To raise student accomplishment, raise student expectations

You don’t become a Top 10 hitter in the major leagues batting against Little League pitchers.

You don’t become a Top 10 golfer only playing putt-putt.

You don’t become a Top 10 education state only expecting the minimum out of your students.

Michigan needs to elevate its game.

The potent and lasting career fields of the 21st century are for the educated and highly-trained. Michigan will succeed and move forward as a state by raising the expectations on ourselves and our students.

We have to set our state’s education standards high – make them rigorous and expect the best from all our children.

Higher standards give students a deeper understanding to what they are learning. It takes students from just knowing the facts to learning how to use those facts to understand context, apply them to problem-solve, and make those facts relevant in their lives. This is the learning path that will prepare our students for the next evolution of personal and economic success.

Our goal is to make Michigan a top-10 education state in the next ten years. Right now, we’re at the lower end of that scale.

We are starting by setting higher standards for our students and our educators. We need to raise our expectations, and we are beginning with the M-STEP state assessment results coming out later this fall. The new test last spring was more challenging, and over 80 percent of Michigan students took it online, which also was new.

It’s going to take more to be successful with the state assessments this year and into the future. I know that whatever bar we set, our students will jump over it. If we set a high bar, they’ll meet it and jump over it.

This year’s results will be lower than scores from the previous state tests, and that’s OK. We are setting a new baseline to the higher bar.

It’s not just about assessments, though. It’s about setting high expectations in learning and teaching and parenting.

Every student should set learning goals for themselves, focusing on reading and writing. A big part of that is building a strong partnership with parents.

We need to work with parents and family members to help with a true partnership, so that kids are setting aside time every day to read and play math games at home. If the family requires help and support on how to do that, we should provide that training through local school districts, because securing that rich partnership with parents will help make sure our kids are succeeding.

Likewise, we need to set higher expectations with our educators, and to do so, we must provide them with the best tools and transformative training.

As the learning path is evolving, so is the teaching path. We have to respect our teachers, respect their passion, respect their innovative nature, and respect their ability to adapt. Give them what they need to be successful and let them go to work.

In this process, we’ll retool the structural system that supports this drive to the top-10; and there are so many other pieces to consider, including

  • the impact of poverty on learning;
  • the disparity of educational opportunities from one school district to the next;
  • low literacy rates;
  • proper nutrition;
  • continuity from early childhood learning to post-secondary education;
  • a stable and fair school funding system recognizing that some kids need more resources than others;
  • safe and suitable school buildings for every child;
  • a useful and transparent accounting of school performance; and
  • replicating quality schools and closing failing schools.

We have been asking for ideas on how best to make Michigan a top-10 education state in 10 years. Education and research leaders have shared their ideas with the State Board of Education, and hundreds of teachers and parents have been sharing their best thinking with me and the Department of Education.

Working together, I believe we can develop a coherent plan to move Michigan forward; and when we do, we need to stick with it and give it time to fulfill.

We all need to raise our expectations, and we need to do it now.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated who appointed Whiston to his current position. The error has been corrected.

