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Tom Watkins

Tom Watkins

Ford’s Better Idea
…for Our Schools

February 11, 2011

Ford Motor Company has a special place in my heart. If it were not for Mr. Ford and the manufacturing giant he created, it seems unlikely that I would be writing this column today.

I paid my way through college by working summers at Ford on Mondays and Fridays (workers got paid on Thursdays, resulting in lower attendance on the first and last days of the week!) bending, welding, assembling and painting metal at what was then the world’s largest industrial complex: Dearborn’s Ford Rouge Plant.

In earlier decades of the domestic auto industry, mind-numbing and monotonous work was performed. It was hot, dirty, backbreaking and dehumanizing work. Workers’ names were not used by foremen. Instead, they barked out “Hey, 1405, get over on Line 2; 3526, Line 3.” You were not human — you were known by the last four digits of your Social Security number.

That old song Sixteen Tons, popularized by Tennessee Ernie Ford in 1955, captured my sentiment with its chorus:

“You load sixteen tons, what do you get?
Another day older and deeper in debt
Saint Peter, don’t you call me, ’cause I can’t go
I owe my soul to the company store.”

My debt was more one of gratitude. I was thankful to Ford and, to this day, owe my ability to pay my way through four years of college, starting with Henry Ford Community College and ending at Michigan State University and Wayne State University, to the generosity of Ford and the negotiating power of the UAW.

While some of my friends and “lifers “ on the assembly line were humming Johnny Paycheck’s hit song, Take this job and shove it, I took that job and turned it into the cash I needed for a college degree, a few nice spring breaks and no college debt.

Those were the days. But nothing will get a depressed state’s attention faster than seeing one of its iconic companies come roaring back. Recent headlines such as “Ford’s profits soar,” “Sales jump,” “Restructuring pays off,” “Ford earns $6.6 billion in 2010” are music to Michigan’s ears.

Ford’s U.S. sales jumped 20 percent last year, even as GM and Chrysler are getting healthier as well. That’s good news for the soul and individual bank accounts. With Ford’s resurgence, the average hourly worker earned bonuses of $5,000 — good news, indeed, for UAW members who made significant sacrifices as a result of negotiated concessions during the industry’s darker days.

Lesson for Schools
In the late ’70s during my stint in the Ford Rouge complex, foreign car companies were trouncing domestic brands. In 10 short years starting in the mid ’70s, Japanese auto makers acquired 30 percent of the U.S. market.

American carmakers reacted in then-classic fashion: denial, then blame, scapegoating and, finally, protectionism. Today, under Bill Ford and Alan Mulally, leadership at Ford is executing a transformational plan to cut costs, enhance quality, innovate, stabilize market share and restore the company to profitability.

Public education in this state and nation is far behind the domestic auto industry in accepting the new reality and crafting a new course in a changing world. Far too many of our schools are acting like nothing has changed.

The protectors of the educational status quo are similarly at a crossroads, spinning through the same responses: denial, blame, scapegoating and protectionism, when what they need to do is to adopt Ford’s mantra of “Change or die!”

Consider the parallels between the paths the domestic car companies have taken and the journey yet to be taken by our schools:

  • Auto executives received raises and bonuses despite losses in profit and market share. This nonsense was finally stopped until their companies returned to profitability. During the past lost decade, superintendents, principals and teachers received raises and contract extensions, along with golden healthcare and pensions, even as the state’s revenue plummeted and student performance remained stagnant at best.
  • Auto company boards of directors behaved like ostriches, sticking their heads in the sand and enjoying the good life as losses mounted. Today, knowing the state faces a minimum $1.8 billion deficit and local districts suffer falling tax collections and declining property values, school boards continue to enter into multiple-year contracts that are unsustainable and reduce the number of hours of instruction.
  • The auto industry realized its cost structure and legacy costs were unsustainable and took action to address the imbalance. The previous governor and legislature behaved like Rip Van Winkle, closing their eyes to reports and commentary from The Center For Michigan, Citizens Research Council of Michigan, Business Leaders for Michigan, The Mackinac Center and my 2004 report: “Structural Issues Facing Michigan Schools in the 21st Century” that there was a need to address the unsustainable cost associated with maintaining 550 local school districts and runaway healthcare and pension costs. To date, actions taken to address these issues border on anemic to non-existent.
  • At first, the domestic automakers blamed their market share losses, poor quality and declining profits on their competitors and the unions. Today, schools blame academic decline on the kids, parents, unions, school choice, lack of money from Lansing and charter schools.
  • “It’s not my job” was the chorus on the factory floor back in the day. That was later replaced with a gulp and, “It’s not my job that is disappearing, is it?” Now management and labor work together as a team to understand that quality and affordability are everyone’s job. Michigan educators, however, work to contain change instead of working together to innovate.
  • Manual labor was replaced by technology to the point that today’s auto factories have become some of the most technologically advanced spaces on the planet. But today, it seems, digital, personalized and e-learning opportunities are fought against by those anchored to the old ways of education, holding back our children and Michigan’s collective future.
  • Today, innovation and the ability to adapt to changing market conditions have been hotwired into Ford’s DNA. That old Henry Ford saying, “You can have any color car you like — as long as it’s black,” has given way to delivering quality, technologically enhanced, personalized cars and trucks.

