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How to fix Michigan's outdated education system

The following is excerpted from a February letter the author's group sent to Gov. Rick Snyder’s Michigan 21st Century Education Commission.

The world is changing.

Computers, automation, communication technology and global integration of economic markets are changing the workplace skills that business, government and nonprofit employers require to compete effectively in the 21st Century.

We believe these global forces are the root causes of increased unemployment among low and unskilled labor. They are shrinking the American middle class and increasing the number of families living in poverty with few resources to support their children.

Our education system is trying to adapt. However, it is not keeping pace with changing skill requirements and issues related to stress on low-income families. The solution requires more than fine-tuning or adding additional remedial programs. Fundamental rethinking and redesign of our education system is essential. We need to act with a sense of urgency.

Before redesigning the education system, we must first understand and articulate the competencies employers require to compete and citizens need to be self-sustaining. Secondly, we must objectively consider how our society has changed since the system was originally designed and reflect on the broad range of issues today’s students bring with them into their classrooms. Finally, we need to adapt the education model by innovating new learning processes that achieve the competencies desired, develop new measures of competencies that are relevant to employers and invest in retraining teachers to effectively use the new methodologies.

The basic framework of the current K-12 education system was designed in the 1800s as America was transitioning from an agricultural and apprenticeship economy to industrialization. Its fundamental goal was to teach young people to perform repetitive tasks (production and clerical) quickly and accurately.

Teachers delivered learning content by lecturing. Students took notes and were tested on what they could memorize. In today’s world of the Internet, personal computers and smartphones, memorization provides very little value to most employers. Information is ubiquitous. What employers need most is people who know how to efficiently access relevant information and work in cross-functional and cross-cultural teams to solve complex problems and innovate products, services and systems that adapt to the changing wants and needs of those they seek to serve.

The new education paradigm:

Diversity adds complexity: The student population is no longer homogeneous as it was during the middle of the last century. Our communities and classrooms have become much more diverse in many different ways: racial, cultural, first language, social-economic. This diversity adds significant complexity to the education and teaching process. One-size-fits-all standardized teaching methods are ineffective with far too many students.

Children not ready to learn: In most communities, high percentages of 5-year-olds lack the normal mental, physical and emotional development expected for entering kindergarten. When they enter kindergarten with low development, they have trouble keeping up with other students. They develop low self-esteem and are labeled as “slow learners” by the education system.

In reality, most children have much higher development potential if properly nurtured from birth on and if exposed to quality preschool opportunities between ages three and five. Inadequate pre-K support ultimately results in a large percentage of Michigan’s workforce not being able to reach their potential.

Therefore, it is essential for our state and our communities to fully embrace and support effective early childhood development programs for underprivileged children to provide them with the physical, emotional and intellectual foundation to begin their learning journey on a solid foundation.

Achievement gap: The industrial, mass-production, one-size-fits-all teaching pedagogy is not effective in teaching diverse early elementary students the fundamental “How to Learn” skills of reading, math, algebra, communications, etc. As a result, in Michigan and throughout the nation, we see a widening achievement gap among different demographic groups.

To close this gap, teachers must be trained and provided with tools to respond to student differentials in their classrooms or the education system must allow students to be grouped by common development issues and given the necessary resources and access to teachers who are trained to address their needs. The Reading Now Network program in West Michigan is a great example that is showing unprecedented results as well as offering design cues for better use of data, teaching practice and teacher training.

Emotional intelligence: Studies show that empathy and emotional intelligence are less developed among at-risk children. Many educators and employers feel that EQ people skills are more important to life and career success than IQ. If this is true, school curriculum should help children improve their EQ soft skills as well as other academic competencies.

Societal/ecosystem impact: Societal factors outside of the school system (poverty, hunger, exposure to language and vocabulary in the home, drugs, emotional turmoil and transiency) all seriously inhibit academic learning for many children. We cannot easily rid our communities of these societal problems. Therefore, if we want to break the cycle of poverty and empower all children to reach their human potential, we must provide a systemic response to these societal issues that is integrated with the education system.

Failure to make these investments will eventually cost much more to support adults and their families who cannot provide for themselves. The following support programs should be integrated with the education system.

  • Feeding programs

  • Emotional counseling programs

  • Volunteer mentoring programs for at-risk students and their families.