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Fri, 10/09/2015 - 1:31pm
When I went to college tuition was low enough that I could save, work summers and pay for it. Those days are long gone and every high school kid knows this. If I was a high school kid today, knowing that I could not afford college without going into debt that would take me decades to pay off, I'd probably opt out. And, if I was not going to go to college, why bother taking tough courses and acing them? Kids need incentive to study and a major incentive, affordable higher ed, is no longer an option for many. Without the college incentive there is little that teachers, schools and the State of Michigan can do that will have much impact on motivation to learn.
Sat, 10/10/2015 - 7:08am
"We have to respect our teachers, respect their passion, respect their innovative nature, and respect their ability to adapt. Give them what they need to be successful and let them go to work." And the State of Michigan is doing exactly the opposite and yet expects the teachers to be successful.
Matt G
Sun, 10/11/2015 - 8:50am
indeed. How about tackling that list of bullet points before judging teachers with standardized test scores? How about discussing the fact that standardized test scores predict nothing but those bullet points? Where's the evidence that high test scores on tests like MSTEP actually produce quality citizens, workers, entrepreneurs, etc? You won't find any, but maybe you'll find some evidence that it raises profits for testing-related companies. Ask any teacher which kids are doing well. They know. That is, they know when they can actually spend some one on one time with students. That's nearly impossible when class sizes are 30-35 and there's a shortage of para-educators because the pay is garbage and there's zero training. High expectations aren't going to magically make a kid's brain develop faster, either. Eventually there has to be room for students to fail, because that's how people learn...but the system is increasingly designed to label students, teachers, and schools as failures as much as possible. It's a political tool and nothing more.
Sun, 10/11/2015 - 1:38am
What the expectation changes? How can we can tell if there is any change in results? Mr. Whiston is like every other politiican who wants to get into other people's wallets, all promise with no accountability. Mr. Whiston likes his sports analogies to a point, he ignores the way we know a 'hitter' is successful or a golfer is successful, by their scores. Mr. Whiston conveniently avoids any talk of scoring his wants. He is like a sportscaster that makes his analysis and moves on never having to be score like the people he is talking about. What do they call it in Texas, 'All hat and not cattle.'
Chuck Fellows
Sun, 10/11/2015 - 9:13am
Stop calling for "higher" whatever and pay attention to a simple fact - children already know how to learn and will become intrinsically motivated if they are allowed to use their inherent cognitive strengths to follow their interests. More talk about how the education system must do this or that to a child or their parents is just that, more talk and little meaningful outcome. Bureaucrats, politicians, academic professionals, psychometricians, and business leaders in Michigan - BACK OFF - you do not know what a meaningful education is. Teachers do. start listening to them. Look at successful systems around the world (success =learning) - the teachers rule.
Wed, 01/20/2016 - 6:12pm
I am currently a Michigan student and I agree with you, these higher expectations make me so mad, I have average grades and am excelling in other classes, but one class, I have a terrible grade. I cannot balance my grades, if I support my bad class, then my other classes go down from because I'm focusing on the bad class more! One day, my parents looked at my grades and were not happy at some c's, I could never figure out why my grades were so low even though I was working as hard as I could in all of them. I am beyond stressed, teachers don't pay attention, lose my work, and then get dissapionted at me because said homework. The food is saltier than the pacific, and we only get 30 minutes of "free time". Apparently my grades are "completely fine" because of these high standards and parents do not believe me. New standards suck, they deprive students of sleep and we get super stressed.
Doug Curry
Sun, 10/11/2015 - 9:50am
The key to higher achievement is simple. You must believe in and design educational programs based on these simple statements. All children can learn when they see meaning in their learning. Second, rigor does not mean make children take "harder classes". It means ask students to perform at a higher level in whatever class they decide to take that will mean their needs. Meaningful learning is not rote learning but higher order thinking skill learning.
Sun, 10/11/2015 - 11:06am
I'm more concerned with Slick Rick's scheme to save DPS by diverting more money from other school districts within Michigan towards bailing out that failed district. As should everyone else.
John S.
Sun, 10/11/2015 - 12:42pm
There's little to disagree with the state superintendent's statement. There's a place for standardized tests to measure student learning. Still, teachers will object to being held accountable for student learning when they have no control over all of the factors outside the classroom that affect student learning. There's a way to measure teacher performance objectively, but it would require implementing an experimental design at the school level (e.g., within an elementary school, assigning students at one grade level randomly to teachers). So far as I know, that's never been done. Teachers will rightly object to any method of measuring performance where there are multiple threats to both internal and external validity.
Charles Richards
Sun, 10/11/2015 - 6:17pm
John S. says, " There’s a way to measure teacher performance objectively, but it would require implementing an experimental design at the school level (e.g., within an elementary school, assigning students at one grade level randomly to teachers). So far as I know, that’s never been done." In New York city there is a public school with a poverty rate of 72% that didn't have a single student meet the state standards for either reading or math. Not a single one out of 33 students. Two floors above, in the same building, a charter school with a poverty rate of 60%, had 96% of their students test proficient in math, compared to a citywide rate of 35%, and 80% were rated advanced. In reading and writing, 75% of their students were proficient, compared to 30% citywide. The students in the charter school came from the same neighborhood as the public school students, and are there because they won an admissions lottery. They were selected as John S. stipulated: at random.
John S.
Wed, 10/14/2015 - 11:38pm
There's a high quality evaluation of charter schools dating from 2010 that looks at charter schools with lottery based selection ( It appears that charter schools in urban areas with relatively disadvantaged students have improved math scores relative to other charter schools, but not reading scores. The evaluation found considerable variability in performance across charter schools. In general, parents were more pleased with the charter schools. Do all students in a given school district participate in the lottery and do all who are winners attend the charter school? If parents must sign up their child for the lottery, there's likely to be a selection effect, a source of invalidity. The parents who participate in the lottery will be more concerned with the education of their children than those who don't. I think that Whiston has identified many of the factors that promote student learning, and both charter and public schools can focus upon improving them. Ken Meier in his research has found that a stable curriculum and capable, experienced school district leadership are also important.
