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Tom Watkins
Tom Watkins

Amazon Calling: An Educational Wake-up

February 9, 2018 

In the 21st century, talent abides.  Those with talent – be they individuals, cities, regions, states and nations – win.  Detroit Free Press business writer John Gallagher’s recent headline says it all: Amazon to Detroit: You didn’t have enough talent to get HQ2 (Amazon’s second world headquarters).  Good-bye billions in investment and jobs.

It is apparent that Michigan needs a comprehensive wake up call for an educational and workforce development overhaul – a plan driven by the reality of the 21st century that includes best practices and our global workforce, not ideology and politics.  This is the mandate for competition in the 21st century.

Over the Christmas break, I thought about the Amazon nation – its effect on retail and the global economy in the last 20 years.  In a 2014 essay, “How far can Amazon go?”, The Economist noted the company’s “remorseless expansion,” and “drive for market share over immediate profits.”  In light of Amazon’s recent $13.7 billion purchase of Whole Foods, how will Kroger and global food suppliers compete?

Then there’s ‘Alibabaization’, China’s e-commerce giant Alibaba.  Alibaba’s Executive Chairman Jack Ma “saw change is coming, it’s best to prepare early.” (

Heard of AI (artificial intelligence)?  In “3 ways Artificial Intelligence will change the world for the better”, it is clear that global realities require Michigan to react to shape its future – NOW.  Especially around education.

In the seeming blink of an eye, we have entered a world that we once considered science fiction – now reality.  It is clear that artificial intelligence (AI) will be used to fundamentally rethink how we solve humankind’s problems.  If technology is changing the way we work, education needs to figure out how to combine the human touch with technology in ways that benefit us as individuals and as societies.

Humans have problems with change

The only human that truly likes change is an infant

To be honest, social constructs are not easy to change and the adjustments to change that are coming at warp speed can and will tear society apart.  Raising uncomfortable issues is important if we are to begin thinking about—and plan for—ways to manage the transition from the old to the new.  Pretending to fix your back-end security system will not keep hackers out.  I recall my dad telling me, “With time and money, we can fix anything.  It is when you run out of either that major problems arise.”

I happen to believe that our system of public education is at a critical juncture and that, ready or not, disruptive change is on the horizon.  Will we lead, react, or be swamped by the change coming our way?

The demographic population of Michigan’s school-age children (from pre-school to pre-adult university) is in decline.  Pressures – from blended to e-learning, charter and schools of choice, profit-based universities, career certification, budget pressures, and homeschooling.  How will these affect K-12, community colleges, universities, and other brick and mortar schools – public and private – in the years to come?


The recent closing of the century-old, all-girls Catholic High School, Ladywood, ( Economic strain and labor strife at Utica Public Schools ( These should send alarm bells ringing for educational policymakers. Why are these quality schools stumbling and crumbling in our new century?

Ladywood and Utica could be seen as canaries in the proverbial coal mine, calling for a sea change that will shake the very foundations of our historic educational system.  Leaders must act.  We have witnessed the consequences of allowing problems to fester (think GM and Detroit).  It’s time for a comprehensive plan to address the supply and demand of a quality education from the cradle to the grave.

One Approach

Western Michigan University, as an example, is responding to these real pressures by putting more focus on attracting out-of-state students.  In 2016-17, students coming from other states made up about 9 percent of Western Michigan’s undergraduate population.  WMU’s goal is to get that figure to 30 percent.  To that end, this year WMU slashed its out-of-state tuition from over $27,000 a year to under $15,000.

WMU’s Associate Provost for Enrollment Management Terrence Curran told MLive, “For us to grow, we have got to improve the number of out-of-state students at this institution.  That’s the only option.  There is no way we’re going to be able to grow with the demographics in Michigan.”

In a moment of candor, Curran predicted that “with the current demographic trends and increased competition for students, some universities could even face closure within the next decade.”


This prediction should not stand unchallenged.  How do we make education affordable and accessible to all within the borders of Michigan?  Increased state support for community colleges and state universities would go a long way to helping address the educational attainment crisis in Michigan.

Should we, as a matter of state policy, aggressively market Michigan’s K-12, community colleges and universities globally?  Even now we have unused and empty K-12 school buildings deteriorating across the state due to demographic shifts, school choice, charter options and e-learning initiatives.  Can buildings be filled with foreign students or students from Ohio?  Where is the demand to properly finance education in Michigan? 

