Fixing schools: Success depends on working together

Tom Haas

The education reform recommendations of the governor’s 21st Century Education Commission issued a year ago are unique in one very important way: The commission’s recommendations reflect virtually all of the important education constituencies in Michigan — business, labor, parents, superintendents, teachers, early childhood educators, colleges, the Legislature, the governor’s office, Democrats and Republicans. If we are to transform Michigan’s struggling public education system into one of the best in America and the world, all of these groups will have to be on the same page.

The commission based its recommendations on three key beliefs:

■Michigan students are seriously underperforming children in most other states, requiring a basic rebuilding of our education system, not more tinkering;

■Based on the experience of other states, to be successful a Michigan reform plan must be sustained over many years and changes in the partisan control of the governor’s mansion and the Legislature;

■The focus of reform should be on students and what goes on in the classroom where teaching and learning actually occur.

After studying the best public education systems in America and the world and drawing on its members deep knowledge of the state’s current schools, the commission provided the following plan for creating public schools that prepare Michigan children to succeed. Here are its key features:

■Adopt student performance standards and assessments and leave them in place for a decade or more.Michigan has a history of frequently changing its measures of student progress, which makes it difficult for schools to align. Standards should include proficiency in basics like reading and math as well as skills demanded for good-paying jobs like critical thinking, collaboration, communication, and creativity.

■Strengthen our teacher and principal workforce. Without strong teachers and effective school leaders, no education improvement plan will work. Michigan needs to recruit the best and brightest high school grads into education, provide them with practical preparation before throwing them into a classroom, boost the compensation and status of teachers to the same level as professions requiring similar education, offer career ladders to teachers, and provide continuous and rigorous training and support for teachers and principals throughout their careers.

■Build capacity to do what works. Create a public or nonprofit institution with the capacity to identify leading edge teaching and learning strategies and to systematically share them with teachers and school leaders to improve education practice. Virtually none of the state’s school districts or charter networks has the scale to perform this critical role for their schools alone. Without a statewide structure, we create pockets of success, rather than a statewide system.

■Legislate school funding levels and formulas that provide what is needed to meet the state’s student performance standards and that reflect the additional cost of educating low-income, English language learners, and special needs students to meet those standards. The first step should be assuring that existing education dollars are being effectively spent, though new revenue will likely be required.

■Provide Michigan families with a comprehensive education system from birth through grade 14 in which both quality preschool and community college are universal. Research provides compelling evidence on the benefits of pre-school, especially for low-income children, and the day when a high school diploma is enough to be prepared for the best-paying jobs has long passed. Making community college universal sends the message that post-secondary education has become a necessity for our young people.

■Provide clear accountability for the state’s education performance to either the governor or the State Board of Education, but not both.Michigan’s system of shared governance of the state’s education system has left us without a place where the buck stops.

Critically, this work must be done in partnership with parents and families. Our system must clearly recognize that parents are children’s first and most important teachers. Michigan’s education system must partner with parents to support learning, provide the information necessary to guide decision making, and ensure families have the resources necessary for success.

The members of the commission and many across the state believe the implementation of these steps with bipartisan support over the next two years would place Michigan on the path to providing high quality education for its children and the talent our state requires to be prosperous in the 21st century.

Tom Hass is chairman of the governor’s 21st Century Education Commission and president of Grand Valley State University.

Fixing Michigan’s Schools

This is part of a series of editorials and commentaries exploring ideas for improving our state’s schools. More on at detroitnews.com/opinion.