You want economic, population growth? Fix the damn schools.
This opinion editorial was written by Angelique Power, president & CEO of The Skillman Foundation, and Imani Foster, communications lead of 482Forward. It was originally posted by Crain’s Detroit Business Forum.
For all the ways we could answer Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s call to grow Michigan’s population – by winning jobs and investment and launching a national marketing campaign, to name just a few you’ll hear about – there is one response that stands above the rest. A total rethink of our education system.
In a respectful twist to the governor’s road repair slogan, the single best way to attract and keep people in Michigan is to fix the damn schools.
The facts are indisputable. While Michigan passed a robust education budget this year, our schools have been underinvested in for 40 years. As a result, our state ranks 36th in K-12 education outcomes, according to the Citizens Research Council. Results of the 2023 Michigan Student Test of Education Progress, known as M-STEP, released this month show that just 40.9% of third graders statewide passed the state’s English language arts test.
Michigan ranks 11th worst in the country in the performance of students from low-income backgrounds, according to Education Trust-Midwest, falling to the bottom five states for 4th grade reading among Black students. The group estimates that Michigan is underfunding students from low-income backgrounds and English learners by more than $5 billion.
When we see these abysmal scores, we need to realize they are not a measure of our students but of our state’s education system. The education equivalent to filling potholes on crumbling highways is what we’re doing now – increasing millages in suburban districts while blaming students, parents, and teachers for the results of systemic decline.
Michigan’s outdated and underfunded education system is not just failing all of our children, it is the root cause of all that ails our state’s growth.
As members of the governor’s population council PreK-12 workgroup, we are urging state leaders to advance and fund massive structural changes that make Michigan a national leader in the design of an exceptional and equitable education system. What would that look like?
Imagine a statewide curriculum that rather than teaching young people how to pass standardized tests, teaches them how to learn and adapt.
Imagine a system that doesn’t punish third graders for reading poorly but instead gives all students and teachers the tools they need to produce lifetime readers and leaders.
Imagine a system that focuses on the whole child, knowing that a student’s mental and physical health is critical to their academic success.
Imagine profound investment in teachers, allowing them to be compensated for time spent inside and outside the classroom.
Imagine giving teachers more time to invest in their own learning to prepare for classwork, learn new ways of teaching, and mentor (or be mentored) in small groups.
Imagine communities ripe with well-funded afterschool programs where young people gather, connect, study, and compete in teams.
Imagine a deeply humane system that embraces the innovation and optimism of Gen Z, the most diverse and civically engaged generation in our nation’s history.
Imagine creating a vision for the state and aligning all Michiganders around it. Schools and state leaders have been advancing important improvements but there is no collective vision. We have 850 school districts, each with its own infrastructure, priorities, and strategies – all competing against each other for a diminishing pool of resources and attention. It’s the “Hunger Games” model of education, and it’s killing Michigan’s future.
Want to make this America’s No. 1 state for economic and population growth? Don’t worry so much about business incentives, marketing campaigns, and other pothole filling. Demand transformational change in public education because no other effort to grow population can succeed without this.
Angelique Power is the president & CEO of The Skillman Foundation, a Detroit-based foundation that puts all of its resources toward brilliant Detroit youth. Imani Foster, 23, is the communication lead for 482Forward, a Detroit nonprofit dedicated to empowering parents and other residents in marginalized communities to transform low-performing schools. They serve together on the PreK-12 Education Workgroup of the Growing Michigan Together Council.
Read the full coverage of Michigan’s efforts to boost its population on Crain’s Detroit Business Forum.