Michigan's 'Very Best' Schools Only 'Above Average'

The Michigan Department of Education is revising the way it measures school performance, and while reform is sorely needed, the value of state-based school assessments is limited because they only allow comparisons between schools within Michigan’s borders. While this may confirm that the children of well-to-do parents in suburban districts out-score students in inner city schools, it tells us nothing about how these supposed high-flyers compare to the rest of the country or world.

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To fill the gap, education researchers Jay P. Greene and Josh McGee at the University of Arkansas have created a Global Report Card, which provides this much-needed perspective. Their report card adjusts a district’s performance on state math and reading tests to a national index (using the NAEP), and to an international index (using the PISA). Full details about the methodology are here.

The results are sobering for Michigan. Very few school districts here, even ones thought to be highly successful, hold their own in a national comparison. Out of 14,000 American school districts, none in Michigan rank among the nation’s top 60 in either math or reading. Not Grosse Pointe, not Bloomfield Hills, not Ann Arbor, not East Grand Rapids.

The international comparisons aren’t so hot either. Forest Hills (an affluent suburb of Grand Rapids) had the highest state math score, but it would only fall in the 69th percentile in Canada, 65th in Switzerland and 53rd in Singapore. In reading, the highest performing Michigan district (Frankenmuth) would rank in Canada’s 76th percentile, 83rd in Switzerland and 73rd in Singapore. Michigan’s “very best” are only “above average” on an international scale.

As for Michigan’s worst districts, compared to other industrialized countries the average Detroit student ranks in the 12th percentile in math, and the 25th percentile in reading. Detroit turned in the worst performance of the nation’s largest 30 districts in the international comparison.

As Michigan works to improve our public school system, we should keep this broader perspective in mind. It’s simply not good enough for students to outperform their peers elsewhere in the state. Parents, taxpayers and the public schools themselves should demand a higher level of achievement that competes with the very best systems in the world.

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