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OPINION

Watkins: Test scores call for urgency

Tom Watkins

A child without a decent education today, is an adult without much of a future tomorrow. Unless we are serious about changing the trajectory of educational achievement in Michigan, we will sink into an economic backwater.

A recent Detroit News report ought to send chills down the spines of every Michiganian. A Brookings Institution analysis of the results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress shows Michigan students, since 2003, have continually made the least improvement in scores nationally. The article points out Michigan students were at the bottom of the list when it comes to proficiency growth on four measures in the exam (including math and reading).

Let’s not get smug in thinking this decline is only in urban schools like Detroit, Pontiac or Saginaw. As recently as six months ago, the release of the Michigan’s Talent Crisis report by Education Trust-Midwest found all Michigan’s students have fallen far behind their peers across the nation. The report found that Michigan is in the bottom 10 states for key subjects and grades, including early literacy.

Madison Public Schools superintendent Randy Speck has said there is “zero urgency” to address what plagues our schools. That’s frightening. Policymakers ought to act with the sense of urgency that we, as parents, would demand if our child were stuck in an under-performing school.

This is an age-old battle between the Legislature, the governor, the state Board of Education, the state superintendent, local school boards and superintendents — along with teachers and the unions that represent them all battling over control of the schools.

The arguments from the left that are, “it’s only about money and a lack of investment,” are as specious as arguments on the right that “money does not matter.” Neither argument stops Michigan’s educational avalanche.

That age-old debate over charter schools? Let’s be clear: A lousy charter school is no better than a lousy traditional public school. The only adjective that matters in front of the word school is quality.

It is the collective job of policymakers and educational leaders to clear out the under-brush that gets in the way of teaching and learning. It is impossible to rebuild the city of Detroit, the region or the state on a crumbling educational foundation.

Gov. Rick Snyder is to be commended for continuing his reinvestment in public education. His 21st Century Education Commission, charged with thoroughly assessing our current educational system, should make its recommendations in the next 30 days.

When the commission’s report is done, I encourage Snyder to lock himself and other political, educational, labor and business leaders in The Henry Ford Museum, with the ghosts of innovators and entrepreneurs as inspiration. They should not be allowed out without creating and agreeing on a coherent plan of action.

We are living in an age where knowledge and jobs can and do move effortlessly around the globe. To be uneducated is to be left behind in our global economy. This fact ought to create a sense of urgency for all.

Tom Watkins served as state superintendent from 2001 to 2005. He is the president and CEO of the Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority.