Whipple: Nobody’s in charge of education in Michigan

Ken Whipple

Could we all agree that every kid in Michigan, including Detroit, deserves a good education? Gov. Rick Snyder emphasized that in his State of the State speech last week, and it seems easy to agree. It’s good for the success of our society and for the happiness of individual lives. As it turns out, it’s even a sound business and financial investment.

Here’s a really tough question, though: Who’s in charge of delivering this good education for all our kids. Remember, all means all. Who is accountable for progress and results? The blunt answer in our state is nobody. No one. And that’s the whole problem with our lack of progress and results.

The governor is not in charge, the State Board of Education is not in charge, the state superintendent of education is not in charge, the emergency managers are not in charge, the plethora of weak-sister charter authorizers aren’t in charge, and the Legislature has been hopeless in this. Even the recommendations from the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren, which represented a good start, but only a start, seem likely to be pursued only in watered-down fashion. The shame of it is that other cities and states are cleaning our clocks, and the victims, our Michigan kids, are getting a day older every day. This is a situation that is both urgent and solvable.

It’s not at all a situation where good people aren’t trying their very best. The Detroit Public Schools emergency manager, for example, cannot possibly succeed — regardless of talent and, yes, even finances. The new state superintendent, Brian Whiston, has signed on to an objective that would put Michigan in the top 10 states in the country in 10 years. A worthy objective, as we are languishing near the bottom and going down fast. Under the present process, he cannot possibly succeed.

So, it’s hopeless? Not at all. If we get ourselves organized in the right way, and focused on a few important objectives, we can do what others have done and are doing. First, let’s make sure we all agree on just how bad we are — not only in Detroit, but in Michigan.

There are reams of statistics that support this — for example, in important areas of fourth-grade reading, fourth-grade math, eighth-grade reading and eighth-grade math, we are the only one of the 50 states that has not improved in at least one of these in the last 10 years. Any way you cut it, Michigan gets a charitable D grade in K-12 education. And it’s not just poor kids or African-American kids. It’s also true for rich kids or white kids.

At the other end of the scale, Massachusetts gets an A-plus. It’s as good as most of the high-performing countries in the world. The poor, African-American fourth-graders in Boston are four times as likely to be proficient readers than the poor, African-American kids in Detroit. And Massachusetts did all this on purpose. It took 20-plus years (certainly we could do it quicker), and no rocket science was involved.

How’d they do it? It isn’t easy to describe the whole process, but the key element is this: the governor worked with a key group of leaders — primarily business leaders — who formed a permanent group (Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education). First thing they did was to make sure they answered the “Who’s in charge” question.

They had to change a few laws to accomplish this. As a result, the governor is responsible and accountable. Period. There is one chief education officer, and he or she reports to the governor. There is one (not 40) charter authorizer. The best charter operators are in Massachusetts. They refuse to come to Michigan.

The MBAE hired the best education brains in the world to help put together the plan to become the top state, and to help focus on the few important things to move the needle the most. It turns out that poverty or world peace don’t have to be resolved to give our kids great educations.

The big focus areas for Massachusetts included providing teachers what they need in terms of education and support to be great, producing a curriculum important for tomorrow’s world, putting resources where they’re most needed (poor kids need more than rich kids), producing regular action-oriented report cards, and weeding out weak performers, including teachers, administrators, schools and school operators.

Easy to say, but hellishly hard to do. And here’s where the MBAE really comes in. Business leaders may not be education experts, but they excel in holding feet to the fire when necessary to keep results on track. That’s what’s happened in Massachusetts under governors of both political persuasions and it could happen here.

So where we are is that a lot of good people are working hard on incremental improvements that are good, but can’t possibly get our kids where they need to be in this competitive world. Some glass will need to be broken along the way as some of our old institutions are forced into the new success model that we absolutely can produce if we have the will. Our kids deserve to be lifted out of the sea of mediocrity into which they have been dumped by us.

Make some noise, please.

Ken Whipple is retired chairman and CEO of Consumers Energy.