Improving Michigan’s Educational System Linked To Strengthened Workforce, Economy

Monday, July 20, 2015

Mike Gallagher, Correspondent

The link between a state’s dynamic and successful pre-school-through-college (P-20) education system and a strong workforce leading to a vibrant and robust economy has long been recognized by both economic and educational leaders across the nation.

Finding innovative ways to bridge those two elements, especially when a state is strapped for cash due to years’-long recessionary battles and a deteriorating economic base challenged by an ever-changing 21st century focus on technology versus manufacturing, is often difficult.

Michigan is one of those states that has taken a double hit over the past decade in both education funding and a stagnating, yet now slowing emerging economy, but thanks to the work of foundations and a governor who has placed a renewed focus on improving the state’s educational system, positive changes are happening.

A recently released study conducted by the Lansing-based Public Sector Consultants (PSC) – funded by the Steelcase Foundation through the Council of Michigan Foundations (CMF) - recommends the state focus on four key areas to improve educational performance and thus strengthen its future workforce.

Those findings – found in PSC’s report entitled: “Building a Brighter Future: Recommendations for How to Improve Michigan’s Education System” – include:

  • Invest early: “The research is clear. Investments in young children pay off – academically, emotionally and financially.”
  • Focus on teaching: “Ensuring every child has access to a highly effective teacher is essential to improving the state’s academic performance.”
  • Spend efficiently: “Given the fiscal pressure on schools, Michigan needs to study its school finance formulas to ensure resources are distributed as efficiently as possible.”
  • Connect postsecondary: “Building stronger ties between high schools and postsecondary options will help better prepare students for college and career.”

Additionally, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder has lauded the dedication and grantmaking of many foundations throughout the state that have helped fund myriad early childhood educational research efforts and other programs to improve P-20 education outcomes and, in turn, boost the economy through a better trained workforce.

“Michigan certainly has a long way to go to improve our education system,” said Snyder. “But thanks to the generosity and hard work of our foundations and philanthropic community, we are making great strides forward.”

It was at a recent meeting in June hosted by CMF’s P-20 Education Affinity Group and convened by the Office of Foundation Liaison’s Karen Aldridge-Eason and her assistant Maura Dewan, that Snyder sent his new senior education policy advisor – Karen McPhee – to reaffirm and illuminate how “laser focused” the governor is on fomenting positive and effective change.

McPhee told the funders that, as the new senior education policy adviser, “I will help administration efforts to improve reading programs in early grades, work to help prepare high school students for college and careers, and improve academics and transparency in all Michigan schools.

“I look forward to working with educators, stakeholders and policy leaders on behalf of Michigan's 1.5 million students,” McPhee added. “The governor has an ambitious plan for improving educational outcomes and investing in talent development, and the citizens of our state deserve no less.”

McPhee emphasized that third-grade reading is one of the several items she will work with the legislature on for the governor, who has continually stressed its importance as one of the key precursors to student attainment of a better education and then, as a result, a stronger Michigan workforce.

Also addressing the gathering of P-20 funders was PSC vice president Jeff Guilfoyle, who detailed the findings in his firm’s report.

“Our state is still suffering the economy’s ill effects,” said Guilfoyle. “The crippled economy has greatly increased Michigan’s poverty rate and damaged schools financially. Both of these factors have impacted academic performance.”

He pointed out the report’s findings that between 2000 and 2012, Michigan’s poverty rate increased by 7.3 percentage points, the largest increase of any state and twice the increase in the national rate. In addition, slow economic growth combined with declining enrollment and significant increases in legacy costs have put tremendous fiscal pressure on schools.”

The four key PSC strategies, if embraced alone, however, will not lead to a bright future for Michigan children, warned PSC Senior Consultant Michelle Richard.

“Implementation is key,” she said. “Too often we have policies that are implemented well in some districts, but not others. We owe it to our children to identify effective practices and then provide the support to ensure that all districts can execute these policies.”

Renowned educational funding philanthropists, such as John and Nancy Colina of the Colina Foundation, and Carol Paine McGovern, president of the Paine Family Foundation, said the P-20 Education Affinity Group meeting provided important and needed insight and information on the education/workforce conundrum in Michigan.

“The data and the message provided us first of all revealed how badly Michigan is doing in comparison to other states,” said John Colina. “While making real good strides in early childhood education, K-12 and the bridge from high school to college are really weak.

“On the positive side, we are seeing some bridgework where high school kids can take college courses and begin to work with colleges so there is overlap,” he noted. “These students can get a bachelor’s degree in three years or an associate’s degree in one year. Considering the tremendous amount of debt students today are incurring for college, that is really important.”

Nancy Colina said her main takeaways from the P-20 meeting was that the governor and legislators are finally understanding the importance of pre-K education (O to 5 years old) and how that relates to later success in school and, in time, a strengthened state workforce.

“The governor has allocated more money for early childhood education,” she added. “Also, he has moved the focus of early childhood from the Department of Human Services to the state Department of Education. That is a recognition by the governor that it is an education issue that must be addressed.”

John Colina also pointed out how the governor has to address the fact that, due to the state’s financial situation, a number of school districts are losing enrollments and thus receive less state aid and can’t make it economically. “This problem will grow unless he and legislators address it now!”

Paine-McGovern, echoed those sentiments and added, “The (ongoing) focus of foundation work and the governor’s (educational) initiative has us set up well as a state to make the necessary changes and improvements to strengthen both our educational system and thus Michigan’s workforce.

“At the (P-20) meeting, we could see the continuing thread from the (PSC) report research, which I felt was brilliant,” she added. “That research is critical to our ongoing work and where we go from here. Even more focus needs to be placed on early childhood. Issues of teacher training and curriculum also need work. But looking across the spectrum, all of this very energizing.

“We are all working to improve Michigan education and in turn strengthening our state’s workforce,” said Paine-McGovern. “We all must remain committed to moving forward.”

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