Saturday, September 22, 2007

Math's not important...

Several weeks ago, the Oakland Press published my opinion piece on K-12 test scores (Michigan Merit Exam and ACT), in which I cautioned readers to beware of schools “spinning" the test scores story to influence public opinion. (A blog entry and the article are here.)

William Boyle, Principal of the Bloomfield Hills Alternative High School countered with his own opinion, which didn't actually rebut my premise on test score "spin", but instead, challenged the notion that studying advanced math is important.

Oakland Press: Education is about more than just math (09/17/07)

Boyle states, “Using present test score results, Reno points out that many of our students will not be ready for ‘college math.’ This statement assumes that the need to know higher-level math is important for all.”

He goes on to say, “In fact, the need for math in the educational world is highly overstated… yet Reno suggests that 100 percent of our students need to know it.”

Unfortunately, I’ve heard similar arguments raised at Rochester's own school board table. It's as if some honestly believe that children interested in art or music don’t need much more than “checkbook math”. Or that students who aren’t going to be doctors really don’t need biology.

If 100% of our students don't need math and science, what percentage do?

What fraction of U.S. students should be guided to pursue less rigorous coursework because they view academic subjects as “drudgery”?

And if a student does view academic subjects as “drudgery", is this saying something about the student or the teaching?

Boyle quotes
Dennis Redovich, of the Center for the Study of Jobs & Education in Wisconsin and the United States, “Less than 5 percent of jobs in the United States require higher math and science preparation.”

When did teaching bare minimums become our goal?

Redovich is a scary source. The forward to his book, "The Big Con in Education", points out, "Most jobs the economy is creating are low-skill, service sector jobs. Wal-Mart trumps Microsoft." As if that's supposed to lead to a career strategy on which to base a student's education.

Once upon a time there were those who argued that because children would grow up to be farmers or factory workers, there wasn't much reason to teach them to read.

The world has since evolved.

The merits of learning math should be obvious. Math is sometimes referred to as the language of science. Our world advances in countless ways due to the work of those who apply higher order math to scientific and technological innovation.

But beyond the thousands of ordinary and extraordinary jobs which require mathematical knowledge, the study of mathematics is a universally recognized for its fundamental value in developing critical thinking skills.

And despite what Boyle says, math does not conflict with creativity.

Stephen Campbell, Professor of Education at the University of California, Irvine says this about studying math:

"In its finest sense, mathematics is a well-established and proven key to unlocking the infinite potential of the human mind to create new conceptual structures and to discover existing ones. The study of mathematics has long been recognized the most appropriate way out of the cave of human ignorance."

We should teach advanced math because of its relevance and its potential across all disciplines.

And we should teach advanced math because we can. Children of every race, ethnicity, religion, and income level can learn it with hard work, disipline, and good teaching.

I was surprised at the statement, "Because of the increased obstacles, more of our students will choose to opt out of the educational system." The new state graduation requirements specifically provide “opt out” provisions so that students -- with parent and educator agreement -- can opt out of the graduation requirements rather than opt out of school. This was specifically designed for those Boyle describes as being “not hardwired for math”.

I agree it’s unlikely that we’ll get 100% of our students through these tough courses, and we do need a safety net. But that “opt out” bar should be set pretty high, and 100% should always be our goal.

Yes, it’s tough for children – really tough for some – to get through advanced academic subjects. But as parents and teachers, we have an obligation to encourage students not to give up just because something is hard.

Boyle’s article helps to illustrate that this will be a challenge for educators as well.

Parents and policymakers need to encourage them too, so that they don’t give up on our children – just because it’s hard.

==> Mike.

P.S. The other point made by Mr. Boyle -- that setting high standards is some sort of elitist plot with a "hidden agenda" -- is absurd.


Friday, September 14, 2007

We ALL pay to play

Here’s an interesting decision.

Oakland Press: No more paying to play sports in Oxford (09/14/07)

Oxford’s projecting a revenue windfall due to the fact that they had an increased enrollment of 90 students. This presumably generated an extra $600,000 or more in extra, unexpected revenue.

The board decided that the best choice of where to place some of that money was in athletics.

That’s certainly their prerogative and it’s not without precedent. Earlier this year the school board for Van Dyke Public Schools chose to layoff teachers rather than chop funding for athletics. (I wrote about that here last April.)

