Desperately seeking standards, or why we can’t copy and paste our way to school success

Ford Model T

You can have it in any color, as long as it's black.

The new session of the Michigan Legislature started recently and it didn’t take long for populist priorities to start flowing.  Eliminate the income tax.  Eliminate prevailing wage laws.  Eliminate the Common Core, er, the Michigan Content Standards.

Ron Koehler

Ron Koehler is assistant superintendent of the Kent Intermediate School District.

Why eliminate the Michigan Content Standards, which guide the work of teachers and student learning? Because they’re too much like the Common Core state standards which, among some, are akin to Lord Voldemort, or “he who must not be named” of Harry Potter fame.

Why? Because the Common Core standards represent “federal” standards, except they don’t, because they were adopted by the Council of Chief School Officers and individual states.

In any event, it’s unpopular these days to confuse the truth with facts. So the Michigan standards must go.

In their place, Rep. Gary Glenn of Midland would have us call up the Massachusetts standards of 2009, paste them into a Microsoft Word document, go to the “Find” tab and replace all references to Massachusetts with Michigan.

Yep, that’s it. Got standards!

Here in Michigan, we never stop reminding anyone who’ll listen that we put the world on wheels, but our legislators have turned a deaf ear to the wisdom of Henry Ford, the man credited for making that happen.

Ford’s best-known quote is “You can have any color you want, as long as it is black.” His unflinching commitment to putting a Model T in every driveway was so complete that he eschewed even minor alterations that could slow down assembly line production.

“We do not make changes for the sake of making them, but we never fail to make a change once it is demonstrated that the new way is better than the old way,” said Ford. He further opined that "an imitation may be quite successful in its own way, but imitation can never be success. Success is a firsthand creation."

It is a shame the patriarch of today’s Ford Motor Co. isn’t around these days to lecture our legislature, for whom change is a constant. Standards have changed many times in Michigan. By contrast, the states our legislators long to emulate set standards and assessments and let them stay in place for years -- decades even -- to give educators the stability and certainty necessary to develop curriculum and instructional practices to help students attain desired proficiency levels.

These changes come at a cost. They come at the expense of students, whose proficiency suffers because teachers cannot use our ever-changing state assessment as an analytic tool to alter instruction.  

They come at the expense of districts that spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on teacher professional development, and on data analysis on standards and tests that are here one year and gone the next.

A single school district of fewer than 3,500 students in February told a House committee it had spent nearly $1 million over a five-year period on professional development to implement the Michigan Content Standards. A recent analysis indicated the cost to abandon our current standards and implement new ones could range from $41 million to as much as $289 million statewide.

And, these changes could also come at the expense of talent development, as the Massachusetts standards were upgraded in 2010 to reflect even greater rigor and student mastery of content.  Kevin Stotts, president of the CEO-driven Talent 2025 group seeking to upgrade West Michigan’s workforce, told a House panel studying the change that adopting the 2009 Massachusetts standards would be a huge step backward for Michigan.

Educator Travis Hedrick is credited with the quote that Ford, today, would likely use to describe the proposal to cut Michigan’s standards and paste in Massachusetts’ standards.
“Change, for change’s sake, is a recipe for failure.”

This commentary originally ran on the School News Network.

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Fri, 02/24/2017 - 2:39pm

The Michigan legislature wants instant improving results on test scores and it they don't get them they push the panic button and want to start over no matter what the cost to do so.
In the meantime teachers are confused and discouraged because they have ever shifting guidelines over what is supposed to be happening and nobody can give them a straight answer as to what is going on.

Fri, 02/24/2017 - 4:37pm

These criticisms are a direct result of our educational choice by zip code. If where I live is the final determinant of where my kid is going to be educated, you bet politics is going to flood in in all sorts of unintended ways and results. Not that I care whether it is Common Core or Caveman Core, it is always so ironic that people who complain about the intrusion of politics on our educational system are so often the same people so opposed to letting people pick whatever school they think suits their kid the best and leaving it at that! Similarly the same people complain that we're being so left behind verses other leading nations (in spite of spending way in excess of them) yet again we refuse to follow their model! One must question what is the real objective here?

Lola Johnson
Sun, 02/26/2017 - 8:48am

And if every parent who can afford transportation can choose any school, public or private and take our tax dollars with him, then GREED will surely rear its ugly head. Lots of money is spent on education, and many people are eager to grab some of it. Choosing a private school is the privilege of the well-off, but it's not fair that those who are not well off should have to see dollars taken from their own child's school and given to the wealthy. If you choose a private school or home-school, fine, but don't expect me to pay for it.

Barry Visel
Sun, 02/26/2017 - 11:12am

But you would require me to pay to send kids to a government (public) school that may or may not be doing a good job, with no alternative available.

