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Michigan spends more on education than other states, but is it money well-spent?

Boy in classroom with his hand raised
Mercedes Mejia
Michigan Radio
A charter advocacy group gives Michigan's charter law a passing grade

Michigan testing scores are treading water. Ron French and Chastity Pratt Dawsey of Bridge Magazine traveled across the country to study states that are getting education right. They say they discovered what it will take to pull Michigan's schools out of the mire of middling-to-poor student achievement.

Stopping in both red and blue states –  Massachusetts, Tennessee, Florida, and Minnesota – French and Pratt worked to avoided bias. 

While Massachusetts is widely known as the gold standard in education, the reporters found that Minnesota, a mid-western state comparable to Michigan, ranks No. 1 in math scores and in the top 10 in every other category.

Ten years ago, Florida and Tennessee scored lower than Michigan. In the last decade, both have ascended in the ranks and surpassed Michigan.


Massachusetts spends strategically: Kids who need more help get more dollars. Minnesota spends about the same as Michigan, but gets better student achievement results. Florida and Tennessee spend significantly less, even on teachers, than Michigan, but also have better student outcomes.

French and Pratt find that spending itself is not the key to success; rather, the way in which money is spent will determine a state's success in education.

Teacher support lagging in Michigan

A common thread between all four states investigated was teacher training. Each state puts an emphasis on teacher training not only before the school year, but also throughout the year. Michigan contrasts sharply from the other case studies in its support of and investment in teachers.

For example, Tennessee put 70,000 teachers through state-sponsored training last year, so that those teachers could return to their own schools as "teacher leaders." In Michigan, no teachers received state-sponsored, state-funded training last year.

Early childhood education another big factor

Over the last couple of years, Gov. Snyder invested in the Great Readiness Program in an effort to get young children from low- and moderate-income families into a preschool program. On the other hand, Minnesota takes preschool investment "exponentially further" and their programs are regarded as a key factor in the state’s overall K-12 success. For the past 40 years, Minnesota families with children aged 0-4 have been able to enroll in a 90-minute weekly class where not only the child, but also the parent, learns.

Consistency in the face of failure

In 1998, Massachusetts got dismal results from a statewide test where only 27% of students passed. Pratt explains "they stuck with the test," regardless of the poor results. Now, most students pass. French found that teachers prefer consistent, clear standards that don't change on a yearly basis. 

Holding charter schools accountable

All states in the study have charter schools, with differing achievement levels. Still, each target state held charters more accountable when compared to Michigan. On the contrary, Pratt says that in Michigan, "there is no expectation or standard for charters to be high achieving." 

Business leaders call for transformation

Massachusetts, Minnesota, Florida, and Tennessee have undergone reform to arrive at their educational goals. But, "entities outside of the educational sphere" led to these transformations. Business leaders pushed for changes, in conjunction with politicians, to improve schools. In Michigan, French suggests progress can be made in the same way preschool reform came about: businesses demanding better talent and broader educational improvements.

So what's the bottom line?

French and Pratt conclude that clarity, willingness to stick to tough reforms, and a long-term commitment regardless of the elected party is essential. Pratt lists dismal employment and economy indicators as problems stemming from poor statewide educational performance and asks, "Can we afford ?not? to do something big, now?"

Listen to our conversation with Ron French and Chastity Pratt Dawsey above.

Annie Norris and Michelle Haun, Stateside

Stateside is produced daily by a dedicated group of producers and production assistants. Listen daily, on-air, at 3 and 8 p.m., or subscribe to the daily podcast wherever you like to listen.
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