Study: Over $600 million per year for remedial ed

Communities weigh in on unprepared students at public forums across Michigan

 Michigan businesses and institutions of higher learning are paying an estimated $601 million per year due to the lack of basic reading, writing, and math skills among students and employees, according to a study released in September by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.

"We're not talking about higher-level skills. We're talking about reading, basic grammar, and simple arithmetic skills every citizen must possess in order to survive in an increasingly complex world," says study author Dr. Jay P. Greene.

Greene is a senior fellow with the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research and a research associate with the Harvard Program on Education Policy and Governance.

The study, The Cost of Remedial Education: How Much Michigan Pays When Students Fail to Learn Basic Skills, reached its astonishing estimate of remedial education's costs by employing five separate strategies and taking an average of the five figures.

The estimate is conservative, Greene says, because it does not include the cost of college-level work that has been "watered down" but not classified as remedial, expenditures on technology by businesses to make up for employees' lack of basic skills, capital expenditures required to provide remedial education, and additional costs incurred because of the many people who require remedial education but never receive it.

Greene says the Michigan figure can be extrapolated to reach a national cost of $16.6 billion per year for remedial education. But money isn't the only consideration, he adds. "The financial costs to provide remedial education are high, but the human costs of students failing to receive minimal skills are incalculably higher," he says.

"The failure of our schools is not mainly a dollar-and-cents problem," agrees Dr. Tom Bertonneau, an instructor at Central Michigan University. "It is, in fact, a measure of our own distance from an understanding of the nature of this tragedy that to have its maximum impact upon us, it must be expressed in terms of dollars and cents."

Bertonneau authored an essay, included in the study, that explains how poor education harms students. Dr. David W. Breneman, dean of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia and former president of Kalamazoo College, and Dr. Herbert Walberg, research professor of education and psychology at the University of Illinois at Chicago, provided additional commentary for the study.

Greene proposes three solutions to the growing need among students for remedial education: Competency tests required to graduate high school, a full or partial "money-back guarantee" offered by K-12 school districts, and increased school choice.

"While it is difficult to get educators to agree on the reasons for the problem, the focus of debate unquestionably revolves around whether elementary and secondary schools are doing an adequate job of teaching these skills," he says.

The problem of unprepared students extends even beyond math and reading, according to some educators. "Most of the students who come to us not only lack math and English skills, but they lack basic academic skills," says Janet Dettloff, chair of the Math and Sciences Division at Wayne County Community College. "They have no idea what is expected of them at the college level. They don't know how to take notes. They don't read the assigned material. And many of them don't even come to class. How did they get through high school without these skills?"

Community forums

Greene and the Mackinac Center went on the road in September to get opinions about the study's findings from educators, business leaders, and citizens throughout Michigan at a series of six public forums, attended by over 250 people.

Prominent leaders from the K-12, higher education, and business communities in Grand Rapids, Saginaw, Lansing, Ypsilanti, Traverse City, and Southfield provided formal responses to the problem of remedial education, which was followed by audience interaction and participation.

Representing educators from the K-12 system were Dr. Patricia Newby, superintendent of Grand Rapids Public Schools; Dr. Michael Shibler, superintendent of Rockford Public Schools near Grand Rapids; Mr. Justin King, executive director of the Michigan Association of School Boards; Mr. Ryan Donlan, superintendent of Bay-Arenac Community High School; Mr. Michael Krigelski, superintendent of Airport Community Schools near Ypsilanti; and Dr. Jayne Mohr, assistant superintendent of Traverse City Area Public Schools.

Higher education panelists included Dr. Arend "Don" Lubbers, president of Grand Valley State University; Dr. Leonard Plachta, president emeritus of Central Michigan University; Dr. Thomas Brennan, former Michigan Supreme Court justice and president of Thomas M. Cooley Law School; Dr. Thomas Sullivan, president of Cleary College; Dr. Laurie Chesley, dean for learning at Northwestern Michigan College; and Dr. Joe Champagne, former president of Oakland University and current dean at Macomb Community College.

Business and industry leaders included Mr. Charles Stoddard, president of Grand Bank; Mr. Regan Wieland, CEO of Plyforms, Inc. of Bay City; Mr. James Barrett, president of the Michigan Chamber of Commerce; Mr. Doug Bishop, former chairman of the Traverse Area Chamber of Commerce; and Mr. Lloyd Reuss, former president of General Motors and current executive dean for advanced technologies at Focus: HOPE.

Copies of Greene's study are available from the Mackinac Center at (989) 631-0900 or on the Internet at www.mackinac.org. Video clips of the forum panelists soon will be available online as well.