A New Opportunity To Invest in Education

By on November 29th, 2018

Michigan and America need an educational Sputnik wake up call.


Quality education is not just an American or Michigan issue— it is a global issue. So while, like politics, all education is local, it also leaves a global footprint and has an impact far beyond our shores.

The children in Michigan and across America need to be able to compete and collaborate with the children of the world.

The viability of our respective societies, the strength of our economies, the quality of our lives and our place in the world – all are inextricably linked to the quality of world-class education provided to our youth. This is true whether or not you live in Detroit or Northville, Marquette, Monroe or Kalamazoo, Michigan. São Paulo, Brazil or Jurong, Huizhou, Beijing or Lanzhou in China.

To be clear, a child without a decent education today is an adult without a productive future tomorrow— regardless of where you were born.

Yet, closer to home, here in Michigan we have an educational crisis.

Education Week’s rankings of state education systems ought to scare any thinking policymaker –Michigan comes in at 33 of the 50 states. While this fact might hurt some feelings, the first step to solving the problem lies in its identification.


Few issues facing Michigan and America — or any nation — are more important than ensuring that children receive a first-rate education. Our future literally depends on it.

Nolan Finley, Editorial Page Editor at The Detroit News, recited the litany of woes facing Michigan schools. In a recent column, he wrote: “Michigan ranks in the Bottom 10 in fourth-grade reading proficiency and the number of students enrolled in career and technical programs. It’s in the bottom half of states for eighth-grade math proficiency, high-schoolers considered career and college ready and the percentage of the working-age population with an associate’s degree or higher.”


The share of fourth graders in Michigan public schools who are proficient in reading fell by 2.5 percentage points between 2003 and 2015. Today, only 28.6% of fourth graders in the state are proficient in reading, well below the 34.8% share nationwide. Both fourth and eighth graders in Michigan are less likely to be proficient in math and reading than the typical American public school student in the same grades.

What is needed are leaders with the political courage and will to reimagine and redesign education from K-12 and through college to ensure that all kids are prepared for the fast-paced, disruptive world they are inheriting. Also needed is additional targeted funding; particularly for non-affluent students across the state.

Not all learning has to take place in ivory towers or at elite private K-12 schools or institutions of higher learning. There are multiple pathways to success including vocational and apprenticeship programs post-high school that lead to productive life skills as well as degrees from 4-year universities.

While we engage in the tired debate over traditional public schools vs. charters, cyber, blended and e-learning schools, whole language vs phonics, or university prep vs. workforce and apprenticeship programs, we are losing far too many children to underemployment and leaving them – and ultimately, our society – behind as the world moves inexorably towards the future of technologically-rich jobs.

Michigan and America need to be investing in our collective future – and we’re not!

China’s Great Leap Forward

China’s application of AI (Artificial Intelligence) should be a Sputnik moment for the U.S. But the United States continues to struggle in its response to this world-changing challenge. Instead, what is underway is frail and exists mostly on paper in comparison to China’s plans. America continues its ideological debates as China acts.


Leadership, Action, Results

Our elected leaders in Lansing need to understand we live in a disruptive, hyper-competitive era where AI (artificial intelligence) technology, automation, and the globalization of the workforce is exploding as ideas and jobs continue to move around the globe at warp speed. The individual, family, city, region, state, and nation that prepares for this future will prevail, while those that don’t – will fail. It is that simple.

So while fixing Michigan’s “damn roads!” is necessary for infrastructure investment, as equally important is the investment we make in our educational system from cradle to the grave. Our leaders must address this critical, and urgent issue for the future of our state and nation.

We have wasted nearly two decades tinkering at the margins to find a shared vision and common agenda across the multitude of constituencies to fix what ails education in Michigan and America. This is about preparing our children for their future, not our past.

Coalitions for our Future

The Education Trust-Midwest is a fierce advocate for the high academic achievement of all students – particularly those of color or living in poverty. They understand the challenge we face, “Decades of research tells us that Michigan’s economic future and cultural vitality depends on the quality of our educational system, from pre-K through college. In order to continue our economic recovery – and hang on to our best natural resource, our citizens – it’s time Michigan looked to our nation’s leading education states for models of how to truly improve our schools.”


All is NOT Okay!

To say your suburban school is fine compared with other schools in Michigan and America is a losing strategy, akin to saying you are the smartest kid in the dumbest class – a dubious honor at best.

Some of Michigan’s most influential business and education leaders have recently begun to work together to improve the state’s education system.

The coalition officially unveiled “Launch Michigan” earlier this year. Doug Rothwell, the president and CEO of Business Leaders of Michigan, calls this a “transformational moment.” “The reality is that today Michigan faces a talent shortage. We’re creating jobs faster than we’re able to develop the talent to fill them,” says Rothwell. “And this problem is only going to grow worse because too many of our kids are graduating without the skills they need to be successful.”


Interested in learning more about their efforts? SEE: Launch Michigan


Listen To Educators

David Hecker, President of AFT Michigan, a staunch advocate for doing right by our children, educators, and public education, says, “We must prepare our students to be able to succeed in an unknown future where skills and knowledge important today may not suffice. It is imperative that our schools prepare our students to think critically, collaborate, be creative and able to communicate well so that regardless of what the future brings they can succeed.”

True Statue of Liberty

Be clear, this is not about teacher or public school bashing. Our public schools are Michigan’s and America’s hope. They are the true Statue of Liberty in this great country of ours. Our public schools are the only institutions in America that truly takes the ‘tired, the hungry, the poor’, immigrant children who speak English as a second language and children with disabilities to give them hope and opportunity. Our great teachers, many underpaid, are the torch-lighting the way for us all.

Clearly, there are many educational islands of excellence across our state, sadly too many are surrounded by a sea of despair. Today, far too many of our teachers are like exceptional sailors given a rickety ship to sail without adequate funding or respect.

Think Globally, Act Locally

The stimulus for these thoughts in this column came from the collision of Gretchen Whitmer’s recent gubernatorial election and being invited to Global Education Summit (GES), the global hub for education thought leadership. As the premier, an invitation-only summit focusing on collaboration and knowledge-sharing between Chinese and global education stakeholders, GES is designed to:

  • Explore the future of education through dialogues between world-renowned speakers from diverse backgrounds
  • Strengthen connections between Chinese and global leaders and influencers in education
  • Foster development and innovation across the global education ecosystem.

The GES is being held in Beijing, China the first weekend December. For more information, see:

China understands knowledge is power and they are striving to enhance the educational opportunities for their citizens.

Yet there is an urban-rural divide in China resulting in the under-educating of children in the countryside.

There’s a growing shortage of workers with the education to handle advanced technologies, and that could bring China’s amazing economic progress to a halt in coming years. This is an area where China, like America needs to double down on its efforts.


China Acts

Having a lifelong interest in China and having traveled and worked there over the past 3 decades, I know the Chinese understand that at the individual, family and governmental levels, those who control knowledge will prevail as the 21st century continues to unfold. They are investing in what will make them strong, even as the U.S. disinvests in our people on so many levels.

I can assure you, China is not sitting back waiting for us to get our act together.

New Beginning

In 2019, Michigan welcomes a new governor, Speaker of the House and Senate Majority Leader, an exceptional minority leadership in the House and Senate, and a New Democratic majority on the State Board of Education – charged with hiring a new State Superintendent of Public Instruction. In essence, this is a “new beginning” and an opportunity for a fresh start. Will they collectively seize the moment for Michigan?

The Educational Pot Hole

While our roads need to be fixed, smoothing out potholes in our system of education, investing in quality education from pre-K-12 to vocational education, community colleges, workforce preparedness, and our university system will be the true legacy of Michigan’s new leadership, those who occupy seats of power under the Capitol Dome.

The focus must shift from debates about power, control, politics and ideology to TLC- Teaching, Learning and Children.

Please act as if our futures depend on the leadership’s actions— because it does!

Interested in learning more about China, education and our collective futures? Read:

Give teachers respect for their integral work


Tom Watkins

Tom Watkins has an eclectic career in both the public and private sectors. He served the citizens of Michigan as state superintendent of schools and director of the department of mental health. He has held leadership positions in higher education, business and behavioral health. Watkins has a interest and passion in all things China and has written hundreds of article on the value of this most important bilateral relationship in the world today.

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Cee CieChuck Fellowscgflef@aol.comMark C. FrancisPenelope BailerJoe Nathan Recent comment authors
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Joe Nathan

Great reminders, Tom. Thanks.

Penelope Bailer
Penelope Bailer

Thank you, Tom. Outstanding work, as always!! Pvnb ❤️

Penelope Bailer
Penelope Bailer

Thank you, Tom. Outstanding work, as always!! Pvnb

Mark C. Francis

I have been an educator for over 30 years. I have seen the educational system become more and more of a political football. It has been frustrating to see the system going from teaching students the ability to think and problem solve to a system that teaches to the test; teachers are loaded down with more and more paperwork and the professionals that are working for our futures are treated more and more like second class citizens. I have seen many leave the profession due to poor pay and little support. I have seen bright students move to other professions… Read more »

Chuck Fellowscgflef@aol.com

Let our children learn! That requires we abandon the calendar driven educational schedule established by well meaning adults. For example on what authority and with what evidence can we insist that a child read at a target level by the third grade? Standardized testing is meaningless and has been proven to be meaningless over and over again. Why do we continue to punish and shame our children with these tests? Stop using statistics absent context, i.e. any “score” that does not recognize the environment the child lives in. These are the stupid things we insist on doing that can be… Read more »

Cee Cie
Cee Cie

A very impressive article, and some great comments. Regarding Bill’s list: For so many years, I have supported #2 on your list. If a another district is being successful in an area where your district is failing, copy them! Sometimes it’s difficult to convince those in leadership positions to pursue this route, or funding may not be available. We must make this a priority! Regarding #3 on your list, not every student is college bound. Why are we preparing every student as if the were? I agree that we need to expand access to apprenticeship and vocational programs while students… Read more »

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