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Opinion | Advice for the new Michigan superintendent, from a former one

Let’s congratulate and welcome the new state superintendent, Michael Rice. I know he is up to the challenge – assuring that the focus remains on what Michigan can do to assure that our children receive the education they need to be prepared for their future, not our past.

Our paths crossed in the mid 90’s when we both were part of a small cohort of leaders aspiring to lead public education as superintendents of schools. My memory is of a man with wit, intelligence, integrity and a passion to help ALL students learn and prepare for our hyper-competitive, disruptive, technologically-drive global economy where ideas can and do move around the globe effortlessly. His positive record of achievement in Kalamazoo underscores the man I met back then.

Michigan needs Dr. Rice to build coalitions with public education friends as well as adversaries in order to produce academic results that are immersive rather than shallow. Purpose-driven – not simply a test-driven learning experience. 

Related: Michigan’s next superintendent led gains in Kalamazoo, fought GOP policies

Unless we are serious about changing the trajectory of educational achievement in Michigan, we will sink into an economic backwater.

We need Rice to fulfill a reputation that will push back against those who claim to care about teaching and learning, but whose rhetoric does not match actual educational outcomes or assessment data.

We can’t allow political ideology to substitute for evidence-based approaches, especially when the evidence shows what is being proposed is dysfunctional – not producing desired results.

Many know all too well that we are living in a teach-to-test culture. Others clearly know our schools, teachers, and especially our students, are more than a single test given on any single day. 

We need to stand up for the classroom teacher to make sure their ideas and experiences are heard and incorporated into developmental policies. Let’s ask: “Just how does this proposed policy help teachers teach and children learn?” If it doesn’t meet the standard, then eliminate and re-create. Setting a single quality standard and holding all our schools – whether traditional, charter, blended or e-learning – to this standard should be the goal.

As the 21st Century unfolds, new technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) will permeate our world. We need strong leaders like Dr. Rice to support learning communities so that evolving research on human development – along with the best educated teachers – can help our students push the learning needle in a more holistic direction.

Preparing our children with the abilities to learn, unlearn, and relearn, will help them navigate the tsunami of automation and technology that offers potential for even greater disruption of our traditional ways of living and working in the coming decades. 

The need and variety of jobs that humans work in continues to evolve daily. Not as immediately transparent is exactly HOW artificial intelligence and robotic or machine learning will significantly disrupt – and likely make obsolete – a wide range of knowledge jobs that people may think of secure. How does what is happening today in our classrooms prepare students for the realities of tomorrow? 

Rhetoric and ideology have never educated a single child. Quality teachers who have mastered their subject areas, know learning pedagogy, and are passionate about teaching, learning, and children, - when equipped with learning materials and support – are the ingredients necessary for learning to occur.

Continue to embrace our public schools as the true Statue of Liberty of this great state and nation. Name another institution that truly takes the tired, hungry, poor, and children who speak English as a second language, or children with a disability to give them hope and opportunity. It happens – often against all odds in public schools across our state. 

Let’s not allow negativity to drown out the great things happening in our schools. Instead, advocate for necessary funding and even greater accountability. We know there are some schools across this state that are not making the cut and our children are failing academically. 

A child without a decent education today becomes an adult without a future tomorrow.

 In spite of public schools’ past achievements, the current system is leaving far too many children behind. Embrace the fact that based on many objective standards, we are at the bottom of the pool and must do much better in order to prepare our children academically.

Funding students based on need, targeting special education and those from low-income families, English-language learners, and high school students - these should be given top priority.

Investing in early childhood education creates a HUGE payoff down the road.

Invest in teacher development. We need better teachers in struggling schools. Let’s incentivize teachers to work in schools where students are falling behind. Good teachers are crucial to improving student achievement.

Support Michigan Opportunity and Reconnect, Gov. Whitmer’s signature education and workforce preparedness initiative aimed at increasing our postsecondary attainment rates from 45% to 60% by 2030.

When it comes to our schools, we need to move beyond political rhetoric. Whether from the left or the right, focus instead on TLC – Teaching, Learning and Children. NOT power, control, or politics. When we do this, good things will happen for our children.

The goal of making Michigan one of the nation’s top 10 states for student learning and talent development is laudable – Dr. Rice’s role will be invaluable in achieving it. 

Make no mistake – improving educational outcomes is key to the foundation upon which our state’s collective future will be built. Quality education and workforce preparedness is key to what ails our state and nation. 

Michigan NEEDS the new educational investments proposed by Gov. Whitmer. Workforce preparation – from the cradle to the grave – is what is needed if we want to remain relevant as a state.  

At perhaps no time in the past three decades has there been as much potential alignment for educators, teachers unions, governor and state legislature, the State Board of Education, and the business community to develop a shared vision and common agenda that assures educational support and reform in Michigan.

My hope is that Dr. Rice can harness this energy in ways that truly help our teachers teach and our children learn. 

Be bold. Lead. Everyone in Michigan is rooting for your success.

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 Ron French. Click here for details and submission guidelines.

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