Retiring Superintendent: Michigan schools are broken, but teachers are heroes

State Supt. Mike Flanagan said he leaves his job with schools in a “continuous wash of confusing redirection.”  (Mike Flanagan is superintendent of the Michigan Department of Education. ) State Supt. Mike Flanagan said he leaves his job with schools in a “continuous wash of confusing redirection.”
(Mike Flanagan is superintendent of the Michigan Department of Education. )

As another school year ends, and I close out an over 40-year career in public education in Michigan witnessing the last 15 years of education reform efforts, both nationally and here in Michigan, the fact is – the system still is broken.

While we have seen statewide gains in graduation rates; third grade reading proficiency; and college entrance exam scores, we still have some low-performing schools; schools in financial deficit; and achievement gaps among groups of students.

Differences in philosophies on reforms; differences in political influences; and entrenched ideologies at the state and federal levels have kept our system of schools in a continuous wash of confusing redirection.

Yes. The system is broken, but not the people in the system.

There are many things to fix that affect Michigan’s children beyond what goes on inside the walls of our school buildings; just a few examples are:

  • Child poverty is up 35 percent in the last 10 years
  • There are over 40,000 homeless children in Michigan
  • The Michigan infant mortality rate is over .6 percent (760 children in 2014), a percentage that nearly doubles for African-American infants
  • Over 60 percent of teens have consumed alcohol; 33 percent have used marijuana; 16 percent have used unprescribed medications; and 16 percent of Michigan teens have considered committing suicide

Critics often compare Michigan’s academic achievement with other nations around the world, like Finland – the highest achieving.

Michigan’s child poverty rate is 25 percent. Finland’s is 5 percent. All four-year-olds in Finland have access to high-quality preschool, while 60 percent of the poor four-year-olds in the U.S. get none. Teachers in Finland are revered, while many teachers in the U.S. are seen in a different light.

We don’t want to lower our academic rigor and standards for Michigan’s low-income students and students facing tough personal circumstances. We want all of Michigan’s children to succeed at the highest levels.

But let’s face it, educators in nations like Finland aren’t being asked or expected to take on the heavy lift that many Michigan educators are asked to take on every day.

In my 10 years as State Superintendent, I have visited a different school district every month, in every corner of our great state. I wanted to see and listen firsthand to what was going on in Michigan’s classrooms, and I have been witness to tremendous innovations and changes occurring at the local level.

The foundation of what is good in our schools is the teachers and support staff.

In all of the political posturing and fact-bending going on with education critics – from all sides – the people most often blamed are the actual heroes in our classrooms.

They are feeling demoralized and scapegoated at a time when we need to be honoring their work and their profession. We need to support their efforts. First, because they deserve it for driving our kids to achieve. Also, because we need to continue to attract the best talent to the profession.

No other profession impacts as many people as teachers do. Teachers influence the future. Every one of us has been positively influenced by at least one teacher.

Next to my parents, the greatest person who had an impact on my life was my teacher, Ms. Kubler. As a student who struggled and didn’t fit in at a suburban school after leaving Brooklyn, N.Y., she helped me believe in myself and a boundless future.

There are teachers like my Ms. Kubler in every school building in Michigan.

I’ve had the honor to have met them and watch them teach. I’ve seen them during my school visits; in my teacher advisory groups; at the State Board of Education meetings; and when I was a local superintendent.

As State Superintendent, I’ve had the privilege to make the surprise announcements of the Michigan Teachers of the Year for the past 10 years. I have seen their students and colleagues jump with joy at the announcement events.

The emotions and gratitude were genuine, and I often wondered if the residents of their districts fully realized what great teachers they had in their schools.

Teachers and support staff have a passion and commitment to educating our children. They persist through the daily challenges that confront them, and focus on their students. Consider the teachers with students who come to school hungry, or tired, or unloved, or unsupported, or beaten and frightened.

Teachers have a powerful impact on thousands of kids during their careers. They have a far greater impact on students than does a State Superintendent.

For many students, their teachers are the difference-makers. Teachers instruct. They encourage. They motivate. They inspire. They nurture. They create. They rescue.

