How to fix Michigan's outdated education system

Jim Brooks

Jim Brooks is chairman of the Holland-Zeeland Model Community Initiatives, a group of West Michigan business, education, government and community leaders.

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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Joel A. Levitt
Tue, 04/04/2017 - 10:06am

I hope that Universities and teacher organizations follow the constructive lead of Bridge and of the Holland-Zeeland Model Community Initiatives organization.

Tue, 04/04/2017 - 12:01pm

How about the government which is responsible for resources to do all of this? How about the legislature which forbids schools to start before Labor Day because businesses need workers? How about communities where the biggest arguments are over bus routes and school colors and not anything mentioned in this article? How about the legal interpretation of Proposal A of 1994 which we all thought was to fund K-12 education but now allows for community college and university funding to come from School Aid Fund along with the costs of some special programs? Enough!

Karen Butler
Tue, 04/04/2017 - 10:12am

These points have been stated many times. Google "Success in the New Economy" and watch: you are missing a huge piece- need, aptitude and desire for trade jobs. Good to hear you are advocating for things with West Michigan roots when others are seemingly going to try to eradicate ( feedind, socio-emotional supports, etc). Most educators are doing g there best TO do all you state- with horrifically depleted resources.

Bob Balwinski
Tue, 04/04/2017 - 10:42am

On that teacher-parent thing........parenting implies nurturing and caring. I asked a science teacher for a word to describe folks who indeed made babies but did not show any parenting. He told me the word was "progenitor." Most teachers learn quickly how to work with "parents." They do not have a clue how to work with "progenitors." Disinterest in education early in a child's life on the part of "progenitors" is a major issue. This disinterest squashes a child's normal curiosity and desire to know.

Daniel Phu
Tue, 04/04/2017 - 11:49am

School should adopt algebra methods that do not need memorize equation or take year to learn algebra. See a group of 5 year old doing random algebra or KID DOING CALCULUDS from YouTube you will know School urgently need to improve it teaching methods in math to save both time and $.

Matt Korolden
Tue, 04/04/2017 - 2:08pm

MI already spends (wastes?) $1B annually on "education innovation." The market based approach to education, largely driven by West MI influences, has been an unmitigated disaster for students, families, and communities.

It is long past time that legislators focus education policy on evidence based strategies and practices.

Michigan spends $1B on charter schools but fails to hold them accountable

Data: Student Achievement in the Era of Accountability

Michigan K-12 student performance heading to bottom nationally, says report

Report: Michigan 40th in nation for childhood education

Tue, 04/04/2017 - 2:39pm

Memorization is underrated and often proceeds understanding and context. Is there really any evidence to support this new thinking or is it that we're just getting lazy and hard to keep on track?

Maria Nicholson
Tue, 04/04/2017 - 3:07pm

As an educator for many many years I agree with most of the points made in this article, especially year-round schools and advancement of students based on their competencies instead of their ages. I do believe, however, that some memorization is essential that should not be the focal point of an educational system. In Finland, the basic curriculum has been thrown out altogether and students study topics of their interest instead, incorporating all areas of the old curriculum… English, social studies history, literature, science, math...this system seems the type of innovative education that is required in today's changing world. If I were not already retired, as a teacher I would be embracing these kinds of changes.

David Britten
Wed, 04/05/2017 - 2:21pm

Been preaching this for the past nine years but all you policy leaders in Michigan want is test-prep schools, standardized curriculum, and ranking success based on bubble test scores. In other words, the policies in this state advocate keeping our schools anchored in the 19th century. Then you wonder why nothing changes? Start by getting Lansing and DC off our local schools' backs. Then watch learning soar!

Wed, 04/05/2017 - 6:06pm

There should not be 560 districts, superintendents, support staff, boards, etc. in population and brain-draining Michigan. It's a bureaucratic and redundant mess; a scam on taxpayers and parents. We need to go to a county system like Maryland and/or we need to urgently consolidate buildings, especially high schools. All around Michigan we have 2-5 half-full, mediocre high schools within a 10 mile radius of each other. Consolidate, share buses, one administration team, half the cost of athletics, and on and on. This should have been pushed 25 years ago. Now Michigan schools circle the drain and nothing is done until a district is literally bankrupt — after they churned out burger flippers for decades. It's insanity.