My initial thought was that this district must’ve had some pretty impressive results if the board is choosing to invest it’s additional dollars in athletics instead of academics.

So, I took a look at Oxford’s MME high school test results,
found here on the Michigan Department of Education’s website. The percentage of students that passed math, science, and English was in the 60% - 63% range.

This means that of their 300+ high school students:

122 students (39.2%) did not pass Math.
115 students (37.3%) did not pass Science.
115 students (37.7%) did not pass English.

The ACT scores provide additional
measurement data (found here). Comparing ACT test results to the ACT College Readiness Benchmark is one more way to evaluate the effectiveness of a school. From the ACT website:

“A benchmark score is the minimum score needed on an ACT subject-area test to indicate a 50% chance of obtaining a B or higher or about a 75% chance of obtaining a C or higher in the corresponding credit-bearing college courses, which include English Composition, Algebra, Social Science and Biology. These scores were empirically derived based on the actual performance of students in college.”

Here are Oxford’s average scores, and how they compare to these benchmarks:

English Benchmark: 18
Oxford’s Average: 19.7

Reading Benchmark: 21
Oxford’s Average: 20

Math Benchmark: 22
Oxford’s Average: 19.8

Science Benchmark: 24
Oxford’s Average: 20.3

So, in three out of four subjects, Oxford’s average student is not prepared to do college level work.

In the article, Superintendent William Skilling points out this investment in athletics will improve education. He also says, “we’re not going to have pay for play this year and in the future. We’re not bringing it back. We’re not going to do it. It hurts kids.”

Looking at this from a “hurting kids” perspective, I’m curious if there is any minimum test score level that would prompt them to reinstate pay for play in order to direct more resources to academics.

I’m not trying to single out Oxford. Out of all Michigan high schools, only 66 had their average scores exceed 22, indicating that their students were prepared for college level math. And of those, half are private schools.

And I do believe pay for play should be waived for some children. Those that qualify for free and reduced lunch should also be able to play sports for free.

And I’m not opposed to athletics; I know it helps children learn about teamwork and commitment. It also provide them with activities, which can help to keep them from straying into trouble.

My point is that Michigan’s educational leadership seems too preoccupied with non-academic high school experiences, such as athletics and electives. There is nothing wrong with supporting athletics and electives, but it should not come at the expense of academics, especially when the data clearly shows poor results.

There’s no doubt that the money being used to eliminate pay-to-play could’ve been used for curriculum development or new intervention strategies designed to help struggling students. When people read articles like the one I've referenced here, they need to understand the board is making choices.

I posted this entry because it serves as a great example of the type of well intentioned but misguided choices that are being made by school boards around the state. I believe this type of approach is one of the leading factors in the decline of Michigan’s K-12 education system.

Here is the full article in case the link doesn’t work.

No more paying to play sports in Oxford

By KEITH DUNLAP Of The Oakland Press

At a time when most school districts around the state are taking away, Oxford Area Community Schools has decided to give money back to its athletic participants and their families.

At a meeting Tuesday, the Oxford Board of Education eliminated the district’s pay-toplay requirement by a unanimous vote of 7-0, allowing middle school and high school students to play sports for free.

The district hopes to send out refund checks to any student or family who paid to play a sport this year within the next few weeks.

High school athletes had to pay $150 per year to play a sport, while middle school athletes had to pay $90.

“I think it has great impact on our kids and our families,” Oxford Athletic Director Pat Ball said. “I’m thrilled for our kids and families for what the board has done. I regretted when we had to start it four or five years ago, and I’m glad we can eliminate it.”

The move was spearheaded by Oxford Area Community Schools Superintendent William Skilling, who was eyeing eliminating pay-to-play when he took over as superintendent July 1.

Skilling said the district planned to eliminate pay-toplay next year, but decided to do it this year when there was an enrollment increase of 90 students in the district, something that wasn’t projected in the district’s 2007-08 budget.

Skilling also said the move wasn’t temporary. There won’t be any pay-to-play requirements for athletes next year and beyond.

“With the increased enrollment and all that brought, we just said, ‘Let’s give the money back,’ ” Skilling said. “That’s a big decision. It’s a statement that we’re not going to have pay for play this year and in the future. We’re not bringing it back. We’re not going to do it. It hurts kids.”

