Our Editorial: Michigan’s schools: It’s time to light the fire

The Detroit News

Mackinac Island--

The poet W.B Yeats wrote, “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” We need a school system in Michigan that ignites the imagination and joy of learning in our children so that they may master the deep skills required for success in 2025.

To get there, Michigan’s public school system must be torn apart. Not out of anger or vindictiveness, but to clear the ground for a new system of teaching and learning that better fits the times and ends the chronic failure to adequately educate all of the state’s children.

We learned a lot over the past nine months from the local and national experts who contributed their ideas to our Fixing Michigan’s Schools series. We learned that Michigan no longer possesses a nationally or internationally competitive education system. That other nations and some states have created higher performing schools, which means we can, too. And most importantly, that the very best education systems in the world are moving away from the industrial model that characterizes most Michigan schools to a different design that better prepares children for the demands of a 21st century information economy.

Today’s students in Michigan learn much as their parents and grandparents did — in rows in front of a teacher. New strategies are necessary.

Education is a major focus of the Detroit Regional Chamber’s Mackinac Policy Conference underway this week. Plans will be aired from a variety of groups, including from the business community, advocating reform. They contain solid ideas that, rather than serving as patches on an education system that is rooted in failure, should be used to inspire Michigan to boldness.

Blow apart the existing structure and set about building the nation’s most innovative and responsive system of schools. A big move is needed if Michigan is to move to the Top 10 from the bottom 10 in education performance. Tinkering will never get us there.

Today’s students learn very much the way their parents and grandparents did — sitting in rows in front of a teacher who delivers subject content until a bell rings and they shuffle to the next class. That worked in an economy that needed factory and office workers equipped to do rote jobs.

But that world no longer exists. IBM interviewed 1,500 business leaders in 80 countries to find out what characteristics their companies value most in employees. The answer: adaptability to change and creativity in generating new ideas. We hear similar things from Michigan’s business leaders. Yes, they want employees who are literate and numerate, and will show up on time every day. But to compete in the world, they require people who can think critically, analyze problems, create solutions in collaboration with others and communicate their ideas and engage in constructive debate — qualities and skills our schools are not designed to teach.

A growing chorus of educators and reformers echo this need to shift to a system of education that de-emphasizes standardized testing and the mindless memorization required to post high scores, and instead stresses teaching students to learn. That thinking is reflected in a proposal offered by the business community in Colorado, which is advocating a top-to-bottom rebuild of the education system in that state.

That model values hands-on projects that allow students to absorb the curriculum by following their own interests and passions, more customized learning through interactive software, the ability to do relevant work in the community and internship opportunities that allow students to explore the larger world and their possible place in it.

The standardized tests that shape the Michigan education landscape have left us with a one-size-fits-all system where most classrooms are teacher centered, students are mostly passive and a great many children lose the excitement to learn that nearly all brought with them to kindergarten.

Michigan must make a fundamental choice: Do we want to reform our existing education system in the hopes of moving up the state rankings in reading and math, or are we ready to replace the old system with one built for the new century that could leapfrog us above most states and nations as the foundation for a world-class economy and highly paid workforce? Reform or replacement? We opt for the latter.

Michigan should strive to develop a nimble education system that attracts the most cutting edge school operators in the nation. One that trains and retains the top teachers, and then unshackles them from rigid classroom requirements and empowers them to inspire children.

We must clearly define what we want our students to know and be able to do by the time they graduate. Enough is known about the emerging information world to describe clearly for teachers, parents and students the purpose and outcomes of the education Michigan schools should offer.

Once we assess what we want our children to learn, we must leave those goals in place long enough for schools to align their strategies and measure improvement.

High-stakes, standardized tests haven’t worked to improve Michigan students’ reading and math proficiency. They assume that every student should know the same thing on the same day — the essence of the industrial school system.

The pressure to deliver high test scores drives out activities that engage children in the overall learning process, such as art, music, drama and extra-curricular activities. The lack of flexibility discourages schools from trying new techniques or developing learning plans to meet the needs of individual students.

We need assessments that rely more on the actual learning products students create and recognize that different students will master different skills at different times.

We must elevate the status of teachers by publicly communicating their importance to our future, stopping the ritual political bashing of teachers and beginning to raise their salaries to the level of other professionals requiring the same amount of education. While teacher pay should be raised, it also should be more heavily based on merit.

Producing the teaching corps Michigan needs will require improving the education schools at its public universities. That’s an essential first step.

We must create the applied research capacity in the state to help visionary school leaders identify schools around the world that are employing 21st century education models, help Michigan schools develop their own strategies and practices for educating students to meet the new outcomes, and organize the ongoing training teachers and school leaders will require to implement the new models. Individual Michigan school districts and charter networks don’t have the resources to undertake this critical research and development on their own.

Finally, we need to adopt school funding levels that provide adequate resources to educate children to meet the new state standards, and school aid formulas that recognize the added costs of educating low-income, non-English speaking and special needs students to meet those same standards.

We continue to stand against wasteful spending on the education bureaucracy and runaway legacy costs, and urge their reform. However, we will support sound investment to build the bold and innovative new public system that will finally enable all of our children to reach their full potential.

It’s time to light the fire.