New Mich. school head: Teachers key to better outcomes

The Detroit News

Lansing — Incoming state school Superintendent Brian Whiston told lawmakers Wednesday that the state must focus on training, evaluating and empowering teachers to raise student achievement.

Whiston, who takes office July 1 after seven years as superintendent of Dearborn Public Schools, addressed a range of education issues during an hourlong question-and-answer session with members of the House Education Committee and the House Appropriations subcommittees on education and school aid.

He urged lawmakers to compromise between Senate and House versions of legislation that would establish new standards for teacher evaluations and said state and local district officials must find ways to give instructors more professional development.

"Teacher preparation is very important," Whiston said, adding later: "Schools change ... we need to continually stay on top of best practices and research to move those teachers along. So we need more professional development days."

Lawmakers questioned him about this spring's initial round of testing with the new M-STEP exam and the Common Core State Standards. Rep. Cindy Gamrat, R-Plainwell, said residents her district are concerned the federal and state governments have too much power over education.

"I'm very much for local control in the sense that the teacher is the expert," Whiston replied. "We should have some things we want every student to learn, but how the curriculum is delivered should be decided locally."

Rep. Sarah Roberts, D-St. Clair Shores, said she heard lots of complaints about the M-STEP, a mostly online exam the state Department of Education developed to replace the Michigan Educational Assessment Program.

In some cases, educators complained students were given too much time to take the test, clogging up library and computer lab space for weeks. Students also reported being told they could log out of the exam and then sign back in later to resume testing, only to lose their work, Roberts said.

"Frankly, it just seems to be a big mess," she said.

Whiston acknowledged "some issues with the length of the test for some students" in his district, which used the pencil-and-paper version of the test, and some technical problems at both local district and state levels.

He said he would favor possibly switching to another test if that exam would allow districts to spend less time testing students overall. Whiston also said the Department of Education "was given a tough job" by lawmakers to come up with the M-STEP in less than a year.

Whiston is replacing Mike Flanagan, who is retiring after 10 years as state school superintendent.