Previously the superintendent for Webberville schools, Skilling said eliminating pay-to-play led to a dramatic increase in athletic participation in that district, and hopes it will not only benefit the athletic programs in Oxford, but the district as a whole.

“By improving on what we have, the result is that not only will you have better education, but more students entering your district because you’re doing the opposite of what everyone else is doing,” Skilling said.


Thursday, September 13, 2007

Setting the bar low... and tripping over it!

One of the problems I've encountered during my indoctronation into education has been the low expectations set by local education leaders. So many make excuses about why a student cannot achieve. They use economic or racial demographics as an excuse. They suggest that not all kids are "college bound". They don't feel those students pursing an artistic career need to study academic subjects.

They set the bar so low that our students are tripping over it!

The following article addresses those expectations, as well as the need to better align high school and college curriculums.

eSchool News: Report: Schools aren't preparing kids for college (09/13/07)

Here is a link to that Alliance for Excellent Education report:
AEE's Issue Brief: "High School Teaching for the Twenty-First Century: Preparing Students for College"

This article truly addresses the belief we must all accept in order to insure that we leave no child behind:

"To prepare students for success in college, panelists said, teachers must believe that all--and not just a few--students can succeed; make honors courses available as electives for all students; create rigorous work assignments using collaboration and problem-solving; teach reading comprehension and writing skills; and, most of all, motivate students to achieve."

Here is the full article in case the link doesn't work:

Report: Schools aren't preparing kids for college
Better alignment is needed between high school and college standards, panelists say

By Meris Stansbury, Assistant Editor, eSchool News
September 13, 2007

Students are taught to believe that earning a high school diploma means they are prepared to enter college, and many policy makers and school leaders still believe that multiple-choice assessments are adequate measures of students' skills. But at a panel discussion convened by the Alliance for Excellent Education (AEE) on Sept. 12, researchers and education professionals said this is too often not the case.

AEE held the event to discuss an issue brief it published on the same day. Sponsored by the MetLife Foundation, the report claims that a fundamental disconnect exists between the way high school teachers prepare their students for the future and how students truly achieve success and meet the demands of college.

"We consider this a timely report, as well as a relevant one, since the House Committee for Education and Labor is currently looking at No Child Left Behind," said Bob Wise, AEE president and former governor of West Virginia. Among other issues, House legislators are considering measures that would call for revised assessments for college readiness and different teaching methods for encouraging 21st-century learning in their reauthorization of NCLB. (See "Lawmakers step up NCLB renewal process".)

The issue brief is also important because "recent studies have shown that the skills needed to succeed in college are similar to the skills needed for good-paying jobs," said Cyndie Schmeiser, president of the education division at ACT Inc., which administers the ACT college entrance exam.

Jane West, moderator of the panel discussion and vice president of government and external relations for the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, agreed with Schmeiser. "Just look at the Ford Motor Company, which considered moving states because they said they wanted more qualified, college-educated workers," West said.

The issue brief, a collection of data from various news sources and studies conducted by organizations such as ACT, states that only 34 percent of students graduate from high school ready for college--and that number is smaller for minorities. Overall, it says, only 18 percent of high school freshmen graduate in four years, go on to college, and earn an associate's or bachelor's degree.

Also, one-third of those who make it to college must take remedial courses, costing the nation more than $1.4 billion every year at community colleges alone, according to the report.

The problem, panelists said, is that high school standards, assessments, and course requirements are not aligned with those of colleges. In a recent ACT poll, 65 percent of college professors said they do not believe high school standards prepare students for college. Many professors believe teachers are covering too many subjects too broadly, when only a few core subjects should be taught and basic skills should be well developed in all students.

In terms of assessments, multiple-choice tests rarely ask students to explain their reasoning or apply knowledge to new situations. "High schools are increasingly boxed in by assessments," said Linda Darling-Hammond, professor of education at Stanford University's School of Education. "There's just a huge mess of expectations."

To help solve these problems, AEE and ACT have outlined definitions for college readiness. AEE defines it as "the knowledge and skills students need to succeed in entry-level college coursework without remediation." ACT's definition consists of four parts: habits of mind, key content knowledge, academic behaviors, and contextual skills.

