When Brian Whiston took the helm of the Michigan Department of Education in 2015, he faced an education landscape mired in upheaval.

Detroit Public Schools was on the verge of bankruptcy. The state’s standardized test scores had been sliding for years. And earlier that year, Gov. Rick Snyder had taken control of the department’s School Reform Office out of frustration with lack of progress in turning around low-performing schools.

Whiston, 56, who died Monday after a battle with cancer, understood all this, and faced it with a can-do attitude and a desire to set the state’s public schools on a better path.

I first interviewed Whiston in June 2015, a few weeks ahead of his new job as state superintendent.

“I want to spend my time and energy talking about what we need to do in the classroom to improve performance,” Whiston told me then. And that’s what he did in the three years he held the office.

His first few months as superintendent were devoted to putting together a “Top 10 in 10” plan for making Michigan schools top performers within a decade. Since he, along with the State Board of Education, put out their ideas for improving schools, many other groups have followed suit. And Whiston deserves credit for getting these conversations going.

Whiston also earned the trust of Snyder, who last year decided to return control of the School Reform Office to the Education Department’s purview. The superintendent had drafted a partnership model blueprint for working with struggling districts and Snyder gave him the go-ahead to put it in place around the state.

In addition, Whiston collaborated with other state departments for ways to boost student learning. In the last year, he worked closely with the Talent and Economic Development Department to create a new focus on career and technical training and get young people thinking about a range of vocations, including the skilled trades. And Whiston was influential in the the crafting of the governor’s Marshall Plan for Talent, released earlier this year.

On a personal note, I appreciated Whiston’s candor and the fact he was always accessible and willing to share his ideas on education — even when we disagreed. I’ll miss those conversations.

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