February of this year, a 16-member gubernatorial commission, known as the 21st Century Education Commission, completed and presented to Governor Rick Snyder a new and comprehensive education report that looks at Michigan’s educational status and standards, ranking at 48th in the United States, and provides recommendations and guidelines on how to improve the education of all Michigan students. The report, called “The Best Education System for Michigan’s Success: A Blueprint for Educating Michigan’s Residents to Build the Best Businesses, Win the Best Jobs, and Achieve the American Dream,” begins with a reality – that to succeed in today’s world, residents must provide more comprehensive education to our students.
Key highlights of the report emphasize that we must begin earlier, with universal preschool education, and we must continue educating students longer, providing access to two years of community college or trade school for all students, as the economy has changed, and a high school diploma is no longer a ticket to economic prosperity, and by doing so, Michigan itself will prosper. “Since 2009, 99 percent of jobs added to the economy have gone to workers with at least some post-secondary education,” the report noted.
The report points out a strong current correlation between state income and education levels. Michigan, which ranks 35th for educational attainment, is ranked 33rd for per-capita income. There are worse results for African American children, and for those living in poverty. Most startling, the report points out that Michigan’s higher income and white students are also among some of the worst performing students in the country, ranking 48th. In stark terms, it stated, “This is not the path to prosperity.”
The blueprint recommends creating a K-14 education system in Michigan; providing qualified universal access to early education for four-year-olds; determining the developmentally-appropriate readiness of children for kindergarten; focusing on learning to shift towards a students progression through the curriculum at their own pace, rather than at grade levels; provide post-secondary access to community colleges and other skill training to all students; elevating education as a profession; and investing in an efficient and effective system of public funding to become a world leader in education.
The estimated investment to enact the educational changes recommended by the commission is approximately $2 billion by 2025, an approximate 15 percent increase over current costs of public education.
Downtown News Editor Lisa Brody brought together Bloomfield Hills Schools Superintendent Rob Glass, Birmingham Schools Superintendent Dan Nerad, Rochester Community Schools Superintendent Robert Shaner, Oakland Schools (the county’s intermediate district) Superintendent Wanda Cook-Robinson, and Doug Ross, former state senator, commerce director and Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration, and currently head of American Promise Schools in Detroit, and was an active member of the 21st Century Education Commission, to discuss the education blueprint, and its validity or difficulty in being enacted as an educational tool.
Michigan educates over 1.5 million kids in traditional K-12 districts; another 150,000 in charter schools; over 126,000 in career and technological schools; 277,000 are enrolled in community colleges, and another quarter million are enrolled in Michigan public universities. There are over a half million children aged infant to 4, with almost 50,000 children enrolled in state-funded pre-kindergartens. That is just shy of 3 million (2.8 million) Michigan students from birth to adulthood that are in the process of being educated by the Michigan public education system. According to the new report prepared for Gov. Snyder, The Best Education System for Michigan’s Success, Michigan’s economy has changed, and the education system, which prepares students for a post-education life, must change in response. Where 30 years ago Michiganders could earn a high school diploma, enter the workforce and earn a wage to support a family, that is no longer the case. Since 2009, 99 percent of jobs added to the economy have gone to workers with at least some postsecondary education. By 2025, 70 percent or more of our 25-year-olds will have completed a college degree, occupational certificate, apprenticeship, or other formal skill training, which the report notes is essential to economic prosperity not only for them, but for the state, which currently ranks 35th for education attainment and 33rd for per-capita income. Critical to this report is a focus on changing K-12 education to P-20, making mandatory education for P-14, which would offer universal access to community college and pre-approved career technical education programs. The blueprint says adopting a K-14 education system is their top priority. What do you think – is that a recommendation you could stand behind?
NERAD: I could. Education is really about human capital development and preparing young people for bright futures. I think there’s a place for the system to remain a K-12 system and a two-year system, but the whole notion of how we work together and how portable, or not, our educations are, in terms of next phase learning, is a key thing for us to look at. We also know that education is far from completed in 12th grade today – we all talk about lifelong learning. That’s an important thing to embrace. There’s also the idea of taking credit from high school and having some credit in the post-secondary environment. I know there’s systems available for that now, but the more that these systems can work together, the more opportunities we can create for young people. And I think there have to be multiple pathways in that kind of system for it to work because university-bound is important, but technical-bound is important too, and my read is that a lot of the work of the future is new tech, high-skills kind of industries. Some people will go from high school right to work, and we have to prepare them for their best future, as well.
