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Opinion | Michigan must embrace digital age now or watch its students suffer

With the coronavirus, schools across America are scrambling to put together a hodgepodge of solutions to continue teaching for learning while their buildings are closed.  Many are valiantly attempting to leverage technology to create online and virtual learning opportunities.  Unfortunately, weaknesses in technological infrastructure, teacher preparation shortfalls, inequities among students, and ill-equipped students and parents are barriers to success.  The information highway has more than one virtual flat tire.

You might ask why is a judge addressing this issue?  

Reason first, the collapse of meaningful learning threatens our social fabric, the rule of law and self-governance.  One of the major reasons justifying K-12 public education is to ensure that our students are well-equipped to be informed, participating citizens to preserve our freedoms and liberties.  We cannot maintain our republic if we fail to understand its generating history, the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution.  

Reason second, as a then member of the State Board of Education, I led a task force on Embracing the Information Age which produced a report. The Report was released on November 15, 2001— more than 18 years ago, i.e, before the students who are high school seniors today were even born. 

The task force recommended a four-prong strategy:

  • Educator Preparation and Development. All educators and administrators will be prepared to use Information Age tools and learning techniques and processes.
  • Standards and Assessment. State and local academic standards, benchmarks, and assessments will reflect the knowledge and skills necessary for success in the Information Age.
  • Transcending the Four Walls. Distance learning and other learning resources will be integrated into the learning community.
  • Virtual Districts. Chronically underperforming schools and districts will form collaborative partnerships creating virtual districts by which all partners share best practices and resources.

We presented these recommendations using video conferencing between the superintendents of the Detroit and Birmingham school districts, as well as online interaction with students from Detroit’s Alex Dow Elementary and Birmingham’s Covington Elementary School.  Each board member used laptops and participated in the virtual presentations.  Some of the state board members had never used a computer before, and nearly none had participated in a videoconference.  The board instantly understood the revolutionary potential for transforming learning and passed the recommendations as policy.

As a consequence of the report, we also adopted a new Policy on Learning Expectations, which made it the policy of Michigan that students be equipped to, among other things, gather, understand, and analyze issues; draw and justify conclusions; think and communicate critically; learn and consider issues collaboratively; create knowledge; and act ethically.

If the report’s recommendations and its policies had been followed, we could have nearly seamlessly addressed the current educational crisis. Instead, we have only made some very modest progress toward fulfilling the report’s vision.  Many schools have limited forms of long distance learning; technology is more widely spread; the Michigan Virtual High School exists; and some learning practices are more student centered.  Yet, we are nowhere fulfilling the report’s vision.

In connection with equity and the linkage between improving education and preserving our republic, the report declared:

"With a growing underclass of children all but assigned to failure, the cost of failing to act now is simply too great. In our age, all workers must excel, all community members must be engaged, and all citizens must be knowledgeable participants. The inability to meet that challenge places our economy, society, and republic at great risk. In short, this reform package is one which we must wholeheartedly embrace, if we mean to make a reality our most fervent wish – that all Michigan’s children be equipped to excel in the global economy and become engaged, vitally critical participants in our experiment of self-government and constitutional liberty. To proceed with the reforms will be difficult, to ignore them could prove fatal."

This warning is no less valid today.  We have already lost a generation.  The coronavirus reinforces the need to act.  It’s time to renew the state’s commitment to embracing the Information Age or suffer the dire consequences well beyond the current health crisis.

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