Editorial: Business leaders should boost school reform

The Detroit News

The 1,700 business and civic leaders who attended the Detroit Regional Chamber’s Mackinac Policy Conference last week heard a lot about the financial and academic challenges faced by Detroit Public Schools. But education shortfalls in Michigan go far beyond the Motor City.

Legislation to pay off DPS debt and provide funds to restructure the district was passed by the House during the conference and will go to the Senate next week. Conference attendees were strongly encouraged to voice their support for a DPS rescue.

Detroit schools are a pressing problem, given how the district will run out of money on June 30 without state assistance.

Yet Detroit is just one piece of much bigger school problem in Michigan. Scores from a recent Education Trust-Midwest report show how far student performance in Michigan has fallen in the last 12 years. In fourth- and eighth-grade reading and math, national standardized test scores place too many Michigan students in the bottom 10 of states. That applies to all students — African-American, Latino, white, wealthy, poor.

“Kids in Michigan are frankly in free-fall compared to other states,” Kati Haycock, CEO of the national Education Trust, said Thursday during a panel on school funding and reform at the policy conference.

Business leaders can spearhead the kind of school reforms necessary to put Michigan back on top. That was the focus of the Education Trust-Midwest’s report, and the organization wanted to attract the attention of business powerhouses while they were on Mackinac Island.

Corporate support has led education overhauls in other states like Massachusetts, which was discussed in detail on the school panel. Haycock was joined by education reform consultant Michael Sentance, who had helped put in place some of Massachusetts’ early reforms. That state now leads the country in academic performance. Haycock and Sentance shared some of the common themes of what successful states are doing.

Teacher preparation and talent, classroom accountability, strong standards and assessments all top the list for improving school quality.

And as with most discussions about school reform, money is part of the equation. Increased funding can be helpful, but not on its own.

“More money without more reform and accountability won’t get you where you want to go,” Haycock says.

As business leaders return home, they should take the state of Michigan’s schools to heart. A cohesive campaign to improve education would not only be good for students, but it would also help ensure a talented workforce and drive a stronger economy.