GLASS: I would. If you were going to strengthen the role, as this report suggests, where you’re going to have the Department of Education having a stronger role in shaping the overall policy and having K-14 as part of that, I think that just enhances the line, as Dan talked about. That’s a plus.
COOK-ROBINSON: In fact, in the report, it talks about K-14. We’ve got to talk about pre-K. We have to talk about early childhood, and we do a lot of that in our county, starting with Great Success, preparing students. We practically go womb-to-tomb preparing our youngsters. You’ll see that in all of these districts. In addition, at the county level, the 28 districts and the 26 service academies (charters) work with us. We have an ACE program, which is an Accelerated College Experience – we have students actually start Oakland Community College when they’re in the 11th grade, and they’re able to go that 13th year and receive their associate’s degree. Last year, we graduated 50 students that came out with their associate’s degree – and they had no loans, more importantly, provided by these communities.
In addition, we also started this year an early college program which is an extension of our technical centers. We have, in each quadrant, a technical center that has about 17 clusters that includes industry-level certifications, and our students attend there as well. They’re able to come out with an apprenticeship, with community college credit which they can transfer into a four-year university, a trade school or wherever.
NERAD: On the preschool side, I couldn’t agree more. In fact, when the Federal Reserve Bank starts writing about the value of early learning as a cost-benefit to communities, I think it’s time for our state to consider universally available preschool programming.
The second thing is, I think it’s time that we work together and think about pre-K-14, pre-K-20, to reframe how you consider the two-year degree. A lot of what these young people are learning are really advanced skills that lead to really good jobs. But when we frame them as traditional vocational jobs or programs, they can be, in a lot of communities, less interesting for the young people pursuing them. Certainly in affluent districts. So we have to create experiences early on for young people to see the value in that type of program. Then at the two-year, can be built on two more years for the four-year, so you’re matching for some young people, the two-years of the associate’s program so it’s only two years, or plus a little bit, to complete a four-year degree. That’s what I meant about portability.
ROSS: A couple things led the commission to these conclusions. First of all, when we looked at the wealthy states, per capita income, who were the richest states, with the exception of the three states that sit on huge oil reserves – Alaska, Wyoming and N. Dakota – the top 15 states in terms of top per capita income are also the top 15 states for percentages of adults with four- or two-year degrees. It couldn’t be more clear.
The other thing was historical context. We felt that every time the developing society required more education in order to move forward, and it became a source of opportunity for individuals – by the Civil War, primary education was required everywhere, other than the South, and when they lost, it was imposed; by the end of World War I, virtually everyone had high schools, which were free and mandatory up to age 16. Well, that was 100 years ago. So the notion now is post-secondary is something that the community urgently needs, and as an individual it’s your only ticket to the middle class.
I think we would have gone further to even say: your access to any kind of post-secondary education will no longer be conditioned on family income.
I understand K-14; what’s P-20?
ROSS: It’s a Snyder slogan. We weren’t sure what it meant. It certainly means preschool. Through 20 – to career, or something like that.
SHANER: I would agree with the notion, and reaffirm the need for pre-K universally. I think all this is well and good in terms of raising expectations – but one thing you learn when working with young people, is whenever you raise expectations, they’ll meet and usually exceed them. But we have to, especially in areas of poverty, focus on making sure the fundamentals of education are there.
I’ll give you an example. In my old district we ran a CT program – very difficult getting kids into apprenticeships because they didn’t have the fundamental skills to do that sort of work leaving high school. As important as these programs are, it’s also important to make sure the fundamentals, particularly when kids enter school, are there so they can succeed. If they’re not there, we need to intervene as soon as we possibly can.
ROSS: There’s a huge challenge in this, as well, in that the completion rates for community college are horrible. If you can get a kid into a four-year college, his-or-her chance of completing is dramatically higher than if you go to OCC or Macomb County or Henry Ford, or whatever. The three-year completion rates, in many cases, are 10-15 percent.
SHANER: I think sometimes, too, in the past, community colleges were a default for some kids.
ROSS: We sent our lowest performing kids there.
At OCC in the last few years, they’ve worked with Automation Alley, Medical Main Street, and others, to create technical programs for students, to address the needs of the new economy.
