Amazon to Michigan: Fix your schools!

Sometimes you learn more from a bucket of cold water in the face than a warm blanket over your back.

Last week, Amazon announced it turned down Detroit's bid to be a finalist city for its second headquarters. The big reason: Our state lacks the depth and quality of human talent they need.

For Michiganders who have kids in school or looking for a good job or hoping to get into a good college, this is comes as no surprise.

Business Leaders for Michigan, which has been benchmarking Michigan's standing for years, ranks us 29th in the nation for the percentage of high school graduates who are regarded as college or career ready, 32nd for the percentage of the workforce with technical training, and 30th in overall educational attainment. The percentage of people in the Michigan workforce with a post-high school degree is far less than prosperous states like Massachusetts or Minnesota.

Related 2018 Michigan education facts

This is bad enough, but test scores over recent years show Michigan K-12 students are getting worse relative to other states.

Detroit News columnist Daniel Howes nailed it in his Friday column: "Michigan can't credibly attract 21st-Century talent with some of the worst educational performance in the country. It's that simple: Michigan is growing dumber as would-be competitors get smarter and better prepared to prosper in the global knowledge economy."

What needs to be done is simple: As Howes puts it, use the news "as a wake-up call, a litmus test for this year's campaigns for governor and the state legislature."

So what's occupying our far-sighted lawmakers in Lansing these days? In both the Senate and, especially, the House, it's to compete in how much to cut state taxes in the wake of the new national tax bill. Maybe ‒ and sadly ‒ this is good politics. But it's terrible governance.

Related: Compared with other states, Michigan's tax burden is low - and getting lower

According to the Corporation for a Skilled Workforce, a nonprofit think tank located in Ann Arbor, the better the post high-school skills, the more likely school leavers are to get high-wage jobs. The average percentage of the national workforce with a post-high school degree is 44.8, according to the Lumina Foundation. The comparable Michigan number is 43.4, by no means at the bottom of the barrel, but certainly well below the 50.1 percent for Illinois, a neighboring competitive state.

    And the issue isn't just spending more money, regardless of what some say in Lansing. According to Business Leaders for Michigan, we need to improve our K-12 and job training systems and make college education more affordable. The school system "needs more accountability, a respite from constant changes to standards and assessments, more support for teachers and actions that direct more funding to the classroom."

    None of this is rocket science. Nor is it necessarily politically unpopular.

    More 2018 Michigan education facts

    What's mystifying is that the political leadership of Michigan (excepting Gov. Snyder [more]) seems to have no interest whatsoever in doing anything serious about our schools. This despite all kinds of evidence that public concern about deteriorating performance of our schools ranks at the top of a list of things that need doing. You would think with this being an election year, most lawmakers facing the voters would pay more attention. But they aren’t. Most parts of the political system seem content with finger-pointing and remain largely unwilling to come together to make serious school improvement the key issue in the forthcoming statewide campaign.

    There are lots of rationalizations: I can't do anything to change the system.  Better schools cost money, and the voters won't like that. People have been complaining about schools for years, and that doesn't seem to have changed anything. We're actually doing pretty well, so what's the fuss?

    This isn't a Republican issue, or a Democratic one. It's a Michigan issue, one that affects directly all of us and our children and grandchildren. In fact, when it comes to our futures, it may be the most important issue of all.

    Related: Despite low trust of gov't, Michigan legislators have done little to change

    What's it take to build a fire under every candidate on this November's ballot?

    Each of us needs to grab anyone running for governor or state legislature who comes to our door asking for our vote and ask, "How, exactly, are you going to fix our disgraceful school performance?" If that were to happen, my guess is that the political system might, just might, start getting the message.

    Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

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    Chuck Fellows
    Tue, 01/23/2018 - 10:59am - that's a start.

    Short term, abandon standardized testing immediately. Allow teachers and building staff to collaborate and cooperate developing curriculum and pedagogy instead of the MDE. Provide more planning time for teachers, less classroom time. Allow students to participate in teaching. End comparisons to average. Teacher formative and summative testing used to determine learning growth, not state and federal mandated tests.

