Michigan education chief Rice ready to steer schools through 'existential moment'

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News
New state superintendent Dr. Michael Rice, superintendent of Kalamazoo Public Schools is seen in his office in Kalamazoo on Wednesday, May 15, 2019.

Kalamazoo — Michael Rice got a call four years ago encouraging him to run for state superintendent of public instruction in Michigan. He said no.

Entrenched as superintendent of Kalamazoo Public Schools where the Kalamazoo Promise was successfully luring families into the district, Rice said statewide educational issues "ripe" in 2015 were not the ones he felt compelled to lead on.

Four years later, Michigan's educational landscape is brimming with change and controversy.

School reform measures, such as Michigan's third-grade retention law and the state's A-F rating system; a statewide push to improve literacy and increase early childhood education; the publication of multiple research papers supporting increased funding for Michigan's K-12 schools and the precarious future of the teaching profession all have been pushed to the education forefront in the state.

And they are all issues Rice says he is ready to work on.

"I feel differently in 2019," Rice told The Detroit News in his office in Kalamazoo. "Those issues made me feel it was a moment. A generational moment in the state, and I wanted to contribute to that moment."

Rice, 56, who began his career in education as a high school French teacher and speech and debate program founder and coach in the Washington, D.C., public schools, will get that moment when he becomes Michigan's next state superintendent this summer.

His contract has yet to be negotiated but is likely to be a three-year deal worth $216,000 annually starting July 1.

Rice, who previously served as deputy superintendent for business at Lansing Public Schools and as superintendent in a New Jersey district, says his 12 years of experience leading Kalamazoo’s diverse school district and experience in other urban districts have prepared him for the challenges facing school districts across the state. 

While in Kalamazoo, and with the Kalamazoo Promise in place, Rice started full-day pre-kindergarten, more than doubled the number of students taking Advanced Placement courses and boosted high school graduation rates, school officials said.

With a bachelor’s degree in psychology with honors from Yale University and a master’s degree and doctorate in public administration with honors from New York University, Rice says he has known since college he wanted to affect children's lives.

"As I got deeper into my studies in college, I realized I wanted to have a deeper impact than a child psychologist. I wanted to have an impact on groups of children and systems," Rice said, "particularly children who had less and as a result needed more from schools."

Patti Sholler-Barber, president of the Kalamazoo Board of Education, met Rice in Clifton, New Jersey, when he was a candidate for the Kalamazoo job.

Rice, she says, is a man who likes to create a strong leadership team to tackle ideas and projects, launch pilots to test out ideas and dig deep into data for efficacy.

“Dr. Rice is a man who has an incredible vision and the ability to put that vision into practice,” Sholler-Barber said.

“His management style starts at the ground level. Children know him by name. He is a strong leader and a man of strong convictions, and he has a strong passion for children and their achievements and what we owe them.”

Sholler-Barber said she thinks Rice can turn Michigan into a top 10 state in education.

“He is the man who is going to bring us back,” she said.

Rice becomes superintendent at a critical time for Michigan’s 1.5 million students. Michigan ranks in the bottom third of states for fourth-grade reading, eighth-grade math and college attainment, and it's 43rd out of 47 in school funding equity.

According to officials at Education Trust-Midwest, Michigan ranks in the bottom third of all states overall in early literacy and among the bottom states for every major group of students: African American, Latino, white, low-income and higher income students. In eighth-grade math, only about 1 in 10 African American students and 2 in 10 Latino students are proficient.

Rice says more spending on public schools is critical, especially to address the chronic underfunding of English language students, poor students and special needs students.

He says he wants to increase pay, benefits and professional development for teachers. New data from the National Education Association found the average salary for Michigan teachers declined last year, continuing the 12% decline over the last decade when adjusted for inflation. Only Indiana, West Virginia and Wisconsin have had worse declines in teacher pay.

Starting teacher salaries in Michigan rank 32nd in the nation, according to the report. Nationwide, 37% of districts have a starting salary of at least $40,000. In Michigan, only 12% of districts meet that threshold, according to the data.

"It is an existential moment for the profession and the profession of public education in the state of Michigan," Rice said. "As goes the teaching profession so goes public education in the state."

Rice opposes the "punitive" retention requirements of the state's third-grade reading laws and the dual accountability system created when state lawmakers passed the A-F grading system during the lame duck session in December. 

Asked what Michigan is doing right in K-12 education, Rice said he likes the Parent Dashboard, which is a state-run website with school-level data, and the statewide recognition that literacy is important. 

"Literacy is clearly an important issue for us," he said. "It's a threshold issue for us if we are going to continue to improve what we do in public education in the state."

School children in Detroit have filed a lawsuit against the state of Michigan, asserting a right to literacy under the U.S. Constitution. The 2016 case, which is pending, alleges deplorable building conditions and a lack of teachers and textbooks in schools in the city have denied their right to access literacy. 

Rice said he looks forward to having a conversation with Detroiters about the state of public education in the city and having conversations with Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti about what the state department of education can do to improve education in Detroit.

Rice said he would like to visit a Detroit school.

"It is our largest city, the largest number of young people in public education," Rice said. "We have not well served our young people in Detroit over the last two decades, and I’m looking forward to being an ally in improving public education in Detroit."

Tom Watkins, former state superintendent of public instruction in Michigan from 2001 to 2005, said every ounce of Rice's energy must be focused on teaching, learning and children as he pushes back against the "ideologically driven power, control, politics and adults."

"He needs to build relationships and be bold in pushing forward with sensible teacher and student-focused reform," Watkins said. "If Michigan keeps doing what they have historically have done, we will keep getting the mess taking place today, and that is unacceptable for our children and our collective future."

Watkins said at no time in the last three decades has there been the potential alignment of educators, the governor, state board and the business community to develop a shared vision and common agenda for educational reforms to produce the desired outcomes for students.

"Our collective future is tied up in the decision the state superintendent and state board will make," Watkins said. "He needs to be bold and lead."

Both of Michigan's teacher unions say they look forward to working with Rice.

"Having a district superintendent with a diverse set of experiences both in and out of the classroom will bring a strong voice for all educators to the Michigan Department of Education," said Paula Herbart, president of the Michigan Education Association.

David Hecker, president of the American Federation of Teachers Michigan, praised Rice for "involving the full community in the schools."

"Kalamazoo is one of the premier school districts for providing wrap-around services for communities and schools," Hecker said.

Rice said he would like to see children attend more than the 180 required days of school — rather than more hours — in buildings that are climate controlled with meals and with adults who are caring, educated and focused on children's needs.

"All those are important. They need a rich education. It needs to be broader than simply the core. It's important that our kids grow socially and emotionally," Rice said.

Social and emotional learning in school, Rice says, is an issue that is not yet "ripe" in Michigan but is one he wants to advocate for.

"Educators have raised the concern, but from a policy-making perspective, we have not begun to focus on this in a significant way in our state, and we are going to have to," Rice said. “We are going to need to support our young people in ways perhaps we didn’t 20 years ago."

Rice said young people used to go home after a bad day at school and shake off their problems, through a meal, a walk in the park or playing.

Today, students go home from a rough day at school and it continues at home given the realities and pressures of social media, he said.

"It's harder to be a young person today than it used to be," Rice said. “Schools aren't the perfect place, but we may be the best place, or the only place, given we have 1,098 hours with students. We have that. We have to work on their ability to self manage.

"If I’m able to have some measure of influence in this area, I'm going to try to ripen it."