We must do more to help students

The 2024 Kids Count Data Book reveals that Michigan ranks once again in the bottom 10 states for education, demonstrating the need for more investments in our schools and students.

One area where we saw the greatest declines was in eighth-grade math achievement, where the share of students scoring proficient on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) decreased by nearly 9% from 2019 to 2022.

Proficiency in math by the end of middle school is important because it increases the chances of on-time graduation and prepares students with basic math skills needed into adulthood.

As a former math teacher, I know how skeptical students can be of the relevance of math to their future lives and careers, but the skills learned in a math classroom extend far beyond the content in the curriculum.

Success in math is as much about problem-solving as it is about the problem that must be solved, and there’s nothing quite as rewarding as seeing the moment a student works his or her way through a challenging problem and a concept begins to click. Math builds those kinds of critical thinking skills that can be applied in many fields, including in careers that might not even exist, yet.

Many of the fastest growing occupations require math skills.

Presently, Michigan is home to 4,700 data scientists earning $96,500 a year on average, as well as 3,090 information security analysts earning more than $108,000 a year on average, but, just 15 years ago, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics did not even track employment in those emerging occupations.

Success in those and other career paths won’t be about mastering the content of today, but about having the ability to solve problems and confront new challenges independently in the future.

An analysis from the National Bureau of Economic Research found that the drop in math scores between 2019 and 2022 could result in $900 billion in lost income for 48 million coronavirus pandemic-era students.

At present, our math scores on international assessments are below the average for advanced economies as well as for many emerging economies, including Hungary and Vietnam.

While the NAEP is administered only in alternate years, students in Michigan also take the preliminary SAT (PSAT) in eighth grade every year to measure math achievement. PSAT data for 2023 also reveals a decline in the share of students proficient in eighth-grade math. There were declines of 11% in Michigan overall, 46% in Alcona County, 37% in Alpena County, and 21% in Presque Isle County. Montmorency County did not see a decline, but eighth-grade math proficiency in the county was below the rest of the region and state even before the pandemic.

Pandemic-era disruptions undoubtedly had a role in Michigan’s declining math proficiency, but the impacts were not equally felt. Virtual and hybrid instruction during that time period exacerbated disparities by race and ethnicity as well as by economic status.

Black students, for example, saw double the declines in eighth-grade math proficiency compared to white students. Similarly, students eligible for free and reduced-price lunch — a marker of economic insecurity — saw nearly double the declines as students who are not eligible.

Those disparities point to the need to ensure all kids arrive at school ready to learn, because children’s academic success depends on more than what happens in the classroom.

Equipping students to learn means ensuring their lives are safe and stable even before they walk through the doors, with access to healthy foods, a safe way to get to school, and resources like tutoring and mental health services.

Michigan can make smart investments to reduce inequities in educational achievement. Access to intensive tutoring, for example, can be funded in part by allocating the state’s remaining pandemic-era relief funds. Fully funding the Opportunity Index — which allocates additional school aid dollars to schools with larger shares of economically disadvantaged students — will ensure schools can meet the needs of all students.

Preserving school aid funds for public schools and ending the practice of diverting school aid funds to higher education can further ensure all schools are sufficiently funded.

If we want our children to succeed in a global economy, we must do everything in our power to ensure they have the skills necessary to compete.

Anne Kuhnen is the Kids Count policy director at the Michigan League for Public Policy.


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