    Longer term. Preschool for all. ROI 17:1.

    Flip funding formula. State provide facilities funding - goal equality with hold harmless districts. Teachers and building staff develop operational budget at classroom level, focus on the learning needs of individual students, state and district hierarchy provide support for this form of budget development. Legislature provided operational funding based upon this.

    Train teaching staff in identifying the cognitive learning strengths and weaknesses of every child. Training in curriculum and pedagogical practices that support the learning journey of each individual (teachers and students).

    Look beyond our borders for methods that support learning, not education.

    Tue, 01/23/2018 - 4:15pm

    So Chuck you're willing to look at the Europeans where they seem to get a lot more bang for their investment? No more school assignment by Zip Codes, no more K - 12, 180 days a year of seat time? No school sports. Instead, super individualized choice of schools (even by subject and unit), and super high stakes testing!! You fail you don't advance!! Sounds great! I'd bet the MEA would have another opinion.

    Tue, 01/23/2018 - 11:00am

    You do realize that not all students take the SAT in the states you listed? It is difficult to compare a test score from MI where all juniors take the SAT and then compare it to states where only 'college bound' students take it. Or if you are using another norm referenced assessment that is an equal comparison from state to state please reference it for us Michiganders. Thank you.

    Charles P Tommasulo
    Tue, 01/23/2018 - 11:19am

    Phil, could not agree with you more!!!! Fix the schools - first step stop "beating up" teachers.

    Tue, 01/23/2018 - 12:09pm

    Just a point of clarification. While the average salary of a teaching is about 67, 000 dollars, if you were hired in the last 8 years, your salary has stayed below 40,000 dollars! That helps explain why 50% less students are applying for College teaching degrees. And it explains the exodus of those teaching hired in the last 8 years. It is a disaster.

    Celia Young-Wenkel
    Sun, 01/28/2018 - 1:00am

    My son-in-law has a bachelor's degree and handles people's money for a living. He makes hundreds of thousands of dollars per year. Teachers "handle" our most precious commodity, our children and grandchildren, the future of our nation. Just sayin'

    Theodore St Antoine
    Tue, 01/23/2018 - 12:36pm

    Educators probably can't avoid thinking that their area is the most important. But I truly believe that the decline of the American public school system is the country's most serious domestic problem. It affects every aspect of our society -- civilly, culturally, and economically. Those who can afford it send their kids to private schools, especially in large cities. Most middle-class and working-class parents cannot afford that. And we now know that the need is actually even greater than was realized before; it starts in the preschool years. What had once been a gateway open to all for success in life and work has sadly deteriorated. America must reorder its financial priorities, revitalize public education, or see the quality of its citizenry and its standing in the world continue to decline.

    Ron Baker
    Tue, 01/23/2018 - 12:45pm

    Perhaps we have reach a point where the value of education is no longer obvious. An outreach program focusing clearly on why knowledge is required and beneficial, delivered through today’s social media tools, might help bring the pendulum back toward center. The outreach program would be massive, requiring support by interested parties, among them: businesses, government, educational institutions. The politicians might act in support of funding our schools when the people understand the need for quality education and then demand it.

    Kevin Grand
    Tue, 01/23/2018 - 12:58pm

    Mr. Power, I honestly expected better from you.

    All one needs to do the see the REAL reason why Amazon didn't choose Detroit (especially after the Michigan Legislature practically gave away the store to lure them here), is to take a nice leisurely drive through Detroit.

    No, I'm not talking about flying through on I-96, I-94, I-75 or The Lodge.

    Go up and down Jefferson, Warren, Gratiot, Woodward, Livernois, Grand River, Telegraph or Fort.

    Then, start exploring the adjacent streets to those roads mentioned above.

    You want to know why Amazon didn't choose Detroit?

    Those are the areas in which they were proposing Amazon employees either live in and/or commute through.

    And I'm certain that a local school district that needed to be bailed out by the state, a high crime rate, a lack of retail infrastructure to support an influx of employees on the scale they were proposing and a notoriously corrupt and inept local government had absolutely no bearing on its final decision.