The domestic auto industry has fought through change, modified its approach and cost structure, and emerged once more to compete as a global innovator. The same cannot be said for actions to date in Lansing.

When I became Michigan’s superintendent of public schools in 2001, I was given a license plate frame by a local educator. It read: “Our Public Schools — Our Future.” I still display it proudly on my Ford.

But like my fading license plate frame, our system of education in Michigan continues to deteriorate. The Education Trust–Midwest released a report recently saying Michigan “trails most other states both economically and educationally.” It goes on to say, “We have to stop lying to parents about how well their children are prepared for the challenges of living and working in the 21st century.” Ouch!

Like the auto industry, we are past the point where incremental changes are sufficient. Major change is now required to get many schools out of financial distress and educational bankruptcy. Competition and educational improvement on the world stage are on steroids even as we in Michigan and the United States struggle with incremental change.

Based on recent tests given to students in 60 countries by the Organization for Economic Cooperation, China’s Shanghai students scored first overall in the world based on an assessment of their reading, math and science skills. The U.S. ranked 17th in reading, 23rd in science and 31st in math.

Governor Rick Snyder promised during his State of the State Address to deliver a special message on education to the legislature in April. It couldn’t be more timely. The ticket to making Michigan competitive again is education. By whatever measuring stick you use, our education system is in a rut, if not a deep hole.

Michiganders, we have a choice. Like the auto industry of the past, we can continue to delude ourselves into thinking we have a divine, preordained right to be a great state that is economically and spiritually secure. Or we can harken back to our roots and realize those achievements must be earned all over again through imagination, ingenuity, innovation, hard work and risk.

Democracy does provide the opportunity for new beginnings. With the Republican sweep in Michigan, Gov. Snyder and his party now control the levers of change. An education transformation must be part of the reinvention of our state. This requires more than minor tweaks to the current education system. Education in Michigan cannot be reformed, it must be transformed. Like the auto industry, education is in need of a major overhaul to prepare our children for the future.

Ford has a better idea, the right idea — will Michigan? Like Ford, it is time for Michigan and our schools to change or die.

Tom Watkins, EducationNews.org’s 2010 Upton Sinclair Award winner, is a business and educational consultant in the U.S. and China. He served as director of the Michigan Department of Mental Health in Gov. Blanchard’s administration and state school superintendent during the Engler and Granholm administrations.

February 10, 2011 · Filed under Tom Watkins Tags: ,

99 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Dave Lawrence // Feb 11, 2011 at 6:49 am

    Tom Watkins thinks well…writes well. This piece of his is a splendid example of that.

    Dave Lawrence

  • 2 ron j stefanski // Feb 11, 2011 at 7:29 am

    What will it take for us to heed the wake-up call outlined by Mr. Watkins? Where is the moral outrage? We are seeing fewer than a quarter of ninth grade students go on to graduate from high school in Detroit. At the same time, the agency responsible for educating adjudicated youth has a 92% graduation rate. This means if you’re a person of color, male and 14-17 year of age in Detroit, your chances of getting a high school diploma are substantially greater if you’re a convicted felon. If this isn’t a “change or die” proposition, what is?

  • 3 KP Chen // Feb 11, 2011 at 8:40 am

    When China engages in its own reform or transformation, it takes on some central planning characteristic, say, 5-year plan or something similar …

    It defines broadbased Theme and identifies corresponding Strategies …

    Americans seem to have some natural aversion to something that are State-Led or State-Initiated …

    Say, you run into headline that shows: Who Wins, Government or Corperation?

    We don’t like Government, we like Market … am I being right?

