Michigan’s top teacher on Betsy DeVos, school shootings and testing

Outgoing Michigan Teacher of the Year Luke Wilcox

Luke Wilcox is outgoing Michigan Teacher of the Year. He’s spent the past 12 months traveling around the state, speaking at conferences and attending State Board of Education meetings as a non-voting member. He’ll return to his math classroom at East Kentwood High School in September. Bridge Magazine spoke to Wilcox about the lessons he’s learned serving as the state’s top teacher.

Bridge: You’ve spent a year traveling the state talking about education. Has that experience made you more optimistic or more pessimistic about Michigan schools?

Wilcox: When I’m working with teachers and students, I’m very optimistic. But to be totally truthful, when I’m at the federal or state level, I sometimes feel less optimistic, because things tend to move slower in those realms. It’s hard to see the impact you’re having.

Bridge: The State Board of Education gets a lot of criticism. There’s been rumblings about moving from an elected board to a board appointed by the governor. What’s been your experience serving on the board as teacher of the year?

Wilcox: Regardless of where they stand politically, you have people in that room who passionately care about education. The trouble is getting them aligned sometimes. The current state board has four Democrats and four Republicans. They tend to stick together with their parties when it comes to voting.

I sometimes wish that we would make it more about the students and less about politics. It’s not about voting with the other people who are in your party, it’s about voting the way that’s best for students in the state of Michigan. That goes for both parties.

I would advocate that there be several teachers in that group and giving them voting rights.

Bridge: You were in Washington, D.C. recently with the other state teachers of the year. You met with Betsy DeVos. Did you get a chance to talk to her?

Wilcox: The elephant in the room was school choice, because that’s one of her biggest platforms. I like to hold up East Kentwood High School as the right way to do schools. If you properly fund schools, you have kids who are poor, who come from single-parent families, and they have access to the best curriculum and the best teachers, that’s what public education is all about. That’s why we created public education, so that every family and every kid has the opportunity to be successful.

(I told her that) the concern I have about school choice is there are certain families who will have the resources and do the research to be able to utilize school choice, and what would that leave behind? Students who are naturally already disadvantaged in the system are now being further disadvantaged by the system of choice we have set up.

May 2019: Betsy DeVos: Michigan doesn’t have enough school choice

Bridge: School choice increases the opportunity gap?

Wilcox: Absolutely.

Bridge: Where do you stand on standardized testing?

Wilcox: Within this year, I’ve changed my ideas about standardized tests. I think we’re putting too much emphasis on it. I don’t think we want to remove it, it’s a great accountability measure for schools. But if it’s the only accountability, then the schools and the teachers are going to narrow their focus toward that content, and in doing so, we’re doing a disservice to our students.

When you talk about standardized test, primarily what you’re measuring is content. And the more I think about it, ultimately, I just want my students to go out in the world and be successful. Content is just a small part of that. Creativity, collaboration and communication are just as important or more important to their later success. That’s not being measured right now on our standardized tests.

So what other accountability measures can we have to measure these other things? I know it’s harder, that’s why we don’t do it. But if we really want to value students being able to communicate and collaborate, let’s figure out a way to measure that. Because if you start to measure teachers and schools that way, guess what happens in classrooms – more of that stuff.

Bridge: It seems there’s another school shooting every month. What do you think about the solutions offered, such as arming teachers or hardening schools?

Wilcox: More security guards, metal detectors and bullet proof glass is completely the wrong approach. How does that make kids if they come into a school and have to pass through a metal detector and go past a security guard, and we have to do these active shooter drills, what kind of feeling does that give kids about school and the world? That’s concerning to me. School is supposed to be a safe place. I know the school-hardening folks think they are making schools safer, and I just don’t think that’s how these things play out.

Do we want kids thinking, “Man, there could be someone coming to shoot up my school?” That shouldn’t be on kids’ radar. I can worry about that as an adult, but kids shouldn’t worry about it. This school hardening thing is putting it right in their faces, they can’t ignore it.

And ultimately, that’s going to impact their learning in schools.

Related: What Michigan schools can learn from craft beer

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Wed, 06/13/2018 - 8:30am

Totally confusing, we're told individualize choice is good according to TED talk. But then here choice is bad because some people don't/won't take advantage of it. Maybe .... everyone in a given zip code should be assigned to drink only a certain beer? Amazing how how choice is good everywhere EXCEPT when it comes to schools. Teacher logic at its finest!

Dena T Arner
Wed, 06/13/2018 - 1:52pm

Because choosing a brand of beer will impact your life every bit as much as which school your parent choose ? And a school losing funds and becoming progressively worse is just as devastating as having to switch beer brands because the brewery shut down. There are no words for this level of stupid.

