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Tom Watkins

Tom Watkins

The Education Reform Dance Continues—Who Is Leading?

February 08, 2013

The Center for Michigan has one. So does the Governor and the Legislature. Even the Oxford Foundation has one (http://oxfordfoundationmi.com/). It seems that everyone—with the exception of the educational community—has one. What is it? A plan for educational reform.

Gathering last week in Lansing—the home of our State Capitol—was yet another conference on educational reform, this one hosted by The Center for Michigan (thecenterformichigan.net). The Center is to be commended for putting ideas on the table via their new report on education reform, and for hosting The PUBLIC’S Agenda for Public Education. However, “education reform” is beginning to feel like the peace process in the Middle East.

Certainly educators are part of the mix in the various reports, but where is the road map from the educational community showing us their way? Shouldn’t the education community—which includes teachers, principals, parents, superintendents and school board members—be developing a shared vision and common agenda for ensuring that our children receive the education they need and deserve? At the end of the day, providing quality educators with the right tools and support to do their job—educating our children for the hyper-competitive, technologically-driven, knowledge economy –is what really matters. NOT rhetoric from the State Capitol!

So, where are the educators amidst all of the educational reform buzz in Lansing? Shouldn’t they have a leading role? I am not talking about lobbying efforts against Governor Snyder’s reform agenda or the legislation he introduced. It is easy to be against something. The more difficult task lies in creating a comprehensive agenda that addresses the issue. Quite simply, the educators’ plan is missing from the debate. Complaints from the traditional education community center on the direction Governor Snyder wants to take — with no comprehensive counter plan that addresses the shortcomings of our schools (traditional and charter). Educators have left a void that others are rushing to fill.

While the Center for Michigan’s latest report captures a segment of the public’s voice on education reform, we need more visionary leadership. Direction that does not tether change and progress to what the public wants or is ready to accept. We would still be working on how to improve the horse and buggy if we adhered to that philosophy. The voices of those in the classroom—teachers and their students—are as yet too anemic in this vital debate. We need to ask, “What if the impossible isn’t impossible?” We need pioneers—not settlers—who are willing to innovate to educate, and not be held back by public opinion. We need to think about how our system of education should prepare our children for their future rather than our past.

In 2004, I pointed out that we had a structural funding problem facing our public education system (http://www.michigan.gov/documents/michiganschoolfunding_110803_7.pdf) that would bankrupt our schools if not addressed. Unfortunately, that has proven to be accurate over time.

In 2005 I wrote, The New Educational (R)evolution; e-learning for Michigan (http://www.inacol.org/research/docs/e-learningreport.pdf) setting forth policy recommendations to facilitate technology uses that would help personalize learning. Unfortunately, they have yet to be fully implemented.

I am not advocating reckless change without progress, but instead the change that puts TLC (Teaching, Learning and Children) above the political fray that far too often favors PCPA (Power, Control, Politics and Adults). When asked what made him so great, Wayne Gretzky often replied, “I skate to where the puck will be – not to where the puck is!” I am reminded of this quote as I watch policy wonks flock once again to the State Capitol Education Reform watering hole, even as hard-working teachers and principals toil in schools and classrooms.

Governor Snyder spelled out his educational policy initiative in April 2011, identifying the problems he saw in our educational system and the solutions to address them: www.michigan.gov/documents/snyder/SpecialMessageonEducationReform_351586_7.pdf

If neither the Governor’s nor the Center for Michigan’s plan is the answer, then what? Doing nothing is not an option. There are a slew of Lansing-based educational organizations: The State Board of Education, the Parent, Teacher Association, the Michigan Association of School Administrators, the Michigan Association of School Boards, The Principals’ Association, the Michigan Education Association and The Michigan Federation of Teachers…the list goes on and on even as they group themselves into an, “Educational Alliance.” But, where is their plan? I have heard from many of these groups that they dislike what the Governor is, “doing” to public education. However, I have yet to see their alternative solution.

The voice of the educator needs to become louder, more productive and more forceful in the reform debate. Opposition is not a plan. Our schools remain a vital link to the future prosperity of Michigan and our country. The debate is critical but it must be larger than shooting the messenger while asking for more money…or simply complaining about what the messenger is proposing. Sadly, great educators know we need real change to produce real progress. Yet, their voices remain mostly silent. Isn’t it about time that education’s Rip Van Winkle wake up?

Leadership does matter. But with leadership missing from the education community, others are rightfully filling the void. Educators, our students await your ideas and action!

