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Tom Watkins
Tom Watkins

Business Leaders Get Religion around Public Education

May 4, 2018 

There is great value in engaging the business community to enhance and improve the funding and educational outcomes for our students. I make this statement with having had a foot in both doors: education and business. I took a leading role in creating the first charter schools in Michigan and Florida during the 90’s and also served as Michigan’s State Superintendent of Schools from 2001-2005. I also served as President and CEO of the private Economic Council of Palm Beach County while concurrently serving as the Executive Director of the Education Partnership. 

Reports dating back a decade or longer show how Michigan has been falling behind educationally. A child without a decent education today is an adult without much of a future tomorrow. Unless we are serious about changing the trajectory of educational achievement in Michigan, we will sink into an economic backwater. We need all the help we can muster to assure we are preparing today’s students for their future and not our past.

A Brookings Institution analysis of the results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress shows Michigan students, since 2003, have continually made the least improvement in scores nationally. The article points out Michigan students were at the bottom of the list when it comes to proficiency growth on four measures in the exam (including math and reading).

Business to the Rescue?

Business Leaders for Michigan (BLM) is a big deal. BLM’s membership represents the chairpersons, chief executive officers, and most senior executives of Michigan’s largest companies and universities. Their members drive nearly one-third of the state’s economy, provide 390,000 direct jobs in Michigan, generate over $1 trillion in annual revenue and serve nearly half of all Michigan public university students.

BLM has decided to weigh into education reform in a big way and issued both its review of best practices in K–12 education and a set of principles that can lead to better student performance with the goal of making Michigan one of the nation’s top 10 states for student learning and talent development.  BLM leaders say the report, Business Leaders’ Insights: Leading Practices in K-12 Education that Can Improve Student Outcomes in Michigan, is aimed at prompting an important public dialogue that leads to effective fixes for the state’s poor student outcomes. 

All should welcome the Business Leaders for Michigan’s newfound interest in education— let’s not forget the past. 

As my grandma would tell me, “It doesn’t matter why or how someone gets religion— as long as they get it.”  Welcome, Business Leaders for Michigan, for caring about public education and engaging with the broader education community to build a plan to “make Michigan one of the nation’s top 10 states for student learning and talent development.” 

Many from the business and corporate community have backed: 

  • Historically failing ideologically driven charter schools taking resource from traditional local public schools
  • Tax policy and tax cuts that takes money away from local public schools
  • Legislative leaders that have pushed ideologically not fact based policies harmful to public education
  • Supported state budgets that have underfunded public K-12 and higher education going back years, if not decades.

It is imperative that we get everyone on board to improve the educational outcomes for more and more of our students. With technology, artificial intelligence, automation, and globalization coming at warp speed, jobs can and are moving effortlessly across the globe. 

It’s our collective job to clear out the underbrush that gets in the way of teaching and learning. It is impossible to rebuild the city of Detroit, the region, or the state on a crumbling educational foundation.

The business community need to engage educators in their reform efforts, understanding: 

  • Schools have a different mission than business.
  • Forget ideology and political spin. Instead, do the hard research about what works. 
  • Invite key educators, teachers, principals, and superintendents to the table. Smart business leaders don’t lay out a change strategy without engaging frontline workers and we won’t get buy-in from educators if a plan is developed without their input.
  • Develop a shared vision and common agenda to encompass the multitude of current silos that exist. A unified, adequately funded direction for education is needed with a goal of helping teachers teach and children learn.
  • Welcome aboard BLM, you know better than most that we are living in an age where those with the talent and knowledge will win. To be uneducated is to be left behind in our global economy. This fact ought to create a sense of urgency for all.

Tom Watkins is a business and educational consultant in the US and China. Follow Watkins on Twitter@tdwatkins88


May 3, 2018 · Filed under Tom Watkins

3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 roger m. // May 3, 2018 at 11:59 pm

    Tom.. you again cut to the core of this issue. Education is king and thank you for keeping a spotlight on it…

  • 2 David Lipton // May 4, 2018 at 11:51 am

    I suspect many of the business leaders who are part of this effort were educated in private K-12 schools and a fair amount of them send their own children to similar schools. Until that reality is acknowledged then much of this is lip service. Michigan needs to tear down the barriers to true educational choice.

  • 3 Chuck S // May 4, 2018 at 5:22 pm

    Assuming this business effort has any impact at all, the business community’s 27 years of no effort has impaired almost an entire generation of kids. It just sat by and watched John Engler start the school destruction process.

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