    Wed, 01/24/2018 - 8:30pm

    Mr. Grand,
    I expected better of you. You are always one of the first to criticize, but so often lack to recognize how state and federal racist policies have contributed to how Detroit looks today. None of you guys who are always the first to criticize Mr. Powers want to admit how you contributed to the issues Michigan is dealing with today. Denial is a great tool used by so many of you who comment on this site.

    Kevin Grand
    Thu, 01/25/2018 - 12:57pm

    That post must burn you so much for hitting too close to the mark, Bernadette?

    Tell me, what "racist policy" is preventing someone from using a trash can, mowing their lawn, upkeeping their property, getting an education, getting a job, not stealing from local businesses or electing (or even running) as a competent public official.

    Tell me how I am now somehow causing any of the above?

    This should be good...

    Tue, 01/23/2018 - 2:00pm

    Michigan used to be 3rd in the country for educational achievement. Then came the war on public schools and the MEA. And tax cuts that reduced spending for education. And charter schools, private schools and home schools...all of which siphon funds from public education. The only entity being held accountable is the public schools, who take all children of all abilities.
    Extreme amounts of testing takes time away from teaching, while making children think less and regurgitate more.
    The war against teachers needs to stop, as well. Good administrators who guide their teachers into improvement, rather than bully them into conformity, would go a long way, also.
    As a retired teacher in Michigan, I went through the years of "school improvement", which did in fact improve the schools. But then politicians stepped in to take away benefits while constantly belittling the job. Most teachers do an excellent job, but when they are worried about whether that job is in jeopardy on a daily basis because of a parent's whim or an administrator's targeting, they eventually look for other employment.
    We should celebrate our teachers who step into the classroom every day, trying to teach, sometimes against all odds. They need to be supported, not constantly criticized.
    Public schools are the backbone of our democracy. They help children understand cultures different from theirs, open their minds to new ideas, and give them the basic skills to become productive adults. We need to get back to what our educational system stands for.

    Wed, 01/24/2018 - 8:38pm

    Thank you Lois for your years of service. My children grew up in the days Michigan ranked 3rd in the country. I agree teachers need to stop being bullied by the government. These are the people who put their kids in private schools and support those elits such as the DeVos family who siphon off money for charter schools for their own benefit and fund so much of the republican campaigns.

    My heart has broken over the way schools have deteriorated, and Michigan has a governor and attorney general who have no moral compass or conscience, and don't think twice about poisoning the poor in Flint.

    Tue, 01/23/2018 - 4:03pm

    Phil, exactly where did Amazon say, "Fix your schools"? Totally missed it. In supporting article it said only "He (Sandy Beulah from COC) said his read of Sullivan's response was that Amazon was concerned about the region's mass transportation system and its ability to attract talent in a sustainable, long-term way." What ever that meant? Maybe Michigan's crappy winter climate isn't as appealing to Millennials as CO or Southern Cal? Or .. Maybe it's just our tight labor market? Where did Amazon say fix our schools? Simple fact is that in Seattle, Amazon attracts employees from across the entire county, no doubt the vast majority are from somewhere else, (yes even from Michigan!) and would in no doubt do the same from anywhere they locate. This isn't to say schools do or do not need improvement, but from here It appears you grabbed Amazon's rejection as a excuse to beat a drum you wanted to beat anyway.

    Tue, 01/23/2018 - 6:44pm

    And now public taxes may go to profit based charters.
    Just ok' d thru legislature. Less money for public school systems.

    Marsha Bahra
    Tue, 01/23/2018 - 9:03pm

    Please check out the great things going on in these Michigan CoOp Districts!