    PS. BTW, I run into a Chinese book in Mainland China, titled: Only Socialism can save America. Not a translation, it is written in Chinese.

  • 4 Marc Craig // Feb 11, 2011 at 8:51 am

    Excellent analogy
    Maybe this time around his advice will be followed.

  • 5 Delia Stafford // Feb 11, 2011 at 9:02 am

    Once again, a true and valid observation of what should be done to solve the education problems in MI, and also a fair warning to all public schools of what the future of America could be. Will we wait until we have been declared a “third world country”, which is where we are headed headed if we don’t educate the 15 million children who live in poverty.Listen to the voice of Mr. Watkins, who in my opinion, speaks with real wisdom and provides a solution to boot!!!In a word, “get busy and make major changes”!!!The children and youth of America deserve nothing less. Mr. Ford would be proud and agree as well!

  • 6 Elizabeth W Bauer // Feb 11, 2011 at 9:03 am

    I recall making speeches in the 1980s about the parallel between the auto industry that seemed unaware of what its customers wanted and public education. Outside Michigan in those days you saw fewer and fewer big three nameplates except for trucks. Our daughter was a student at UNC- Chapel Hill 1981-1985. That was a down turn in the economy (autos) here. In the parking lots at UNC I saw only VW and Datsun, Toyota, etc. Rarely a Big Three nameplate unless it was a clunker. On the peninsula, people drove the big three and thought the rest of the world did also. I tried to tell them the market had changed…go out and see. But…..

    At the same time I was encouraging educators from our state and other states to listen to their customers: the students and their families. They didn’t ..so now families are moving to charter schools or any other option they can find and if we don’t ratchet up the use of technology, students will just move out (mentally, if not physically).

    One answer may be travel. People need to get off the peninsula and see what is going on in the rest of the interconnected world. It would knock their socks off.

  • 7 William Skilling // Feb 11, 2011 at 1:18 pm

    I agreed that American education needs a completely transformed. But I am continually amused at what the overly simplified solutions are; we need to raise test scores. If standardized testing was a true measurement of how well American education has been preparing students for the world of work, then why is that our 55 year olds who scored very poorly on the first international tests administered to fourth graders in American in 1964 did so well during their careers? Today’s 55 year olds have out produced, out innovated, and solved more age old problems than any generation prior from any country in the world. But it gets better. Today, Americans export over 70% of the world’s innovation each year and receive over 50% of the world’s international patents each year. I am not in disagreement that we need to reinvent American education but the problem is not low performance on international standardized tests. American educators do not focus on international tests like our countries do. Not an excuse just a fact. Secondly, if we did, we would be dumbing down American students when we need to raise their critical, analytical, and critical problem solving abilities.
    What is interesting to me in all the hyperbole about standardized test scores is no one is addressing the real challenge, what should we be teaching? Secondly, just saying we need to raise test scores is not a break through. In fact, it can become a hindrance to learning. The problem is the current education system is not designed for a globalized world.
    How do you measure the ability of a student to problem solve across multiple disciplines, in unpredictable situations, in areas in which they are unfamiliar in order to create and invent? You cannot create a standardized test to achieve this level of learning. How do you measure the ability of students to work effectively as a member of a team or an international team? If scoring well on international tests is so important, why are the Chinese not bragging about their test scores? Why are the Chinese trying to copy the American educational system that does not stifle completely creativity yet, but will if we continue down the path of more standardized testing? If international test scores were really an indicator of future success, why is China only export a fraction of 1% of the world’s innovation? I am not interested becoming the world’s leader in teaching students to become automatons.
    I am 100% behind reinventing the American education system. However, I am opposed to narrowing the field of what education is by jumping on the band wagon of increasing standardized testing. Why, because the standards are too low. Even the auto industry had to change their operations and standards by which they measure themselves? They no longer operate by division of labor, specialization and mass production. Instead, it is zero base defect, flexible automation, and just on time delivery. Maybe we should parallel what they are doing with our standards of measurement as well. Let’s put specificity to the changes we really need versus offering more ambiguity by just saying we need to transform. There is nothing transformational about teaching to a standardized test.

  • 8 Chuck Fellows // Feb 11, 2011 at 5:03 pm

    The Education Trust Midwest deserves a deeper evaluation, http://www.edtrust.org/midwest. Read some of the material they reference, especially Karin Chenoweth’s book, “How It’s Being Done”.

