Opinion: Current crisis an opportunity for school reform

Tom Watkins and Amber Arellano

Though the COVID-19 pandemic has hit Michigan hard, our state will rebound, and in the process we can strengthen some of our most important institutions.

The pandemic and the forced shutdown of our traditional classroom-based education system has exposed the inequities built in over generations of incremental actions. Now we have a chance to be intentional and overcome these systemic failures as we open our schools again, hopefully this fall.

School closures brought on by the pandemic have  offered Michigan a chance to overcome systemic failures in K-12 education, Watkins and Arellano write.

Here are some recommendations, based on what successful states and nations are doing, to reform Michigan’s education system so it can give every student an opportunity to reach his or her highest potential: 

► Equity funding: We must recognize the realities that some students need more support than others to reach their full potential. This is as relevant to rural districts as it is to urban districts and everywhere in between. Every child should have access to the learning opportunities that will help them reach their full potential. 

The Education Trust-Midwest recently issued a report, “Michigan’s School Funding: Crisis and Opportunity,” that showed various student groups need substantial additional funding to have equal opportunity to graduate with a chance to fulfill their dreams. Michigan is currently near the bottom nationally in equity funding.

► Online education: The gap between our students when it comes to distance learning has now been totally exposed. Whether it’s rural students with limited access to broadband, districts where overstretched teachers have not added distance learning capabilities to their talents, or places where low income students cannot afford a quality home computer, we must address this matter. 

► Reading: More than half of Michigan’s third-grade students were not reading at grade level least year — before the COVID-19 pandemic and school closures. This is a result of a system failing our students, not the other way around. It is time for the state to prioritize reading by deploying a system of train-the-trainer professional development to support every elementary school teacher in the state. We also need to prioritize high-quality summer learning institutes for students who are far behind, helping them to catch up before the next school year begins.

► Schools as children’s services delivery centers: Today’s schools are also neighborhood centers for delivering services children who have a range of disabilities, from those with behavioral and physical disabilities to those with nutritional needs or those who face abuse at home or other acute childhood traumas. It’s vital that they be organized and funded in ways to properly provide for the needs of each student. 

► Addressing racism and xenophobia: We know bullying connected with racism and xenophobia is on the rise, particularly as some seek to identify the coronavirus as “foreign.” Districts need to be proactive in helping teachers and families prevent this.

The coronavirus has exposed our education system flaws. Michigan can lead in the 21st century by casting off the anchors, archaic laws, policies and beliefs that bind us to a 20th-century education model and building one that works for all of our students, regardless of where they live or what they bring to the learning table.

We call on Gov. Whitmer, legislative leaders and education advocates to restructure our broken system so that we can propel Michigan into the future.

Tom Watkins served the citizens of Michigan as state superintendent of schools and state mental health director, and now works with schools in the U.S. and China.

Amber Arellano is executive director of The Education Trust-Midwest, advocating for the high academic achievement of all students — particularly those of color and living in poverty.