Craig Douglas
Sun, 10/11/2015 - 4:38pm
I want see a State system develop that is supportive, positive, and innovative. I, too, have high expectations, and I will be keeping a watchful eye to see how the new leader leads.
Chuck Jordan
Sun, 10/11/2015 - 10:13pm
Mr. Whiston's essay is mainly a warning that this years scores on M-STEP, based on Common Core and Smarter Balance, will be lower that ever/before. Like all other states giving these new tests, most students are failing them. Suddenly most of our students are failing. Ergo, we need to raise expectations. I agree. But I would not base my assessment of student learning on these tests. We need to provide equal education to all students including low income, mostly minority districts. These test scores reflect the income of the parents more than anything else.
Mon, 10/12/2015 - 1:09am
Chuck, How do you define 'equal education'? Is based on results or is it based on material presented? Or is it as Mr. Whiston talks about expectations? The reason I ask this is because without a definition all can use there is no way to align the interest people's efforts. My problem with Mr. Whiston's article is that it doesn't establish any specific reference or definition that people can use as a common point of understanding so hope of have people working together is lost. Without a well defined common purpose we have confusion and disarray. What we need to do is to establish some reference definition and specific description of purpose. How do you define equal education?
Chuck Jordan
Mon, 10/12/2015 - 12:43pm
Start with books. Books for every student and a library for ever school (maybe enough desks?). Then maybe a qualified teacher for every subject taught. If you think I'm joking go visit some of those high poverty, minority districts. Some people think technology and computers, but many of the kids don't have computers or internet access at home.
Tue, 10/13/2015 - 8:28pm
It seems you are describing more the tools of an educational system then education. I have yet to hear a description of the purpose of education. If we could establish what results we expect then we could start developing what the tools need to be and how to develop quality tools. Even with the quality of tools you mention there are students in the same classroom using the same tools and yet they have different results, some succeed and other fail. I wonder why and what are the influences that change the results. I think if we had a clear purpose for all to use we could better understand how to help student succeed. What do you feel the graduating students should have, knowledge, skills, and capabilities, what should be the results?
Mon, 10/12/2015 - 12:04pm
"We have to set our state’s education standards high – make them rigorous and expect the best from all our children." Which do you want? Because every set of standards forgets one thing: children aren't standard. Some struggle and even with incredible effort won't reach grade level standards - but they are doing their best. Others breeze through school, putting in little effort, and easily exceed grade level standards - but they AREN'T doing their best. Standards for grade levels are like tennis shoes. You can't give every child in the same grade the same size tennis shoes. Some will be wearing shoes way too big. Others can only fit in them with a great deal of pain. Both will have a hard time doing their best wearing 'standard' tennis shoes. Instead we provide shoes at the right size for the student. If education pays no attention to the academic and intellectual size of a student, standards only harm those who aren't typical. So it is time to focus on the needs of the individual child and focus on growth to include every child, not just those who fit the standard. And it is time to recognize that the standard classroom can't always bring out the best in every child and to provide specialized classrooms with educators trained to work with the atypical student. The standards should be that every student will be educated at their level and pace, that every student will experience failure and recovering from it, that every student will face obstacles that they can and will overcome, that every student is respected as being non-standard in one way or another, and that every student will grow. Those might not be measurable, but they are more effective.
Martha Toth
Tue, 10/13/2015 - 10:11am
That last paragraph is a masterful summary, Joshua. Thank you.
Tue, 10/13/2015 - 8:41pm
Your last paragraph was very well said. I feel that with your last paragraph rather describing standards you have describe what should be the experience of the student as they progress K-12. I do believe that experience can be measured and those metrics can be used to keep the process on focus.
Jan Russell
Mon, 10/12/2015 - 1:41pm
Sorry. Really nothing new here. High expectations and more (different, new and improved) testing has not changed school outcomes significantly. The creation of public school academies (charters), has produced lower test scores statewide for these schools, higher administrative costs, and very little innovation. I think we need some real restructuring.
Mon, 10/12/2015 - 3:48pm
Tie a school district's funding to college completion rates, rather than college attendance rates and we will see a huge uptick in high expectations
Wayne O'Brien
Tue, 10/13/2015 - 1:19pm
Although well-intentioned, the superintendent's written thoughts may not be effectively targeted for the state of Michigan. According to the recent Fordham study on U.S.A. state by state school governance arrangements, Michigan is one of seven states which take a "Lincolnian" approach: Authority for school governance is concentrated at the state level. Authority is consolidated in a few institutions and public participation is encouraged in Michigan. When Michigan's School Superintendent writes that "We have to set our state's educational standards high -- make them rigorous and expect the best from our children."......he actually misses the mark. We need actually FIRST to expect that those who (according to the Fordham study) "at the state level" wield concentrated authority and those "few Michigan institutions" which "consolidate authority" begin to more rigorously and seriously and conscientiously approach their jobs. We, the public, can begin to expect that those Michigan authority wielding institutions study the best performing educational systems in the world and then rigorously strategize about how to implement world-wide proven educational techniques (pedagogical and philosophical) in all of Michigan's public schools and for all of Michigan's public school students. We need to do what the world-wide winners are doing and have been doing without delay. More testing is not how the world-wide winners have achieved success......they've used solid and proven mechanisms, like high quality teacher preparation (not silly and wasteful and EXPENSIVE teacher evaluation schemes), time for teachers to help each other every day, keeping high quality teachers with groups of students considerably longer than nine months and many, many more success strategies. If we keep our eyes on the world-wide winners and expect rigour from Michigan's educational-governance power brokers, we'll catch up!