"Habits of mind" refers to the skills that professors consistently identify as critical-thinking skills, such as analysis, interpretation, problem solving, and reasoning skills. Key content knowledge is the essential knowledge of each discipline that prepares students for advanced study, or study of the "big ideas" in each content area.

Academic behaviors include skills such as reading comprehension, time management, note-taking, and self-awareness of how one is thinking and learning. Contextual skills are skills needed to get into college, such as understanding the admissions process, placement testing, financial aid, and the expectations of college life.

To prepare students for success in college, panelists said, teachers must believe that all--and not just a few--students can succeed; make honors courses available as electives for all students; create rigorous work assignments using collaboration and problem-solving; teach reading comprehension and writing skills; and, most of all, motivate students to achieve.

"Currently, there's no universal standard for all students. All students should be able to accomplish and succeed," said Doug Wood, executive director of the National Academy for Excellent Teaching at the Teachers College of Columbia University.

Kim McClung, an English teacher at Kent-Meridian High School in Washington state, said most teachers teach to the "lowest common denominator, but they need to expect the best from every single student."

"Don't use a common-language version of a Shakespeare play because you think your students can't learn it. Take the time; teach them how to read it," McClung said.

But the panelists acknowledged that teachers must receive support to make this happen.

For example, teachers must be given more time to collaborate with colleagues and talk with individual students. They need time to "give feedback and ask for work revisions," Darling-Hammond explained.

Teachers also must receive ongoing professional development to know their subject at a college level and to update their knowledge regularly, in order to incorporate critical-thinking skills into the classroom. For instance, a chemistry teacher not only must know the principles of chemistry, but also should encourage reading and writing skills for comprehending text, as well as preparing a lab report and analyzing results.

"If you're more efficacious, you're more likely to stay in your profession," said Darling-Hammond.

Incentives and induction are also important. Schools need incentives to attract and retain good teachers, and new teachers should have a mentor, a first-year residency, or should partner with another teacher as they adapt to the classroom environment and learn their craft.

"Induction is so important," McClung said. "In California, there are lots of first-year residencies, and this has really helped put theory into practice."

Finally, teachers need helpful, longitudinal data and the skills to interpret this information as a tool to drive individual student instruction.

Panelists ended the discussion by listing two or three policies they'd like to see changed or enacted.

• Darling-Hammond: Incentives for creating new, more productive assessments; a redesign of high schools so they are better able to support teachers; and programs that prepare teachers for college alignment.

• Wood: More college-ready assessments, a comprehensive growth model that measures student growth over time, and more robust state data systems.

• Schmeiser: Alignment among high schools, postsecondary education, and the workforce; and for states to have a uniform policy for what defines and constitutes a high school diploma.

• McClung: Support programs for at-risk students and those with no home support, and open communication between universities and high schools.

"We know this information is nothing new," said Jeremy Ayers, policy and advocacy associate for AEE, "but we're trying to raise awareness on a policy level."

Woods agreed with Ayers, saying: "The most effective schools, boards, and councils need the support of their governor and other policy makers."

"With a sustained focus on college readiness, we hope to inform, assess, and improve high school teaching for the 21st-century," said Ayers. "We're trying to fundamentally change the culture and beliefs of high schools across the country."


AEE's Issue Brief: "High School Teaching for the Twenty-First Century: Preparing Students for College"

ACT College Readiness Report


Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Education Action Group

A group on the west side of Michigan is hoping to help board members advocate for kids by helping to defend boards against union attacks.

The Grand Rapids Press: MEA watchdog keeps eye on school funding (09/10/07)

You can find out more about the Education Advocacy Group at

In case the link doesn't work, here is the full story:

MEA watchdog keeps eye on school funding

Monday, September 10, 2007
By Beth Loechler
The Grand Rapids Press

Sitting on a school board can be lonely. Just ask David Allen.

When he cast the tie-breaking vote to privatize busing in Grand Rapids Public Schools, union members shouted and picketed to protect their jobs. Earlier this year, Allen was threatened with a recall.

"I know it's been tough on families, but the facts are the facts," Allen said. Grand Rapids and other districts struggling to balance their budgets have no choice but to continue cutting costs, he said.

Other school boards, including Reeths-Puffer, have cast similar job-cutting votes and suffered similar consequences.

Through it all, Kyle Olson has been watching.

