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Tom Watkins

Tom Watkins

Do Schools Exist For Adults Or Students?

May 3, 2013

Once again, when it comes to providing the education that our children need and deserve, not merely to survive — but to THRIVE in our hyper-competitive, disruptive knowledge economy, where ideas and jobs can, and DO move around the globe effortlessly – the focus has deteriorated into adult power, control, and politics.

It was the desire to focus on TLC which prompted Gov. Rick Snyder to create the Education Achievement Authority (EAA), reconfiguring Michigan’s most dysfunctional schools that are failing students, into learning centers of excellence.

EAA Chancellor Dr. John Covington and his team are currently transforming 15 formerly under-performing Detroit schools. EAA students are now learning at their own pace using individualized educational plans rather than standardized grade-level curricula.

Covington and his team are not miracle workers. The work required to turn around a failing institution, especially one as complicated as an urban school, takes dedication, focus, talent, energy and persistence – all of which Covington and his team have in abundance.

Education reform is hard work – NOT for the faint-of-heart. Will there be challenges and setbacks along the way? Absolutely.

Yet, as FDR once said during the Great Depression, ” Do something. And if that does not work — do something else. But, for God’s sake — DO SOMETHING!”

Gov. Snyder is to be commended for doing something in addressing the needs of Detroit children who, for far too long, been trapped in failing schools. This option should be expanded to other areas in the state with historically failing schools.

Leaders from statewide traditional educational associations argue, disingenuously, that the initial round of test scores for EAA students in the fall “didn’t show the results that were expected.”

Guess what? These test results are NOT reflective of the EAA, who only had the students a few short weeks before the tests were administered. They are reflective, instead, of the failing schools from which they were rescued.

Many in the education establishment protest that the EAA is an “unproven experiment”. Yet the establishment has been experimenting and failing kids for much longer. They are correct in asserting there is ‘limited proof”‘ that the EAA in operation for a few short months is “successful”. Yet, Michigan has years of ‘proof’ from the schools that have failed these kids all along. Where is the protest about this?

EAA board chair and Skillman Foundation President Carol Goss is absolutely right when she says, “Real education reform takes five to seven years to show success. The first 15 DPS schools now under the auspices of the EAA have been failing students in Detroit for generations — something had to change.”

What is equally troubling is that while the educational establishment opposes the expansion of the EAA as a solution, they have not offered alternative plans.

Inaction is not a plan, and is unacceptable.

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

Two years later, House Democratic Leader Tim Greimel (D-Auburn Hills) announced that the Michigan House Democrats have formed a task force (http://www.housedems.com/news/article/house-democrats-task-force-seeks-education-reforms-that-work) that will find “real solutions for Michigan’s struggling schools”. While commendable, they need to act with a sense of urgency, as though THEIR child was trapped in these schools. While the Dems are drawing up plans our children are falling behind. Ever year adults don’t get it right children suffer.

There are a wide list of Lansing-based educational associations in Michigan. 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 realistic solution.

Pointing to islands of excellence in local school districts around the state even while other children are drowning in a sea of despair is not a plan.

Lawmakers are right to be taking steps to codify the EAA into state law. The bill is a top priority for Gov. Rick Snyder. The legislation has passed the House and the Senate should carefully review changes made to the original bill that water down needed reform.

For those that say the governor and legislature are “moving too fast,” ask yourself this: “If this were your child trapped in a failing school – in many cases a decade or longer – would you come to the same conclusion?”

The EAA could take over the management and educational responsibility of additional failing schools –phased in 12 at a time starting in the 2014 academic year, with the number of schools capped at 50.

The educational establishment across the state are lobbying hard to protect the status quo in the name of “local control”. Let’s be clear: This is a power struggle, more about adult control and politics than about Teaching, Learning and Children.

Out With The Old-In With The New

The EAA requires a longer school day — 7-1/2hours, an hour longer than a traditional public school. The school year is also longer — 210 days, compared with 170 days in traditional public schools.

The old system was not working for students. Without bold leadership and change, it may well sink – not only the children trapped in these schools, but the entire state.

The stakes are high. Much has been made of Michigan’s “brain drain” — students with a college education fleeing our state for other opportunities.

