News Story

Michigan school performance took a major hit from COVID lockdowns

The Nation’s Report Card reveals closures had profound negative impact on student achievement

School shutdowns during the COVID-19 pandemic had a profound negative impact on students’ academic proficiency, according to a new national report, and the plunge in scores has strong implications for Michigan.

The latest report on the National Assessment of Educational Progress was released Thursday. The document, also known as the Nation’s Report Card, showed a steep drop in student attainment between 2020 and 2022.

Although nationwide math and reading scores had been declining gradually between 2012 and 2020, the slide accelerated sharply during the COVID panic. Reading scores dropped five points during the two-year period, while math scores went down seven points.

Lower-achieving students experienced greater declines in scores, but no student group showed an increase. The NEAP’s Midwest grouping, which includes Michigan and eleven other states, declined more than the national average — down seven points in reading and nine points in math.

One Michigan lawmaker used the news to criticize Republicans.

“Expect the MI GOP to use low national test scores, which are out today, to bludgeon Dems for keeping kids safe during COVID. They can’t, however, hide from the fact that they loooved online learning (they call it “value schooling”—because it’s cheaper!)…until they didn’t,” tweeted Sen. Dayna Polehanki, D-Livonia.

But in Michigan it was Democratic elected leaders, along with teacher union officials, who led the move to shut down classrooms during the pandemic.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer issued an executive order in March 2020 mandating all schools close, citing the pandemic. She announced the next month that all schools would close for the remainder of the year and pushed to keep school doors locked.

When former President Donald Trump announced that all schools should work to open in fall 2020 so that students would not fall behind, the blowback from Michigan educators was immediate.

Paula Herbart, president of the Michigan Education Association, wrote that school employees were “Angry because they hear national ‘leaders’ like President Donald Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos demand that schools reopen regardless of the science, falsely claiming kids don’t get sick and ‘are virtually immune’ to the coronavirus.”

Herbart threatened a lawsuit said a lack of funding kept schools from reopening.

When Nikolai Vitti, superintendent of the Detroit Public Schools Community District, warned of academic and mental health consequences students would face if classrooms remained closed, the Detroit Federation of Teachers threatened an illegal strike.

The union stated that teachers should not return to the classroom until Whitmer’s final post-pandemic phase plan was in place. That phase would have kept school buildings closed until the number of infected individuals was close to zero. If the district had followed through with this plan, students still would not be back to in-person learning.

It was not until January 2021 that Whitmer agreed to a plan to reopen schools — in March of that year. Whitmer also vetoed a budget proposal that would have used $155 million of the state's $6 billion in COVID-19 federal relief funds to provide parents with $1,000 for tutoring, aimed at preventing learning loss, according to the Mackinac Center’s education policy expert.

The closures disproportionately harmed minority students. Nationwide, Black students saw the steepest declines — six points in reading and 13 points in math. In Michigan, the districts with more Black students also were the ones that fought to stay closed for prolonged periods of time, even as other districts reopened.

Flint Community Schools remained shut longer than all other districts during the pandemic. It was given $156 million in federal COVID aid, by far the most of any district in the state, but it remained closed to in-person learning.

As previously reported by Michigan Capitol Confidential, the school district had less than six months of in-person learning since March 2020, as of January. Its doors remained shut completely until March 22, 2021. The district uses a balanced calendar, and it closed schools again in August 2021 because it was late in installing air conditioning.

Flint schools were closed again after the Oxford school shooting over “an abundance of caution” and again, with officials citing teacher burnout.

Sinking graduation rates appear to be a consequence of the shutdowns in Flint. In 2019 the graduation rate was 64.8%, with 19.8% of students dropping out of school. The graduation dropped to 52.33% in 2020 while the dropout rate increased to 25.58%. By 2021, only 46% of students graduated; however, dropouts decreased to 21.8%.

The Detroit graduation rate in 2019 was 75.84%, with a dropout rate of 11.71%. Most students were still in school but not on pace to graduate on time.

In 2020 the graduation rate decreased to 72.45% while the dropout rate increased to 13.23%. The district saw a substantial decline in 2021 to a graduation rate of 64.53%, a drop of almost 8 percentage points. The dropout rate once again increased, going to 14.45%.

The Flint and Detroit school districts, as well as the Detroit Federation of Teachers, did not respond to requests for comment.

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.