Guest commentary: Policy-makers should skip Mackinac Island and visit some classrooms

By Ken Winter

PETOSKEY – I won’t be one of the 1,500 or so of Michigan’s top businessmen, politicians and other leaders converging for three days this week on Mackinac Island for the Mackinac Policy Conference.

I cancelled my plans to attend so I could substitute for a local high school teacher and friend having surgery. Ironically, I will be teaching his students how Michigan’s state and local governments work and affect them directly.

The  Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce holds the conference every spring.  After years of sending reporters to cover the gathering, I started attending the event myself to better understand Southeast Michigan’s thinking about our state’s direction.

The conferees, who meet at the Grand Hotel, watch speeches and panel discussions on culture, education and the global market. This year’s agenda is focused on the link between public education and the health of the state’s economy.

Two years ago, I heard founder Geoffrey Canada talk about his non-profit Harlem Children's Zone for poverty-stricken children and families living in Harlem. He shared how HCZ provides free support for the children and families through parenting workshops, preschool, three public charter schools, and health programs for thousands of children and families.

Last year, I learned about similarly targeted programs taking place in Detroit and other urban areas, subsidized by some of the state’s largest foundations and corporations. I continue to watch debates over the value of early childhood education, a mandated state Common Core curriculum, standardized tests and teacher evaluation in large part according to how students perform on standardized tests. Every special interest seems to have its own thoughts as to what’s best for our students.

As fellow retired Michigan newspaper publisher and Center for Michigan founder Phil Power recently wrote in his weekly Bridge Magazine column: “By 2025, Michigan will need 900,000 more workers with an associate degree or higher to fill available jobs. And those with higher levels of education earn more and are less likely to be unemployed.”

More also need to read his Center’s report, “The Public’s Agenda for Public Education.”

Phil couldn’t be more on target about our challenge. I have not been impressed by what I’ve heard from state politicians and special interests to meet this challenge. Lawmakers and business leaders could benefit from real time in a classroom to see what educators have to content before students enter their school doors – broken homes, substance abuse, illiteracy, psychological and physical challenges, poverty and more.

As I used to tell those who criticized my newspaper to come into the newsroom for a week and see how you do starting every morning converting blank newsprint to a newspaper in less than six hours. No one ever accepted my invitation.

While it’s nice to hear folks like Geoffrey Canada and others with access to millions of private dollars for these special schools, what about the public schools and educators that don’t? Who has actually spent time with those in the educational trenches to witness these challenges?

Six years ago, I retired from journalism to earn a master’s in education with teaching certification and am about to complete a second master’s in political science at age 62. I hope eventually to become full-time faculty at my local community college, where I now teach as adjunct faculty for a whopping $10,000 to $12,000 a year and occasionally substitute for my high school friend and mentor for $70.04 a day. Trust me, teachers are not overpaid.

I made the switch, because, like other private business-sector retreads, I want to make a difference in my community. Like a handful of others, I can now afford to teach and introduce students to the outside world and its expectations to become successful. Teaching that is not easy.

Thanks to two veteran Petoskey secondary and middle school teachers, who mentored me during student teaching, and a college professor, who taught 30 years for the Detroit Public Schools in the Cass Corridor, I am, after six years, figuring out the art of teaching.  While all of the pundits, data collectors and so-called national experts continue to debate the best course of action, put some of those from the “teaching trenches” on the stage and listen to what they have to say.

