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Tom Watkins
Tom Watkins

Educational Urgency Needed

March 3, 2017 

A child without a decent education today, is an adult without much of a future tomorrow.  Unless we get serious about changing the trajectory of education achievement in this state, we will sink to economic backwater and stymie the comeback that has launched since “the lost decade.”

The recent article: “Michigan test score gains worst in nation”  ought to send a chill down every thinking person’s spine.  The analysis of results of the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), shows Michigan students have continually made the least improvement nationally of NAPE scores since 2003.  The article points out that Michigan students were at the bottom of the list when it comes to proficiency growth in the four measures of the exam

Don’t get smug thinking this decline is only in inner city schools like Detroit, Pontiac and Saginaw.  As only six months ago the release of the Michigan’s Talent Crisis report by Education Trust-Midwest found, Michigan’s students are falling far behind their peers across the nation.  The ETM report found that Michigan is in the bottom 10 states for key subjects and grades, including early literacy.

This data ought to provide a clarion call to all who care about the future of our state to stop the finger pointing; to find a way to establish a shared vision and common agenda to arrest this more than decade-old educational slide and find a sensible way forward.  Perhaps the most frightening comment in this article filled with bad news about our schools was a quote from Madison Public Schools superintendent Randy Speck: He said that there is “zero urgency” to address what plagues our schools.

Policymakers ought to act with the sense of urgency that we would demand if it were their child stuck in a school that is failing far too many of our children.  The age old battle between the Legislature, Governor, State Board of Education, State Superintendent of Schools, local school boards, superintendents, teachers and the unions that represent them over control of schools, needs to cease.

The arguments from the Left that this is only about money and the “lack of investment” is just as specious as the Right proclaiming that money does not matter.  Standing in their respective ideological corners like the old Miller Lite Commercial where one side screamed “Tastes Great!” and the other responded, “Less Filling!” is not stopping this educational avalanche.

Nor is the age old debate over Charter Schools.  Let’s be clear: A lousy charter school is no better than a lousy traditional public school.  We need to get to the point where the only adjective that matters before the word “school” is, “QUALITY!”

It is the collective job of policymakers and educational leaders to clear out the under-brush of any debris that gets in the way of teaching and learning.  Everything we do should be measured against this statement: “Show me how this helps a teacher teach and a child learn.”

Statue of Liberty 

We need to embrace our great teachers and support public education in all its forms.  Our public schools are the true “Statue of Liberty” of this great country of ours, taking the tired, hungry, poor, children who speak English as a second language—as well as children with disabilities—and give them hope and opportunity.  Our teachers are the torch lighting the way for us all.  While many focus on Michigan’s “brain drain,”—young people leaving the state after obtaining their college degrees—we ought to be petrified about those that are not educated and staying behind.

A New Covenant 

It was the right decision by Governor Snyder to hit the “pause” button on the pending actions to close over two dozen schools in Detroit.  Governor Rick Snyder announced last week that more time and work are needed to determine the best course of action for the 38 schools on the state’s potential closure list.  “The entire team at the School Reform Office (SRO) has worked diligently to analyze data, visit schools and review potential options, but we need to do more before any final decisions can be made,” Snyder said.  “Any action we take will have long-lasting consequences and we need to take the time to get this right.  That’s why I want our SRO team to work closely with State Superintendent Brian Whiston and the Michigan Department of Education to reach out and coordinate all the latest information with local superintendents and districts.”

As a sign of a new day for education, Governor Snyder should pledge to partner with Mayor Duggan and the new board for Detroit’s Public Schools Community District to forge an educational, child-centered covenant.  Don’t close low-performing schools; help them work for the children of Detroit and across the state.

While much of the focus in Michigan has been on the “brain drain” — the young people who leave the state after obtaining their college degrees — we ought to be petrified about those without a quality education who are left behind.  We cannot rebuild the City of Detroit, the region or the state on a crumbling educational foundation.  Our collective economic futures and the quality of education we deliver to ALL of our children are inextricably linked.

Governor Snyder is to be commended for continuing the reinvestment in public education in our state.  We are also awaiting the results of his “21st Century Education Commission” that has been charged with thoroughly assessing our current educational system, and to make recommendations for improvement. 

We have no shortages of reports on the state of education in Michigan.  I recommend that once Governor Snyder’s “21st Century Education Commission” issues its report, that legislative leaders, the Governor, the state board of education, state superintendent and the various educational associations, labor and business leaders lock themselves in The Henry Ford Museum—with the ghosts of innovators and entrepreneurs as inspiration—and not be allowed out without a coherent plan of action that prepares ALL Michigan students for their future…and not our past.  

We are living in an age where knowledge and jobs can and do move around the globe effortlessly.  To be uneducated is to be left behind be it as an individual, city, region, state and nation.  As the old United Negro College Fund slogan reminds us: “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.”

Time is wasting. 

Tom Watkins  served as Michigan State Superintendent of Schools, 2001-05. He has an eclectic and diverse career in business, education (both K-12 and higher education), healthcare, politics, government and China. He is a regular contributor to the prestigious China/US Focus:
He is the president and CEO of the Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority. He can be emailed at:, or followed on twitter at:@tdwatkins88


March 2, 2017 · Filed under Tom Watkins

5 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Joe Nathan // Mar 3, 2017 at 8:24 am

    Well done, Tom.

  • 2 Chuck Fellows // Mar 3, 2017 at 10:00 am

    It is wrong to use NAEP results to rank and rate schools and school systems. The NCES does not use their assessments to rank, rate, compare or find fault.