It seems that we need a bi-partisan focus on making higher education affordable again, ensuring degree completion and attainment of other post-secondary credentials—essential for providing a pathway to success for individuals and our state.  This will take courage, leadership, AND a plan.

A Plan

Governor Snyder’s 21st Century Education Commission is a solid foundation upon which to build:,4668,7-277-61409_81147—,00.html.  Let’s ask and consider these tough issues relating to the future of education in Michigan:

  • Why perpetuate an existing educational model ignoring change when EVERYTHING has changed?
  • Billions of dollars are invested in education from local, state, and federal taxpayers— are we receiving a return on the investment needed to thrive in a globally competitive world?
  • How and what do we fund educationally to advance society, remain competitive and prepare Michiganders for our individual and collective future?
  • Brain research is very clear on this issue: Eight-five percent of the human brain is developed in the first 5 years of life. Formal education begins after this point— WHY?
  • Some could argue that the senior year in high school is not much more than state-sponsored dating. What is being done to eliminate senior year and invest the resources in early education?
  • Why not make the first two years of college or technical education as post-high school coursework and publicly fund it for all? How will it pay dividends for our state?
  • With new technology and online learning models, why require multiple bricks and mortar campuses (K-12-higher education) across the state? As the 21st century unfolds strategies are needed to manage this inevitable transition.
  • How do we sustain communities dependent on educational institutions’ brick-and-mortar buildings in light of digital, artificial intelligence and changing demographic realities?  How do we plan to adequately fund these institutions – IS there a plan?  Or will they just wither away.
  • Does our governance model for local school boards, state board of education, community colleges and universities fit a 21st-century knowledge economy?  Should that governance model be seamless from pre-K to community college?  Henry Ford College and Dearborn Schools operate under this model.

Educational Investment

To be clear, these questions are not raised with any animus towards current public investment in public education.  I believe we are under-investing in preparing Michigan’s people for the change that is emerging. The question is not IF we should invest in the education of our citizens, but HOW and WHEN?

I am very aware of Italian philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli’s quote when I raise these issues: “It must be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to plan, more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to manage than a new system or new order of things.  For the initiator has the enmity of all who would profit by the preservation of the old institution and merely lukewarm defenders in those who gain by the new ones.”

We know the Michigan budget will be strained going forward as ideological and political battles brew over competing funding priorities.  Yet, as economist Herbert Stein’s Law predicts, “If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.”

Pretending that social and technology trends are not coming to our educational system at the speed of light is pure folly.  We need leaders to help chart a clear mandate to act decisively and re-invent the core of today’s strategic, operational, and organizational approaches to education.  They must be willing to explore the creation of new educational models for the 21st century.

In its year-end editorial, The Detroit News nudged Lansing policymakers “to solve old problems” in 2018.  Specifically, “nothing is more important again this year than education reform.”  I would also add we need to include a goal to make education affordable and accessible to all.

Opportunity is knocking to get bright minds thinking about the disruptive change that is coming.  Change may be inevitable, but with forethought and leadership, progress does not have to be optional.  This is but one issue keeping me up at night.  If you think about it, it may keep you awake as well.

Hello out there:  Is there someone willing to take the lead in re-imagining Michigan’s educational system?

Tom Watkins has served as Michigan’s state superintendent of public instruction from 2001-2005, special assistant to the president of Wayne State University president and CEO of the Economic Council of Palm Beach County. He is a business, health and educational consultant in the U.S. and China. He can be emailed at:, or followed on twitter at:@tdwatkins88


February 8, 2018 · Filed under Tom Watkins

7 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Bob Sornson // Feb 9, 2018 at 9:34 am

    Tom Watkins, while no longer State Superintendent of schools, is still offering forward-thinking that really matters. This is a very thought-provoking piece. It’s way past time to pay attention. The only thing I would add to his list is the transition from one-size-fits-all instruction to personalized competency-based learning. This is the underlying system design issue that has not yet been addressed in most schools around the country. But change is coming, led by New Hampshire and Maine, and many others to come.

  • 2 Chris Hench // Feb 9, 2018 at 9:51 am

    Tom raises some critical points in this article. Is there any place that is doing better at some of things he talks about for K-12? I have not noticed any leadership on this topic coming from Lansing or from my own local school district.
    Let’s not forget about students in the special education system. If the average student is receiving an education that is behind the times, ‘special ed’ is from the dark ages.

  • 3 Liz Bauer // Feb 9, 2018 at 10:34 am

    Just a thought. Relying on out-of-state students for survival of higher education institutions may be helpful to the institution (for now), but probably not to the State of Michigan in the long run. Those students, for the most part, take their degrees and go elsewhere.

  • 4 David Cole // Feb 9, 2018 at 11:10 am

    We need a totally new business model of education. Just modifying the current model will not improve our kids education to the level needed. The key to Michigan’s and our country’s future is a proper education for the emerging future. In the auto industry, for example, there are no jobs anymore for school dropouts. In manufacturing in general we are facing a shortage of over 2 million people with an appropriated education. These jobs include skilled trades and technicians to engineers and business people. Kids, parents, teachers, really everyone needs to understand the dilemma we are facing. A proper education for our people is the foundation for a successful country and its population.

  • 5 Dan Reattoir // Feb 9, 2018 at 11:25 am

    Thank you, Tom Watkins, for another wake up call. The Amazon decision citing a lack of available talent stings but is not surprising. Past legislative decisions, based on flawed ideology, political pressure, and the corporate siphoning of educational tax dollars, to “reform” public education have diluted the talent pool, diverted funding streams, and eliminated the consistent, common public educational experience beyond repair. We have created and perpetuated educational “haves” and “have nots.” The ability to win an election is not a qualification for proper educational leadership. A strong MDE with authority and resources is needed to create a public school system that ensures equity of opportunity no matter a student’s zip code. The Legislature should be involved in providing funding as advised by the State Board and described in the Michigan Constitution. What is needed? See the research-based, non-partisan recommendations listed here:

  • 6 Chuck Fellows // Feb 10, 2018 at 7:02 pm

    The leaders are there. We refuse to listen to them, THE TEACHERS.

    Opponents of change use the words “pilot” or “experiment” in a pejorative manner ignoring the reality that every classroom is an experiment or pilot program that changes every semester or school year. (Take away the contents of the classroom file cabinet at the beginning of the year and watch what happens) The audience for the product called education changes and is changing more rapidly every day. Our 130 year old structure of education (see Ken Robinson’s videos “Are Schools Killing Creativity” and “Paradigms”, a forty minute commitment) cannot keep up, and the students know it.

    Outcomes based. Put another way, assessment based upon an actual performance of Mastery of subject matter to peers, teachers, parents and community. I’m certain you do not want a surgeon who graduated with a B average performing a lack of mastery during your heart surgery.

    Standardized testing, for a full exposure please see The masters of understanding and using data to inform the present and the future are Shewhart, Chambers and Deming (for a lesson see “Understanding Variation” by Donald Wheeler, SPC Press) . Their fundamental rule of data, such as test scores, is – data absent context is meaningless. Test scores are meaningless yet our education hierarchy spends tens of millions of taxpayer dollars subjecting our children to the tyranny of the test, ranking and rating, sorting into winners and losers. (because they “desperately need that 10% budget bump)

    Solutions must begin in state legislatures – politicians and bureaucrats listening to the classroom. Education’s operational budgets must be developed in the classroom by the teacher focused on meeting the learning needs of each individual student. School building administrations, District and state administrative agencies play a supporting and auditing role – not dictating the appropriation of funds or using budgets as a political or punitive tool. Budgeting for facilities (capital expenses) are a state responsibility with a purpose of ensuring all classrooms are supported by safe, clean and up to date facilities (in Michigan the facilities standard – that awful word – should be the lawfully designated 55 hold harmless districts -its not)

    Curriculum and pedagogy must be tailored to the individual child beginning at birth and adjusted throughout their learning journey. Children are born knowing how to learn – watch an infant in action! Use their interests, cognitive attributes and life context to develop a journey they will follow willingly. Let their imagination, curiosity, innovation and intrinsic motivation drive their learning, not the Wizards hiding behind the curtain or the flying monkeys.

    Allow teacher to collaborate by facilitating such activities (AKA Funding). Pay teachers well and respect their insights. Put practicing teachers into authoritative roles (AKA empowerment) and always remember this rule when engaging teachers, their students and parent – you have two ears and one mouth, you cannot learn (understand) by talking.

  • 7 Jon Madian // Feb 12, 2018 at 2:08 pm

    Don’t know Chuck Fellows, immediately above, but have to agree on all his points.

    To drill deeper, local and global community resources need to be tapped to create the human resources needed to inspire our next generation.

    Personalizing learning means involving persons, not just machines and screens.

    Technology is an incredible tool to support community organizing, research, design, development, and dissemination to support the development of learning communities that are STEAM based.

    This is our way forward to begin to devolve the Education-Industrial complex.

    Please see this blog from New Profit Foundation:



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