    Global comparisons of standardized test scores are the typical apple’s and oranges analysis. Heed Mr. Skilling’s words. Different purposes, different cultures, different languages.

    Ford and U of M Dearborn created Ford PAS for schools to use for free – not much interest in the real world within academia.

    In simple terms, get the legislature and the school boards out of the classroom and let the teachers teach, listen deeply, collaborate, focus on student learning, use formative testing, data driven instruction and build deep personal relationships within the school building.

    To paraphrase a measure from CMU, “Are the children learning? Is the money there?”

    If that sounds like the culture of a successful business (Ask Mulally) – it is.

  • 9 cindy // Feb 11, 2011 at 8:39 pm

    Tom is exactly one target, it is time for public education to offer more then
    just black automobiles. There are exciting things going on in Michigan in education, moving toward a child centered multi delivery curriculum. Educators need support by removing the many road blocks that are in place making innovation difficult.
    Place based and Project based education, combined with virtual deliveries must be embraced and available to all kids. Education policy makers and auditors must be trained to accept and promote methods that are best for the kids, putting politics aside .
    It is critical to our future that kids are allowed a more personalized education utilizing all the newest technologies.
    When a entire nation can use social media to free there citizens, it is time that we realize the power of online learning and collaboration. This generation of children must be global thinkers. Information on any subject is available in seconds with a click of the mouse. We no longer need to teach children what to learn but how to learn. All of our futures are dependent on transforming public education.

  • 10 Michael Gonyea // Feb 12, 2011 at 7:04 am

    Can Rick Snyder follow Ford CEO Mulally’s lead?


  • 11 Mark Francis // Feb 12, 2011 at 11:23 am

    Change is so overdue. I appreciate the insight that Tom offers. As an educator for 27 years and an administrator for 18 of those years, it has been frustrating to know that changes are desperately needed but unable to move this system. Are we waiting for the thing to totally collapse before we develop something new? I would hope that we learn from the auto industry and begin to work together to reinvent education. There are no simple answers and I know that Tom realizes that. There will be plenty of “experts” that will have a ideas. We do not have the luxury to have this become a politcal football while we continue to slide. As I have heard it said, “History teaches us that we learn nothing from history”. I hope that would not be the case in this situation.

  • 12 sandra johnson // Feb 12, 2011 at 1:50 pm

    Tom watkins is so far ahead of the curve when it comes to creative ideas and thinking. He so cogently explains how vital education is in this state. It is only too bad folks in positions of power didnt heed his words a few years ago. Think of how much better off this state would be.

  • 13 andy t. bennis // Feb 12, 2011 at 1:52 pm

    I found this article via google. Ironic as the google people came from UM. Which raises the point – what is google and Watkins got together to address some of the education woes in the state?

  • 14 Ann K. Crowley // Feb 12, 2011 at 7:10 pm

    As an educator in Detroit Public Schools I must say we have no time to waste. Our urban youth outperform most of their teachers in technological competency. Instead of embracing the future many school systems hold onto the past banning the future. Testing allows for use of calculators a common application on any cell phone. Students sit in desks looking at tests unable to use the phone hidden in their pocket until after school hours. It is after school that their real world begins. Phones come out at dismissal and communication and life begins for even our urban youth. Testing? We need to go beyond testing. We need to look at the entire picture. We need to seriously consider competency of our educators. Proficiency in technology must be mandatory. Somewhere contracts protected the status quo with so many cut and pastes that those negotiating the contracts forgot they were negotiating the future of our democracy. Tom Watkins is correct in his assessment and analogy. Michigan needs to snap out of it and stop patting itself on the back for its exploration into educational reform. Michigan needs to slap itself into reality and move radically forward to prepare our youth for their futures.

  • 15 Watson13 // Feb 13, 2011 at 4:43 am

    Detroit was once the world brightest city under the $5.00/day Ford pay. The history is not far, and still people in Michigan are watching the history passing by everyday. How could such a great city could be branded today a ‘dying city” ?
    The rising and falling of Detroit is a big lesson itself to the whole world.

  • 16 Christine Beardsley // Feb 13, 2011 at 11:27 am

    Tom makes some very valid points. Very thought-provoking!

    There are several Michigan educators and leaders who are working to improve the programs and services available to the children in our state and even in our country. For instance Oscoda teachers (affiliates of MEA) agreed to merit pay incentives way back in 2008. Our model is based on several components we refer to as “indicators of instructional professionalism” and include student achievement scores. For a whopping $254.12 PER YEAR, we are seeing drammatic results. The Oscoda Merit Pay Model can be found at http://www.oscodaschools.org under Human Resources.

