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‘Ask us!”

When I talk to school employees across Michigan, I hear this frequent frustration — too many decisions that impact students and educators get made by policymakers without input from the experts working every day on the front lines.

Thankfully, some policymakers in Lansing are starting to ask — and listen.

Recently, Brian Whiston, the new state Superintendent of Public Instruction, and the State Board of Education invited education stakeholders to share ideas to make Michigan public schools among the best in the nation. David Hecker, president of the American Federation of Teachers Michigan, and I accepted the invitation.

Together, our organizations represent nearly 175,000 education professionals, working on the front lines of public education. Our ideas come from their experiences — and we’re happy to make the voices of our members heard about what Michigan’s students and educators need.

I spoke of the need for coherence in education policy. To become a leader in education, Michigan educators need policymakers to make a simple commitment: first, agree on what they want taught to students; then provide classroom professionals the training, resources and time to make that happen; and finally, hold us accountable as professionals for following through on those decisions.

Professional educators — and our students — need stability, not the roller coaster ride of changing policies, expectations and learning conditions experienced over the last decade.

I also urged policymakers to examine how teachers and education support professionals are being treated.

The number of college students enrolling in teacher education programs is at an all-time low. The number of new teachers leaving the profession within the first five years is at an all-time high. Educator morale is extremely low. Every day, we hear about great teachers who decide they can’t take it anymore and choose to leave the profession for better pay and — more importantly — more respect.

If we expect to attract and retain the best and brightest to teach in our public schools, we must treat them with respect and dignity. We must provide the highest standard of training available, provide them with the resources they need in the classroom and, pay them fair and competitive salaries. And, we must not continually blame and bash education professionals for every shortcoming in our public schools — many of which are beyond their control.

For example, Hecker spoke of the need to address childhood poverty, which has been on the rise in Michigan.

“Research is telling us that if we don’t address the impact of poverty, we are stunting the ability of kids to achieve,” Hecker said. “Too often, teachers are blamed for not being able to teach around poverty, but the simple fact is, hungry kids can’t learn.”

I also shared how educators have been outspoken about the need to reduce standardized testing to free up more time for teaching. Whiston and the state board have already showed they’re listening by reducing the time scheduled for standardized tests in the coming year.

The ever-increasing emphasis on standardized tests has been a deterrent to creative and innovative teaching — favoring teaching to the test over fostering critical thinking skills. While more work needs to be done to reduce the high stakes and overreliance on standardized tests, this is a good first step.

This change is not only good policy, it reinforces for school employees that their voice matters. Good things happen when policymakers ask and listen to front-line professionals. Yes, Michigan has good public schools. But if we want our schools to be among the best in the nation, policymakers need to reach out, ask educators what they think and then commit the resources to make our public schools great.

Labor Voices

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 Steven Cook.

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