Thu, 04/06/2017 - 11:47pm

It appears Mr. Brooks trusts to stereotypes, “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."
He seems to have missed that in the last century immigrants such as those coming through Ellis Island spoke no English [my mother learned English from classmates], those that came from Asia knew no English. He seems to think that immigration from the south only began in recent years.
I have found that no race is smarter or learns differently than any other, they listen/study/apply they learn. The wealth of a child’s parents isn’t what determines learning it is the student that decides.
As for culture, it can affect a student’s expectations of themselves, it can affect what they are willing to sacrifice, it can establish a model for learning, it can be encouraging and reinforcing of learning, but the culture of their parents must compete with the micro culture of those who the student chooses to associate with [that handful of kids they are with every day in and out of school].

I have also found that people who allow their thinking to be influenced by stereotypes risk limiting their ability to recognize reality, to learn from events, to effectively adapt ideas to existing situations. And by invoking stereotypes when presenting ideas they risk having barriers erected to the consideration of those ideas.

There are credible ideas mentioned in the article, but the way Mr. Brooks frames these ideas causes me to wonder if those ideas will be designed for all students, if they will reinforce the differences that stereotypes promote, if they will reinforce the current perception of individual school districts.

Keith Warnick
Sat, 04/08/2017 - 6:41pm

Those of us involved in education for any length of time can tell you that all of this has been brought up before. Not rocket science. Nearly a decade ago in my early years on my local district school board, I asked our Curriculum Director if we should be heading to an IEP process for every student. Teachers and support staff need to learn everything they can about each student in order to effectively teach them In 2010, our district received a first place award from the American School Board Journal in their MAGNA award event for innovative education system for urban students achieving nearly 100% graduation with 100% college acceptance. The grand prize winner in our category was a district that had their teachers visit each of their students' homes during the Summer to learn all they could about them.

Paul Jordan
Sun, 04/09/2017 - 1:05am

This commentary is extremely well meant, I am sure.
Nonetheless, its underlying assumption is that the educational system's purpose is to develop workers prepared to fulfill roles within the economic system. The assumption is that, if the economic system provides an education that is suitable for that purpose, every student will then HAVE a role within that economic system is blatantly false.
The evidence of the last 40 years demonstrates that the thrust of change within the economic system is for increasing 'efficiency' by replacing human labor/skill with machine labor/skill. The net result is decreasing the number of workers that are necessary to produce everything that society 'needs'.
This means that, over time, fewer workers are needed. Simply put, no matter how well our educational system educates young people, there will not be remunerative jobs available for them to do. If they are not to struggle with anomie, our society must change to honor productive roles beyond those that earn money, and provide them with means to live
Furthermore, our educational system must educate them for non-(economically) productive roles and a broader citizenship rather than simply on preparing them for potential economic productivity.
The big question is that an article such as this should address is, "How are those folks to live productive lives (and doing what)?" The smaller (though still terribly significant question) is, "What do they need to learn (or experience) to contribute to social life--even if they are not needed to fulfill roles within the economic 'machine'?"

Sun, 04/09/2017 - 8:08am

Exactly. Thank you.

Michigan Observer
Sun, 04/09/2017 - 9:02pm

Mr. Jordan is only partially right when he says, "The evidence of the last 40 years demonstrates that the thrust of change within the economic system is for increasing 'efficiency' by replacing human labor/skill with machine labor/skill. The net result is decreasing the number of workers that are necessary to produce everything that society 'needs'." The drive for efficiency dates from around 1800, not 40 years ago. And it is that drive for efficiency that has resulted in the increase of daily per capita income by a factor of 30 to 100 times from the three dollars a day that was mankind's lot for centuries. It is by using resources more efficiently that costs are reduced and living standards improved. As costs, and thus prices are reduced, people have money to buy things they previously couldn't afford. or knew they 'needed.' He is mistaken in believing, with Marx, that there is a limit to what people need.