    In Michigan the goal posts (arbitrary scores, targets and specifications) are repeatedly changed. Data (NAEP “scores”) absent context is meaningless. There are three ways to achieve a target, improve the system, distort the data or distort the process.

    Teachers voices are ignored.

    Schools, cannot be “rated” since the methods used to rank and rate schools are defective. (as well as the concept of ranking and rating, a binary worldview) Standardized testing produced by the College Board, ETS and ACT fails to provide any information that can be used to improve learning since these tests produce data points absent any context (this includes the NAEP – NCES states this test is not to be used for causal identification).

    The century old structure of traditional public education, eight elementary, four secondary, isolated silos of academic disciplines, highly prescriptive curriculum and pedagogy and calendar driven content delivery targets no longer works well for the diversity of children seeking learning.

    Learning is something children know how to do. Project based learning leading to demonstration of mastery that integrates academic disciplines – subject to peer, teacher, administrative and public demonstrations of competency based upon each individual’s strengths and weaknesses works. It is a process used every day outside of the academic universe.

    Children are intrinsically motivated to learn. Academics should take advantage of that, not bury it underneath a mountain of failed policy and practice.

    Instead of improving the system we continually tinker at the fringes distorting the data and distorting the system.

    Would be “Education Reformers” – You must see education through the lens of the students and the teachers in the classroom and their neighborhood. Otherwise you are wasting everyone’s time and money, harming children and society.

  • 3 Anne Hamming // Mar 3, 2017 at 1:02 pm

    It strikes me as no small coincidence that the lack of progress correlates with stagnant funding. When adjusted for inflation, the education funds that actually reach the classroom are about $300 less than they were in 2002. Also consider that we are now educating children born during the duress of a steep recession. They need more resources, not fewer resources. These scores should be no surprise. It is a credit to teachers and effective reforms that scores didn’t go down. A greater investment in the things that are working is what’s required. Our neighbors in other states showed gains because they made targeted investments in data-supported interventions.
    Last, we don’t need a bunch of policy makers to sort this out. I’d suggest a team of about six curriculum directors could get the job done much better and much more effectively. When we need medical reforms, we turn to medical experts. When we need education reforms, we need to let educators and key education researchers drive the bus.

  • 4 Anagnorisis // Mar 3, 2017 at 5:40 pm

    I’ve sung this song and I’ll sing it again, education failed me from 6th grade through 12th, only resurrecting in college years, praise parentage and what was left of higher education in the 1960s. Further attempts to fulfill degrees were met with redundant hyperbole which of course were repugnant. Auto-didacticism thereby became the modus and remains so, at least for me, probably the best way to go in the ultimate. Philosophy degrees do not beget philosophers but merely academics in sweat shirts and beards, perhaps sandals, pipe in mouth. The public school to prison pipeline is unacceptable yet prevalent. What can be done? Tear the whole system down; that’s how Trump got elected. Lotsa luck with that.

  • 5 TIP LADY // Mar 5, 2017 at 1:45 am

    There are only 50 States! We are barely ahead of Mississippi and Alabama! Being in the EDUCATIONAL BOTTOM 10 is totally unacceptable! I am a Fellow for the National Center for Educational Statistics. When I was selected to be a Fellow with NCES Michigan was a State that all of the other States looked to for Innovative Educational Leadership and Direction. That was when Tom Watkins was our State Superintendent. He used to have a brightly colored ruler in his office that was a half-inch longer than a regular ruler. It said, “Because We Go The Extra Half Inch For Our Kids”. Tom would ask all of us to show him ~How What We Were Doing Was Making A Difference in the Life of a Child. Under Tom’s Creative, Data Driven, Leadership Michigan Public Schools were focused on acknowledging the problem and developing a solution to the problem. The only State that did not applaud his genius for Change, Creativity and Innovation was of course our own!

    Watkins had courage to acknowledge problems that the schools were having as well as the Charter Schools issue head on. He discovered too late that telling the Truth was not what people really wanted to hear.

    His creativity and willingness to throw out things that had not worked in the past by developing new and innovative solutions got him invited to the White House. It also got him thrown out of the State House. Measurable Changes and creative solutions is what our kids need here in Michigan! But we had that and didn’t appreciate it.


    I felt like a “Rock Star” in Washington, DC because I knew innovator, Tom Watkins. Everyone wanted me to share their publications with Tom. I felt like the bookmobile as I dropped all the publications they sent to Tom’s Office. People across the Country were in awe of a State Superintendent who actually believed in bringing together all parties involved for one purpose only. EQUAL EDUCATIONAL OPPORTUNITIES FOR ALL CHILDREN IN MICHIGAN.

    We must go back to that time when addressing the problem and developing a creative solution began to Make A Difference here in Michigan.

    EDUCATION IS A RIGHT!!! OUR CHILDREN MUST BE LITERATE!! 40 OUT OF 50 IS TOTALLY UNACCEPTABLE!!! As the TIP Lady I had an opportunity to talk to over 100,000 Michigan Students each year and tell them how they could secure Free Money to Go to College. Over the past few years I have watched our population decline as our factories closed and people left Michigan. More schools are closing because of a decline in the population and somehow the Mantra of CHILDREN FIRST has been lost. Each year I would testify in front of the Legislature urging them to preserve the Education Budget. I tell them it is CHEAPER TO EDUCATE THAN IT IS TO INCARCERATE!


    Tom wrote an Amazing Book, “They Help Us Paint Rainbows!” A series of quotes from kids from the Urban Core of Detroit to the small rural districts in Michigan. He asked them to describe a Great Teacher. The cover of the book says, “They Help Us Paint Rainbows,” one of the many quotes.




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