The education commission’s report is only step one. Now comes the hard part.


Gov. Rick Snyder’s 21st Century Education Commission published its recommendations last week. I’m eager to see what this group of bipartisan, multi-sector stakeholders have designed to improve the performance of Michigan’s public schools. I have no doubt the recommendations are the product of a rigorous process filled with spirited, thoughtful, and forward-thinking dialogue. Yet, I’m holding my breath.

Karen McPhee

Karen McPhee served as Gov. Rick Snyder’s senior policy advisor in education from 2015-16. She worked at the Ottawa Area Intermediate School District for 31 years, the last 11 as superintendent.

There are those who declared the effort an exercise in futility even before it began. I understand the doubters. For far too long, public education in Michigan has looked more like a boxing ring than a prized institution integral to the state’s economic and civic vitality. Years of debate over funding, performance, equity, accountability and competition has resulted in significant mutual distrust. Labor vs. management. Republican vs. Democrat. Educator vs. legislator. Traditional vs. charter. Business vs. education. There is no end to the arguments that divide us as we seek to convince others of what’s really happening in our schools. Sometimes our 1.5 million students are barely mentioned in these sparring matches.

It’s important then, before we come out swinging against the commission’s ideas (and each other), that we take a minute to understand the commission’s work and the dialogue that likely led to each recommendation. In design thinking, the first step is to empathize: seek to fully understand the experience of everyone involved in the work you’re hoping to improve. To empathize we need to first accept there are multiple perspectives and they all matter. Here are just a few of the competing realities I’m sure the commission considered:

  • More of Michigan’s children are poor, more exhibit increasing signs of mental illness, and they speak dozens of languages. Despite these daunting challenges, some schools simply outperform others with similar socioeconomic realities every day.

  • We have pockets of excellence in both traditional and charter schools. Many of our students are doing exceptionally well. Some schools have embraced innovative instructional design and adopted practices that result in undeniable improvement. Yet, our overall student performance has gone flat on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (a test comparing our students with those in all 50 states). We are at or near the bottom of state rankings on almost every measure. This is not an urban-only problem. Rural and suburban schools, traditional and charter, are contributing to this harsh reality.

  • Our marketplace of school choice has benefits and side effects. On one hand, choice has allowed some parents to take advantage of better educational options for their children. Many children thrive in their school of choice. On the other, the competitive marketplace has significantly hindered educators’ willingness to share successful instructional strategies with neighboring districts as they fight to keep their share of a declining number of available students. Students = money. This lack of professional collaboration has serious implications for our state’s ability to improve student performance. By contrast, when we do share our knowledge (like in West Michigan’s Reading Now Network) improvement is quick and measurable.

  • Local boards of education provide important policy and financial oversight for Michigan’s 900 local districts and charter schools. This state has a long history of local control. Yet, local control and local accountability are not synonymous. When a school or district is performing below what we believe is acceptable, who’s accountable for insuring improvement? The legislature? The state Board of Education? The School Reform Office? Parents, because it’s their choice?

  • Some students attend classes in state-of-the-art facilities. Some attend classes in schools where the bathrooms don’t work. Some students have unending options in career and technical education. Some have no options for technical training. Some have access to early college courses or advanced high school courses. Some don’t. Our system inherently fosters have/have not realities.

  • Our level and formula for funding our schools is and should be debated. In a highly diverse state, with unique economic, geographic and demographic challenges, equitable funding is elusive. Yet even educators disagree about what an equitable education means for every student. If we can’t define an “equitable education,” how will we ever define equitable funding?

The work begins by acknowledging grievances in all corners. But it doesn’t stop there. Competing viewpoints indeed enrich our understanding of a problem’s complexity. Yet at some point, competing parties must come around to the same side of the table and face the challenges together with empathy for each other and for the sake of the people they serve.

The commission’s recommendations offer an exceptional opportunity to find that common ground and leverage our respective talents. Only then can we hope to transform Michigan’s 55-year-old system of public education into a powerhouse delivery worthy of our state’s rich and progressive history. Michigan’s 1.5 million students are counting on it.

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. Bridge does not endorse any individual guest commentary submission.

If you are interested in submitting a guest commentary, please contact Monica WilliamsClick here for details and submission guidelines.