Tom Watkins served the citizens of Michigan as state superintendent of schools, 2001-05 and was the president and ceo of the economic council of Palm Beach County, FL., 1996-2001. In 2010 he was selected as an Upton Sinclair awardee by Ednews.org. He is a US/China business and educational consultant and can be reached at tdwatkins88@gmail.com

February 7, 2013 · Filed under Tom Watkins

39 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Donna Anuskiewicz // Feb 8, 2013 at 8:35 am

    Teachers aren’t asked for their opinions very often, and some of them actually see what works; a few of them make the impossible possible. I spent over forty years in the classroom, loving almost every moment of my time with other people’s children. And I saw what worked and what didn’t. Don’t get me wrong; I made mistakes. And when I did, I made changes. My best learning experiences came in my creative writing classes that were composed of students who ranged in ability from the barely literate to possible future Pulitzer Prize winners. We all read the same material:
    articles from the New York Times, excerpts from memoirs, poems, a chapter from various nonfiction books, one written by a Harvard ethics professor, short stories. We all had the same writing assignments. And we all grew as writers and readers; we all improved in our conversation/discussion skills.
    What worked? High expectations for all, a teacher who was in charge but not dictatorial, who was willing to work 50-60 hours a week, reviewing and reworking lesson plans, examining student performance, looking for writers to inspire students, to grab them, to make them hunger for more. In Stephen King’s “Writing: A Memoir,” I found all the most important advice I could have as a writing teacher: If you want to become a better writer, read a lot, write a lot.
    Donna Anuskiewicz

  • 2 KP CHEN // Feb 8, 2013 at 8:57 am

    Education 2.0 is part of the Globaliztion 2.0.

    If we are confused about the direction we are taking in making the globalization work, then, our inaction in chartering a better educational plan is simply natural and logical.

    Something more fundamental is awaiting our questions and answers.

  • 3 Chuck Fellows // Feb 8, 2013 at 9:04 am

    Too many cooks spoil the broth. Fire the cooks.

    First cancel all standardized testing. Tell the Feds that the state wants a waiver and end this inane practice immediately. Divert all funds used for this testing to preschool efforts.

    Resolve to end child poverty in this state – eradicate it NOW! Get some humanity before it’s too late.

    Teachers are now responsible for curriculum, pedagogy and assessment and the MDE has a supporting role using its resources to assist individual teachers implement the teachers’ plan.

    Accountability will be bottom up. External entities may observe and comment but not dictate. They are part of the “cook” problem.

    Cancel “Career Ready” as an educational goal. Replace the goal with one word : ” Learning”

    House and Senate education committee members will spend their normal committee time is a school classroom assisting teachers.

    The appropriations committees will follow teacher recommendations for spending decisions. Yeah, field work will be required, no more Lansing lunches, eat in the school cafeterias with the kids.

    All personnel in a supervisory or management role within the system of education will now take seven to fifteen minutes each day to reflect on the performance of those that report to them. If that’s not enough time then delegate supervisory duties until seven to fifteen minutes a day is enough time to reflect on the performance of direct reports. Summarize and share on a periodic basis, preferably quarterly. That’s now your accountability system. Numbers, scores, rankings and ratings , reward and punishment are totally dysfunctional and useless for improvement of a system. Get those same thing out of the classroom.

    Allow this to simmer for one school year. MDE Staff will, when not assisting or supporting individual teachers (not directing), observe for evidence of student, teacher, parent learning and report out to the public and the legislature and other interested bodies at the end of that period.

    Start over.

    Its called Plan, Do, Check, Act in a virtuous cycle of incremental continual improvement understanding that variation is a constant and that one size fits all does not work.


    Stop being so ignorant. Look around. There are lots of examples that are working to provide a child with a learning journey (it is after all THEIR JOURNEY). Let go of your personal prejudices – grow up!

    Those that disagree – well its time you sought other employment because in the system of education you are the problem.

  • 4 Jean Kozek // Feb 8, 2013 at 10:36 am

    Decades ago research showed that American students were comparable in skills and learning goals to other students in Western culture: our brightest were equal to the brightest elsewhere; our middle income students comparable to achievement levels of similar students abroad. BUT the U.S. fails dismally when it comes to the children of the poor and uneduated. These students do not improve as they are much more likely to do in Europe. They are most likely to become dropouts. Teachers have begged politicians to support Pre-school, Head Start programs as a proven way to lead children of the poor on a more successful route through schooling. Early childhood programs don’t simply teach the alphabet and numbers. Very well-trained educators create a classroom where students learn behaviors such as daily attendance and acceptable social interaction and behaviors. Rote skills are only a part of the curriculum; thinking and analizing are also components of the activities. Once these same students reach kindergarten, classes need to remain small so teachers can maintain a meaninful contact with parents to continue the path to success. Teachers have had a plan for our neediest of students.

