In this fast-paced, information overloaded society, individuals are longing to be heard. Educators are especially eager to share their thoughts, their hopes and their frustrations.
That’s why my first order of business as MEA’s new president was to embark on a “listening tour” so I could hear from the experts on the front-lines who know best what makes public education work.
Along with Vice President Chandra Madafferi and Secretary-Treasurer Brett Smith, we want to make sure teachers and support staff (the unsung heroes in public schools) have their voices heard. Together we are hearing stories from members, learning why they do what they do, and what support they need to ensure a great public education for every student.
One of their frustrations is the insatiable appetite policymakers have for standardized testing. At a stop in Traverse City, we heard from teachers exasperated by the multiple standardized tests mandated by the state, which have eaten away at carefully planned curriculum. Some tests take several days to complete, while teachers are pressured to teach to the test which consumes many additional instruction days. A common refrain we heard from educators was, “more testing means less teaching.”
In Utica, where teachers are working without a contract, many felt that education funding is a priority that politicians in Lansing have ignored. A 2016 study by the National Education Policy Center found that Michigan’s per-pupil spending, compared with neighboring Midwestern states has fallen “from the middle of the pack to near the bottom.” If we can’t compete in education, we can’t compete for jobs.
Grand Rapids school employees questioned the exponential growth of for-profit charter schools, which continue to be a huge drain on the public education budget — to the tune of $1 billion each year. This, in spite of the fact that countless studies have shown that they continually perform at or below achievement levels of traditional neighborhood schools. Given that fact, it is no point of pride that Michigan leads the nation in the number of for-profit charters. Lining these corporate pockets with profits leads to lack of adequate resources for students.
It also leads to stagnant — or falling — compensation for educators. Earlier this year, the Michigan Department of Education released data showing average teacher salaries have declined for the fifth straight year. Many districts around the state are reporting difficulties filling vacancies. We are losing the battle to attract the best and brightest college students to a career in education — as evidenced by the startling statistic that enrollment in colleges of education in Michigan are down 40 percent in the last decade. Even those who buck this trend and go into teaching are finding it difficult to remain in the classroom — as new teachers are leaving the profession in record numbers.
Funding cuts have stagnated school employee pay and benefits, while over-reliance on standardized testing data have hampered teacher and student creativity. Therefore, it should not surprise anyone to learn that the morale of school employees has fallen to an all-time low in recent years — a common thread throughout every listening tour stop we’ve done.
As the new leadership team at the MEA, we clearly have our work cut out for us. But I grew up with the understanding that the institution of public education is sacred, and that there is no greater honor than to be involved in the fight to protect and defend public schools and those who work in education.
After more than 20 years as a music teacher and union member, I am excited to lead the 140,000 members of the MEA and am committed to ensuring the voices of Michigan's education experts are heard and respected.
Paula Herbart is president of the Michigan Education Association.
Labor Voices columns are written on a rotating basis by United Auto Workers President Dennis Williams, Teamsters President James Hoffa, Michigan AFL-CIO President Ron Bieber and Michigan Education Association President Paula Herbart.