I am so proud of our teachers, including my daughter, Christa. They are life-savers and life-builders. They give our children hope. Please take time today to thank a teacher you had, or one you know.

Bridge welcomes guest columns from a diverse range of people on issues relating to Michigan and its future. The views and assertions of these writers do not necessarily reflect those of Bridge or The Center for Michigan.

Comment Form

Add new comment

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.


Tue, 06/09/2015 - 9:44am
Thank you, thank you for your wonderful, truthful words. I'm a retired teacher and never heard kinder words towards teachers.
Tue, 06/09/2015 - 9:51am
Thank you superintendent Flannigan for having the courage to so accurately state and capture the feelings and thoughts of so many teachers in Michigan. Your words should be required reading for every legislator in Lansing and then the teachers will test them on it. Their score will then determine if they are "proficient" to continue their serious responsibility in the state legislature.
Tue, 06/09/2015 - 10:45pm
I also appreciate the kind and accurate statements of Superintendent Flanagan. And I live your idea of testing our legislators on what is so important in education. Thanks for your comment, Mike.
Eyssy Moore-Rod...
Wed, 06/10/2015 - 10:55am
Well said, Mike! Our legislators are not seeing the bigger picture. It's time for every parent to fight back. Our teachers and students deserve so much better!
Stephen Daedelus
Tue, 06/09/2015 - 10:14am
He's longest serving state supt. in the counrty with one of the worst track records of meaningful change. His last 2 orders of business have been praising his largest stakeholder group (teachers) and coddling the MEA by ensuring that M-STEP data isn't publicly released for 3yrs. Flanagan is a politician not a teacher or an educator. He should be criminally tried for the Medicaid fraud he "overlooked" while supt. of WRESA. As a public school teacher in Michigan, I am ashamed of my profession for rejecting accountability and performance judgements. I am not a widgit. Mr. Flanagan, your time has come to reflect on your missed opportunities for leading real change.
Tue, 06/09/2015 - 5:53pm
You're ashamed of your profession for rejecting accountability measures that hold teachers accountable for parenting and performance metrics that don't accurately measure teachers' performance? I suspect the feeling's mutual.
Wed, 06/10/2015 - 2:13am
Sane, If the teachers had stepped forward first and established the means/method of accountability it would be much more effective. I was told by a teacher many many years ago that the testing and grading of students was for all involved to understand the status of a students learning and with the expectation that all would change to help the student succeed. That made a lot of sense to me, it seemed like an accountability system. Can you tell me why teachers didn't that a method for their own accountability? With that experience and understanding of accountability for their whole careers, I thought they would have been the most capable to develop the system and the strongest supporters of such a system.
Wed, 06/10/2015 - 2:26pm
Why do we grade students? They're all in the same room with the same teacher. If the teacher's instruction was the main determiner of how well they do, they'd all learn the same amount and there'd be no need to give a grade. But that's not the case. And the last fifteen years of "accountability" hold teachers accountable, almost entirely, for things outside their control. The old system, whereby teachers were observed teaching, required good administrators. But with them in place, it COULD work, since it actually looked at teachers' practice. There's no need to come up with a new way to evaluate them; we already had the only one in place that can be successful. Blaming teachers for student test scores can't.
Wed, 06/10/2015 - 6:15pm
Sane, Since students are different as best I can tell their testing is to determine how well the system is working for the individual student. Once that is known then the system/studying/presentation can be adjusted to give the student a better results. That would seem to work for the teaching protocols and practices, allow them to be adjusted to the situation, the best way to deterine that is through accoutability assessment. Why don't teachers proposed their own set of criteria for program accountability, such that it designed for the local situation? Accountability is about systems/protocols/practices not about people, espcially not about blame or fault.
Wed, 06/10/2015 - 8:41pm
The sales pitch is that testing is implemented to see how the system is working for individual students, so that it can be altered to better serve them, and to evaluate teachers. That's the sales pitch, though, and it's about as inaccurate as sales pitches can be. Teachers' in-class testing is more than sufficient to find out what kids are learning and need, and the expensive state tests deliver results so late, and in such a confusing format, that they're useless for evaluating students. And no matter how you use them, they're useless to evaluate teachers. Other than generating profit, there's no reason to give the tests. But the people who are profiting spend lots of money lobbying and convincing you there's an educational purpose to the test.