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

If you learned something from the story you're reading please consider supporting our work. Your donation allows us to keep our Michigan-focused reporting and analysis free and accessible to all. All donations are voluntary, but for as little as $1 you can become a member of Bridge Club and support freedom of the press in Michigan during a crucial election year.

Pay with VISA Pay with MasterCard Pay with American Express Donate now

Comment Form

Add new comment

Dear Reader: We value your thoughts and criticism on the articles, but insist on civility. Criticizing comments or ideas is welcome, but Bridge won’t tolerate comments that are false or defamatory or that demean, personally attack, spread hate or harmful stereotypes. Violating these standards could result in a ban.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.


Fri, 03/10/2017 - 10:45pm

Finding common ground requires compromise and education policy has been so politically poisoned by opposing ideologies with a blame game aspect I have serious doubts that any efforts are going to turn things around.

Sun, 03/12/2017 - 10:16am

From the Executive Summary of the Commision's report: " Some may think that these unacceptable statewide outcomes are a result of changing demographics, but that is simply not true. Michigan’s higher-income and white students are also among the worst performing in the country. When we remove our lowest-income students from the data set, Michigan’s performance falls in comparison to other states. For example, in fourth-grade reading, higher-income Michigan students (those who do not qualify for the means-tested free and reduced lunch program) rank 48th among their peers. That is seven slots lower than our state’s overall ranking."

This is what happens when many well-to-do suburban school districts pay the majority of their attention and direct the majority of their school improvement efforts to reducing the racial "Achievement Gap" instead of to ways to nurture learning for all students, including gifted students, students with disabilities, students for whom English is not their first language, and students of color. And oh by the way, in some cases an individual student may belong to ALL of those groups simultaneously.

True equity would provide appropriate individualized educational opportunities for all types of students, not just the students of color or those with disabilities that drag their academic performance well below average. It is simply not possible for teachers with 30 kids in an elementary classroom, kids whose reading and math skills span 4 or more grade levels, to teach them all effectively. We absolutely MUST end the age-grade lockstep of social promotion and social "retention" of gifted students with their age-mates. Teachers can be much more effective and students learn more when the range is plus or minus a few months' worth of curriculum mastery in each subject. Students should not be allowed to move on to the next grade level (or semester in a subject, once they're in middle school) without having mastered the earlier grades' essential skills and concepts. Similarly, there's no in-school learning available for a student who's forced to sit in a classroom day after day bored by classwork he or she has already mastered thoroughly.

Racial equity in education is a worthwhile goal, but it is not the only goal or even the most important. Recent NAEP results show very clearly that Michiga's schools have been systematically neglecting their average and above -average students in the name of "equity" or even "equality of opportunity". These misguided efforts need to end as soon as possible, replaced by a commitment to a goal of "at least 1 years' academic progress per year of school" for EVERY Michigan student, and it can be more easily and economically achieved by grouping students by academic mastery, not by their birthdates.

Lou Steigerwald
Sun, 03/12/2017 - 10:46am

It appears that there may be an important missing element, based on Ms. McPhee's article--the teacher talent pool. As a district superintendent I can report firsthand that districts are finding an increasingly small pool of new, talented, and desirable applicants for open positions.
Many schools have had to fill positions by emergency certifying individuals who otherwise have no experience in a classroom. Other positions have remained simply unfilled and students have lost access to programs or been dumped into online courses because the district had no other option available. As the Baby Boom generation continues to retire and Gen Xers start retiring, there is little relief in sight for this problem. It is important to ask why this problem exists and to begin to find solutions. I have my own theories, based upon my role, and that's a longer answer than most folks would likely read in such a post. Regardless, this is a real problem for Michigan schools. I am especially worried what will happen when my math, science, special ed, and fine arts teachers retire. The experiences of my colleagues in other districts foretells of a very shallow pool of high quality applicants. We must find ways to make teaching a more attractive career for talented young people.

Sun, 03/12/2017 - 3:16pm

It seems that many organizations rely greatly on current or past approaches to address current and future problems. This seems especially so for educational system issues/problems. Especially so for who they will engage about helping to address problems.