  • Fundamental literacy and language development programs

Transient students: Transiency is highly correlated with poverty. Student transiency and classroom turnover greater than 50 percent is common in urban schools. Consideration should be given to developing a “universal student tracking system” that profiles individual students and follows them to successive classrooms and teachers to maximize continuity of emotional support and academic development.

Teachers as learning coaches: The Internet and globally interconnected computers are expanding knowledge faster than anyone can keep pace. The model of the teacher as the primary content expert is no longer realistic. The teaching model needs to be adapted to “personalized learning” that is relevant to each student’s interests, learning styles and talents. Beyond early elementary “how-to-learn” skills, teachers should function as learning coaches to encourage students to be self-learners.

Parent engagement: Parents are essential partners with teachers in every student’s learning team. Interactive communication is required for parents to appreciate changing talent needs and teaching or learning methods so they can be effective contributors to their child’s emotional, physical and intellectual development. Teachers require training in how best to work with parents from diverse backgrounds and points of view.

Competency-based advancement: The diverse range of individual student development issues related to socioeconomic background, English language competency and other societal issues suggests the idea of promoting all students of a similar age group at the same time does not develop the competencies each student requires. Promotion by age class causes too many students who have not yet achieved understanding of certain learning principles to develop “learning gaps” which foster frustration and discouragement when students are expected to learn higher order thinking skills.

All students would learn more effectively if schools adopted advancement models based on each student’s demonstrated competency of specific knowledge and skills. Each competency area should have its own proficiency measures that inform educators and future employers of each person’s true competencies.

Balanced school calendar: The long summer vacation learning hiatus fosters learning regression for at-risk students from under-resourced families. Schools should be strongly encouraged to adopt a year-round balanced school calendar or other options that ensure those students who need more time will get more time. By offering options, schools can address the achievement gap with at-risk students while preventing the school calendar from becoming a significant driver of school choice among parents who fail to grasp the importance of this issue.

Performance measures and accountability: In an age of personal computers, Internet and smartphones, memorization provides low value to most employers. The knowledge and skills employers now seek are articulated in the nationally endorsed P21 Framework for 21st Century Learning and the OAISD Skills 4 Success Framework.

If employer requirements have changed, it makes sense that the outcomes we seek from the K-12 education system should also change. If the outcomes we seek change, then the measures we use to judge performance and accountability must also change. People do what they are measured and recognized for doing. We cannot expect teachers, administrators and students to embrace the new outcomes and learning methods if we continue to hold them accountable to the old, obsolete memorization models. Desired outcomes, performance measures, teaching methods and accountability must all tie together.  

Post-secondary progression: High school completion is no longer sufficient for most people to attain the competencies required to earn a living wage and long-term job security. Every student must be encouraged to develop higher-order post-secondary skills at a 4-year college, 2-year college or technical certificate program, combined with an understanding of the need for lifelong learning to continuously upgrade skills and adapt to the changing world.

Teacher training/retraining: Colleges of education must be encouraged to develop new curriculum to teach new methods and utilize technology resources to facilitate personalized learning by the diverse range of students. Additionally, we the citizens of the State of Michigan, must make the investment to retrain existing teachers to adopt the new methods and resource materials.

Post-secondary admissions criteria: As K-12 schools adopt new skills outcomes and competency-based measurement and advancement systems, college, university and certification program admissions criteria, as well as employer recruiting criteria, all need to be aligned.

Many believe the pace of change is accelerating. This means we as leaders must all act with a sense of urgency to prevent our education system from slipping further from relevancy. Addressing the above issues will require focused commitment of effort and resources for an extended period. Unfortunately, no organization can focus on more than a few priorities at any one time and truly move the performance needle.

Each school system has unique factors that influence the priorities their board feels are most important. What school systems need most is for state education policy-makers to remove inhibitors that prevent them from acting on each of the issues stated above in the priority sequence they feel is appropriate for their system.

This cultural transformation cannot be achieved by a small group of well-meaning leaders imposing their will on communities by mandate. For the community to understand and embrace these transformative actions, all stakeholders must be engaged in genuine dialogue that builds mutual trust which provides the foundation for civic collaboration. Then business, government and nonprofit organizations will communicate a consistent message and act cooperatively in a timely manner.

We are proud of the collaborative work in West Michigan through Talent 2025 and local engagement by the Ottawa Area Intermediate School District, its individual school districts and employers in the Holland-Zeeland-Saugatuck-Hamilton community.  We now seek the state’s approval and support to commence collaborative implementation that serves as a model for how communities can effectively respond to the changing world.

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