Thu, 06/11/2015 - 12:18am
Sane, I do agree with you that current activities that are claimed to be 'accountability' are not benefiting the teachers, the parents, even the students. I have learned that practices can drift, simply because we do them regularly, as people new people come in, as cultures change so can practices. All of these may lessen the consistancy with plan and effectiveness. For no other reason than this there is value in periodically verifying [acountablity] practices are consistant with expectations. It is also in the acountibility protocol to assess results to see if the protocols/programs need to be modifies. That's why I wonder when are the teachers going to create their own protocol that will benefit the students and the teachers, even the parents. People are ecoming so accustome to accountablity at work that they are expecting to be applied elsewhere, and until someone [teachers] step forward to fill that expectations then the 'experts'/politicians will fill that expectation with what we have. Why won;t teacher step forward to create a protocol that works?
Mon, 06/15/2015 - 12:09am
You are so right. Everyone blames the Union for ineffective educators keeping their jobs. The truth is that administrators didn't do their jobs. All it used to take was 3 poor evaluations in one year, then an IDP (individual development plan) to help them improve with observations that next year. If they did, great! If not, they were done. Problem was administrators didn't follow through with any or all of that. Now we have to hire more administrators to evaluate all teachers more often while packing classrooms because we have to cut teachers.
Mon, 06/15/2015 - 10:24am
Many assume, as Duane has, that teachers have sat back and not contributed to the conversation. This could not be further from the truth. I watched as our union leaders worked hard to create a comprehensive method of teaching evaluation that included student progress. The evaluation tool they proposed was wide ranging and included a multitude of performance metrics dealing with the professional effectiveness of teachers. This evaluation tool was met with stiff opposition from specific legislators. The best way to describe their opposition is ignorance and laziness. We were told that they (some specific lawmakers) wanted a single test that could be administered to the students of any teacher (regardless of what they taught). They wanted this single test to be the sole basis of teacher evaluations!! Imagine what that teach biology and I teach history...we both give the same test to our students to evaluate our effectiveness. This doesn't make any sense!! What would that test even look like?? Now consider the reality of my own experience. I have consistently been given a larger percentage of at risk youth because I have shown a proven track record of success dealing with students with special needs. So, while I am looking at 130 students a day and more than 50% of them have specific cognitive, emotional and social impairments, the teacher next door (teaching the same classes) has less than 10% students at risk. Yet, we are going to be evaluated as if our rooms and students are identical. I hope you can see the inherent problem with this sort of blanket "solution". There in lies the ignorance and the laziness of the legislative response to educational issues.
Tue, 06/09/2015 - 10:36am
Thank you, Superintendent Flanagan, for your candid and honest depiction of Michigan educators. Our public school employees are committed to providing the best possible education for the children of Michigan, with the active involvement of local communities, parents and the children they teach. Those school districts that are failing, need assistance from MDE and other competent resources, and those districts that are successful, need to serve as role models. Superintendent Flanagan, I thank you for your service to the children of Michigan, throughout your entire career. Dr. Mike Shibler, superintendent of the Rockford Public Schools.
Mary Foulke
Tue, 06/09/2015 - 11:26am
Thank you! I feel like finally someone has admitted that teachers are not all bad. I just retired after 30 years of teaching, and I feel exactly that way. I spent on the average $1,500 a year on supplies for my classroom, have a Master's plus many additional hours, taught after school programs for no extra pay, applied for grants so the school could go on field trips, and yet, through the years, and even when I retired, no thank you. So thank you for your words. They mean a lot.
Tue, 06/09/2015 - 11:37am
