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Legislators missed chance to have eyes opened on K-12 reform

In my experience, there are two basic types of conferences:

* The rehash, where you see/meet new people but don’t learn much new.

* The eye-opener, where you hear something quite new that shoves your thinking in new directions.

Tuesday’s gathering in Lansing, sponsored by the Center for Michigan to consider expert response to the report, “The Public’s Agenda for Public Education”, was one of the latter sort.

Here’s a quick run-down of some comments that forced rethinking on how best to train and evaluate teachers and why increased support for early childhood education programs is so important.

* “We don’t let medical students practice surgery on live patients before they’ve been carefully trained. … Imagine if pilots learned to fly on their own” – Deborah Ball, dean of the University of Michigan’s School of Education and chairwoman of the Michigan Council for Educator Effectiveness.

Ball, whose much-anticipated report on teacher evaluation is due later this spring, is a passionate advocate for much more intensive and much more individualized training for teachers. Schools today are entirely different than they were when most teachers were initially certified: “Classrooms are now half students of color and one quarter do not speak English as their first language,” Ball explained. This requires an enormous change in the ways teachers are trained, yet the work they do is simply essential to the workings of our society, she added.

* “Teacher evaluation is, at heart, a civil rights issue” -- Amber Arellano, executive director of the Education Trust-Midwest.

The people who need great teaching the most – poor people, minorities, those at the bottom of the social heap – are the ones who all too often don’t get it, she pointed out. An evaluation system that encourages great teaching and discourages bad teachers is a fundamental way to provide the full rights of citizenship for those most in need of it.

* Sen. Roger Kahn, R-Saginaw Township, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee and a powerful force in budget policy decisions, signaled his long-term dedication to sharply increasing state support for early childhood programs. 

Last year, Kahn proposed spending $140 million more on the state’s pre-K program for low- and moderate-income four-year-olds, the Great Start Readiness Program. The state now spends a little more than $100 million annually to support GSRP, which leaves 30,000 eligible children out in the cold, for lack of slots.

Kahn promised, “If the governor’s budget (which will be released on Feb. 7) falls short of that, I will advocate for more in the Legislature. If that falls short, there is the May revenue enhancement (which could come if state tax collections increase more than predicted). If not then, there are budget supplementals. If we fall short to some degree, we have next year.”

* “We’ve been talking about early childhood ever since 1972, nearly 40 years,” said Vickie Markavitch, superintendent of Oakland County Schools.

Until this year, we’re not much farther down the road to serious early childhood programs in Michigan.

* Paul Hillegonds, senior vice president for corporate affairs at DTE Energy, pointed to enormous returns gained from investments in early childhood: “We want every child to enter kindergarten ready to succeed. And so many are coming to the starting line and they’re 50 or 100 yards back when the gun goes off for kindergarten. Catching up is very difficult.

“So schools spend a lot of time and energy trying to bring them up to speed. If we invest on the front end and they are ready to succeed when they come in for kindergarten, we save those costs down the road.” 

In addition to being thought-expanding, the conference provided an unusual and valuable experience for those used to the standard high-conflict discussions about education in Michigan: An adult conversation, conducted by people who actually know something.

Nearly 500 people attended Tuesday’s conference in Lansing. The 147 current members of the Legislature could have walked just a few hundred yards down Michigan Avenue to the Lansing Center and had many eyes opened.

Editor’s note: Former newspaper publisher and University of Michigan Regent Phil Power is a longtime observer of Michigan politics and economics. He is also the founder and chairman of the Center for Michigan, a nonprofit, bipartisan centrist think–and–do tank, designed to cure Michigan’s dysfunctional political culture; the Center also publishes Bridge Magazine. The opinions expressed here are Power’s own and do not represent the official views of the Center. He welcomes your comments via email.

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