Michigan’s economic future depends on the state’s ability to produce a talented workforce that can both create new businesses and jobs and attract them from around the world. But despite the importance of education and talent to the state’s future, Michigan is struggling. For the past ten years, Michigan has consistently ranked in the bottom five states for reading and math improvement. Even worse, Michigan is one of only six states that saw test scores decline in some areas.

So, what is going on? Why are so many states passing Michigan by? And what can we do to put Michigan on a better path?

Building a Brighter Future: Recommendations for How to Improve Michigan’s Education System, a recent report by Public Sector Consultants, seeks to answer these questions. This report was produced with support from the Steelcase Foundation and the Council of Michigan Foundations.

“Education continues to be a major recipient of foundation support,” said Rob Collier, president and CEO of the Council of Michigan Foundations. “Michigan foundations are concerned about the state of education and what they can do to increase the potential for public/private partnerships that will benefit all Michiganders.”

PSC’s research finds Michigan’s long economic downturn was a major contributor to the state’s poor results.

“Our long recession hurt us in two ways,” says Jeff Guilfoyle, PSC vice president. “It has put tremendous fiscal pressure on schools, and it has dramatically increased the state’s poverty rate, both of which are hurting us on the academic front.”

Although the recession has ended and the state’s economy is growing again, the fiscal pressure on schools has not abated, and the state’s poverty rate is still much higher than it was prior to the recession.

“At the end of the day, teachers are the most important driver of education success.”

PSC’s research identifies four areas for state focus: early investment, teaching, efficient spending and connecting K–12 to postsecondary opportunities. For each of these areas, the report discusses the reforms Michigan has already made, recommendations for next steps, and the long-term goals the state should be working toward.

The report’s focus on early learning builds on PSC’s previous research on early childhood.

“Investing in young children is one of the most effective ways to improve education success, and early childhood investment has been a strength for Michigan,” says Guilfoyle. “In particular, the recent expansion of the Great Start Readiness Program, which ensures that all at-risk Michigan four-year-olds can attend preschool, will provide dividends to our state for years to come.”

The report identifies logical next steps to build on this investment, including expanding home-visiting programs and increasing access to high-quality child care.

Of all the factors that schools can control, teachers have the largest single impact on learning, PSC’s research notes. Michigan has tackled a number of important reforms in this area, including changing teacher tenure laws and implementing new standards and certification requirements. The report includes recommendations to enact effective teacher evaluation legislation and provide more support to teachers as they implement new standards.

It also cautions policymakers to be sensitive to teacher morale.

“Recent policy changes have provided important tools and flexibility to school districts looking to improve teaching,” says Michelle Richard, senior consultant in PSC’s education division. “However, these changes are occurring while teachers are under increasing pressure.”

Teachers are bearing much of the burden of the increased fiscal pressure schools experience due to salary freezes, increased benefit costs, larger class sizes, and heightened layoff risks.

“At the end of the day, teachers are the most important driver of education success,” says Richard. “Plunging morale and job satisfaction may hurt our ability to attract the best and the brightest to the teaching profession, and policymakers should be sensitive to this risk.”

The research recommends Michigan make changes to the state’s finance formulas so that the funds can be allocated more efficiently, noting that given scarce resources, it is important that the state align revenues as closely as possible with district costs. In particular, it highlights that the state’s finance formulas do not work well for districts with declining enrollment.

The importance of aligning K–12 with postsecondary opportunities is also highlighted in the report. It recommends increasing the number of guidance counselors in the state and expanding opportunities for students to earn college credits while in high school.

However, the biggest takeaway from PSC’s research may be that although Michigan is not doing well now, we can change this trajectory.

“We hope that the recommendations in our report will serve as helpful inputs to the education reform debate,” says Guilfoyle. “But what we really want is for Michigan to aspire to do more. We hope that people look at our report and agree that our current results are not acceptable, and that we can do better, and that we need to do better. Other states– Massachusetts, Florida, Tennessee– have done this. They have made changes that moved the needle. We can do this, too.”