As budget shortfalls continue to plague school districts throughout the state, Olson wants to make sure every dollar possible is going toward educating kids. So he created the nonprofit Education Action Group in June and signed on as its solo employee.

Olson sees his job as an MEA watchdog and the guy who will rally communities to support school boards when they are casting those tough votes on union contracts and privatization. He challenged those who unsuccessfully tried to recall Allen and questioned their motives.

The "silent majority" supports a school board that hires a private company for services outside the classroom, Olson said, because the board is saving money.

"They want the board to make good decisions so as many dollars as possible go toward educating children," he said.

But no one wants to back school boards for taking a stand, he said, because that means going against the powerful Michigan Education Association.

"This has been a very one-sided debate," said the 29-year-old Muskegon resident, ex-lobbyist and self-proclaimed public school advocate.

The MEA had no comment regarding Olson's Education Action Group.

"We just don't know anything about them," spokeswoman Karen Schulz said.

In addition to privatizing some services, Olson believes school districts should be free to drop the pricey health insurance offered by the MEA affiliate called MESSA, or Michigan Education Special Services Association.

This idea is gaining traction elsewhere, too. The state Senate last week narrowly approved a bill that for the first time would force MESSA to disclose insurance claims data, which would allow districts to compare policies and seek competitive bids

"Competition will help drive down costs," Olson said.

Democrats, who control the House, aren't likely to favor the legislation, however.

Olson is no stranger to politics. He handled government affairs for the Michigan Association of Realtors, managed Republican Gerald VanWoerkem's campaign for state Senate in 2002 and ran, unsuccessfully, for the Muskegon County Board of Commissioners last year.

Education Action Group is a 501(c)4 organization, which means it's a politically focused nonprofit, like and the National Rifle Association.

Contributions are not tax-deductible. He will not say who has donated, but annual reports he will be required to file with the IRS will disclose the number and amounts of donations.

He has put together a board of directors, which he also is shielding -- with the exception of Chairwoman Jane Missimer, 69, of Muskegon.

She has a "fervent interest in advocacy" and two children who attended public schools, she said. One of them was in special education.

"The insurance issue caught my attention," said Missimer, who worked as an ombudsman. "Why are we protecting a union-based program? Why aren't we putting that money into special education or other programs?"

Olson wants to help boards such as Reeths-Puffer's, which felt persecuted after voting to hire a private company to clean its schools. A pamphlet distributed in Muskegon County encouraged residents to boycott Meijer, Walgreens, Verizon and other businesses that employed school board members.

He's the guy who will point out which school board members have received MEA campaign contributions ( and that MEA Executive Director Lu Battaglieri's salary last year was $334,174.

"This is not about attacking teachers," he said. "But school districts have X amount of dollars. They have to make sure that money goes as far as it can."

Send e-mail to the author:


Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Spinning the ACT results

The "upbeat" message from our state's education establishment on the Michigan Merit Exam results - the MME - is more disheartening than the results themselves.

This new test measures student learning and was given to ALL Michigan 11th graders for the first time in the Spring of 2007.

The following opinion piece shares my views on the "spin" factor applied to
statewide test results:

Oakland Press: Schools will put spin on ACT results (9/2/07)

Let’s start with the facts. Here are the percentage of students that passed the MME by subject:

English 51.0%
Math 46.5%
Reading 59.7%
Science 55.9%
Writing 40.1%
Social Studies 83.3%

You’d think that parents would be ready to overthrow the state AND local leadership with results like this. But, most parents probably don’t know what these scores really mean. It’s no wonder given the “spin” offered by education officials.

[Note: You can find your schools MME summary results here. An Excel datafile with all results (including your school, whether public or non-public) is also available for MME Results and ACT Results]

Let's be clear: The responsibility for these disappointing scores does not rest entirely with educators. Parents need to step up to their own responsibilities, intervening when necessary to motivate and direct their own children.

But rather than allowing these disappointing scores to serve as a badly needed wake-up call, schools chose to send a unified "All's well" message throughout Michigan.

The responsible thing to do is to admit that we've got a problem, but do so in a way that doesn't undermine the public's confidence in their schools. If anyone reading this comes across an example of such leadership, please send it my way!

I'm not sure which is more disturbing: educators who brag publicly about poor results, or a news media that abandons its role of government watchdog,to become the education establishment's lapdog - dutifully reporting press releases as news, without fact-checking or civic-minded analysis.