ROSS: The challenge Bob indicated, though, to get one of our students into an electrical apprenticeship, you need the same skills you need to get into MSU. Because if you don’t have the math skills, you can’t pass the tests.
COOK-ROBINSON: We’ve started doing things a little differently. We have them in our technical centers in 11th grade. We started last year, and this was with the support of Congresswoman Brenda Lawrence (D-Southfield) and her task force that she started last year, and we went to the apprentice union and we asked that they look at changing their bylaws to move that age back to 17 again, so we could start some kids with some hands-on and do some applied mathematics, and to start teaching math in a real-world context. They piloted it last year, and we had eight students that were accepted into the union in a pre-approved apprenticeship that worked last summer, and when they finish high school, they’ll only have one year of left (of community college) to be fully apprenticed as electricians. This year, we had 20. So we’re starting to change that, slowly.
SHANER: Part of what we’re talking about is – it’s good that we’re all aware of what is changing and how and we’re willing to change it all, but it’s awareness of the public and acceptance by the public of different pathways, and the expectations of those pathways. It’s critical.
NERAD: Another way to look at it is, who is going to rebuild these cities. If those skill sets are nurtured and developed – it has to be with the high school set today because of how much math and science goes into it today.
SHANER: The nature of the trades have changed, too. I wish the leaders would use the term ‘advanced manufacturing’ more, because they’re vastly different things. I was raised by blue collar people who were incredibly successful, by many measures, but there was something important to my parents – it was important to be educated. I think that can be done in the context of a specific skill like advanced manufacturing. I don’t want the notion of being educated from a liberal arts standpoint to be lost. Part of our responsibility is supplying a workforce – not all of it.
NERAD: It’s that nice blend between the two.
COOK-ROBINSON: What we want are secondary options. We want options for students so we have the whole continuum.
Preschool education has been an education focus for several years, with acknowledged success. In today’s world and into the future, the report states, for children to thrive, the formal education system must now start at 4, not 5. Do you agree or disagree?
NERAD: I absolutely agree. Robert’s previous reference to kindergarten – that’s the prior first grade curriculum. If you look at the whole notion of higher standards in school, that’s one of the byproducts of that. The whole idea of getting kids into school early is really important.
SHANER: There’s a strong research base that says the earlier you get them, the better, especially in terms of poverty.
ROSS: Four is probably not early enough, especially for a lot of low-income children. Ideally, but they’re so expensive, people would like early learning centers for parents and children, that are 0-3, then 3-5, and beyond, that becomes early education.
COOK-ROBINSON: Prior to three, I would really like to see the mother/tot kind of program, where we’re learning play. I get real nervous about three- and four-year-olds sitting in rows and very formal education. Four, I’m with you, starting a more formalized kind of learning, but prior to that, it’s really mom-and-child doing some things together. And there’s a curriculum for that.
What about the moms who are working?
COOK ROBINSON: Moms who are working – day care. (Some) mirror that mom/tot experience.
NERAD: If we had four-year-old kindergarten, it wouldn’t mean they would all have to be in our schools. It could be our teachers in community centers or child care centers. And then if you can wrap around a half-day program for four-year-olds, and wrap around the child care piece on the other half-day, then you’ve got parents who are working taken care of.
How does that investment into early childhood education improve school readiness, and change the long term success rate of students? What kind of funding does that necessitate for a district? The report asserts that kindergarten assessments are needed for Michigan, as 29 other states have. Do you believe that would help in determining student placement, education needs, for readiness, and possible disability assessments?
SHANER: We do literacy assessments in kindergarten. It’s necessary. I think it helps inform instruction. But it needs to be kept in the realm of assessment. When it gets into the world of accountability with six-year-olds, I have a problem with it.
ROSS: One of the things we ended up focusing on was how to improve the teaching and learning in the K-12 setting. One of the things we did get to is looking at the European and Asian nations we compete with, states that have been making faster progress than we have been – we’re just going to have to talk about investing more resources than we do. In real terms, we’re getting less than we had five years ago. You can’t do it on the cheap.
SHANER: To that point, I think what that report does is set priorities. It’s now up to the rest of us to talk about the how.
When you visit an Asian country, it is palpable how much education is a moral imperative because it is your only path to economic prosperity. It doesn’t matter if it’s Taiwan, Japan, or China, it’s a moral imperative.