I wonder how open to different perspectives the educational community is on issues such as classroom support. As an example, the mention of 'Boomers' retiring and giving the impression that they are a lost resource. The reality is that people retire because they want to get more control of their time, not that they don't want to use their knowledge and skills. Has there been a discipline out reach to retirees to continue to draw on their knowledge and skills?
I know there are many organizations that develop extended relationships with retirees to continue to use their knowledge and skills, especially if they like the work environment. This has been especially true of organizations that regularly meet with other organizations to discuss their approach to other but similar issue to gain a different perspective, this includes meeting with those organizations providing different services and products.

My local experience has been that the schools are internally focused and discouraging of engaging people from outside of the educational field. I wonder if that applies here.

Michigan Observer
Mon, 03/13/2017 - 12:10am

Mr. Steigerwald should consider the effect that the opening up of careers for talented women in fields other than education has had on the quality of teacher applicants. At one time women had few career choices other than education and that made a lot of high powered women available at whatever the going rate was. That is no longer the case. We need to be able to pay high candlepower individuals well above the salaries determined by seniority and certification. Paying teachers on the basis of performance, will of course elicit howls of protest from those obsessed with equality. So be it.

Thu, 03/16/2017 - 2:49pm

The money aspect is a major problem, if you can start out your career at 6 figures in say a tech field why would you want to become a teacher with all of the negatives associated with the job and the lower pay? Hard to see any school district starting out a teacher in the 6 figure area no matter if they seem a prime candidate, you have to prove yourself worthy of that salary first and with all of the negatives about being a teacher probably not many are going to want to try.

Sun, 03/12/2017 - 1:04pm

I am a simple guy that means I see learning as simple, a student has an interest in learning and they put in the effort to learn. Ms. McPhee makes it seem complicated; she seems to feel that learning is not in the control of the student. It seems that she blames the lack of learning success on things other than what is in the student’s control, it is the economic success of the their family, their neighborhood, the community, it is what the adults do in the schools they attend [pockets of success versus all other schools, school of choice, facilities, accountability of the schools], it is the physical structures [state of the art schools]. She says nothing about the students and what they do or can do.

Ms. McPhee seems to believe the system and the adults is what drive learning success rather than how the students’ efforts/expectations drive.

My test to see whether it is the student or the system; in the same classroom is there a difference in individual learning success, and if so, is that the difference in success dependent on the student’s desire to learn/homework they do?

Michigan Observer
Sun, 03/12/2017 - 11:47pm

Apparently, it has not occurred to Duane that there is considerable variation among students in terms of ability and interest. That variation is a given that the school, and the community at large must deal with. The issue under discussion is how schools and the community can most effectively do so.

Mon, 03/13/2017 - 11:57am

Michigan Observer,
I wholeheartedly agree with you about interest. I believe student interest and being able to spark that interest is the most significant barrier to academic success. Do the students in your community even know what can be achieved with an education?
As for ability/capacity, it can be a significant barrier individually, but I doubt it is for the board population.

If the issue is the effectiveness of schools and if those who we want to be learning are excluded [as Ms. McPhee seems to do] in identifying barriers to learning and the means/methods in addressing those barriers [such as the students interests], then why should we be surprised in the results they are delivering?

Similarly, the community or any support organizations need to decide whether they are committed to student learning or are simply interested in being involved. When was the last time there was a structured discussion about student learning in your community [more then just educators and parents with kids in school], to talk about what is academic success, how it is achieved, why it is achieved, what can be done by using the community as a resource? It hasn't happened in my community.

Mon, 03/13/2017 - 2:24pm

The local paper had one of those "Ask Lindsey" columns where a student from Cameroon came to study pharmacology. He had straight A's in undergrad college, and was accepted at every graduate school he applied to. He could not afford books, so he studied at the library. He did not buy anything he did not need. He was very careful on how he spent his food money. He compared himself to American students who gave up and dropped a class when it got tough, who bought books but rarely opened them, who partied when they should have been studying, and who ran up big credit card bills which their parents would pay. He noted that many of the students just lacked common sense, and we're very disrespectful toward adults and teachers. His question was would he, as a foreigner, be hired.

The answer was that his work effort and persistence should mean more to an employer than where he came from.

This is so true in America today. When Dr. Ben Carson can come from the slums of Detroit to become one of the finest pediatric surgeons in the country, you know that it is the desire and motivation a parent gives their child that makes them so successful. Two examples, one a foreigner and the other an American, but a common answer to both. We don't need these studies to point that out.