Students leaving Michigan high schools without basic skills cost the Michigan economy $601 million a year, according to a study recently released by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Midland, Michigan.
The study, titled “The Cost of Remedial Education: How Much Michigan Pays When Students Fail to Learn Basic Skills,” calculates the costs incurred by Michigan businesses and institutions of higher learning required to provide remedial services to students and employees lacking basic skills. Extrapolating across the United States, the study concludes the lack of basic skills costs the nation’s economy some $16.6 billion each year.
“More than a third of Michigan students leave high school without possessing basic skills in reading, writing, and arithmetic,” writes Dr. Jay P. Greene, the study’s author and a senior fellow with the Manhattan Institute for Public Policy. “This forces post-secondary schools and employers to teach these individuals basic skills.”
The study arrived at its final estimate by averaging the results of five different strategies for calculating the impact of students leaving high school without basic academic skills. The low-end figure calculates only direct remedial education expenditures by community colleges, four-year colleges, and employers in Michigan; the high end includes such costs as lost productivity and technology expenditures. The five strategies produced estimates ranging from $311 million to $1.15 billion a year.
“The $311 million estimate (which estimates direct expenditures for remedial education only) is almost certainly too low,” Greene writes. “On the other hand, the $1.15 billion estimate (which figures in lost productivity, among other factors) may not be a sufficiently conservative estimate. . . .We believe that the most reasonable estimate of how much the lack of basic skills costs Michigan each year lies somewhere near the average of all five estimates: $601 million.”
Greene did not investigate why students are leaving Michigan high schools without basic skills, although he cites a number of prevailing opinions about who or what is to blame. Explanations range from the increased diversity and social problems of the student population, to the poor performance of public education itself.
“The colleges blame the high schools. The high schools blame the middle schools. The middle schools blame the elementary schools. Where does it end?” asked Florence Harris, director of the Office of Support Services at Michigan State University.
In one of three essays included as appendices to the report, Dr. Herbert Walberg of the University of Illinois at Chicago cites lax standards and accountability in public education for poor student performance. Dr. Thomas F. Bertonneau, former executive director of the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics, writing in another essay, blames “a nearly universal rejection of historically proven approaches to literacy instruction in K-12 grade levels.”
Bertonneau also maintains the problem should not be expressed merely in stark quantitative terms, as a “dollars-and-cents problem.” The failure to equip students with basic academic skills, he says, is “a human tragedy, hard to measure under the dollar sign, but equally worthy of consideration.”
Although a great deal of money is already spent on remedial education in Michigan, Greene does not call for cutbacks in appropriations for addressing the problem. “To the contrary,” he maintains, “with more than a third of high school students lacking basic skills, the evidence suggests that we ought to devote even more resources to remedial education.”
Greene calls for reforms that focus on identifying and eliminating the causes of the increased need for remedial education. He offers three directions for reform-minded policymakers to consider.
First, the report suggests schools could strengthen high school diplomas by requiring students to pass a rigorous exam before receiving their diplomas. Such an exam, Greene explains, would “bolster the integrity of a diploma and place pressure on schools to improve their quality.”
Second, the report suggests schools should shoulder some of the costs of remedial education for their students, a “money-back guarantee” that would push schools to ensure their students acquire basic skills.
Third, the report highlights the need for school choice, allowing parents to “choose alternative schools for their children without financial penalty when a public school district fails to provide an adequate education.” The report cites the range of choices available to Americans among institutions of higher education, resulting in a level of quality unsurpassed in the world. Instituting a culture of choice in grades K-12 would produce a similar level of quality, Greene argues, and help ensure students learn basic skills before they graduate.
Brian Willats is a research fellow at Partnership for Learning, on the Internet at www.PartnershipForLearning.org.
For more information . . .
“The Cost of Remedial Education: How Much Michigan Pays When Students Fail to Learn Basic Skills,” released by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in September 2000, is available on the Internet at www.mackinac.org.