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Starting Wednesday, Michigan will have a new superintendent of schools, and Brian Whiston has his to-do list ready to go.

Whiston says he wants to make Michigan a top-10 state for education in the next 10 years, and his first priority will be discussing ideas with school and business leaders before putting a list of recommendations together.

Given that Michigan continues to fall behind the rest of the country in the performance of its students, that's a good—albeit sizable—goal.

"I want to spend my time and energy talking about what we need to do in the classroom to improve performance," Whiston says.

Whiston replaces retiring superintendent Mike Flanagan, who held the post for a decade. Prior to becoming superintendent of Dearborn Public Schools in 2008, Whiston spent 11 years as a lobbyist for Oakland Schools.

Whiston knows how Lansing works, which could come in handy as he works to improve the relationship between the Michigan Department of Education and the Legislature and governor.

I sat down with Whiston to discuss some of his thoughts on improving education in Michigan. Here's an overview:

On relationship with governor: Whiston says he doesn't know Gov. Rick Snyder well, but he wants to develop a partnership with him. "He has a genuine drive to improve education and not for political reasons."

Whiston admits there is currently a disconnect between the state superintendent and the governor that he hopes to resolve.

Earlier this year, Snyder ticked off the State Board of Education when he took control of the state school reform office. Whiston says he thinks the office should be under education department purview, but he's not going to ask for it back.

On Detroit schools: Unlike Flanagan, who has not participated in discussions to revamp Detroit Public Schools, Whiston wants to play an active role. He says there is room for compromise between the report from the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren and Snyder's plan for DPS. "Marry the two together," he says.

Whiston supports returning the district to an elected school board, but he says governance concerns shouldn't trump improving what's going on in the classroom. "Performance is no where near an acceptable level," he says.

Whiston also thinks a state bailout of DPS will be necessary to keep the district afloat, although he acknowledges other districts that have kept their finances in order won't appreciate it.

On testing: Whiston admits he's no expert on standardized tests, but he thinks Michigan wastes too much time, money and energy on testing.

"If you test every day, it doesn't make the kid any smarter," he says.

Whiston thinks many of the local assessments districts use are better measures of individual student growth than are state standardized tests. Plus, he'd rather see more time spent on instruction and a focus on developing creativity and problem solving skills.

On school funding: He says the state needs to re-evaluate how it funds schools. He believes some students are more expensive to educate than others, and that the state should take into consideration factors such as poverty when deciding how much is required to support each child.

On school choice: Whiston says he's a supporter of school choice, and has no interest in putting a cap back on charter schools. "I believe parents and more importantly students should have choices," he says.

Whiston wants all schools to meet the same standards, including traditional public schools and charter schools, and that he would support closing more schools. He does believe it's possible to turnaround a poor-performing school, and he's overseen several successful efforts in Dearborn. That requires a team effort among staff, students and parents.

But all schools should be held accountable, he says.

"We spend $12 billion on education, and taxpayers have a right to make sure we are getting results," Whiston says.

ijacques@detroitnews.com

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