    Ron Baker
    Wed, 01/24/2018 - 8:34am

    I agree with you Phil. To bring Michigan education back to "outstanding" as compared to education throughout the world, we must convince the general public, the politicians, Michigan businesses and the educational institutions themselves that superior education is valuable. In my mind, accomplishing that task is a challenge that requires much more than improving curriculum and retaining great teachers and administrators, although those goals, too, must be attained.
    Creating a message that focuses on why knowledge is required and beneficial, then delivering it through today’s social media tools, might help bring the pendulum back toward advancing our educational system. The "outreach program" I suggest would be massive, requiring support and participation by interested parties, among them: businesses, government, educational institutions. The politicians might act in support of funding our schools when the people understand the need for quality education and then demand it.

    greg blass
    Fri, 01/26/2018 - 7:27am

    its time to be creative in organizing a conference that blends business and political leaders, educational leaders parents and certainly the students. We are working on a vision that does just that. The textbooks are just a part of the problem......there is so much more that builds the foundation for success. Call to discuss
    Gregory P. Blass
    The Blass Group of Companies
    248 200 3473

    Kevin Grand
    Fri, 01/26/2018 - 12:49pm

    An interesting premise, Mr. Blass, unfortunately most schools have their hands tied with what they can and cannot do because of the federal government starting back with Carter and cranked up to 11 with 'Bush v2.0.

    Even though education is not (nor ever has been) an enumerated power of the federal government), the busy-bodies in Washington felt differently and acted accordingly.

    You'll need to take them out of the equation entirely before anything meaningful can be done to fix education.

    Sally Fernstrom
    Sat, 01/27/2018 - 12:24pm

    This article sums up the problem with public school systems such as the one in Traverse City. The administration is hyper focused on balancing its budget to avoid being taken over by the state. In the process, teachers' opinions are disregarded and the Board of Trustees rubber stamps everything in front of them. Quality of education has taken a back seat while "marketing" goes into overdrive to put lipstick on the pig. It is unfortunate that more parents are not involved or critical enough to question the multitude of poor choices being made by Superintendent Paul Soma today.

    Tim Gallagher
    Wed, 01/31/2018 - 7:56am

    Soma's also the guy under investigation for bullying staff.

    Celia Young-Wenkel
    Sun, 01/28/2018 - 12:54am

    I'm running for the State House of Representatives in the 97th District. One of my top three priorities is to bring our education tax dollars home from Minnesota. The online charter school, K-12, is owned by a corporation called Plato's Learning or something similar. They are located in Minnesota. When a student living in my local school district of Standish-Sterling Central opts to attend the online school, the legislature has voted that the tax dollars that would go to SSC would go with the student to the online school located in Minnesota instead. The online schools don't perform as well as our traditional school districts. They cheat the students, we the tax payers, and our employers, looking for a skilled population. I will work hard for the residents of my district to bring that money home from Minnesota.

    Barry Visel
    Sun, 01/28/2018 - 9:46am

    Maybe we should wait until Amazom makes their selection and then do a comparative analysis. After 30+ years working the economic development game the most enduring lesson I learned was its always better to have 10 good small businesses than 1 big one. I'm not sure Michigan lost anything with this decision.

    Sun, 01/28/2018 - 3:30pm

    I have read this column every few months for the past 20 years. This one is like so many in that it says nothing new and has no specific solutions.

    I have some ideas, but since I teach I must be an idiot while Pavlov, Kelly, Colbeck, Garcia, and the others take their turn driving our schools into the ground.

    Thu, 02/01/2018 - 1:30pm

    Your article paints K-12 schools with a pretty broad brush. School performance varies greatly by location. Inner city schools versus suburban schools is a wide spectrum. Inner city school children face poverty, violence and other issues that hinder their performance. Poverty is too tough to tackle. If someone has the will to take poverty head on, student achievement in our state will will rise.

    Lisa James
    Fri, 01/04/2019 - 8:50am

    There was more, too: the unveiling of Alexa Guard, Whisper Mode, multi-step requests, email integration, FreeTime improvements and Alexa Hunches. All have varying degrees of usefulness to different people, but something like Hunches, which leverages Alexa's machine learning to prompt you if something isn't quite in your usual routine, is an illustration of the forward, smarter direction Alexa is now facing. And just like Google, these elevated smarts were all packed into a greatly improved Echo family.