I wish every state legislator who influences education policy could say he or she spent as much time actually observing schools in action as Mr. Flanagan, instead of pontificating their narrow ideologies. The vast majority of teachers are caring, committed, and hard-working, and they keep doing their best for kids in spite of incredible burdens of regulation, paperwork, meaningless tests, and public criticism. If they were allowed a voice in policy-making, education would be far more successful than it can possibly be under the present system.
Tue, 06/09/2015 - 11:43am
Summation: Ten years as the State Superintendent of the Department of Education and leaving, schools and education are worse. I wonder if that was an unintentional slip. I do agree however with one premise. Teachers are not the real issue; are scapegoats for poor leadership and their administrations. That also starts at the top. Politics is an issue. Until parents have choice like is championed in many other causes, children suffer. Parents with low expectations and non-participation is another.
Tue, 06/09/2015 - 12:26pm
Choice? The problem is that teachers are generally good, but that the parents and communities are too often failing the kids... and those are the groups you'd give additional choice to. School choice is an idea that sounds inherently good to people who don't, or can't, think it through rationally. It tends to make education worse in reality, though.
Wed, 06/10/2015 - 1:47am
Choice? You mean, like the choice they have in Highland Park? Choice to go to a for-profit charter district that closed their high school? I'm sick of "choice" when that "choice" is no more than spoon-feeding corporate America who then ignore their duties.
Mitchell Robinson
Tue, 06/09/2015 - 12:37pm
During the 10 years of Mr. Flanagan's tenure as state super the child poverty rate increased by 35%. To think that the state's response during this time was to "raise standards" while cutting money from school budgets is mind boggling. Our schools weren't "broken" until they were simultaneously attacked and defunded. The crisis is a manufactured one.
Jim Wencel
Tue, 06/09/2015 - 1:42pm
I could not agree more.
Tue, 06/09/2015 - 5:25pm
What 'couldn't you disagree with more'? The fact that teachers are under attack? That choice is simply profiteering? That factors outside the classroom truly determine the success of a student? Or are you just another AFP hack that believes that teachers are the problem? That statement was useless Jim.
Todd V
Fri, 06/12/2015 - 8:36am
I think Jim was *agreeing* with Mitchell. :-)
David Kettler
Tue, 06/09/2015 - 11:56pm
Wed, 06/10/2015 - 12:39pm
"The crisis is a manufactured one." - - - - - - - hammer meet nail
John C. Stewart
Tue, 06/09/2015 - 12:52pm
I agree with Dr. Mitchell Robinson. What we have witnessed, in the last 5 years, is an orchestrated campaign to bad-mouth Public Education for the motive of profit-making. On June 22, 2014, the Detroit Free Press published an 8 day series on Charter Schools in Michigan. The evidence is undisputed. The current Majority Party of State Legislators have done nothing to remedy the problems/challenges detailed in the Free Press series. The leases are criminal. Public Education is the cornerstone of our society and the foundation of our democracy.
Tue, 06/09/2015 - 1:03pm
The evidence is very much disputed. When people are pulling money out of a public good for private profit the way charter operators are, making money hand over fist at the expense of children and society, they're going to dispute any evidence that reveals what they're doing. But the evidence is very convincing to anyone informed enough to evaluate it. We'd be better off if charters were made illegal.
Wed, 06/10/2015 - 1:00pm
What is your evidence that charters are making money hand over fist? Or is this just spew?
Wed, 06/10/2015 - 2:31pm
Rich investors keep investing in charters. Charters continue to have loads of cash to advertise so as to convince more people charters aren't worse than public schools. Charter lobbyists continue to have money to lobby to expand charters, despite the fact that they usually provide lower-quality instruction than public schools. Charters continue to insist that they're public entities when the money is being handed out but private ones when FOIA or audit requests roll in. Admittedly, that's only convincing if you're not mentally handicapped. If you are, or if you're one of the people profiting from charters, you might just label it "spew."
Plan 9 From Out...
Thu, 06/11/2015 - 8:08am
Google "Steven Ingersoll $3.5 million dollars" and you'll read the woefully underreported story of how the handpicked board of the Grand Traverse Academy allowed Ingersoll to systematically loot the school over a period of six years.
Jim Wencel
Tue, 06/09/2015 - 1:43pm
Great comment!
Tue, 06/09/2015 - 12:54pm
