Make Michigan schools accountable. Get rid of State Board of Education.

I've been trying to figure out just why Michigan's decades-long decline in our kids’ school performance has been largely accepted by the public without widespread cries of outrage.

Nor has an overpowering sense of urgency developed in those who understand how disadvantaged our kids will be when they try to compete in a skills-based world economy after leaving school.

You might find this utterly baffling.

However, there are lots of reasons parents may find it hard to sort out who is to blame ‒ ranging from a legislature that really doesn't care much for school matters (especially if a teachers' union is involved), to a school community with a habit of blaming every problem on a lack of money and state support.

But beyond that, a less easily noticed cause comes from the very structure of our education system, which is disjointed, opaque, politically and administratively confused and very largely lacking in systematic accountability.

To try to get our bearings, here’s an attempt at sketching out an organization chart for how our public schools operate today:

Put at the top the governor, the chief executive officer of the state. He or she makes basic policy and budget recommendations.

Next comes the State Board of Education, which is given (by Michigan’s Constitution) the primary role in “leadership and general supervision over all public education.”

The eight members of the Board are elected to eight-year terms, with their terms staggered so that some of them are elected every two years. They are nominated by partisan state conventions.

These days, members often clash over matters of political ideology, such as when they battled over what rights of self-determination transgender students should have.

These days, the Board is evenly split between R's and D's. The governor may or may not agree with the Board's policy decisions.

A state superintendent of schools – the actual title is State Superintendent of Public Instruction ‒ is selected by the state board. Again, this superintendent may or may not be in agreement with the governor on budget, policy, or any other matter affecting the schools.

The superintendent runs the state Department of Education, a sprawling bureaucracy which has been heavily criticized for being ineffective and too often staffed by second-raters.

Yet much of the power any of these various bodies and actors has is strictly advisory. Various committees in both houses of the legislature oversee and set both school policy and budgets.

Today, Republicans have majorities on all committees, and have had since 2011. But getting them all to agree with each other (or with the governor or the state board) is problematic.

It is common knowledge in Lansing that the legislature despises both the state Board and the Department of Education. (Neither group comments on the record about the legislature, for obvious reasons, but it’s not hard to imagine what they think as well.)

Nor is that anywhere near close to the end of school bureaucracy. Local public schools are run by locally elected school boards. Michigan has 533, not counting numerous charter schools.

How many charters? The exact number is unclear, but it seems to be more than 300, enrolling around 150,000 students, about a tenth of all Michigan elementary and secondary public school students.

"Local control" is deeply ingrained in Michigan political thinking, although sometimes local control is a thinly disguised excuse for poor quality. Local elections are often influenced by various special interest groups hovering around the edges of the system.

Teacher unions, for example, often play large roles in local school board elections and then negotiate labor contracts with members of those boards they helped elect.

Again, local school boards may or may not agree with the State Board or with the governor or the legislature or, indeed, with each other. Nor are they bound to agree with another layer of regional school groupings, the so-called "intermediate school districts."

So if, after all that, you are confused as to who should be held accountable for Michigan's dismal educational showing …

You aren't alone. Identifying the main culprits isn't easy and nobody I know and respect has any real idea precisely how to do that.

Republicans blame the Michigan Education Association (the state’s largest teachers’ union); those working in the schools people blame the legislature and the governor.

Meanwhile, employers looking for the public schools to produce candidates who can contribute to a skilled and educated workforce throw up their hands in frustration.

What I do know is that the basic structure of Michigan’s school system is very badly confused and dysfunctional, with no single person or institution responsible or capable of being held properly accountable for our miserable state of affairs.

No wonder there are few cries of public outrage or feelings of urgency to fix this by those who govern us.

Because so much of this system was set in place by the state constitution, any move for reform and improvement is difficult.

One of the things I'm waiting for in next year's elections ‒ which include the governorship and every seat in both houses of the legislature ‒ is some discussion of this problem by the candidates and, hopefully, some clear-headed remedies for it.