Admittedly, there are some rough spots in this process, particularly for those people whose jobs are eliminated, but the long run benefits to the larger number of people who benefit from increased efficiency outweigh the costs. And the economy has always adjusted, creating new jobs that produce new goods and services that people discover they want.

It is true that the pace of change is so rapid today that redeploying people into new jobs may be particularly difficult. That is why it is crucial that we rethink our educational system.

Ron Lemke
Sun, 04/09/2017 - 6:57am

Year round school .YES. Teachers on a contract that during the summer, visits to homes of students.YES. Pay teachers starting out a living wage not $30,000. YES. Support prenatal care, and early childhood education. YES. Make Charter Schools fully accountable. Tax payers are paying for them. Look into the idea of Multiple Intelligences. as a method of teaching. Don't keep advancing students just because of age and parent pressure to do so. Encourage STEM but also return to more of the Career and Technical Education. This is after 35 years in High School Education. R.L.

Sun, 04/09/2017 - 9:16am

I smile whenever I read a big scale "dream" such as this one, as when I was a young teacher, I had visions such as this, not realizing the effort and re-morphing that any one of these ideas takes. I often based my thinking on my own past school experience. However, schools are vastly different, and those which are well funded and progressive, as E. Grand Rapids with their BYOD (Bring your own device) to school and other innovative and progressive practices haven't been functioning as the author describes for some time. While other urban school district's hobbled by the extra 11% outflow of money than the average 36% outflow of all MI school districts over the past decade, and greater needs, don't quite have the same history or capacity as E. GR! The differences are great in both historical context, local context and the ability and capacity to move forward given the ration or resources/challenges so vastly different throughout the state. There's no paucity of ideas, but it's those next steps that are difficult. And without much consensus in Lansing about policies governing these, not much can happen. Schools have been being "yo-yo-ed" from CC standards to NOT, from MEAP to NOT, from such a chaotic environment that they can't commit to any of the many Lansing initiatives. It's hard for me to keep up with this ever-changing landscape. And real change takes from 3-5 years, so the "ship" is continually being re-comandeered. Nice thoughts but the school choice and charter initiatives have already been policies responsible for why urban schools look like they need EMs! And the reason isn't that they're not responsible, it's these policies from Lansing that are responsible for that extra 10% exiting of resources in environments that need more, not less, and for no real gain through unregulated for-profit charters.

Sun, 04/09/2017 - 3:52pm


Based on your experience, have you seen a range of academic success by students in a classroom or did the vast majority of students in a classroom perform at the top end of performance?

I wonder if the there is a range of performance did the individual students have an impact on their results or was there some other contributor to that difference?

I raise these questions, from limited personal experience, from an expectation that within the classroom the educational system/presentation are equal, and from a concern that if we focus exclusively on the spending and the education system that the student is forgotten. I would truly like to hear your thoughts and about your experiences.

Tue, 04/11/2017 - 4:43pm

Almost right on. Keep up the good work. There is a lot more support out here for your ideas than you might believe. Would be helpful to organize your work for a focused statewide initiative to move the needle in school reform

Barry Stern
Wed, 04/12/2017 - 6:57pm

Good article and balanced comments. I would have appreciated more thoughts that challenge our assumptions about the purpose of education -- for example, not to meet standards but instead for students to find and follow their passions while learning enough of the basics to support themselves and a family and to become active, aware, compassionate citizens.

I was also surprised that neither Mr. Brooks nor the comments emphasized that the assembly-line way we have organized secondary school academics for 85% of students is killing their joy, creativity and ability to relate to others. The so-called factory model of high school also doesn't produce either academic achievement or emotional intelligence, particularly for low income urban students. Another way to organize secondary education is described by the articles below: