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Ken Winter

Ken Winter

New State Policy Needed for “Readin’, ‘Ritin and ‘Rithmetic”

November 24, 2017

Although it’s been 50 years since high school graduation, I don’t recall ever being this ill equipped to perform basic tasks— “readin’ and ‘ritin and ‘rithmetic”—as I find much of today’s Michigan school population.  I find it scary as this is our next generation that will be running the state private, non-profit and government institutions we depend upon.

Not to be completely gloom and doom, there are many bright spots—sometimes emerging by chance (the “lucky sperm club”)—when kids are born into families with means and resources. Too many students, however, graduate or drop from high school lacking the maturity and skills to attend a college or vocational program for further education. 

At the community college level where I teach, students often don’t do assignments, sit in the back to sneak peeks on their personal devices, avoid class discussion, engage in other activities, or just skip class if a teacher is not watchful and alert.  Writing is subpar for alleged high school graduates, with too many admitting they’ve hardly ever read a book unless forced.

Instead they rack up thousands of dollars in student loans and debt, which will be almost impossible to overcome with the low-paying, service sector jobs they’ll end up getting because of their poor school performance and work ethic.

After 40 years working in the private sector, I’ve experienced it one too many times after teaching for more than a decade at the college level.  A radical social and public policy change needs to occur in Michigan and across the country to turn this tide.  What’s the solution to fix Michigan’s broken education system filled with students coming from broken homes, drugs and/or mental and social afflictions? 

We need to look at some 30 countries that require mandatory military service, like most of Scandinavia, or at least explore the option of paid government service.  The U.S. created such a program in the 1930’s under FDR’s New Deal and the Work Projects Administration.  It was the largest and most ambitious agency, employing millions of people—mostly unskilled men—to carry out public work projects, including the construction of public buildings and roads.

This path would be mandated for every high school graduate or person turning the age of 18.  After serving a one or possibly two-year assignment, the young adult would be required to work with a certified community college career guidance counselor to develop an education pathway for a college, technical or vocational institution to complete a two-year program or certification.  This would equip them with skills and, hopefully, “job ready.”  After completing each semester or phase with a “C” average, a tuition voucher covering tuition, books and supplies would be awarded until the entire pathway was completed.

Community colleges appear to be the logical connection since most youth are already serviced by, or near one.  These institutions already have a basic framework and support system in place and would need only minimal financial support to meet additional demands. 

By no means is this a cure-all for all of the problems related to education, but it might be an effective first step towards changing the direction education—especially higher education—appears to be headed.  To finance the costs, Michigan could possibly volunteer to be the nation’s first “test site” to implement such a proposal and measure results since we now rank in the bottom tier of states.

Michigan does not need another study or test created to identify student assessment.  Michigan’s conflicted state education governance system already struggles with changing testing programs partially because the state’s constitutionally-mandated Michigan Board of Education—which hires Michigan’s State Superintendent (unlike other non-elected department heads hired and reporting to Governor Rick Snyder).  Today, Brian J Whiston is the State Superintendent.  He began his tenure as State Superintendent in July 2015, and was hired by—and reports directly to—the state board.

Then we have the Michigan Legislature, who controls the purse strings.  Like a Greek tragedy, they allow the protagonist—the State Superintendent, usually a person of importance and outstanding personal qualities—to fall victim to conflict through a combination of circumstances he or she cannot control. The legislature, accountable only to voters, continues to intervene on a whim on everything from assessment testing to mandating EpiPens; many to counteract a variety of symptoms attributable to allergic reaction.  For the most part, locally-elected legislators don’t understand today’s classroom environments, or how students have changed so radically since their own experience.

Ask any Michigan mayor from large city or small village and they will tell you of the importance an education system plays in their work, particularly when attempting to lure or retain business with a skilled workforce.  Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan worries about how the city’s failed school system will retain the many younger people now working within his revitalized city once they have school-age children of their own. Will they flee to the suburbs in search of better schools?

As if failing school districts weren’t enough, we have U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos promoting her own personal agenda for private and charter schools nationally, with little regard to the thousands of students attending traditional K-12 districts.  For example, she just whacked federal support for the non-profit National Writing Project.  That program has been providing teacher development and enrichment programs since 1976 to more than 200 local sites that comprise a network hosted by universities and colleges.

Instead of throwing more assessment tests, studies and tax dollars at an educational system that has proven not to work, it’s time for a new direction and a new public policy to help students find success.  Maybe we could start with Michigan, currently ranked 35th for Pre-K development when compared to other states:

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.

November 22, 2017 · Filed under Winter



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