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

Tom Watkins served as Michigan’s state superintendent of schools from 2001 to 2005.

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.

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Joe Nathan
Mon, 06/03/2019 - 2:22pm

Here are some questions from a public school teacher, administrator, PTA president and honorary life member of the Mn PTA.:
What beyond more $, should Michigan be doing? Innovators in many fields are allowed to, in fact encouraged, to try new approaches. Why not in Michigan?
Where is the push for trying new approaches in this column? Where is the recognition that while some teachers are doing a great job, others are not? Or do you think all teachers are terrific?
Do you think your state's colleges of education are dong a wonderful job of preparing excellent teachers or administrators?

Paul Jordan
Mon, 06/03/2019 - 2:37pm

I remember Tom Watkins from when he was the director of the Department of Mental Health under Jimmy-the-boy-governor-Blanchard. He seemed like a good guy.
One of the two most important things that the new superintendent (and, most importantly, his allies) should do is WREST CONTROL OF EDUCATIONAL POLICY BACK FROM THE LEGISLATURE.

Paul Jordan
Mon, 06/03/2019 - 2:40pm

The most important thing that the state superintendent could do (along with his allies) is to wrest control of educational policy away from the state legislature. Our state constitution purposefully gave control of policy to the state Board of Education, and its superintendent. Because past boards (and superintendents) haven't been willing to sue to regain this control, education in Michigan has suffered a great deal.
Educational policy should not be a political football!

Wed, 06/05/2019 - 4:59pm

To paraphrase, Give us the money then get lost?

Tue, 06/04/2019 - 10:09am

Mr. Watkins says "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." I think what he, and even more importantly, Dr. Rice needs to consider is that when it comes to reading, pedagogy is deeply and intensely political. Michigan cannot afford to just "let teachers teach", and especially not to teach reading, using whatever approach they find most interesting or most in line with their own preferences. We should require all teachers to use the teaching methods that work, as evidenced by research and standardized achievement tests. See https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2018/04/-american-students... for what happened in Colorado when the state Department of Education did some deeper digging into what actually happened in their classrooms.

We are now at the end of the fourth academic year since Michigan's Read by 3rd Grade law was passed. The state has been helping schools to get ready for this planned end to social promotion out of primary school, mainly by doing what was advised by teachers and the Department of Education. Gov. Snyder doubled the size of Great Start School Readiness Program, a free pre-K program for low-income children. The state's elementary schools focused on literacy. Governor Snyder and late Superintendent Brian Whiston added state-paid literacy coaches to support school districts and doubled-down on the licensing requirement that teachers get professional development to learn the research-validated methods to teach reading. Between the state, teachers themselves, and the various school districts, hundreds of millions of extra dollars have been spent specifically on early literacy over the past 4 years. The results? After the first 3 years of these efforts, 2017-184th grade reading scores across Michigan dropped further. And I will sadly but confidently predict that state-wide average 4th grade reading scores for the 2018-19 school year will not have increased this year either. Because doing the same thing, but expecting different results, is Einstein's definition of insanity.

The other thing we need to do is to heed the evidence provided by Florida's similar law that holds back 3rd graders who are 1 grade level or more behind age expectations. Most results of Florida's similar law were neutral or positive, not bad for students. Those students were and are no less (or more) likely to complete high school than those who scored just barely above the cut off, or whose parents persuaded the schools to promote them to 4th grade in spite of their poor reading skills. Perhaps because there were so many of them in many Florida schools, students retained in 3rd grade did NOT suffer trauma, depression or disengagement from school. Fewer of the kids held back as 3rd graders were retained in later grades (where research tells us that retention is more traumatic) and more of them took higher level classes in high school than their peers who were promoted in spite of low reading skills. The effect of an extra year focussed on literacy had faded by the time those students reached 8th grade. Their scores in 8th grade were once again barely at or slightly below grade level.

Michigan should provide the gift of extra time, and competent, effective instruction to these young students early in their school careers instead of forcing the students to pay the price of ineffective instruction as teens and young adults. In addition to the Read by 3rd Grade, Michigan should establish kindergarten entry criteria, both behavioral and cognitive, and eliminate the calendar age requirements for starting and progressing through our public school systems. We need to abandon the mistaken assumptions of the many education professionals who insist that every child, from whatever background and with whatever previous experience, is ready to begin learning to read at age 5 and should be reasonably fluent between ages 7 and 8, no matter what home environment or approach to teaching reading that student has experienced.

Wed, 06/05/2019 - 5:07pm

How is any of this any different from what we've been hearing over the last 40 years?