Gov. Rick Snyder’s 21st Century Education Commission published its recommendations last week. I’m eager to see what this group of bipartisan, multi-sector stakeholders have designed to improve the performance of Michigan’s public schools. I have no doubt the recommendations are the product of a rigorous process filled with spirited, thoughtful, and forward-thinking dialogue. Yet, I’m holding my breath.
Karen McPhee served as Gov. Rick Snyder’s senior policy advisor in education from 2015-16. She worked at the Ottawa Area Intermediate School District for 31 years, the last 11 as superintendent.
There are those who declared the effort an exercise in futility even before it began. I understand the doubters. For far too long, public education in Michigan has looked more like a boxing ring than a prized institution integral to the state’s economic and civic vitality. Years of debate over funding, performance, equity, accountability and competition has resulted in significant mutual distrust. Labor vs. management. Republican vs. Democrat. Educator vs. legislator. Traditional vs. charter. Business vs. education. There is no end to the arguments that divide us as we seek to convince others of what’s really happening in our schools. Sometimes our 1.5 million students are barely mentioned in these sparring matches.
It’s important then, before we come out swinging against the commission’s ideas (and each other), that we take a minute to understand the commission’s work and the dialogue that likely led to each recommendation. In design thinking, the first step is to empathize: seek to fully understand the experience of everyone involved in the work you’re hoping to improve. To empathize we need to first accept there are multiple perspectives and they all matter. Here are just a few of the competing realities I’m sure the commission considered:
More of Michigan’s children are poor, more exhibit increasing signs of mental illness, and they speak dozens of languages. Despite these daunting challenges, some schools simply outperform others with similar socioeconomic realities every day.
We have pockets of excellence in both traditional and charter schools. Many of our students are doing exceptionally well. Some schools have embraced innovative instructional design and adopted practices that result in undeniable improvement. Yet, our overall student performance has gone flat on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (a test comparing our students with those in all 50 states). We are at or near the bottom of state rankings on almost every measure. This is not an urban-only problem. Rural and suburban schools, traditional and charter, are contributing to this harsh reality.
Our marketplace of school choice has benefits and side effects. On one hand, choice has allowed some parents to take advantage of better educational options for their children. Many children thrive in their school of choice. On the other, the competitive marketplace has significantly hindered educators’ willingness to share successful instructional strategies with neighboring districts as they fight to keep their share of a declining number of available students. Students = money. This lack of professional collaboration has serious implications for our state’s ability to improve student performance. By contrast, when we do share our knowledge (like in West Michigan’s Reading Now Network) improvement is quick and measurable.
Local boards of education provide important policy and financial oversight for Michigan’s 900 local districts and charter schools. This state has a long history of local control. Yet, local control and local accountability are not synonymous. When a school or district is performing below what we believe is acceptable, who’s accountable for insuring improvement? The legislature? The state Board of Education? The School Reform Office? Parents, because it’s their choice?
Some students attend classes in state-of-the-art facilities. Some attend classes in schools where the bathrooms don’t work. Some students have unending options in career and technical education. Some have no options for technical training. Some have access to early college courses or advanced high school courses. Some don’t. Our system inherently fosters have/have not realities.
Our level and formula for funding our schools is and should be debated. In a highly diverse state, with unique economic, geographic and demographic challenges, equitable funding is elusive. Yet even educators disagree about what an equitable education means for every student. If we can’t define an “equitable education,” how will we ever define equitable funding?
The work begins by acknowledging grievances in all corners. But it doesn’t stop there. Competing viewpoints indeed enrich our understanding of a problem’s complexity. Yet at some point, competing parties must come around to the same side of the table and face the challenges together with empathy for each other and for the sake of the people they serve.
The commission’s recommendations offer an exceptional opportunity to find that common ground and leverage our respective talents. Only then can we hope to transform Michigan’s 55-year-old system of public education into a powerhouse delivery worthy of our state’s rich and progressive history. Michigan’s 1.5 million students are counting on it.