Education Reform and the Limits of Policy: Lessons from Michigan

Education Reform and the Limits of Policy: Lessons from Michigan

Education Reform and the Limits of Policy: Lessons from Michigan

Education Reform and the Limits of Policy: Lessons from Michigan


While there is no doubt that an abundance of newly enacted education policies abounds across the state and across the nation, more fundamental questions remain. What is the nature of these reforms? What do they hope to accomplish? How successful have they been? In this book, we attempt to provide some answers to these questions by examining a major set of education policy reforms undertaken in Michigan and across the country over the past 20 or more years. These innovations include finance reform, state assessment of student performance, a series of school accountability measures, charter schools, schools of choice, and, for Detroit, a bevy of oft-conflicting policies and reform efforts that have belabored but seldom helped its public schools. In the pages that follow, we examine the decidedly mixed outcomes and effects of this large array of reform policies and programs. Each chapter addresses a specific policy area, outlining reform activity across the nation with an emphasis on Michigan's efforts as well as on one or two states that led these changes.


On April 20, 2006, Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm signed legislation that set the most demanding high school graduation requirements in the nation. These standards, effective for all students in the 2011 graduating class, require four years of English language arts; four years of mathematics, including algebra II; three years of science; and three years of social studies. Additional requirements in world languages take effect with the class of 2016. These ambitious standards, typically required only for the college bound, were motivated by concerns over Michigan’s struggling economy and workforce, concerns brought to public attention by the Lt. Governor’s Commission on Higher Education and Economic Growth (the so-called Cherry Commission). The Cherry Commission’s 2004 report issues this challenge:

Michigan’s residents, businesses, and governments can either
move forward to a future of prosperity and growth fueled by the
knowledge and skills of the nation’s best-educated population,
or they can drift backward to a future characterized by ever
diminishing economic opportunity, decaying cities, and popula
tion flight—a stagnant backwater in a dynamic world economy.
(Cherry Commission 2004, p. 3)

These standards, prompted by concerns over a state economy that has shrunk steadily since 2001, are the most recent in a series of substantial K–12 education policy reforms dating back to 1990, when the Michigan legislature passed Public Act 25, a sweeping reform that established a state model curriculum, a state accreditation program for all elementary and secondary schools, and formal processes for improving schools and publishing school reports on a regular basis.

The pace of Michigan’s education reform accelerated dramatically during Governor John Engler’s first term, 1991–94, with new legislation on teacher tenure, charter schools, interdistrict school choice, and, most notably, comprehensive tax reform and a complete overhaul of K–12 school finance. Passage of these sweeping reforms was aided by a generally robust state economy and some measure of bipartisan cooperation in the legislature. The cumulative impact of these reforms . . .

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