Column: Education in Michigan must improve

Doug Rothwell

When it comes to K-12 education in Michigan, there is general consensus among parents, teachers, community leaders, employers and policymakers: we have to do better.

When it comes to “how” we do better, though, there are as many ideas as there are people working on the issue. As a result, we too often fall into the trap of thinking the answer is either “this” or “that” when the answer is “this and that.”

This is exactly what is happening right now. Some state education leaders are focused on high standards and aligned assessments in reading, math and science while others emphasize different aspects of student learning: creativity, character education, citizenship, communication, collaboration and critical thinking/problem solving. These are all good ideas when coupled together.

Often, those advocating for a shift away from rigorous standards to broader and softer skills cite feedback from employers who say our K–12 system should be focusing teaching these kinds of skills. As someone who represents major employers in Michigan, I can confirm that our members do need employees who can effectively communicate, collaborate and problem solve.

But our members also know that the chances of students successfully developing those skills are low without the basics — reading, writing and arithmetic.

A student who cannot read is barred from the full ability to communicate. A student who cannot do basic math cannot solve complex problems to his/her full potential. These are basic skills all Michigan students need — and too many of our state’s learners simply aren’t attaining them.

The numbers are alarming. Less than one quarter of our state’s high school students are career or college ready at graduation. Our rankings have plummeted to the bottom 10 of states nationwide on too many essential skill areas, like reading and math proficiency.

Michigan must do something. And fast. Our public education system is simply too important. Important to the success of our children. Important to our collective future. Important to strong, thriving communities. Important to a resilient, growing economy that works for everyone.

At Business Leaders for Michigan, we’re working to support a set of policies and best practices that could help improve measurable student learning objectives and make us a top 10 education state. We’re focused on measuring student achievement and giving teachers specific data they can use to improve results. We’re aimed at the very real need of supporting today’s knowledge-driven global economy with skilled, educated talent that can read, compute and grow with the pace of technology.

We know there are great schools in Michigan, dedicated teachers, administrators and other education staff making a positive difference every day. But overall, as a state, we’re not improving fast enough to give our kids the best foundation possible to succeed.

If we cannot correct our course, Michigan employers will be forced to either import talent or export jobs, resulting in fewer opportunities, lower incomes and a lesser quality of life for all Michiganians. Through our research, we learned there are a few key steps that Michigan could take based on leading practices that have proved effective in boosting student achievement:

■Maintaining high student standards and existing state assessments of student progress.

■Effectively preparing teachers and school leaders through high quality professional development, by giving them greater access to technology and data, and by incentivizing strong results through professional recognition.

■Holding all levels of Michigan’s K-12 structure to uniform accountability and performance standards.

■Making sure dollars are being spent effectively to educate all students.

■Preserving a united, sustained effort behind proven strategies that work.

If we can come together, work collaboratively and commit to this path, we can build a strong education for Michigan that transcends any one administration, legislative body or political party. And most importantly, we can give all of Michigan’s children the education they need and deserve, preparing them for successful lives and careers.

Doug Rothwell is president and CEO of Business Leaders for Michigan.