Perhaps the greater problem is those we fail to educate who stay behind. An uneducated child doesn’t just disappear – they will eventually come to your place of business. As a potential customer, an employee, or perhaps maybe with something more nefarious in mind. They are not the foundation upon which Michigan can be rebuilt.

Holding onto the past to protect the status quo is not a prescription for competing on the global stage in the 21st century.

As the second decade of the 21st century knowledge economy unfolds, Michigan is going to be dependent at every level on bold leadership – those with the courage to cast off the anchors of the past and set sail for a new future.

Niccolo Machiavelli, centuries ago in his famous book, “The Prince,” offered his analysis to the political theater we are witnessing today as “education reform” is once again on the political front burner he said:

“It must be considered that there is nothing more difficult to carry out, nor more doubtful of success, or more dangerous to handle, than to initiate a new order of things. For the reformer has enemies in all those who profit by the old order and only lukewarm defenders in all those who would profit by the new order, this ‘lukewarmness’ arising partly from fear of their adversaries, who have the laws in their favor; and partly from the incredulity of mankind, who do not truly believe in anything new until they have had actual experience of it.”

As policymakers consider the EAA bill and other changes to our educational system, they need to come down on the side of teaching, learning and children, NOT adult power politics.

The governor is right in acting to create this educational life raft. It is now in the legislature’s court to act responsibly to expand this educational model to other communities across the state experiencing failing schools.

We can no longer ignore the needs of low-income and minority students who populate far too many of these failing schools. If Michigan is to prosper, ALL our children must prosper.

The Michigan Senate needs to proceed as though our collective future depends on their action – because it DOES.

Failure is not an option.

Tom Watkins served the citizens of Michigan as state superintendent of schools and state mental health director. He helped create Michigan’s and Florida’s first Charter Schools and was an early advocate for e- and blended learning. He is a US/China business and educational consultant and can be reached at tdwatkins88@gmail.com

May 2, 2013 · Filed under Tom Watkins

39 responses so far ↓

  • 1 jean kozek // May 3, 2013 at 8:54 am

    You chose to equate Gov. Snyder’s behavior with that of Machiavelli. Machiavelli basically believed that might makes right; when a person has the power, that person determines what’s moral and acceptable. To those who believe in democracy and government transparency, Machiavellian is now used to describe a person who is amoral and opportunistic. Do you value those charactistics in a politician?

    All public school teachers know that in the United States students living in poor areas tend to do poorly in school. Perhaps this correlation has evolved since historically schools in poor areas had few funds to provide any quality education. However, it is a fact that American students residing in middle and higher income areas compete scholastically on an even level with comparable students in other countries. So, the focus in changing eduational outcomes needs to be on poorer students. Programs that provide funding for Head Start, etc. help to improve the odds for these children to become better students. To date such programs have had limited availability and are often cut by politicians who don’t value equal opportunities. Pre-school funding is critical, teachers support it, but you and others ignore this fact.

    Your article screams of anti-public school propaganda. Yet, you are convinced, without proof, that for-profit corporations would be much more successful in raising student learning levels simply by adopting a “students learning at their own pace” methodology. In a classroom of 35 students, this method is only possible with on-line learning texts, and the adult in the room need not be a teacher but simply an adult to make sure equipment isn’t vandalized. Such texts offer noting more than rote learning and do not require students to use higher order thinking skills which are skills necessary to succeed in a more complex world.

    Your argument for privatizing education is to support corporate profits and not to support educational opportunities for our children.

  • 2 sandra kahn // May 3, 2013 at 9:29 am

    I have a plan: Step away from the drawing board. While the Governor, Legislators, MI BOE and other study groups pretend they are doing somethng about the poor state of our education, the rest of us poor slobs who have to raise children KNOW what is wrong with our schools: Too much pandering, lack of respect for education, lack of professionalism, poor dress codes (students and teachers), poor discipline and too little teacher reward/incentive for excellence in teaching.

    Re-writing goals and standards every few years is a waste of time and taxpayer money. It has been known for centuries what children should know and at what age: Reading, writing, reading comprehension, logic and arithmetic. With strong roots in these skills, a person can grow into anything. Instead, we fill the school day with character building, self esteem, teamwork and other “fix society” fluff.