School employees are largely demoralized because we keep telling them that they are failing. I disagree with the premise. Our schools aren't failing. They operate within a society that suffers from ills -- and they always will. Since when did we define educational success as a time when students no longer suffer the effects of poverty, or as a time when school treasuries are brimming with excess funds that can spent on numerous discretionary school programs and extracurricular activities? We are measuring success entirely the wrong way and on criteria that schools don't have any control over. No wonder they are demoralized. My comment is not meant to be an indictment against the current Superintendent -- our entire nation has fallen into this mind trap. We must change the discussion from "how we can fix a broken school system" to how we can "maximize the educational opportunities for all students, preparing them to compete vigorously in an increasingly global market through creativity, entrepreneurialism and hard work, while giving life tools to even the very poorest of students to help them escape the multi-generational affects of poverty". It's interesting that the US has consistently scored well below other less developed countries on standardized tests for generations. And those scores are what we typically use to measure "academic success". Most would trade off our less than stellar scores on international assessments, as long as we continue to be the cauldron of creativity and technology, creating companies like Google, Apple, Tesla, Microsoft, Amazon, the list goes on. Rather than trying to be more like the Chinese on standardized Math tests, lets instead redefine what it means to be successful to things that actually matter.
Tue, 06/09/2015 - 1:01pm
I guess my question is, what are they doing to change this?
David W
Tue, 06/09/2015 - 3:46pm
"What are you doing to change it?" This is the better question. Let's keep returning the same fools to Lansing and see if we get better results.
Tue, 06/09/2015 - 9:21pm
I agree wholeheartedly with you! Our legislators need to let educators do their jobs without interference from them who know nothing!
Tue, 06/09/2015 - 1:49pm
As a kid who came from a chaotic and troubled home, I thank God for the teachers who encouraged and believed in me.
Tue, 06/09/2015 - 5:15pm
Great article, unfortunately for Mr. Flanagan, it came much, much too late. He knew the essence of this article getting the state's school superintendency 10 years ago and chose not to use his bully pulpit on behalf of students and their teachers in regards to the issues he points out. When a person takes on a job such as this, they must express ultimate courage in their convictions, as though what they say, particularly to state legislators and the governors they have served under, as though they might be fired the next day for what they believe in. Mr. Flanagan failed to do that and is partially responsible for the woes of Michigan's public education system’s failures. I hope the new guy is a little smarter than that and doesn’t make the same critical mistake.
Tue, 06/09/2015 - 5:21pm
He calls educators heros for withstanding his perpetuation of the Snyder agenda. He stood silent while we were attacked, made excuses for the agenda of destruction and acted like a Kapo with a big FAT DISGUSTING grin on his face. I'm not going to miss him, but I fear what is coming next.
Sun, 07/12/2015 - 11:24am
I do not fear what's coming next. Brian Whiston was my superintendent, and is a huge champion of kids and teachers alike. I am excited to see what he will do for education in Michigan.
Laura Heatwole
Tue, 06/09/2015 - 8:21pm
Thank you for recognizing the valiant effort teachers make each day to ensure their students achieve all they can. It is high time that politicians stop pointing fingers and demoralizing teachers and begin to look at the factors that influence the achievement gap, factors such as a cultural change in parenting coupled with increasing amounts of time spent with technology from a very young age, creating students ill prepared to think and perform in a classroom. Year after year teachers and support staff are asked to do more with less, and year after year they are criticized for not performing miracles. Meanwhile, students plug in constantly, rewiring how their brain processes, creating a need for teachers to reinvent the wheel on a daily basis, often with little or no support from parents. When these issues are addressed we will see meaningful and lasting improvement in student achievement.
Tue, 06/09/2015 - 8:36pm
Wow! That was very affirming and my thoughts on education today exactly. The surprise is that it is coming from Mike Flanagan. Maybe he can say this now that he it's retiring. I have always felt he thought teachers alone are the problem with schools. This was wonderful to read. Now we need to invite every law maker to spend some of their summer recesses working in a local summer school program and see what we are facing.
Tue, 06/09/2015 - 9:51pm
Please stop comparing US schools to schools in Finland. It's like comparing apples and oranges. If we are seeking examples, we can't be looking at a socialist country, with an average income tax rate of 51.5%, and a value-added tax rate (compare to state tax on purchases) of 24%. That's how everything is "free" and perfect. If you feel like you want to spend nearly 75% of your income for social services, it would make sense.
Wed, 06/10/2015 - 1:55am
I would rather spend money on people than on the military!
Wayne O'Brien
Wed, 06/10/2015 - 5:22am
