Our Editorial: Copy best practices to improve schools

The Detroit News

Over the past month in our ongoing series, Fixing Michigan’s Schools, we explored what higher performing U.S. states like Massachusetts and Tennessee and developed nations like Finland, Poland, and South Korea are doing to create public schools that outperform Michigan schools on national and international assessments.

In addition to taking education seriously, the similarity of their education strategies is striking.

First, they all start with demanding education standards that can be compared to international competitors and are kept in place for a decade. That helps their schools focus on what’s important. Michigan has a self-destructive habit of changing our standards and assessments every couple years, and indeed the Michigan Department of Education is proposing more changes for next year.

They also have all worked successfully to increase the capability of their existing teacher force while striving to recruit new teachers from the ranks of the most talented college-going high school graduates.

This has involved improving the status of teachers, especially in Europe and Asia, by publicly praising them for the critical role they play in their country’s success. Starting salaries are competitive with other professions that require a similar amount of college preparation, and there are career ladders for teachers that permit them to earn more as they gain mastery and help train newer teachers. Teachers also get more professional support and better working environments.

Tennessee has become the fastest growing state academically almost entirely on its efforts to give its teachers more feedback and support. In Michigan, the education reformers too often scapegoat teachers, while entrenched unions balk at any attempt to break uniform pay scales to enable the best teachers to get the best pay. Those conflicts are helping drive teachers out of the profession and discourage new college of education applicants.

The best performing nations and states create professionally respected agencies or centers that provide the latest knowledge about teaching and learning that principals and teachers can use to improve student academic performance. Frequently, these same applied research centers help produce shared curricula for schools based on this research and organize the teacher training needed to implement such curricula effectively.

In Michigan, the Department of Education has established itself as a protector of the status quo. The elected school board should be abolished and the department of education placed under the governor’s goal, to provide more direct accountability and a unified reform strategy. A more effective education department could handle the research and training that most school districts in Michigan and virtually all charter networks are too small to carry out.

Nearly every developed nation and a growing number of high performing states like Massachusetts invest more money in the education of low-income children than middle-class children as necessary to achieve high and equal education outcomes for all children. Michigan does the opposite, spending more dollars on the educations of children in affluent communities than on students in working class, inner city, and rural districts.

It doesn’t look like rocket science. However, putting these strategies in place and maintaining them over several decades even as the governor’s mansion and legislature shift back and forth between Democratic and Republican control has continued to elude Michigan — a key reason we continue to lag the pack.

Fixing Michigan’s Schools

This is part of a series of editorials and commentaries exploring ideas for improving our state’s schools. Follow along at detroitnews.com/opinion.