    In Oscoda we also created and implemented the InFORMED Data Results Rubric, an evaluation tool that links student achievement on state, national, and local assessments to individual educator evaluations annually. This tool has been automated by Zimco and allows all of our teachers and administrators to see their “data scores” based on student performance every time they log into the InFORMED Rubric web-based application. For more information, contact Zimco at http://www.zimco.net.

    There are several of us in education who are rising to the challenges and who are pioneering reform and increased rigor. We are focusing on what students are learning and what/how they will need to learn to compete globally.

    Tom is doing a great thing by continuing to keep education issues in the forefront.

  • 17 sherry xu // Feb 13, 2011 at 10:02 pm

    “Education in Michigan cannot be reformed, it must be transformed. Like the auto industry, education is in need of a major overhaul to prepare our children for the future.” Tom is right. Education is so important for American’s future. Unfortunately, today’s educator can not really teach students advanced or even basic foundation eduations, such as reading, math and science, etc. because students all have very heavy school businesses…
    To make US stay number 1 in the world, the education system is first thing must be taken care of. That is from each student, family, school, and society which they treat education as their top priority or not.

  • 18 Tana // Feb 14, 2011 at 11:26 am

    Insigthtful commentary. Also, agreed that we have a number of great teachers and others in the system that are attempting to do their best and give their heart and soul.

    We shall see how creative and innovatative our new Gov is when he releases his budget this week and gives his education speech to the Leg later this year. Currently, he is having the wool pulled over his eyes.

    To date the” reforms” seem intent on protecting the system not preparing our kids and state for the futue. Keeping the test scores artifically low– to give the impression our kids were performing at a high level is a clear example of how the system is rigged to benefit adults at the expense of kids.

    All those from the prior Gov on down benefited with claiming that the “standards have been raised to the highest in the nation” — what they did not tell you– was because they set the bar so low to be considered ” passing” these high standards– it made it easy to do! Hence, this made the system/kids look like it was “performing” when it/they are not.

    Now, the system says it will raise the standards— and be prepared, test scores will go down. The claim will be the test scores are dropping because the test has changed– NOT as a result of what our children know or able to do. Bunk!

    This is public deception at its very worse!

    What is shocking is the new Gov seems to be going along for the ride. Will manipulation trump learning?

  • 19 YongZ // Feb 14, 2011 at 12:58 pm

    The Michigan and American education system needs to stop chasing test scores and concentrate on individualized learning that the internet allows.

    While the world is trying to figure out how to copy the US creativity, innovation and free thinking — The focus here is on rote teaching— sorry wrong strategy.

    Michigan has been kidding itself for far too long. We spend enough to be the number one system of education in the world. However, it is misspent and not producing the results it needs to do to make us the world leader in this knowledge, technology based world econmy.

    Many are waiting to see if the new Gov with a business and technology background will continue down the same path we have been going of late’or truly “transform” the educational system along the lines as offered here?

    What we are doing is not working and has not been for sometime.

  • 20 Chris Burger // Feb 15, 2011 at 4:19 am

    Coming out of the Michigan public school systems, I was lucky enough to obtain one of the best public educations available nationwide. It was something of envy to the struggling school systems just miles down the road, and even from some of my private catholic school friends who paid for rote, outdated educational processes. Im sure much has changed even in my district, with budget crunches and the tough times that fallen over our home state. I too, agree that it is time to revamp the educational process, adapt to the times we face now, and ahead. But in comparing to Ford, they were not able to do it alone, it required a major boost and overhaul in the government to realize change; where can we allocate the room in our national and state budgets for this revamping? I recently saw the Freakonomics documentary which covered education reform heavily. I think there is a lot of positive movement happening in our approach to education, especially in poorer areas like the development seen in charter schools, but sadly this is a small-scale trend, and it will take much more to prepare the next wave of young graduates for their future.