Unless we CONTINUALLY and UNRELENTINGLY compare what we're doing to what the world-wide winners are doing (Finns), we make ourselves continually and increasingly vulnerable to even more backsliding -- potentially wasting millions of Michigan tax-payer dollars and billions of heartbeats on for-profit teacher/administrator "evaluation instruments" and make-a-quick-buck so called "evaluator training"......Why would we even consider spending precious Michigan tax-payer dollars in ways the world-wide winners (Finns) never have and never would? What alternative do we actually have? We really MUST pay attention to the global winners because our students, and our state, will ultimately be COMPETING WITH THEM! Let folks in other states go down their blind allies if they must. The Finns have always spent public money to provide public - not private - educational opportunities. That was OUR past practice also back when WE were the envy of other countries! We have gambled and squandered our former leadership role. Finland's successful school reform efforts (since the 70s) are now the envy of the world. Study what they do and what they have done. They have blazed the path to success and we can follow their increasingly distant lead. We must keep our eyes on the real world-wide winners if we ever expect to catch up!
Thu, 06/11/2015 - 12:19pm
thank you Corinna....why don't people realize this?
Judy Cavanaugh
Tue, 06/09/2015 - 10:01pm
As a long-time building substitute 25 years ago at Power Middle School in Farmington when Mike was their Superintendent, I invited him to come visit one of my classes to see my student's art work and have a luncheon with us. He came and spent much inspiring time with us all. I was so impressed with his dedication to the children and to me, "only" a substitute teacher at the time. I also remember sitting in a large audience of teachers at that time for our before-school professional development, where I first heard Mike challenging us to "not be afraid to change our paradigm!" That was the first of so many times I heard that word, "paradigm." He was right. Now I have been a proud teacher at the amazing Northville High School wrapping up my 22nd year there, seeing a possible retirement 3 years down the road... ...IF I think I am not able to continue my search for that true paradigm shift. Thank you, Mike, for being there for me, for us teachers in these tough times of change. May your retirement bring you all the happiness you deserve!
Don Payne
Tue, 06/09/2015 - 11:09pm
The schools are not broken. The parents of our students, the family units are broken. If parents were responsible for their kids, as they were in the past, and made their kids be accountable for their actions, or lack thereof, the schools would be viewed a in great shape. Our country is in a mess, because people are not taking on personal responsibility for their action and those of their kids. This idea of having government be responsible for every facet of raising kids is a far cry from what make this country great....... with a growing populace that believes "big brother" should take care of everything including raising our children......... Our teachers dare expected to be miracle workers and aren't giving the backing they deserve ... and the credit for with kids who's parents haven't a clue what goes on in school... One guy's opinion
Mon, 06/15/2015 - 7:40am
Great observation Don. Some of my most challenging students come from homes where there is only one parent in the home and often that parent isn't able or willing (for a variety of reasons) to give their children the time or attention that they need. The teachers at my school work really hard to encourage and motivate our "difficult" students. We are pleased to see many graduate. Unfortunately, I have seen some other students drop out. It is very difficult for a school to "undo" the discouragement caused by absent or uninterested parents.
Bob Balwinski
Tue, 06/16/2015 - 5:19pm
You use the word "parents" as I did for some years in my teaching career. However, parenting involves nurturing and caring for your children and I saw a giant lack of that. What to call folks who made babies yet do not "parent?" The scientific word I was given and use even now is "progenitor"......genes were passed on and that's all. In my final years in education, unless I saw evidence of nurturing and caring, I would not use the word "parent" to describe the adults running the lives of my students. Of course, I was only one educator and only for 40 years so I could be the exception to what other educators experienced.
A better way
Tue, 06/09/2015 - 11:44pm
It is time for EVERY school official to change the conversation. It is time to educate school boards about the VALUE of their paid staff. It's time to educate communities about the VALUE of their school personnel. It is time to compensate people and demand better instead of wringing our hands over what to eliminate and worrying who we will offend if we support teachers with actions not words. I am thankful for the superintendent's kind words today. Why wasn't this an active, public position of his during his tenure?