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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: ,

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