    I believe Michigan’s biggest export at present is its youth. Fresh graduates depart like flocks of geese to find opportunities not available to them at home. This is how I found myself and many others from Michigan arriving in China after graduation; for so many the opportunities to develop and foster yourself in a developing country on a subsistent income are better than what is available to them in Michigan. Even domestically speaking, we do not have the incentives in place to retain our youth and talent– Michigan’s next innovators and leaders. Of the 5 young educators I know, including my sister, only one has been able to find a way to begin their educational career at home in Michigan. I agree with Ann Crowley’s comment, herself an experienced educator, that new teaching methods focused on technology proficiency is highly important, but with our brightest young minds being exported to teach in other states, and one of the worst budget crunches in our history, how we will obtain these resources, and who will lead this effort to educate our next wave of bright minds, and provide the economic infrastructure to retain this talent to contribute to our state?

  • 21 Anita Nelam // Feb 15, 2011 at 10:26 am

    As always, Tom Watkins hits the nail on the head with force and ability. We can only pray that the powers that be are reading and listening. Governments cannot be run like a business but we can certainly learn important and useful lessons from them.

  • 22 Tim // Feb 15, 2011 at 7:30 pm

    The article here from Watkins are right on the money!
    Sure there are some great educators and teachers out there– but the deck is stacked against them.
    I am hopeful the new Gov will stop playing games with education and get serious. To think the system manipulated test scores to make the ” system” look good is disgusting.

  • 23 Joan W. // Feb 15, 2011 at 8:11 pm

    For those that comment about the reference to the edtrust -mid west report—- I am in total agreement.

    This should have been the hightlight of not only this col–but the lead story at 6 -11 and front page and headline editorial news.

    THE STATE CHEATED ON THE MEAP for 5 years—and nothing happens?!

    If a student cheated on theMEAP or if a teacher or principal allowed cheating or manipulation to to happen on a MEAP test they would be expelled and fired— yet, I read here and elsewhere that the state from the prior Gov, State Superintendent, State School Board on down , according to the Ed-trust midwest report states –” lied” to parents about how well there children were doing— and no one is fired?
    Makes no sense.

    Then I read in the Grand Rapids Press that the State Superintendent says the GR area superintendents are “whinning”— you would think they and the parents across the state would be raising hell!

  • 24 Terry Watson // Feb 16, 2011 at 8:34 pm

    Joan W 23 above asks the right questions— why isnt anyone being held accountable?

    Does Gov Snyder think it is okay that the education establishment embelished test scores to make themselves look good, while lying to parents and our children? Where is the outrage and change? How can things be allowed to continue as though nothing happened? The system cheats, raises were given based on test scores rising and now we discover it is a farse.

  • 25 Anthony White // Feb 17, 2011 at 5:05 pm

    Now that the Gov has released his budget he can move on and fix the education mess.

    It is down right disgusting that the education system has “lied” about how well our kids are doing— sadder still that no ones seems to care.

    Let us hope Gov Snyder can see through the educational industral complext that is out for protecting the system at the expense of our kids. If he is half as bold in his education address to the leg come April, he will clean house and put the students needs ahead of the system that has lived well and large off of the kids of this state for far too long.

    Gov Snyder has shown a willingness to take the special interests– perhaps he will take on the biggest— the blob called the education establishment.

  • 26 Beth Leeson // Feb 18, 2011 at 4:11 pm

    I’ll just cut to the chase. Tom has it right. Anyone listening?

  • 27 Beth Leeson // Feb 18, 2011 at 4:12 pm

    I’ll just cut to the chase. Tom has it right. Anyone listening?

  • 28 Jesse T. // Feb 18, 2011 at 8:47 pm

    It seems Gov Snyder has taken a few plays out of Watkins play book in the reforms he announced in his budget this past week.

    I suspect that when Gov Snyder address the Leg in April for his special address on education he will address the 3 R’s Watkins speaks about: Reform, Restructure and Reinvent. Schools leaders need to stop whinning about “their money” stop lying about how well the kids are performing — all the while educators starting at the top are manipulating the test to make it appear students are performing better than they truly are.

    Education in Michigan is organized to benefit the adults in the system– not the kids. Gov Snyder has the opportunity to change this situation— for our states sake– let’s hope he seizes the moment. Make the reforms about our children Govenor— not the adults that benefit from protecting the status quo.

  • 29 Gregg Young // Feb 18, 2011 at 11:08 pm

    Great article, Tom. As Alexander Pope wrote, it is “what oft is thought but ne’er so well expressed.”

    Here is another perspective on teaching problem solving skills.

    Traditionally, no students anywhere have been taught how to solve problems, but this changed in 2008, when Japan’s official education policy shifted from Memorization to Problem Solving.