Clearly, a good place to start would be to have throughout next year’s campaign a robust debate about fixing our schools. Job One should be the simple idea of imposing accountability on the pudding-like education structure that has served us badly for years.

My suggestions: Amend the Constitution to abolish the State Board of Education, which has become a largely ineffective advisory body. Instead, give the governor the power to nominate a state superintendent, who then would be confirmed by the legislature.

Whoever is in charge of the schools would need to set clear objectives. Copy methods successfully used by leading states to improve their own school performance. Hold the governor accountable.

What we need to do as a state in short is quit pussyfooting around the problem of school performance – and get to work fixing it.

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Tue, 09/19/2017 - 8:07am

A great first suggestion of the many offices, boards, commissions, districts, jurisdictions and political units in Michigan that should be consolidated, eliminated or modernized. Across the board restructuring would go a long way to opening up funds for other priorities rather than raising taxes. More articles highlighting these areas and opportunities are greatly appreciated,

Tue, 09/19/2017 - 8:32am

This suggestion solves nothing, the system is going to be just as political and dysfuntional as before. Clear objectives? it isn't going to happen in the over politicized atmosphere with school financing and other issues impacting schools
in Michigan.

Cathy Mueller
Tue, 09/19/2017 - 9:05am

Interesting commentary. The main flaw is that the education of children is still politicized. How about bringing all schools under the same scrutiny: open meetings, public review, publication of all executive meeting minutes ( BOE of any entity resembling or claiming to educate pre-k to 12 students). If charters don't require open meetings, then public schools shouldn't have to abide either. Once we know or choose not to know, only then can we begin to reform state education. Then the next step is to perform an accurate study on the true cost of educating our children - with real costs for all types of learners.

Tue, 09/19/2017 - 9:48am

So, you want to give control of education to the governor.
Is this the same governor who poisoned Flint, has sold off precious state assets to friends at bargain basement prices, supports charter schools over public schools, and has thrown other state employees under the bus to save himself from prosecution?
What makes anyone believe that this governor will suddenly develop a moral compass and do what is best for the state? You are living a pipe dream, Phil.

Tue, 09/19/2017 - 9:49am

Michigan has many excellent public schools with great statistics! But they are not the big city schools. They exist in the suburbs and small towns where parents have money, approve taxes, support excellence in their schools and who send their children to school ready to learn. Communities in which parents cannot do those things will always lag behind!

Wed, 09/20/2017 - 7:58am

Merry, our larger cities pretty much across the board have the highest millage rates around (unless they have a city income tax), and almost never have any problem passing millage proposals. Its the suburban ares (with the higher test scores) that have the most trouble passing these tax increases. 10 minutes on Google would make this clear.

Chuck Fellows
Tue, 09/19/2017 - 10:07am

Before solutions are determined a problem must be clearly defined. In Michigan, and the nation, an accurate definition of the educational problem is absent. It is repeatedly alleged that schools are failing. This conclusion is based primarily upon student scores from various types of standardized tests. Unfortunately these tests do not measure learning. They provide little if any information upon which to determine the success or failure of schools. These tests produce a number absent any context. They are meaningless, useless and dangerous.
The long view, over the last century, indicates that public education has been a success, increasing the number of children enrolled, increased literacy, grade level attainment and number of citizens achieving post secondary degrees.
Experience in the last thirty years does indicate something is amiss.
There are several near term outcomes that indicate the processes used to educate our children may be less than effective. Failure to complete high school in four years , a dropout rate that waivers between 30% and 20% (depending on the calculation used and who does the calculating) and a reported need to provide remedial education in English and math to 20% of those who do graduate and apply for post secondary education. Funding and system insolvency increasing in frequency. There is also some anecdotal evidence from business and industry that secondary and some Degree graduates lack basic skills required for employment. This information is supported by the extreme shortage of skilled employees being experienced by manufacturing enterprises (
That above indicates there is a problem of some sort, but what it is and what to do about it remain a mystery to many.
The creativity consultant Sir Ken Robinson provides an excellent overview of our system of education in a brief video presentation titled "Paradigms" available on YouTube and RSAnimate. Fundamentally our system of education has not changed since its inception but its' working environment has.
Our system of education is no longer relevant to our culture. The system is addressing a public and a society that is rapidly fading away.
The basic structure is sound. The processes being used must be realigned to reflect the audience being served. That realignment has begun as evidenced by Charter schools, on line learning and the ubiquitous availability of content knowledge in society. Rote memorization of content and the sage on the stage are being replaced by mastery learning, customization of curriculum and pedagogy, integration of academic disciplines, teacher autonomy, collaboration and cooperation, focus on the individual, recognizing the impact of context and research on learning and behavior.
Globally there is concrete evidence that these realignments are producing positive long term outcomes. Also demonstrated is the need for flexibility in process and structure that recognizes individual and societal context, something the accelerating rate of change in all our environments demand.
There is are two key characteristic of systems that embrace this realignment. Teacher autonomy, empowerment and professionalism, three elements absent in all the reform movements past and present; and recognition that every student is an individual with unique learning needs and abilities.
What to do? Over the long term implement public policy that support those two key characteristics and longitudinally measure outcomes that the system produces. Abandon omnibus standardized testing. Listen to the people that do the actual work of learning, the children, their teachers and parents. Most of us have two ears and one mouth and to date we have relied on the mouth. Time to zip it and listen.