    There are many alternative methods of teaching and each child is unique. Teachers know this and good teachers, when left alone, are motivated and effective. If they are not, they should be removed from the classroom. If they are effective, stop burying them under reports and paperwork. Recognize that nothing improves a school better than good leadership (school principals). Give them the freedom to place (and replace) their personnel effectively. If the school is failing, it is the Principal’s fault (not the fall back excuses of bad parenting, too much T.V. and unruly students).

    I f we really want to improve student education, we must get into the classrooms and stop being “politically correct” about the nonsense we allow to take place in there.

    Here is a secret: Although it may not always look like it, young persons do like learning and they care about their future. They are looking to the adults around them to act like adults, set standards and give direction. Something that no study group in Lansing can do.

  • 3 goods // May 3, 2013 at 11:37 am

    There is no question that many schools are failing. However, politicians who do not act with morals, ethics or integrity do not generate trust in any of their agendas even if one might actually be for the right reasons. When politicans engage in election rigging, passing RTW bills without using the proper legislative process, institute immediate effect without using the proper legislative process, attach funding to bills to prevent voter referendum, re-write voter over turned bills such as the EM and pass them again, refuse to hear committee testimony from disabled individuals regarding bills that would dramatically affect their lives, ban certain representatives from speaking on the house floor, remove representatives from committees for obviously punitive reasons, and on and on and on, it makes it impossible to trust any of their motives for any legislation.

  • 4 Jon // May 3, 2013 at 3:25 pm

    Snyder has proven to be untrustworthy and that is one problem. The other is republicans view teachers as the problem. To answer your question:both. A teacher should be able to have a career in their chosen field and should be given the support needed to teach children. I think the EAA is a feel good thing for Snyder that does nothing to correct the inherent problems of the whole states education problems. If you notice it is only the minority and democratic areas he is going after, in instances where republican controlled areas were in trouble money flowed freely from the capitol.

  • 5 Jon // May 3, 2013 at 3:27 pm

    Also, you mention the staus quo and how bad our current situation is. However, when he praise China you always mention how many new traditional schools are being built and how much CHina is investing in education. Republicans always cut education first and then whine when they get what they pay for.

  • 6 Mary Z. // May 3, 2013 at 7:01 pm

    Detroit Mayor Candidate Mike Duggan quits the EAA board— he was on the EAA BD as a SNYDER appointee! And he wants to be the Mayor of Detroit?


  • 7 Julie Johnston // May 4, 2013 at 9:27 am

    This article lays out such a cogent, thoughtful view of education in Michigan and what it should be.. It should be must reading for everyone in the state!

  • 8 Tony // May 4, 2013 at 9:28 am

    Tom.. once again you hit it out of the park. Nothing is more central to our long term success as a state as prospects for our children’s well being… And making sure they are prepared is job one! EAA willl help in that….

  • 9 Janice Worth // May 4, 2013 at 11:16 am

    Wish people would stop bashing the change agents and spent all that energy instead fighting for young people’s future. EAA is a great mechanism to try and help. Unless you have better plan — please keep quiet and get on board~!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • 10 Mark Turner // May 6, 2013 at 7:24 pm

    The U S Sec of Education seems to echo the sentiments Watkins states so clearly in this essay– stop the adult ideological games and focus on the needs of the kids!

    U.S. education secretary Arne Duncan ‘very encouraged’ by visit to Michigan’s reform district

  • 11 john telford // May 7, 2013 at 10:37 am

    Tom, you promised me you would serve personally on the DPS board when I honored your request to petition the state board of ed. to appoint you state superintendent – and you kept your promise. How, then, can you fail to comment on what we both knew in 1999 – that the state takeover of DPS was unnecessary and unjust? DPS had a $93 million suplus and its test scores were at the state midpoint and rising at the time of the takeover, but we Detroiters had passed a $1.5 billion bond for school renovation & construction, and individuals close to then-governor Engler were eying that money cupiditously. Ten years later – in 2009 – EM Robert Bobb left us a $327 million deficit and the scores were America’s worst. The state needs to turn the district back over to DPS’ good elected board and its capable board-appointed superintendent (namely me), and return the failed 15 EAA schools back to us. The takeover was an abject failure, as is the EAA.

  • 12 Kim T // May 8, 2013 at 2:37 pm

    Solid overview of the state of affairs in public education today.
    There is a need for significant break from the past and bold, leadership that is fact based and in the best interest of kids– not all the games that are being played for political points from both sides of the political aisle.

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