    Luckily for Michigan and all America, there are two opposite strategies for problem solving. Sherlock Holmes called them Reasoning Forwards (divergent thinking) and Reasoning Backwards (convergent thinking), and the Japanese use the weaker Reasoning Forwards approach that goes from cause to effect. Their approach asks, “What COULD BE the causes of a problem?” One then hypothesizes possible causes and starts testing these possibilities. This approach is slow and usually results in partial solutions, not complete solutions.

    Holmes’ always used the simpler Reasoning Backwards strategy to go from effect to cause. His method asks, “What IS different when the problem occurs?” Then one observes the situation looking for clues that lead to complete solutions. The tools based on Holmes’ approach have historically been 4X more effective in the workplace. Unfortunately, this problem solving technique based on Holmes’ superior “Observation, Deduction, Knowledge” strategy is not widely known in business, and it is completely unknown in education.

    This creates an opportunity. We now have 3 choices.
    Choice 1: Do nothing. Let the emerging problem solving gap continue to grow.
    Choice 2: Copy the Japanese approach. Introduce the Reasoning Forwards approach to students and close the gap.
    Choice 3: Introduce Holmes’ superior Reasoning Backwards critical thinking skills to our students. Give them an advantage and create a gap in our favor.

    Our ability to compete globally depends in part on our ability to solve problems effectively. Now that Japanese schools have begun to emphasize problem solving, we must respond or fall behind. Our strongest option is to introduce proven best practices to our students, so we prepare them and us for future success.

    To address this problem, I have published a book, “Reasoning Backwards: Sherlock Holmes’ Guide to Effective Problem Solving” that presents the best practices to high school and college students, so they can leave school and enter the workplace already knowing how to solve problems fast and contribute immediately. (I am also working on an online learning version and on an edition for middle school.)

    If you want to learn more, please visit the website, http://youngassocinc.com.

  • 30 Lisa Webb // Feb 19, 2011 at 1:41 pm

    We now shall see if Michigan educators can stop whinning long enough to accept reality and truly as the author says— reform, no, transform the state’s education system.

    At best schools have done what the former Gov liked to crow about, ” I cut more out of state Gov than all previous Gov’s combined. She did not get it– nor do the vast majority of educators. It is not as simple as “cutting” it is truly reinventing and transforming the systems— just like Ford Mo Co has done.

    I hope our new Gov sees through the games that are being played from the state down to the local school districts– they have between $ 12-18 billion of our tax dollars depending on what figures you believe— they need to finally step up and lead.

  • 31 John Jensen // Feb 20, 2011 at 11:58 am

    Tom– I’m sending you two books. One of the quotes in my “Practice Makes Perfect” book is from Charles Kettering, whose name you undoubtedly recognize: “Problems are the price of progress. Don’t bring me anything but trouble. Good news weakens me.”

    About your request for transformation, I strongly believe that an indispensable requirement is a central, organizing idea. You don’t construct an assembly line–to preserve the car analogy–unless you have an utterly clear picture of what comes out the end of it. Once you get that right, then everything lines up ahead of it smoothly. If the people at the head of the line think they’re producing something different than the people at its tail, you have constant trouble–which is exactly the situation in education now. We lack a common organizing principle–due largely to the lingering effects of Progressive Education that specifically discounted “the piling up of knowledge.”

    I propose in my books that you can turn around any classroom in a couple weeks if you do some things differently. If you want to shake up Michigan education quickly, find two classrooms to adopt what I suggest, and test their knowledge before and then after a month. I can guarantee that at the end of just a month, they’ll have statistically surprising scores, and in a year can knock the tops off expectations. There’s no cost. Everyone can have a free ebook copy of my two books and we go from there.

    As long as all the people with fingers in the pie are working on their own version of progress, they’ll continue cancelling each other out just as they have been. Our unifying criterion has to be something utterly clear, simple, and common sense, like “These kids really know their stuff!” –LEARNING MASTERED AND RETAINED. That’s all. Everything else has to configure itself to support that one outcome, and then we can make rapid progress with the head and tail of the assembly line listening to the same music. Right now, that simple, common sense criterion is subverted with the nation-wide acceptance of familiarity as the legitimate goal–which our very design structures for. (read my books for much more on this). We’re standing on our own shoelaces while screaming at each other “Forward March!”