Val Bury
Wed, 09/20/2017 - 11:31am

I so agree with this statement. The 3 R's have been missed. So many factors must be taken into account of each child's life especially with what happens in their homes. This world has changed. Students have changed. Jobs have changed. We need to get back to the basics. Our future is in the hands of these children.

Kevin Grand
Tue, 09/19/2017 - 11:17am

Excellent summation of the problem.

Absolutely terrible idea for a solution.

And I'll sum up why in three words: Emergency Manager Law.

Bob Balwinski
Tue, 09/19/2017 - 12:33pm

".....Department of Education...................too often staffed by second-raters."
I was Valedictorian of my HS class and hold a BS in Mathematics and an MA in Educational Administration and 42 credit hours beyond Master's level. After a 30 year+ career with an urban school district, I "retired" but then moved to a position at MDE for a period of 9 years. In those 9 years, I earned recognition from school districts and professional groups for my services. I do not see myself as "second-rate" even if some do.......mostly legislators who have never set foot in a school after graduating years ago from some local HS. I'm sure continued denigration and name calling will NOT be the solution to our problems.

Greg Olszta
Tue, 09/19/2017 - 6:48pm

Thanks, Bob. I too responded to this op-ed piece. See below. It is disappointing that Mr. Power was not more thoughtful in the article and that he reiterates the cliched dismissal of State employees as less than competent and "second-rate." Conferring with education professionals, including those other than Department of Education leadership, might have provided Mr. Power with a different opinion. Speaking with educators in the field might also have been useful in providing a more in-depth analysis of system level barriers to improving student achievement levels across the State of Michigan. As we know, it is not so easy to select top State department leadership, whether they be selected by the State Board of Education or the Governor. Commitment to collaboration and to mutual respect of all of the stakeholders, including the Legislators and the Department of Education staff would go a long way. So, too, would listening to the educators themselves, both at the district and the Department of Education levels.

Dick Brunvand
Tue, 09/19/2017 - 12:47pm

Excellent article Phil. You get right to the heart of the problem and offer a good place start to find a solution. One wonders what the years of political tinkering with education has gotten us. On thing Lois and I know is when parents are actively involved with their child's education good things happen. We saw it in our family and continue to see it in our kids families. Looking forward to your talk here in South Haven next May.

Wed, 09/20/2017 - 7:45am

As usual you must reach out to include one of your your standard bogymen as the cause of all problems. What do you do during Art Prize? Close your eyes, plug your ears and stomp your feet for a month?

Thu, 09/21/2017 - 2:36pm

As usual you just make insults but never address anything what I stated nor anything of substance.
Read the Times article and tell us what isn't right. You really don't want to to do that.
Betsy and Dick don't want to help Michigan education - they want to weaken it in order to get people to believe lies and help their scam business. Tell us that Amway is legit and the 'distributors' get rich - I dare you.

