LANSING – They stood in a row for a photo, but quickly realized the line was too long. They made two lines, they scrunched together, they smiled, and the cameras clicked.
A small collaboration, but possibly symbolic.
Thirty-four groups, ranging from business associations to teacher unions to charter school advocates, met for the first time Wednesday in Lansing with a common goal: improving Michigan’s struggling public schools. The diverse organizations, some typically on opposing sides of issues, promised to work together to improve education in the state.
The joint effort, called Launch Michigan, is lauded as the most ambitious collaboration of philanthropy, education, labor, business and community leaders in the long, stumbling history of education reform in the state.
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(Disclosure: The Center for Michigan, the non-profit parent organization of Bridge Magazine, is a participating organization in Launch Michigan.)
By most measures, Michigan is in the bottom third of states in academic achievement. Michigan fourth-graders rank 35th in reading in the latest National Assessment of Academic Progress, often called “the nation’s report card.” Low-income fourth-graders ranked 49th in math on the NAEP.
Michigan ranked last in the Midwest in every category measured by NAEP.
“We know Michigan is facing a talent shortage, it’s getting worse by the day,” said Doug Rothwell, president of Business Leaders for Michigan, one of the groups involved in the new effort. “We know other states are doing better than us, and there’s no reason for that.”
The group’s launch marks the latest in a long list of efforts to address the shortcomings of state public K-12 schools.
What makes this different is “the breadth and magnitude” of the groups involved and their level of commitment, said Tonya Allen, president of the Detroit-based Skillman Foundation.
“None of us are smarter than all of us,” Allen said. “We are not doing as well as we can for our children.”
The fact that groups as diverse as the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce and the teacher union Michigan Education Association are sitting down together shows the coalition’s commitment to turn things around, several members said.
Launch Michigan won’t be an independent organization. There won’t be a staff or a budget. Instead, the effort will consist of a collaboration among the groups to find common ground on education reforms, and a coordinated push to implement those reforms, Rothwell said.
Don’t look for a comprehensive education reform plan from the group, Rothwell said. Instead, the group will pick a handful of issues that research shows impact learning.
Those efforts are likely to include a push for more and better support for teachers and principals; accountability measurements for the entire K-12 system rather than just teachers; and elevating public awareness of the disappointing state of Michigan education.
The hope, said Amber Arellano, president of Education Trust-Midwest, is to wall off education from partisan politics, where reforms tend to change every time a new governor is elected. States that have successfully reformed their schools, such as Massachusetts, Florida and Tennessee, have maintained education reform policies over a long period of time.
“There’s a lot of data out there,” said Chris Wigent, executive director of the Michigan Association of Superintendents and Administrators. “We know what works and what doesn’t work. We just need to work on the 80 percent we agree on. This group is set up to do that.”