Ingrid Jacques: Gov’s not given up on schools

Ingrid Jacques
The Detroit News

Gov. Rick Snyder isn’t ready to throw in the towel on school reform. He plans to pursue an ambitious education legislative agenda over the last 18-months of his tenure.

According to a source close to the governor, Snyder will focus on several agenda items included in the 21st Century Education Commission report. The 25-member commission, which Snyder brought together, came out with its detailed recommendations in March.

But since then, the report hasn’t gained traction. It was starting to look as if this reform blueprint would sit on a shelf collecting dust as so many other past reports have done.

This fall, Snyder aims to partner with lawmakers on improving how students learn and holding schools and state leaders accountable for how schools perform, items included on the commission’s to-do list.

The first piece centers on a concept called competency-based learning. Several members of the commission have told me this is one of the most vital aspects of the report, and Snyder has embraced its value.

“It will be a hard lift, but it’s important for the governor,” says the source familiar with Snyder’s plans.

In education lingo, competency-based models focus on the “student’s demonstration of desired learning outcomes as central to the learning process,” according to the commission’s report.

“This is a model whereby students advance in the curriculum only once they have mastered the content. This is in contrast with the current system, whereby students are advanced after the passage of time, for instance, a school year.”

Some school districts already have this strategy in place, and lawmakers should look to these schools to see how it works. In putting together the report, commissioners visited several of these districts, located in the Upper Peninsula and west Michigan.

Snyder also wants to make accountability a focus, as do commissioners.

“The lessons from high-performing systems are clear,” the report stated, calling accountability the “backbone for all Michigan education.”

“There must be a place where the buck stops.”

That’s a missing piece in Michigan. Too many players are involved in education policy and oversight. And that has led to a confusing mix of directives from different branches of government, creating an environment where poor-performing schools can avoid consequences.

One of the boldest recommendations in the report was to overhaul school governance, and making the governor “ultimately responsible for educational outcomes in our state.” The system currently gives the governor no say over the state Board of Education and the Michigan Department of Education, putting Michigan in a small minority of states with that bifurcated model.

Snyder doesn’t want to promote changing the system, which would require altering the state constitution, but he would support other efforts to do so.

What the governor does intend to do is collaborate with Sen. Phil Pavlov, R-St. Clair Township, on his work to fix how the state deals with low-performing schools. The current law, in place for seven years, created the School Reform Office. Yet the added bureaucracy has had little to no effect in helping schools improve. And that is true when the office was under the Education Department, as well as the two years it’s been under Snyder’s direct oversight.

A poorly-executed plan earlier this year to close 38 of the state’s worst schools — 25 in Detroit — backfired. All those schools remain open and a new plan to revamp them doesn’t hold much promise. The state needs a system that will actually make schools accountable for student achievement.

On the House side, Rep. Daniela Garcia, R-Holland, who sponsored key parts of last year’s Detroit Public Schools bailout, is reportedly open to partnering with the governor.

These are worthy goals, and lawmakers should work with Snyder to hold education to a higher standard.

Twitter: @Ingrid_Jacques