Greg Olszta
Tue, 09/19/2017 - 4:50pm

Whether one agrees with your opinion and recommendation to abolish the constitutionally established Michigan State Board of Education (SBE), and have the Superintendent of Public Instruction appointed by the governor, there is general agreement that the different authorities responsible for public education operate dysfunctionally as a system. The root causes and sources of this dysfunction are less clear. You note correctly the antipathy some of the stakeholders hold toward each other, especially the Legislature toward the SBE as a body, and the resentment of the staff of the Michigan Department of Education (MDE) toward the Legislature's penchant for creating educational mandates and frequent refusal to hear or heed the recommendations of the State Superintendent or the MDE leadership and staff experts. Lack of cooperation and collaboration is the most salient component of the relationship that these bodies have with each other.

Other states with high student achievement on standardized tests, such as Massachusetts, have a high degree of collaboration and cooperation in implementing quality education statewide. The level of dysfunction in Michigan's education system hardly seems related to MDE as a "sprawling bureaucracy." The MDE is one of the smallest departments in Michigan government and is funded with a very small proportion of state and local dollars, relying upon the small percentage of federal funds permitted for state administrative staffing costs. Most of the MDE's staff functions ensure that federal funds received are passed on to local educational agencies (LEAs) to support federal assistance for poor and disadvantaged students and districts to improve achievement levels at the district and building levels.

Your comment that the MDE has been "heavily criticized for being ineffective and too often staffed by second-raters” lacks context or support for any such criticism. Such a broad brush, including the reference to a "sprawling bureaucracy," seems more the mundane and clichéd hostility of so many toward government generally, as is fashionable today. In my 15 years as non-management staff at the MDE, now retired, I can honestly tell you that I had never heard directly any such comment from the field, or from other professional stakeholders that MDE staff were "ineffective" or "second-raters."

Tue, 09/19/2017 - 5:34pm

As a society, we seem to turn to the "one person in charge" model way too quickly. This is not what usually works, yet we still have a gut affinity for it. And by the way, it is time we started at least considering that the "choice" mantra and the legislative policies that have fundamentally altered the way schools operate in Michigan have played a significant role in the troubles of our schools. Yet the party controlling our state's offices keeps doubling down on these policies as the solution to a problem they can't ever really define.

Thu, 09/21/2017 - 2:37pm

Watching the PBS 'Vietnam War' series.
Doesn't this sound same'? Sad we never learn.

Michigan Observer
Wed, 09/20/2017 - 12:32am

Mr. Power goes to some lengths to delineate the structure of our state's educational establishment, claiming that it makes it impossible for citizens to hold anyone accountable for results, and then admits that the state Board of Education and the Department of Education are "largely advisory." But we have had that structure since we adopted our current constitution in the early sixties, so it seems doubtful that that is the root of our problem. That said, his suggestion that we amend our constitution to have the governor nominate the superintendent of education with confirmation by the state legislature is a good idea. I would not anticipate that that would make a material difference however.

He says, "Whoever is in charge of the schools would need to set clear objectives. Copy methods successfully used by leading states to improve their own school performance. Hold the governor accountable." Were it that simple and straightforward. Bill Gates, a very smart, capable individual, who has spent hundreds of millions of dollars in an effort to improve American education, has been quoted as saying, "A lot of... technology tends to empower motivated students more than unmotivated students. And one thing the U.S. has a lot of, is ... unmotivated students...People (ask), 'What's the hardest thing our foundation's working on....malaria, TB, AIDS? I always say U.S. education.'

Much is made of Massachusetts' test scores, and no doubt it is one of the"leading states" whose methods Mr. Power believes we should copy, but it seems that the scores of their students are quite high from their first years in school and don't improve much relative to other states as their students progress through school. Apparently, their teaching methods don't account for all their differences from other states. (2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress Reading and Mathematics: Summary of State Results)

Mr. Power's concern about our educational results is commendable, but remedying the situation takes far more than quitting " pussyfooting around the problem of school performance – and get to work fixing it."

