Jacques: Don't crush school innovation

Ingrid Jacques
The Detroit News
Kids in class at Madison Elementary School.

If you’ve ever wondered why Michigan can’t seem to improve its schools, just take a look at some of the discussions going on right now in the Legislature.

Several bills on the docket in lame duck would make common sense changes, including giving schools letter grades so parents can more easily understand their school’s performance.

Another set of bills would encourage districts to develop innovative programs that best suit their students by freeing schools from restrictive policies enforced by the state Department of Education. Other bills would make some changes regarding teacher preparation, such as ensuring new teachers are entering the classroom ready to teach children to read.

Yet Democrats, teachers unions and others in the school establishment are acting like the sky is falling.

For the Republican lawmakers who’ve worked on these concepts for years, the whole experience is exasperating, to say the least. Even some members of the GOP caucus are pushing back, largely thanks to term limits and the lack of knowledge in the Legislature.

Michigan Rep. Tim Kelly.

“It’s extremely frustrating,” says Rep. Tim Kelly, R-Saginaw Township. “I’m the most aggravated I’ve been around here.”

Kelly, who chairs the Education Reform Committee and is term-limited in the House, is pushing these reforms in the final weeks of the session. The bills aren’t crazy new ideas, as opponents are indicating. They are reasonable changes that have been in the works for a long time.

The innovative schools legislation is especially interesting, and hasn’t gotten a lot of attention. Kelly says he thought the bills were important, given the feedback he’s heard from local superintendents over the years. Laws governing the time students must spend in the classroom are restrictive and work against innovation. 

Schools still operate under the premise that students must remain in their seats a set amount of time, rather than focusing on what they’ve learned. Kelly wants to flip that. Kelly’s bills would give districts the option of applying for waivers from the state so they can be freed from the seat-time requirements that govern schools.  

“Everybody talks about local control so much,” Kelly says. “This is as local as it gets.”

The innovative schools legislation is voluntary for districts and would protect programs already in place. Kelly believes it would open the door to many other initiatives — which is exactly what Michigan should be encouraging its schools to do.

At the heart of these bills is competency-based learning, a framework that was highly encouraged in Gov. Rick Snyder’s 21st Century Education Commission report from last year. The report defined it this way: “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.”

The commission was composed of a broad, bipartisan range of education, business and political leaders.

Ben DeGrow, education policy director at the Mackinac Center, thinks Kelly is on the right track with the innovative schools legislation. DeGrow has looked closely at some of the inventive districts that would benefit from the bills, including several in southeast Michigan.  

“It allows them to come up with their own creative thinking,” DeGrow says.

The Michigan Education Association and American Federation of Teachers Michigan are actively lobbying against all of these bills. In a recent memo, they warned the innovative schools bills "make major changes to how education could be delivered without the benefit of careful deliberation by both chambers.”

It’s hard to imagine what’s scary about any of this legislation.

The A-F, innovative schools and teacher preparation bills have now all passed out of the House. The Senate should take them up, too.