    For all students there are teaching strategies that have proven more successful in the areas of reading and writing. The National Writing Project and Reading Project provide concrete examples to educators about successful techniques to use in the classroom. The least successful way to teach is the use of the lecture method — the bell curve is based on this technique where only the brightest succeed. However, because of large class sizes, this technique is used because there is little time for group/class discussions if a huge amount of info must be covered. Rote work is the default line; analysis and higher order thinking skills become extras that can’t be worked into a limited time frame. Yet, it is the ability to use info, not merely the recalling of info, that makes a person an educated person.

    The art of teaching is quite complicated. There are no easy answers to match the variety of student skills and behaviors with one curriculum or teaching technique. Teachers do seek a variety of teaching techniques to help them connect with the variety of learning styles.

    Teachers do have plans which they share and discuss. Those outside the field of education can’t necessarily understand the complexities involved in conducting a classroom. It is depressing to educators when the ignorant insist on remaining ignorant yet write laws and promote tests that interfere with best practice.

  • 5 sara jones // Feb 8, 2013 at 1:45 pm

    Tom Watkins has again put his finger right into the heart of the matter– little leadership.. Perhaps with so many chefs in the kitchen, no one has the audacity to step up and take the mantle to lead. But nothing is more important to our future than wht is taking place (or rather isnt) to impact our future.. Tom Watkins…. are you listening?

  • 6 harvey bronstein // Feb 8, 2013 at 4:15 pm

    The comments that have been made are all great. We need to learn from them. Where is Supt Flanagan in all of this. He seems to be hiding somewhere. Tom’s point are always all too true.

  • 7 Mark Francis // Feb 9, 2013 at 8:15 am

    Both Jean and Chuck had hit it on the head with their thoughts.

    What I would add to this discussion is that educators are not politicians. Over the years they have not been able to work together as a profession and lobby for the things they see right in the educational arena. They have not been able to develop a common message that would support the things they see as positive for students. Instead they tend to do their jobs and become reactionary rather that being proactive.

    Tom understands the issues and has provided a nice framework to the issue. However the next step is work to develop a movement that will have the true experts, the educators, buy end and understand they need to work together now or continue to allow those special interest, politicians make things worse.

  • 8 Ken Beedle // Feb 9, 2013 at 12:56 pm

    They fired you after your 2004 plan fell on deaf ears or offended those who were supposed to lead. It is now almost 9 years later and they are still saying, “Huh?” Maybe they needed a kick in the pants where apparently their brains were. You were the phophet shoved into the wilderness. Some never listen…

  • 9 Larry Cobler // Feb 10, 2013 at 12:46 pm

    Perhaps the answer is NOT a single model that fits everyone in the State of Michigan. I think that is the problem – we’re all looking for the one way we should all educate. One of the things that bothers me most about the legislation coming out of Lansing, is that they see a problem – usually in Detroit – and they try to fix it for everyone. As a school board member I’ve been frustrated with the steady march of eroding local control that is embodied in so much of our legislation. How about you let us work on a model that fits our district or maybe our county, and get out of the way. Hold us accountable, but let us do the work we know how to do. I think Jamie Volmer’s Great Conversation in the book, Schools Can’t Do It Alone, is crucial. We need to involve the parents in coming up with the model that is going to fit their community. And if it fails, then let the state come in to help. Or better yet, let the successful districts and counties help out.

    I just think that trying to come up with a single State-wide model is going to be fruitless. Maybe the state could be a resource and provide options for districts rather than dictating the specifics and diminshing yet again the local control and the insights that are best found in the district.

  • 10 Suzy // Feb 10, 2013 at 7:23 pm

    Thirty-eight years teaching and admininistrating…I’m too busy planning great lessons and teaching and… watching my salary and benefits cut, pension taxed, and profession humiliated to be political. But I do tell anyone who talks about being a teacher to change their major and save themselves.

  • 11 Jon // Feb 12, 2013 at 3:47 pm

    Everyone has there opinion on what to do about education. Part of the problem is the republicans always attack the teachers union, so they defend themselves so they don’t work together. What is needed is all sides to come in and work out an agreement that will last past the current administration. Otherwise it won’t work.

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