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Getting past politics to give Michigan the schools it deserves

It’s no secret that when it comes to education achievement, Michigan students of all races and income levels are near the bottom of the pack, when compared with their peers in other states.

Grand Rapids conference: West Michigan leaders join chorus for state education reform

Of equal concern, there appears to be no sense of urgency in Lansing to help solve the problem.

Watch the panel on the Michigan education crisis on March 22 in Detroit:

Prioritizing real education reform is the first, critical step to solving Michigan’s education crisis, experts from leading education states told a crowd gathered for a solution-based summit on education in Detroit on Thursday.

Researchers shared damning statistics while educators lamented the dozens of disjointed improvement plans as well as a lack of political will that keeping the state’s schools from keeping up with other states.

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Co-sponsored by The Center for Michigan/Bridge Magazine and Business Leaders for Michigan, the summit brought to Detroit’s Center for Creative Studies education experts from Tennessee, one of the fastest growing education states, and Massachusetts, the gold standard for public education in the U.S. They ticked off a list of system changes Michigan can adopt to see the progress some other state’s are experiencing.

“We are in a crisis in education in Michigan,” said BLM President and CEO Doug Rothwell. “It’s statewide.”

Watch the panel on How and why other states succeed where Michigan fails:

Phil Power, founder of The Center for Michigan, called education the “number one problem” facing the state.   

“Today, Michigan is a bottom 10 state for educational outcomes,” noted  Amber Arellano, executive director of the Education Trust-Midwest, a Royal Oak-based nonprofit. That’s true, she said, not just for poor and minority children, but for white and more affluent students, compared with their demographic peers around the country.

Fortunately, Arellano said, Michigan is not without assets. Teacher pay, for instance, is number one in the nation, when adjusted for cost of living. Student funding levels are 24th, about average, and the state benefits from significant civic funding and participation.

More Michigan education stories

Several experts talked about the need for accountability, including a spirited debate over whether the governor should be allowed to appoint the state’s school board. Under the current system, board members are nominated by political parties and elected statewide. That brings an element of partisanship into policy discussions, and creates uncertainty about who will take leadership in redirecting Michigan’s public schools.

Watch the panel on how to best support educators in the classroom:

“We need the buck to stop either with the governor’s office or the state board, but not both,” said one speaker, Doug Ross, co-founder of American Promise Schools, a nonprofit educational management organization.

Ross said candidates for 2018 office in Michigan need to have a bipartisan plan for school improvement to secure an endorsement. That’s a sentiment echoed by several speakers, who called on political candidates this year for governor, House and Senate offices to go beyond campaign cliches about the value of education to articulate smart, evidence-based plans for turning around public schools.  

Luke Wilcox, Michigan’s current Teacher of the Year, said candidates for governor and 148 state legislature seats need to tell the public what they mean when they make bland statements of support for quality schools.

“We need to figure out what that looks like,” he said.

In Tennessee, education improvement is so central to state policy discussion that a candidate’s campaign can live or die based on their stance.

Tennessee gubernatorial candidates took part in a campaign debate that focused solely on schools, said David Mansouri, president of Tennessee SCORE, a nonprofit and nonpartisan advocacy group. The state created an army of instructors that spread out across the state, training teachers on standards and expectations at every grade level.  

Several speakers said Michigan needs to create a common agenda with support from the business community alongside parents and teachers, one that’s not scattershot, but thoughtfully focused on two to three key improvements.

Paul Reville, the Francis Keppel Professor of Practice of Educational Policy and Administration at Harvard University, co-founded the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education. He said it was concern about prosperity and economic growth that first brought school reform to the forefront in Massachusetts more than two decades ago.

Watch the panel on Key Education Issues for 2018 Statewide Elections and Beyond

The business community, he said, has the clout to get the attention of state policy makers. “It puts (education) on the agenda,” Reville said.

John Rakolta, CEO of Walbridge and a member of the steering committee for the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren, said if Michigan doesn’t improve education the state’s businesses will have to increasingly import workers who have the skills businesses need, or export jobs.

Chandra Madefferi, a vice president with the Michigan Education Association, the state’s largest teacher union, said it’s no surprise that undergrad enrollment in education programs at Michigan’s 15 public universities has fallen by a third since 2010.

When she was a college student looking forward to a teaching career, she said she was encouraged to enter the classroom.

But now, she said, citing increased pressures teachers are expected to work under, “people are talking us out it.”

Elizabeth Birr Moje, dean of the University of Michigan School of Education, agreed. “Teachers need respect,” Moje said. “That’s why they’re leaving the profession.”

Moje and Madefferi were joined on a panel focused on teachers, by Ralph Bland, CEO and founder of New Paradigm for Education, which operates charter schools in Detroit.

The panelists argued that a climate of “scarcity” has trimmed teacher planning time and increased workloads, which has cut into the time that teachers, particularly young teachers, need to get better.

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