Here are a few examples:

From the Tri-County Times

During Linden's Board of Education meeting last Wednesday, Superintendent Elizabeth Leonard said the MME test results for Linden was "wonderful news." She told board members that for the past five years, Linden's totals have always been above the state average and have always been in the top five or six in the county.

"That's a great tribute to the community," she said.

Interim Linden High School Principal Russ Ciesielski said his students did "extremely well compared to the state averages."

The facts: 48 percent of Linden’s students failed English, and 39.8 percent failed math.

This concept of comparing to statewide averages is the common spin tactic, as if being above the Michigan average is some significant accomplishment. Keep in mind that only 40,000 students – out of 114,000 – actually passed all of the MME components. That is roughly 35 percent, or a little over 1 in 3 students.

From the Livonia Eccentric:

LPS director of academic services Sheila Alles said she is pleased that LPS topped state averages.

The facts: 55.3 percent of Livonia students passed math; 653 out of 1460 did not pass.

The Detroit News ran a piece entitled, "Merit test scores fall short" (found here), which is about the only objective and relatively comprehensive coverage I've seen on the subject.

This noteworthy quote appropriately calls for educator and parent involvement: "I am very, very disappointed in the test results," said Michael Horn, principal of Southfield High School, where students struggled in math and writing. "All of us are at fault. We must acknowledge that. We failed our kids."

Yet that article also resorted to statewide comparisons, "In Metro Detroit, Livingston County schools posted the best results on average, leading the four counties and exceeding the state averages in math, reading, science and social studies."

Here are the facts on Math:

- Students Passing Math in Howell: 50.8
- Students Passing Math in Pickney: 60.2%
- Students Passing Math in Brighton: 71.2%
- Students Passing Math in Fowlerville: 42.7%
- Students Passing Math in Heartland: 60.1%

The top district in county had less than 1 out of 4 kids pass math. In total, 897 of the county’s children (out of 2167) failed math, which equals a failure rate of 41.4 percent.

Countless stories like these ran in newspapers throughout Michigan last week, reporting mediocre results as "above average", and reassuring the casual reader that "all is well", when it clearly is not.

The spinning comes from all levels: State Board of Education President Kathleen N. Straus said, "these results were expected because the state's new mandatory curriculum, geared toward boosting standards, hadn't yet been implemented when the test was administered."

"It sounds terrible, but I don't think it's as bad as people think," she said. As the new content is added to classes, results will improve, she said. "This is a transitional period."

Transition from what? Weren't high schools expected to prepare kids for college before last year? I think they were expected to do that 25 years ago when I was in high school!

Relatively speaking, some of the districts should take pride in the fact that they were able to guide their students to superior scores. But these underwhelming scores should not be a cause for celebration, even among the "top districts".

Let's acknowledge that some districts have a good head start (compared to others) in their efforts in preparing their students for college, but let's also recognize that we've got a long journey ahead of us!


Monday, September 3, 2007

Comparing Benefit Spending among States

An article I wrote was published a few days ago:

Detroit News: Michigan becomes leader in costly school benefits (08/30/07)

The idea for the article occured earlier this summer while I was having lunch with a well-respected columnist. We were discussing education funding, and how it is helping to drive the tax hikes proposed by Democrats and Governor Granholm.

I believe these tax increase are being proposed because school boards have let their spending -- particluarly on benefits -- rise in an uncontrolled way. This is compounded by a similiar uncontrolled rise in education retirement spending at the state level.

The reporter asked, "How does Michigan benefit spending compare with what they spend in other states?"

I couldn't rattle-off the numbers, so yet another research project was born!

Of course, trying to find the numbers is next to impossible. States are inconsistent in the way they report data. Some share data on their state websites, while others don't.

I finally found
two places that had data for all of the states, although trying to decode and decipher this information is another Herculean task, given the confusing labels assigned to data, and poor descriptions of what the data represents.

The NCES Common Core of Data provides a utility (found here) that enables users to construct a data table. The most recent data they have on statewide benefit spending comes from the 2003-04 school year.

The US Census bureau gathers data on all of the taxes levied in a state -- both local and statewide -- and reports it here.

I combined the data, and here are some the results:

* Michigan dedicates 37.1% of it's tax spending on education. Nationally, the average is 32.3%.