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Jeffrey L Salisbury
Wed, 05/29/2013 - 12:12pm
For the most part Mr. Winter is right on the mark. However, when he writes “By 2025, Michigan will need 900,000 more workers with an associate degree or higher to fill available jobs. And those with higher levels of education earn more and are less likely to be unemployed.” - he really is not thinking about what those numbers mean. Michigan colleges presently turn out perhaps 40,000 graduates annually and at least half leave the state according to research and both those numbers are relatively constant. Presently about 34 percent of Michigan's 9.8 million people have have an associate's degree or higher. That's about 3.3 million people. Now, to somehow make the claim that in the next 10-12 years the number will increase by an additional 900,000... well that's as absurd as it is a mathematical impossibility. Seventy-five percent or more of Michigan's economy is consumer-based as is its employment base. Nothing - no study anywhere - indicates that's about to change. Ever.So, make your case about politicians keeping their hands off local control of schools but don't ruin your own argument by not thinking through the data to support your views.
Thu, 05/30/2013 - 8:39am
To be even more correct , it is about 34% of the 5.3 million working age adults (25-64 years old), about 2 million, who have at least an associates degree. Jim
Ken Kolk
Thu, 05/30/2013 - 9:05am
I'm a retired public school teacher and community college professor and I also find that Mr. Winter is correct. I have a friend who is a highly successful farmer and who always told me how easy I had it as a teacher; seven hour days; Christmas, Spring, and Summer breaks [which he didn't understand were not paid vacations]; being over paid (I had to teach days in the public schools and evenings in the community college to support my family); and especially that anyone could walk into my classrooms and do just as well as I was doing! I offered to let him have a day teaching my 8th graders, but I said that I would tell them that he was on his own and that the only rule for the day was don't damage anything in the classroom. Usually when I had a substitute the kids knew they were on their best behavior or they would have to answer to me and they behaved. He would never take me up on my offer. Not a big surprise to me. Before politicians vote for an "educational reform," such as tying teacher's salaries to how students perform on a standardized test that has no effect on their current grades or on their future careers, they should be required to spend a month in a classroom, then have the students take a meaningless test which will determine their future salaries and their continued ability to stay in the legislature. Given what the Michigan Legislature and Governors have done to public education during the last 10 years, I am glad I was able to retire. The continuous attacks on public education, public school teachers, and our unions has made entering the profession unattractive. Today, I would never suggest that any student of mine become a teacher. Quality universal education in Michigan is being destroyed and soon the only students who will receive an education that will lead Michigan forward in the 21st Century will be those whose parents are wealthy enough to send them to high quality private schools. Our wonderful Legislature has just refused to pass a core curriculum again. Lawyers, who make up most of the Legislators, are making decisions about public education don't understand public education at all.
Richard McLellan
Thu, 05/30/2013 - 11:58am
Mr. Kolk: I think you need to check your facts the "lawyers...make up most of the Legislators...." The number of lawyers has been declining over the years. Plus, the Michigan Constitution requires the Legislature to "establish a system of free elementary and secondary schools..." From its first days as a state, the people have delegated to the legislature the task of establishing (and funding) the education system even if they "don't understand public education at all." You are correct that teaching is much more difficult than most people think and frequently state policies have negative unintended consequences. But your hostility toward public officials matches the type of unthinking hostility some people have toward teachers and their unions.
Doug Hill
Mon, 06/03/2013 - 9:08am
Mr. McClellan: I will not pretend to speak for Mr. Kolk because I have never met him, but I believe what you term as "hostility toward public officials" is really more frustration toward public officials. I realize everyone's job is unique, complex, and, ultimately, difficult to do; therefore I very rarely criticize anyone for the work they do nor do I attempt to solve the problems they may have on their job. However, if the need arises to engage in one of these activities, I always try to make a point of gathering information and perspective on what it is they do and what factors may make them successful. Sadly, our state's legislative body for too many years -- but it would seem most noticeably during recent legislative sessions -- has turned a deaf ear and blind eye to the very people who probably have the best solutions to the problems our public education system has; its workforce. Teachers, building administrators, para-educators, as well as transportation, custodial, and food service employees all have firsthand knowledge of what transpires in their places of employment on a daily basis. Yet time after time when I've attended Education Committee hearings in Lansing I've seen teachers gaveled down by the chairs or never allowed to testify in favor of like-minded ideologues who continue to speak about theories and practices that have no more of a proven track-record than the current education system we have in this state. (Yes, I would include you in that group, sir.) It's long past time, that our legislative body stop pretending to know it all (and not just with education) simply because someone from Students First, the Harlem Children's Zone, the Gates Foundation, or the DeVos family testify before one of its committees. In short, until the educators in this state get a sense that those elected to serve every citizen (including educators!) actually respect the profession by being present on more than just Read Across America Day or to gather favor with would be voters come re-election time, I suspect this hostility you refer to will continue.
Ken Kolk
Thu, 05/30/2013 - 9:16am
Mr. Winter, don't plan on a full time faculty position at the community college, it is financially better for them if they use as many adjuncts as possible. Hiring you full time would mean they would have to provide you with benefits and a salary that you could actually live on. There are plenty of people with advanced degrees teaching in the public schools or teaching as adjuncts at multiple community colleges to fill the classrooms with instructors, so why hire full time employees. Sorry to be so negative.
Thu, 05/30/2013 - 10:09am
legislators don't need any degrees or job experience to run for office, but become experts once elected.
Richard McLellan
Thu, 05/30/2013 - 12:02pm
True. The School Code and School Aid acts are very complex and it takes several years for a legislator to really understand the education system.
Allan Blackburn
Tue, 06/04/2013 - 10:29am
I don't think they want to understand the education system as it exists. They have a bought and paid for agenda to push.