Michigan Observer
Sun, 02/26/2017 - 5:41pm

I fail to see Ms. Johnson's logic. She says, "Choosing a private school is the privilege of the well-off, but it's not fair that those who are not well off should have to see dollars taken from their own child's school and given to the wealthy." First. our state constitution does not allow tax money to be spent on private schools. And while it is true that if a student's parents transfer them to a charter school or a public "school of choice", that that student's per pupil allowance is also transferred to the new school, but the costs of educating that student are also transferred to the new school. That is, while the old school loses the revenue associated with that student, they are also relieved of the costs of educating that student. It is true that costs do not decline as smoothly as revenue; you still need the same number of teachers (one) to teach fifteen students as you do sixteen students. That is indeed a difficult management problem, but that is why you have well paid, hopefully well trained, superintendents. It is their responsibility to manage such problems. She is completely mistaken when she says, " it's not fair that those who are not well off should have to see dollars taken from their own child's school and given to the wealthy."

Sun, 02/26/2017 - 5:40am

Just wondering: What is the average educational level of the legislators who keep messing with these standards? Have they had much experience with education since they (presumably) graduated from high school?

Sun, 02/26/2017 - 7:01am

Thank you, thank you, thank you! More money has been wasted in Michigan in the last 30 years of "school improvement" than one can imagine.
I was teaching during the Michigan Model years, for example, when Michigan spent a million dollars developing the program. In addition, we were inserviced in using the program. After only a couple of years, a parent in White Pigeon filed a lawsuit because she felt taking a breath and counting to ten when you get mad (to cool down) was equal to meditation. So the state abandoned the whole project.
Yes, much money is spent on education, but most of it is gone before it ever reaches the classrooms where it can be used effectively. One folly after another by politicians is where it is wasted.
Yes...pick standards and tests and then let them remain for more than a year or two. Comparing scores from year to year when everything keeps changing is meaningless.

Sun, 02/26/2017 - 8:08pm


In my experience as a student and parent it seems that the most important factor in academic performance was the student, and such things as studying [a student discretion] has more and more impact on academic success for student in the higher grades. What did you observe? Was the student the most important, was it the teacher, was it the school, was it the local expectations?

Sun, 02/26/2017 - 8:52am

This commentary is right on. Too few understand the origin of common standards and incorrectly assume that they started at the federal level. They have, in reality, been developed at the state level, usually by teachers committed to high quality education wherever children receive it. All students deserve basic educational standards. Isn't it interesting that those same politicians who insist that students will master reading by the end of 3rd grade often oppose this type of "standard" when advocated by educators? Perhaps the main difference is that educators do not impose penalties on those students who haven't achieved mastery of the standards; they just work harder to help their students succeed.

Sun, 02/26/2017 - 8:02pm


Could it be that it seems with any federal or state standards that they become more administative than results driven? Could it be that people are so disenchanted with administrative practices, spending, and control that they have become so disheartened that they are willing to give the old ways before the inverted administrative pyramid was created and leave it to the locals for expectations and some form of accountability?

I suspect that no only parents but those who don't have children in school would like to see minimum results but that is never the discussion. It seems no one is interested in the local taxpayer perspective. I see nothing in the article that suggest that there is even any interest in what are the root causes of the resistance this article seems to push down.

If you want to change the issue to what makes students learn and how to assure that they are learning the right things then the perspective needs to be altered. The reality is the discussion needs to move away from standards [I don't care what the justification maybe] and focus on results. From my experience the results are drive by the student and not an assistant Superintendent trying to justify a point on standards while he drives a bigger wedge between those whose money he is spending and educational support organization.

You suggest high quality teachers are the reason for success, I wonder if any of those teachers had a range of performance in their classrooms and why they felt that happened.

I think the weakness of the this article and the argument in support of standards such as common core is that they leave out results and who is most important in achieving those results.

Chuck Jordan
Sun, 02/26/2017 - 2:06pm

Teachers who have been around awhile are not confused about what to teach or how. They are only uncertain about how they will have to change what they are doing to teach to a new test that determines how they and their students are perceived and with strings attached for potential funding and punishment. It is not the Core Standards that are the problem (not state written, but by David Coleman and friends), but the tests that accompany them. They and reform programs were adopted by almost all states including Michigan when baited and threatened with funding from the Feds. So sure stop changing the goal posts. But as most teachers also know, true assessment of student performance requires multiple assessment measures not just one.

Mon, 02/27/2017 - 12:30pm

Dump federal standards. Stop wasting money by sending it to Washington and then back to states. Use standards developed in our state - close at hand. Work hard to always improve them.