Thu, 06/14/2018 - 7:45am

So once again personal choice is good and improves our lives everywhere .... except for public schools where you must be shoved into the local mega school because of your Zip Code. (And this excludes preschools and post secondary schools where personal choice is suddenly ok.) Obviously more Teacher Union logic.

Thu, 06/14/2018 - 7:45am

So once again personal choice is good and improves our lives everywhere .... except for public schools where you must be shoved into the local mega school because of your Zip Code. (And this excludes preschools and post secondary schools where personal choice is suddenly ok.) Obviously more Teacher Union logic.

Mitchell Robinson
Sat, 07/14/2018 - 8:36am

Although it's a really bad analogy to compare schools to beer, this is exactly how it works in Germany--every town has its own brewery, and because the beer is high quality, and fresh, and made to the tastes of the town's citizens, and made by people that live in that town, everyone in town drinks the beer from "their" brewery. The people in one town don't buy the beer from other towns, unless they are traveling. Wouldn't it be great if public schools were supported like that? If every town treated its schools like Germans treat their breweries?

William C. Plumpe
Wed, 06/13/2018 - 2:08pm

To increase the value of standardized testing add a practicum to the tests something like a graduate term paper or an active project to test skills other than rote knowledge. And what to do about guns in schools? A difficult question but if "hardening" schools isn't the answer neither is arming teachers---an even worse idea than armed guards and metal detectors. And even if a viable alternative is available who will pay for it?

Thu, 06/14/2018 - 1:13am

It seems Mr. French had a lot of topics wanted in his article, but I wonder how much readers learned [new] about any of the topics or if they gained a new depth of understanding.
When Mr. Wilcox mentions school of choice, I would like to hear what he has found as the reasons how and why people exercise the ‘school of choice’ option. What are the criteria they use when deciding to leave their neighborhood school and choosing a new school?
When proper funding is mentioned, what are the elements of proper funding, it is just how much per student or does it involve the way the money is spent? Can a ‘poor’ school spend their limited funds wisely and create a good learning opportunity or is it simply giving the schools a minimum amount of money independent of the number of students?
How do we recognize a ‘best curriculum’, a ‘best teacher’, are the certain traits or knowledge or skills that make a ‘best teacher’ or a ‘best curriculum?’
What can a parent or grandparent do to support/encourage a student to learn? What does the learning process look like, what are the common barriers a student faces in trying to learn, how important do the students peers impact a student’s learning? What does a ‘successful’ student do that others don’t? What can a person that doesn’t have children in school do to help their local school succeed?
And even the questions that were asked were poorly framed. What if school security is about the classroom, not just some ‘terrorist shooter’ but about a student terrorizing an individual or small group of students in the class, or a family member that is not supposed to have access to a student, or about other disruptive events/activities? In my town there have been students that have brought weapons to schools shouldn’t that be considered as a threat that is considered by the school/’hardening’ of a school?
There is so much we could learn from Mr. Wilcox if questions were ask in ways that Mr. Wilcox could provide more in-depth information. Maybe learning could warrant more than one article, articles that were more about helping residents become better informed in what they should be looking for and what they could help with.
Mr. Wilcox, thank you for your openness and sharing about learning. If there are to learn about you experiences and insight into student learning, please share them as we could all gain from hearing what you have shared.

Catherine Watson
Thu, 06/14/2018 - 10:30pm

They should change the title. Mr. Wilcox is not the "Michigan Teacher of the Year." He's the "Michigan Teachers Union Teacher of the Year." His comments about school choice are elitist and borderline racist. He says that only "certain families" are qualified to make an educated choice about where their children should go to school. The other families? They're apparently too dumb to make the right choice, so Mr. Wilcox and the union will make that choice for them.

Thank goodness his reign as "Michigan Teacher of the Year" is ending. Perhaps the next one will be more focused on education and less focused on parroting union talking points.

Sat, 10/06/2018 - 3:44pm

No, he said that there are certain families who will not have the resources to do the research and then take advantage of school choice due to those limited resources. When you do school choice, you have to transport your child AND you have to buckle down and figure out where you want to send your child to. There are so many poor families out there that are just trying to survive let alone do this. Read the article again.

Rich Altmaier
Mon, 06/18/2018 - 11:17am

For parents who are engaged in their child's education, offering school choice and charter schools is a very good answer, I believe. For parents who are not engaged, and default to the assigned school, the question is how to best serve their child.
To convert that questions into: let's block the engaged parent from getting a choice, is wrong for both children. Please, let's make school choice be about the child.