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Ken Winter

Ken Winter

Why Johnny and Sally Can’t Read and Write

September 30, 2016

Michigan has nothing to be proud of with more than 120 schools ranked among the worst performing in the state, according to a list released by the State School Reform Office.  On that list: 47 come from the corrupt in the Detroit Public Schools Community District.

It’s no wonder our next generation isn’t well prepared when one takes a look of who’s in charge of our public education—no one. We have the State Board of Education, Michigan Legislature and Governor who involved in the education fray with no one really taking leadership or being accountable to the public.  It’s largely caused by Michigan’s governmental structure created during its 1963 state constitution revision.

Our state education system is a mess and makes a good case for malpractice lawsuits even beyond just the federal lawsuit filed against the Detroit Public Schools on behalf of Detroit school children.

“It offers a pretty jaw-dropping litany of horrible conditions in which it is impossible to imagine any child learning much at all: classrooms infested with cockroaches, classrooms where the number of students exceeds the number of textbooks or even desks, classrooms staffed, in the absence of actual teachers, by paraprofessionals or, in one stunning revelation, by an eighth-grade math student, for more than a month,” observes Detroit Free Press Columnist Nancy Kaffer about the federal court lawsuit over Detroit schools.

The conditions are not just limited to Detroit, as one who travels across northern and western Michigan has observed.  And, having met with various communities during the last five years as one of a handful of facilitators for the Center for Michigan’s Community Conversations—now in its seventh year—that has seen more than 40,000 residents participate in local fact-finding conversations. 

As also one of many college instructors across the state, I have found myself saddled with teaching for students not ready for college or occupational training. We are also asked to teach some remedial, non-credit courses in hope of guaranteeing student success. The freshmen college students can’t read or write and yet have been graduated from a local high school. There is a litany of reasons why, but one of the main culprits, in my opinion, rests with the broken state and educational bureaucracy.

High school districts should be sued for malpractice for allowing these students to pass through the grades without mastering the basic skills of reading, writing, math and science.  My vote would go for community colleges and universities charging local school districts for the remedial courses they have to offer those students.   

It’s easy to dump all of this on the educators, but it goes far deeper.  Michigan has lost its once stellar nationwide reputation in education that I grew up under in the 60s. Michigan is now, itself, mired in politics and failure upon failure with students being passed along from grade to grade to graduate.  Fortunately, there are some bright spots across the state, but not as many as there should be statewide.

There is simply no leadership coming from the state and not so much from other governing bodies more concerned about bathrooms and political correctness, with the rest standing on the sideline yelling and screaming. They have no united game plan to help our students become successful, with many using poor facilities, lacking funds and often with a poorly paid (and sometimes poorly trained) workforce. The system is broken.

I’m surprised those teachers that do stick around can work amidst all of this misdirection.  Spend some time in the career field and you will clearly understand the challenges these teachers are confronted with.   They’re asked to teach unprepared students challenged with poor (or no) basic learning skills and often coming from single parent (or no parent) families living in drug-infested and crime-ridden neighborhoods that provide little to no self-discipline. They no longer model what used to be considered the common social skills of talking, listening, sharing and working cooperatively.  Many can’t read or write well, let alone think critically even when they reach high school.

Recent headlines partially explain why:

  • Michigan has a state school board who is elected for eight-year terms in at-large, partisan statewide elections.  Every two years two positions on the board are up for election.  Few voters even know the candidates, with most nominated at state party conventions for November elections.
  • Unlike most other Michigan agency department heads appointed by the governor, the state board appoints its own department head with no control by, or accountability to, the governor.  State Superintendent of Public Instruction Brian Whiston, formerly of Dearborn Public Schools—the state’s third largest school district—oversees 4,126 schools and 1.745 million students.  He administers the Michigan Department of Education, and is also the State Board Executive who directs State Board operations and its staff.

The Superintendent sits on the Governor’s Cabinet, the State Administrative Board, and acts as chair and a non-voting member of the State Board of Education.  The Superintendent advises the Legislature on education policy and funding needs and is responsible for the implementation of bills passed by the Legislature and policies established by the State Board of Education. 