Laurel Raisanen
Wed, 09/20/2017 - 3:55pm

Charter Schools and Cyber Schools are the lead cause of the decline of public education in Michigan. If a parent has a problem with their public school ... a charter school is the answer.
But how good is that charter school? Does anybody in this state actually know how good they are? Regular public schools are held to certain standards but charter schools are not. GET RID OF THEM! ...and having a governor appoint a state superintendent and have no state board of education is a very bad idea.

John Q. Public
Thu, 09/21/2017 - 11:43am

People who have been a CEO or its rough equivalent generally seem to think a political strong man is the answer to a question that hasn't even been defined.

Let's not discount some of the failures of the current system being attributable to the governors' (esp. Engler and Snyder) penchant for using the executive order to move functions out of Education into agencies (especially Treasury and DTMB) more under their direct control. Not because the functions weren't being performed well, but because they weren't fulfilling some political agenda they wanted.

"Hold the governor accountable."

That's a great platitude, but what does it mean, and how does one do that? I've seen the way the electorate holds legislators "accountable." See, e.g., Jase Bolger--try to fix an election in another district and be held accountable with re-election in one's own. Then get appointed by a lame-duck governor to a position with the intention of returning government employment to a spoils system.

Business wants better employees, but they consistently seek larger and longer tax cuts. They demand better outputs while divorcing themselves from the cost of providing them. They don't want education; they want training. There's a disconnect in the perception that graduates of Michigan schools are wanting in skills at home, yet employers in other states find them perfectly satisfactory (and at higher wages than here, too.)

A better change to the Michigan Constitution would be to triple the size of the state board of education, change the terms of office to two years, and have elections by district. Then, limit spending from the school aid fund to K-12 plus community colleges and transfer all spending decisions to the state board. It'd be a separate governing body for education, one in which the legislature does not--and given the decades-long period of ineptitude it has exhibited while controlling both, should not--have any control over either school finance or education policy .

To "stop pussyfooting around" a problem that lacks definition reeks of the same "Ready! Fire! Aim!" philosophy that permeates so much of legislation action.

Thu, 09/21/2017 - 2:40pm

Phil - please read this.
Please. Don't become another McNamara. Courage is hard but you have to do it,
Oh, refuse Amway money. Integrity has a cost but buying lies has a higher cost.

Chuck Jordan
Fri, 09/22/2017 - 10:01am

"Meanwhile, employers looking for the public schools to produce candidates who can contribute to a skilled and educated workforce throw up their hands in frustration." How many of these employers will tell you they are looking for students who given 4 choices will choose the right answer A, B, C, OR D?

Mon, 09/25/2017 - 12:42pm

We tried to get such legislation through the House in the 1990's with no support from the Democrats or Republicans who were elected with the help of the MEA. Very frustrating as the State Board was no help in changing the way public schools were funded....seemed almost disinterested. Also the MEA sat on their hands and listened. The Superintendent should be accountable to the Governor.

John Q. Public
Thu, 10/12/2017 - 7:32pm

Mr. Power and Tom Haas, the president of GVSU, testified before the Education Reform committee today concerning House Joint Resolution M. Interesting testimony--particularly Russ Bellant's. He's a former candidate for the Detroit City Council. There's a couple of days lag time in posting it, but the video of the hearing can be found here under the October 12 Education Reform committee.

Bellant--who testified about forty minutes in after Power and Haas were through--seized on the notion of holding the governor (or anyone else) accountable through the ballot box and shot it full of more holes than the back wall of a shooting range. His Exhibit A? The EM law noted above by Kevin Grand.

Bellant's testimony was captivating. He was a refreshing change from the sycophantic genuflecting that is usually seen in those meetings, showing no reluctance to call out the legislative and executive branches for their outright contempt for the will of the people. He bluntly called the resolution exactly what it is: a blatant attempt to consolidate power in the hands of fewer and fewer people while insulating them from any accountability.

It was noteworthy that not one member of the committee even bothered to try to contradict him. They probably all had the good sense to realize how ridiculous they'd have looked.