* Michigan ranks 9th in the nation on benefit spending, dedicating $2179 per pupil compared to a nation average of $1559 per pupil.

* Michigan dedicates 20.3% of it's education spending to benefits, while the national average is 15.9%.

* A school's funding is usually a mix of both local and state taxes. When looking at all of these taxes, Michigan schools spend 7.53% of them on benefits. Nationally, the average is 5.1%.

The complete data tables are found in
a PDF file found here.

In case the link to the Detroit News doesn't work, the article as originally written is pasted below:


It's old news that taxpayer-funded Michigan educator benefits are excessive when compared to most private sector benefits. But further exploration now shows they're also excessive when compared to public educator benefits around the nation.

This merits continued attention because benefit levels are a leading cause of the budgetary crisis facing schools. Absent meaningful reform, school boards will drag the state down with them, or will instead force a tax increase.

The health benefits provided to Michigan educators cost on average 25 percent more than benefits provided to private-sector employees, according to an annual survey done by McGraw Wentworth - a Michigan benefit-consulting group. And retirement benefits, as chronicled recently by reporter Ron French in the Detroit News, are extremely generous.

Yet any attempt to explore benefit reform is met with protests that it'll drive Michigan teachers to other states.

Well, if 2003-04 spending data is any indication, it's unclear where Michigan teachers will go because our state funds benefits at levels far beyond most other states.

The U.S. Department of Education's NCES website (National Center for Education Statistics) consolidates benefit spending by state. The U.S. Census bureau compiles total state and local taxes. Linking the data paints an interesting picture of a state's financial commitment to education, and shows the spending priorities of education officials.

On average, states allocate 15.9 percent of their education spending to benefits. In Michigan, we spend 20.3 percent, ranking fifth in the nation.

Benefits spending in relation to total taxes is even more alarming.

For every $100 dollars Michigan collects in state and local taxes, $7.53 is used to pay for benefits. Nationally, it's $5.13 out of every $100. That difference represents over one billion dollars annually in above-average benefit spending in Michigan.

These statistics might be less troubling if Michigan was a low tax state, but it's not.

And the issue might be less significant if the state didn't spend heavily on education, but it does.

Despite what school politicians want you to believe, legislators support education. Michigan would rank sixth nationally if looking at the percentage of total state and local taxes dedicated to education. Nationally, the average is 32.3 percent, and in Michigan it's 37.1 percent.

Michigan legislators have made education a funding priority, but school boards have chosen to use those tax dollars to make benefits a spending priority.

Former State Superintendent Tom Watkins foresaw this in his 2004 report called "Michigan School Funding in the 21st Century." Had we started addressing the issue then, we might be reaping the savings now, instead of using political gimmicks and accounting tricks to balance the state's budget.

It's clear reform is overdue.

Legislators should change the educator retirement plan from a defined benefit to a 401(k) style defined contribution program. It's the predominant type of private sector plan, and is what's offered to other state employees.

And school boards - either voluntarily or through state oversight - should adopt reasonable changes in co-pays, co-insurance, and annual deductibles that'll help control costs without causing financial hardship on employees.

Perhaps creating a "Prevailing Benefit" law would be a good start. Schools would be required to keep employee benefits in line with those offered to the private sector taxpayers in the community.

These steps are needed to keep public education solvent and affordable. And they're also necessary if we hope to invest in education.

Currently, increased funding goes entirely to soaring benefit costs. Instead, it should be used to advance data-driven curriculum development, improve learning intervention programs, and support the newly enacted, globally relevant graduation requirements.

It's time for taxpayers to stop tolerating this nonsense, and start holding school boards accountable.


Saturday, September 1, 2007

MEA caught in hypocritical trap

Amusing little tidbit from the Detroit News today:

Detroit News: Editorial Quick Hits: Ours (09/01/07)

"What's good for the Michigan Education Association is apparently not good for taxpayers. The state's largest teachers union is asking its own staff to take cuts in retirement benefits and retiree health care. The union representing MEA staff, the United Staff Organization, is threatening to strike. The demands the MEA is making of its own union workers aren't much different than those being made by the school districts with which the MEA has contracts. And yet the union is fighting those concessions. The MEA might have a better case with its own workers if it were more reasonable with the taxpayers."