    -You may personally be in a unique position to inaugurate change in Michigan, since your experience is in schools but it sounds like your heart is in the can-do attitude of the best aspects of American industry. I’ve often wondered whether school people are capable of leading change since they are so entrained–hypnotically–in such limited concepts of what they are doing.
    I’m glad to send copies of my books in e-book form to anyone who wants one–“The Silver Bullet Easy Learning System: How to Change Classrooms Fast and Energize Students for Success”, and “Practice Makes Perfect: How to Rescue Education One Classroom at a Time.” Contact me at jjensen@gci.net–John Jensen, Ph.D.

    —– Original Message —–

  • 32 David E. Nixon // Feb 22, 2011 at 10:46 am

    You and others like you are to be commended for working your way through college…but what was the motivation? How did you get “college ready?”
    Today (Feb. 22, 2011) FREEP article MANY MICHIGAN HIGH SCHOOL GRADS NOT READY FOR COLLEGE is creating a buzz. As you know, Governor Snyder spotted that as a Michigan problem early on in his campaign.
    Thanks to the Governor, he has challenged Michigan and those of us in education to do something about it. I look forward to reading your columns and your suggestions. David E. Nixon

  • 33 Gerald Richmond // Feb 22, 2011 at 6:22 pm

    Nixon, or whoever you are # 32.

    The Free Press article you mention is a joke— reporters have no short or long term memory!

    The PR flacks for the state superintendent are \aghast\ about how unprepared our kids are for college! This is terrible they say! YET, they have NO ONE to blame but themselves.

    Remember, it was the former Gov, the state board and the sitting superintendent that took such pride in \raising the bar\ for high school standards. Now, we find out because of the great work of the Ed Trust-midwest that this same superintendent and state board that are \aghast\ about our kids not being \college ready\ are the same crowd that lowered the bar or cut scores giving the false impression that kids were being prepared when they were not!

    So, they raised the standards and lowered bar of what is considered passing — some say as few as 4 out of 10 questions right was considered and \A!\

    If they want to see who is to blame for the mess in our schools— you may want to suggest they look in the mirror!

    Why no one is covering this issue and there is no accountablity for as the Edtrust midwest reports called \lying to the public\ for 5 years is unbelieveable.

    What is more scary— is our current Gov– who had nothing to do with this seems to be accepting or condoning this behavior!

    Go figure!

  • 34 Kim Conley // Feb 24, 2011 at 6:54 am

    Great comparrison between what transpired in the domestic auto industry and what is happening ( not happening) with public education as the need to adapt to change goes more apparent each day.

    Will Michigan schools be forced, like GM and Chrysler into bankruptcy before they get the message? It seems that is more likely than the Ford comparrison.

    It appears to late for our schools to take the proactive action that Watkins advocated when he showed foresight, leadership and courage as Michigan’s former state superintendent.

  • 35 Larry Summers // Feb 25, 2011 at 8:30 am

    We need a statewide conversation on what is the return on the investment of the billions– that is right- billions with a “B” that we are getting for the spending on K-12 and higher education.

    Someone needs to pull up the cozy rug that they have laid for themselves.

    We can only hope that “someone” is the new Gov.

  • 36 HuXian // Feb 26, 2011 at 11:39 pm

    We in China both here in the US and China are watching and learning from the things the US schools are doing right and wrong.

    The focus on technology and creativity will be the wave of the future. Education and creativity will merge and become the 21st century gold and oil. Who will get it right is the only question

  • 37 Greg Thrasher // Feb 28, 2011 at 3:37 pm

    Yet another long winded narrative from Tom with no meat or anything cutting edge..

    From my porch a comparison of an automotive enterprise with an educational system is an excercise in fiction..

    For once I wish Tom could delineate some real time authentic practical ideas, solutions, proposals on how our state can educate our students..

    Enough of the car analogies…Please!!

  • 38 Sam T // Mar 3, 2011 at 9:40 pm

    Want to thank Tom Watkins for continuing to have the courage to point out issues that most in Lansing want to gloss over.

    His predictions on the unsustainability of pensions and health care for schools and the need to share services and consolidate districts back in 2004 is playing out here in Michigan and across the county.

    If we would addressed these problems earlier— they would be no where near the mess we face today.

    He has the vision and courage to say what may not be popular– but is the truth.

  • 39 ElizabethZ // Apr 1, 2011 at 3:08 am

    This is a great analysis of what is transpiring in Michigan.

    Reform must come to our schools. Let’s hope the new Governor can push sensible changes through the legislature that seem more interested in contributions from the teachers union than they do about our kids and the future of the state.

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