Michigan students lost ground during COVID. This is what an education nonprofit says will close the gap.

Michigan students fell behind during the pandemic, but some fell behind faster, according to a new report from The Education Trust – Midwest.

The losses fell disproportionately on poor students, non-white students and rural students, on students with disabilities and students who were still learning English, on students in districts that already had fewer resources.

For instance, scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress show that students in the Ann Arbor Public Schools lost about two-thirds of a year in math and more than a third of a year in reading between 2019 and 2022. Students in the Saginaw Public. Schools lost an entire year of math and well over a year in reading.

On assessments of fourth-grade reading, Michigan now ranks 43rd in the nation and in the bottom five for Black students.

According to the nonprofit education advocacy group’s projections, “we are not on track to improve,” said Jen DeNeal, director of policy and research, and won’t be unless the state makes some sweeping changes.

The organization’s latest “State of Michigan Education Report,” released to the public on Tuesday, makes a number of recommendations for what those changes should be.

The most urgent: Spend the federal COVID money to help students catch up.

“There’s about a $3 billion surplus in the school aid fund and quite a bit of that money could be used right now for learning recovery,” DeNeal said. “We could be looking at high leverage strategies like high-dosage tutoring or extra time in the classroom.”

But, more broadly, the report says, the state needs to fix its school funding system.

Michigan was long among the minority of states that gave less money to poor school districts, and though state leaders have taken steps to equalize school funding and to add money for special education and at-risk students, the report says more targeted investment is needed.

“We know that students in concentrated poverty, English learners, students with disabilities need additional dollars,” DeNeal said. “So that’s where new dollars should be going.”

Other recommendations include greater fiscal transparency and accountability, accurate and quickly delivered assessments of students’ academic performance, strengthening early childhood programs, recruiting and retaining teachers and overhauling the state’s early reading programs, which it says are hampered by a lack of expertise among educators on how to teach “deeper-level skills” and a lack time in the school day to meet increased expectation.

Katharine Strunk, the director of the Michigan State University Education Policy Innovation Collaborative, said the group’s assessment of how students are doing matches what her group has found.

Student achievement growth “was much slower than we would assume in a typical pre-pandemic school year, and it was substantially different for low-income versus higher-income students, for Black and Latino students relative to white and Asian students, for students who are in districts that were operating majority remotely versus the school districts that were operating mostly in person during the 2021 school year,” she said. “Every single state has found the same thing.”

And, though the legislature has gone a long way toward creating a fairer school funding system, she said, “it still has a ways to go.

“We still need to be thinking about how we equitably fund our schools in Michigan,” Strunk said, “and I think the key piece here is that equity does not necessarily mean equality. We know that it takes more money to educate students who have had greater struggles both before and during the pandemic. We know that it takes more money to help districts that have had their buildings and their capital fall behind over the last few decades.”

Part of the reason Michigan students’ educational outcomes lagged as much as they did during the first years of the pandemic, DeNeal said, was that the state already had challenges going in, among them literacy instruction that was great in some districts and inadequate in others. and lack of “a strategic statewide approach to training and professional development for teachers.”

The changes the group is recommending are big, she said, but not “insurmountable.”

“We have seen other states turn around their education systems and become successful,” DeNeal said, “and so we can do this.”

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