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Ken Winter

Ken Winter


June 17, 2016

This is a true story….

A Michigan teacher recently asked her school administrator if there would be compensation beyond covering the $200 workshop registration she was encouraged to take. The teacher spent some 30 hours during her summer break to help the school maintain its prized national accreditation.

The administrator’s response:  “I dream of a day when we can either find grant money or have a large enough bake sale to provide that kind of support…”

The response comes as no surprise to teachers, who either donate their time for professional development or will often forego the opportunity, especially during school breaks.  Teachers read and hear how lawmakers, community leaders and the public say education is vital for our future.  What’s lacking is real support for teachers, who deliver the education.  It’s one part of Michigan’s education mess that now emerges in political fights, constant disruption by changing directions and conflicting views that don’t help the students or state.

At the recent Detroit Chamber of Commerce’s Mackinac Policy Conference held at the Grand Hotel, there was no doubt.  Detroit business, industry, education and non-profit leaders support public education, but they will share publicly and privately that Michigan’s public school system is mess and not just in Detroit.

Most agree Michigan’s K-12 students continue to fall behind the rest of the country by anyone’s measurement.  The first major move to change the course was expanding and financing statewide pre-school education the last three years. Most will say that’s only a small first step needed. Others like Governor Snyder, say it should continue to grade 14 (community college or skilled training).

Those attending the Mackinac Conference continue to get yearly snapshots of what’s taking place particularly with the Detroit Public Schools (DPS). Foundations and private business and industry are making a large effort.  This year more than others past, they point out that Michigan’s education mess is more than just a Detroit issue; it’s a statewide issue especially if Michigan’s economy is expected to expand and grow. 

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan has jumped into the political fray, adding his city’s declining schools enrollment with Detroit students flight to better suburban schools. He also points out that state-base solutions have been no help. Since 2009, there have been five emergency managers with five successive school superintendents. The mayor called for self-control, who added DPS can hardly find anyone to take a job teaching in Detroit.

“It doesn’t matter who you put in place there is a $625 million debt after seven years,” he said. “We have lost half of our students.”

To an outsider, Michigan’s solution to its education mess looks like a quilted patchwork of solutions with not a lot of cohesiveness and with no one really in charge.  Part of the cause dates back to the 1963 revised State Constitution when its framers believed the best way to protect and improve public education was to take the politics of out it.  They constitutionally created a publicly elected partisan state board to hire the state superintendent instead of a gubernatorial appointed agency director like other Michigan state departments.

What’s happened now is the Republican-dominated Michigan Legislature, who controls the purse strings, and the Michigan Governor often find themselves itself at odds with the state board of education with its president John Austin (D-Ann Arbor).  Currently, Democrats on the 8-member state board have a 6-2 majority.  The result has been a series of changes from state assessment testing to common core for educational development to most recently a volunteer policy over how addresses the needs of LGBTQ students.

Few voters know the Michigan Board of Education president or its members, who they elect, just as they don’t know candidates for MSU trustees, UM regents or Wayne State governors.  Many ask what’s the value of having them elected if most by voters don’t even know them?

State House Republicans want to eliminate the Michigan Board of Education.  Rep. Tim Kelly (R-Saginaw) has said the board is an “archaic relic of the past”, who is often out of step with whatever administration is in office at state level, whether Democrats or Republicans are in control.

“I’m tired of their practicing social engineering with every progressive agenda that comes down the pike,” Kelly recently to the Detroit Free Press.

To add to the fray, Governor Snyder signed an executive order to create a 25-member commission that will study how to boost achievement in Michigan and prepare students for in-demand jobs. State Superintendent Brian Winston is in the midst of a similar effort to make Michigan a top 10 education state in 10 years when he just unveiled seven broad strategies aimed at improving education in February.

While a Snyder spokesperson said his boss’s commission will work in concert with Whiston’s group which has already set a timeline while Snyder hasn’t announced his commission appointments, one has to wonder what new level of education mess will emerge from these efforts?

Most studies on improving public education haven’t veered from the 1981 “A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Education Reform”. Experts then made five recommendations ranging from a basic core curriculum with more rigorous and measurable standards and extension of the school year to learn “New Basics” to improving with enhanced teacher preparation and professionalization to accountability being added to education.

Some 35 years later, the public continues to hear same rhetoric, except now the quality of public education in Michigan continues to tumble. What’s the solution?

Ironically, one solution comes from the British-based magazine—“The Economist” with it cover story this week, “How to Make a Good Teacher” (June 11-17). It argues that what matters in schools is teachers. Fortunately, teaching can be taught.

“Forget smart uniforms, and small classes,” Economist editors write. “The secret to stellar grades and thriving students is teachers.  One American study found that in a single year’s teaching the top 10% of teachers impart three times as much learning to their pupils at the worst 10% do.

They point to another study that suggests that if poor urban black students, for example, were taught by the best quarter of teachers; the gap between achievement and that of white students would disappear.

Educators and politicians have offered every miracle solution imaginable, from spending more money per pupil to offering a nationwide core curriculum, but much they argue not enough attention is given to those who teach, except making them accountable for uncontrollable home environments and providing real teacher professional preparation and professional development beyond an occasional one-day seminar with student release time?

In Japan, for example, near retirement master teachers are asked to work for three years at half time to mentor their new teacher replacements.  Other countries provide opportunities for extended professional development time either during the work year by reducing teaching loads or granting blocks of time at full salary for teacher enrichment.  Few extended professional development program opportunities to that degree are offered American teachers. Some cover tuition and travel, but few offer salaries.

There are some federal agencies like the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) that offers free teacher seminars on a variety of topics

and the Berkley-based non-profit National Writing Project (NWP) invitational teacher institute at 200 sites across the country every summer. Several thousand teachers participate each year in these summer institutes, but face less federal support leaving each site up to its own private fundraising to sustain its program.

Of all the professions, education ranks the lowest in pay, but requires teachers to maintain licensing without offering the financial means to maintain it. Whether the state superintendent or governor’s proposals stem the tide, a big question remains on how we will teach the teachers?

Ken Winter, former editor and publisher of the Petoskey News-Review and member of the Michigan Journalism Hall of Fame, teaches political science and journalism at North in Petoskey and Michigan State University.

June 16, 2016 · Filed under Winter

3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 David Waymire // Jun 17, 2016 at 8:45 am

    We all owe John Austin a huge thank you for doing what he and the board can to stand in the way of the Mississippi-ization of our schools. Left to the Legislature, our schools would be even worse than they are. We had a top 20 system in 1995…and now are a bottom 5. And the Legislature keeps doubling down on what leads to failure. Look to Massachusetts for what success looks like…and it’s nothing like what Michigan is doing today.

  • 2 Anagnorisis // Jun 17, 2016 at 1:05 pm

    Having some experience with the education process beyond listless public education of the fifties, it has been noted that legislative politics are an infinitive therefrom or therefore to “polite” as root gerund inversion. In simple terms those who make the decisions don’t know their Fowler’s from their Frontenac, even accentuated by university grads who can’t compete orthographically or semantically with grade-school kids. There’s not enough intellect in term-limited legislation to resolve this issue. Home schooling and maybe online learning are the only viable options and a whole lot less expensive. Or how about Reading? Writing? You know, the Three Rs.

  • 3 Ruth Lezotte // Jun 18, 2016 at 9:08 pm

    Who, in God’s name, wrote that headline?
    Don’t you have somebody on staff that can speak the King’s English?

    PS: I AM a long-retired English teacher.



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