By Gary Sands
Since the new Legislature convened in January, more than 40 bills related to public education have been introduced. These bills cover a wide range of topics, from funding for pre-kindergarten programs to high school graduation requirements. There is clearly widespread interest in maintaining and improving the quality of elementary and secondary education in Michigan, whether in traditional public schools or delivered through alternative means, such as charter schools or cyber schools.
Because there are so many different aspects to education reform, setting the agenda for the discussions becomes extremely important. As education reforms move through the legislative process, I would strongly encourage the Legislature to consider how to ensure that adequate oversight is included in any reforms that are adopted.
A willingness to experiment with new financing, organizational and service delivery models may be a prerequisite for progress and innovation. At the same time, some of these options can put the students at risk.
One way to mitigate this risk would be by adopting appropriate evaluation criteria and regulations for all non-traditional education models. The problem is similar to that of identifying practical ways to evaluate classroom teachers.
Meaningful teacher evaluations require that we first determine (and communicate) to the teachers exactly how their performance will be gauged. And then we must provide the teachers with the skills and knowledge that they will need to be successful.
Finally, appropriate support, in the form of either remediation or recognition, needs to be incorporated into the evaluation process. This same general outline would appeal equally well to alternative public schools.
Let me suggest two specific areas that need serious consideration.
* There is a need to provide the authorizing bodies for charter schools (and other types of public education providers) with clear guidelines for their obligations for oversight and regulation of the schools for which they are responsible. The authorizers play a critical role in the process and should be able to respond quickly and appropriately in situations where the educational quality being provided is deficient and students are at risk. The Michigan Board of Education seems a logical choice to participate in the development of uniform performance standards.
* A second area of concern is the quality of the individual boards that oversee the operations of charters, as well as other forms of alternative public education. I am sure that new board members appreciate the importance of what they have signed on to do; whether they all know how to do accomplish this is not clear.
Having served on the board of a public school academy, I know the preparation that we were given was woefully inadequate for the responsibilities we were asked to accept. Given the variety of backgrounds of these volunteer board members, there is a need to provide training in substantive areas such as human resources, finance and the state requirements.
There also is a need to inform board members of their roles and responsibilities in setting and administering school policies, ensuring that there is a clear division between the board and the school administration. One model for providing this sort of training is the Institute of Local Government at the University of Michigan Dearborn, Training might also be provided through the Michigan Board of Education, or the authorizers.
There are no simple answers to education reform. The Legislature must persevere to ensure that Michigan will have the public education opportunities that it needs.