
In the fall of 2017, Mike Adonzio, an Education Policy professor at Wayne State, wrote, “The Michigan Department of Education reported last year that the average teacher salary in our state had declined for five consecutive years. The problem is even worse in our large, urban districts like Detroit, where district teachers endured seven years without a raise and suffered a 10 percent pay cut in 2013.
Even though teacher pay in Michigan is not low when compared to to overall personal income in the state, the falling teacher salaries have taken a toll on our public schools. A 2016 report by the Learning Policy Institute indicates that fully 10 percent of Michigan teachers left the profession in 2013, as compared with 3 percent in Massachusetts, widely considered our best state school system and where starting teacher salaries are 13 percent higher than Michigan’s. It is estimated that more than 100,000 Michiganians with a valid teaching certificate are no longer working in the profession. Certainly, individual decisions to enter or leave the teaching profession depend on more than salary. Working conditions, including competent and supportive leadership and a collegial environment, play a role. But compensation matters.“
Teaching as a profession, is much less attractive, much more maligned, and much more difficult than it ever has been.
How about this story?
“Andrea Catalina is in her 12th year of teaching in Holly, working with cognitively impaired students. Now she waitresses on the weekends. She had no choice but to take on a second job, amid her district’s six-year pay freeze, rising costs, and $450 in monthly student loan payments.
“I’m always tired,” she said, describing a juggling act of prepping for classes, teaching, completing mandated paperwork, and waiting tables at a local sports bar. ‘It’s just this feeling of carrying a 50-pound weight behind me.’
Catalina could make more money waitressing full-time, but she prefers to stay in education.”
Yes, you read that correctly, not only does Andrea waitress in addition to teaching in order to support herself, but she could make more money waitressing full-time than teaching. I think waitressing is great, but it doesn’t require a bachelor’s and a master’s degree. And waitresses aren’t evaluated by their customers’ test scores.
So teacher working conditions might be a problem.
Though this Ed Trust study supposedly does differentiate for poverty, and finds that the test scores have declined across SES, it is important to recognize that as poverty rates increase overall, we can expect test scores to decline overall, and to also understand that poverty represents a huge stress on any school system. So not only are poor kids affected as poverty rates increase, teachers and all kids are effected by the increased stress of increasing poverty.
And what has happened to the poverty rate? According to a 2017 study done by the Michigan League for Public Policy, “…the child poverty rate has increased by 15 percent since 2008.”
So poverty might be a problem.
Charter School Growth, Private Profit Growth
I don’t want to go too far down this rabbit hole. Much good work has already done on exposing for profit charters in the state of Michigan.(See here for a recent example.) As we know, the destabilization of public education through the rapid growth of for profit charters was supported by the huge financial backing of our current Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.
However, it is important to understand that this destabilization has been occurring as teaching conditions have worsened and test scores have declined. It is not unfair to imagine there might be some connections.
According to the New York Times:
“Michigan’s aggressively free-market approach to schools has resulted in one of the most deregulated educational environments in the country, a laboratory in which consumer choice and a shifting landscape of supply and demand (and profit motive, in the case of many charters) were pitched as ways to improve life in the classroom for the state’s 1.5 million public-school students. But a Brookings Institution analysis done this year of national test scores ranked Michigan last among all states when it came to improvements in student proficiency. And a 2016 analysis by the Education Trust-Midwest, a nonpartisan education policy and research organization, found that 70 percent of Michigan charters were in the bottom half of the state’s rankings. Michigan has the most for-profit charter schools in the country and some of the least state oversight. Even staunch charter advocates have blanched at the Michigan model.”
And in the recent Ed Trust study, it was found that, “About 30% of low-income students in traditional public schools were proficient in third-grade reading in 2017, compared with 23% of those in charter schools.
So the destabilization of traditional public education through the growth of charters might be a problem.
(Note: I am increasingly uncomfortable with pitting charter teachers against traditional public ed teachers. I love john a. powell’s mantra, “Be easy on people, hard on systems.” This system of profit-making off of the commons hurts us all.)
Flint as a Microcosm
It would be helpful to understand these issues if we could put them all into a petri dish of nightmarish proportions and see what comes of it.
Unfortunately, we have that in Flint.
As we know, they’ve had a bit of a water crisis.
And how have these conditions of extreme stress affected test scores? Rochelle Riley shows us:
“Third-grade reading proficiency in Flint, where Snyder allowed the water — and children — to be poisoned by lead, dropped from 41.8% in 2014 to 10.7% last year.
That’s a nearly three-quarters drop.
Read it again: That’s nearly a three-quarters drop in third-grade reading proficiency among children whose lives were affected by lead poisoned water during the Flint water crisis.
‘We’re in crisis mode,’ said Flint school board vice president Harold Woodson.”
Flint is on the front end of a crisis that inevitably affects us all.
Our state’s response to all of this has been to institute a third grade reading retention policy while exacerbating the dissolution of the necessary conditions for teaching and learning.
I can’t even…
If we really cared for our students, we would understand that we have a problem.
Who is failing?
It isn’t our teachers or schools.