The Michigan Legislature, who controls the purse strings, is often at political odds with the state Board of Education.  Particularly in the most recent years with a Republican dominated Legislature and Democrat-controlled State Board of Education.  Voters saw examples of the discord with some legislators calling for the disbandment of the state department and its insistence on switching the Michigan Student Test of Educational Progress (M-STEP) last year by threatening to withhold funds if its wishes weren’t followed.  Given for the first time in 2015, M-Step leaves educators with no comparative data collected through 44 years of using MEAP.  The last-minute switch delayed results, with poor results caused by lack of preparation. Statewide, students have struggled on the exam. Finally released, test results for 2015 documented that in grades 3-8, more than half of the students failed in most subjects and in most grade levels.

M-Step results released by the Michigan Department of Education on August 30 from standardized tests taken this past April and May showed mixed results grades 3-8 and in grade 11.  “The Spring 2016 results show scores are improving,” Whiston said.  “Additionally, we delivered the results earlier this year and significantly cut overall testing time.”

The bad news: There are still significant numbers of students testing below proficiency, a trend since 2012 when the state raised the bar on “cut scores”–i.e., what it took to pass the tests, reports Julie Mack of  “In fact, in spring 2016, roughly half the students in grades 3-8 failed to score as proficient in any of the four subject areas–English language arts, math, science and social studies.”

She said the best results were on the English language arts test, where 47.3 percent of test-takers statewide in grades 3-8 scored as “advanced” or “proficient.”  That compares to 47.8 percent in spring 2015.

  • Statewide student assessment disruption may continue and is well on its way to replacing M-Step with the Smarter Balanced Exam in th 2016-17 school year, reports the Detroit Free Press.  That exam is based on the Common Core State Standards, a rigorous set of expectations of what students must know to be successful in college or careers.  That was the vision laid out this morning by State Superintendent Brian Whiston, who spoke before lawmakers during an April legislative hearing about testing.
  • The change in assessments may push back the closing of non-performing schools and stricter evaluations of teacher performance.

Ultimately, the only people that can change this direction are the voters and local communities by insisting on higher education standards for their youth so that they may compete and work in a global economy.

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.

September 29, 2016 · Filed under Winter

4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Anagnorisis // Sep 30, 2016 at 9:05 am

    WOW! Again. When we moved out of Detroit in 1970 as our first child was born, it was with acknowledgement that no way would we raise children in that school environment, albeit once the best in the greater Midwest. Rats and roaches do not make for education. Ken and Jack have nailed it but who can fix it? Voters? I don’t think so. I’m a voter but I have no vote, like, who cares? It’s not my ball or my ballpark. It’s way beyond out of control, it’s an imbroglio of oxymoron. You can’t fix stoopid if you can’t even spell it.

  • 2 Chuck Fellows // Sep 30, 2016 at 10:57 am


    Let the teachers do their job, supporting children’s personal learning journeys. Develop curriculum and pedagogy based upon individual student needs.

    Change the funding structure. The state, rather than the districts become responsible for all facilities statewide.
    Operational funding is determined at the classroom level in each individual building by teachers focused on individual student needs. Aggregate those classroom “budgets” by building and district, (following year over year individual student “costs”), and the legislature finds the revenue to support those budgets. Minimum 12 to 16 year timeline to initiate and refine the process.

    By identifying and building curriculum and pedagogy based upon individual student needs, strengths and weaknesses you will resolve the can’t read and multitude of other debilitating issues students face when the emerge from the current system.

    Send everyone in a decision making or analytical position in the MDE to training in understanding statistical variation (Especially those that work in CEPI). Require all legislators assigned to education or educational appropriation committee receive the same training. Whenever possible these committee meetings will be held public school buildings throughout the state.

    End standardized testing.

  • 3 No one is really in charge of education in Michigan because of an immense constitutional flaw – Michigan Radio | Screenny // Oct 3, 2016 at 12:57 pm

    […] been writing about various education issues for years, but last weekend, I read a piece in that really zeroes in on the heart of the […]

  • 4 No one is really in charge of education in Michigan because of an immense constitutional flaw – Michigan Radio // Oct 3, 2016 at 1:05 pm

    […] been writing about various education issues for years, but last weekend, I read a piece in that really zeroes in on the heart of the […]



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