Right now, for example, in China, they have an expanded compulsory education to ninth grade. I know – wow – ninth grade, but remember the size and scope. The availability and the moral impetus to be educated is palpable. When you walk into a Chinese school, it is the business of education; they treat it as very important. When you look at nations that have scored well on PISA (measuring 15-year-olds educational competency worldwide) or made great improvements on PISA, like Poland, Finland’s a perennial – education in Finland is a moral imperative for that nation, and it’s not necessarily economic. It’s holistic. It’s certainly economic in China, because they’ve got to figure out what to do with their workforce as it grows and grows and grows, to maintain their economy.
ROSS: There were two things, for me, that emerged, that were the two most powerful levers of moving Michigan up internationally – one was culture. The sense that going to school, working hard, getting good grades, doing homework, calculus, is more important than cheerleading. This is how you’re going to progress; this is how you’re going to be successful.
We’re sort of ambivalent in Michigan – a little bit because we’ve had this huge influx of both white and African Americans coming up from the very poor South, and to some degree, eastern Europe, who made a good living working with their hands. Good honest work. But we’re a little ambivalent about how important higher education is, and higher learning. You can change culture.
The other one is creating a world-class teacher force. We pay too little. We respect it too little. Good teachers are pulled out of the classroom and into the administrative force.
One doesn’t cost money; the other one does. You change culture by changing the mindset across all of these institutions, political leadership, education leadership, business leadership, other civic leadership, ad nauseam. The only sure path to a prosperous life, to the choices and doing interesting things, is education. Therefor your job as a child and your job as a parent is to really go at this thing. I think if we decide it’s pretty important, we as a set of communities can do it. You tend to represent three communities where there’s some of that, because you have pretty highly-educated families. But much of the state doesn’t have that.
GLASS: The other piece of this report is really talking about a student-centered approach, about a competency-based approach, connecting more with the students. If a student’s not lit up by the educational experience, it’s pretty hard to overcome a pre-existing belief system that says, “School is going to be difficult,” or “It’s not for me.” They haven’t found themselves in it, but when they have some experiences in which they start to find, where they surprise themselves in what they can learn, and can know, and can do, and start to really enjoy it and have a really great experience, that changes everything. That’s a big piece of the culture. It’s a big piece in how we move the state forward.
The other little recognition that goes along with that is this notion of accountability. They took some big steps in here about balancing accountability. Previously they were talking about improving it, and it kind of backfired. If you’re a teacher, or a student in a system that is so uptight and concerned about performance, and accountability is with threat...
We can look at some data – it’s so helpful to look at data in a non-threatening way – that’s continuous improvement. But when you look at it, and everything’s on the line, you as a learner, as a school, as a teacher, and your valuation system is tightly wound with that, what ends up happening with that is you play it safe. You don’t want to innovate. You lock yourself into a more entrenched traditional model because you can’t risk innovation because you might not have a job the next day or the next year. Or your school, or your district, might be at risk of being on some kind of list and might close. When that starts to happen, I don’t think anything really improves. At the governor’s conference, it was mentioned that Ontario’s one place that’s done really good work around systems. And what they found is that Ontario never had to close any schools, because they just worked with it. I see elements of that in here. I find that very encouraging.
Over the next decade, the report recommends that Michigan should move its education system towards a competency-based model, which focuses on a student’s demonstration of desired learning outcomes as central to the learning process. It emphasizes that the focus of learning should shift towards a student’s progression through the curriculum at their pace and depth – in essence, getting rid of grade levels, and allowing students to learn at their own pace. The report states: “Education is adapting to the child rather than forcing the child to adapt to the system. This ensures that there are no dead ends for students; they master all content, are consistently engaged in their learning, and develop skills needed for the 21st century economy.” That sounds ideal – and idealistic – but with a full classroom, what does that mean for a teacher, and how can that be accomplished?
ROSS: In part, that is where technology will play a role. Even when you get something like Read 180 (a reading comprehension tool), you can break into small groups, another group is working on an interactive computer program, another is working with the teacher. We haven’t quite figured out how to work with technology, but we’re going to have to.
SHANER: I would agree with that, but the thing that concerns me is that some of that would take the place of a highly-skilled teacher with a strong relationship with children. What teachers do in a classroom every day with children is every bit as important, or more important, than practicing medicine. And until we culturally understand that, we can talk about all this, which is great, but that’s the only way that realization will set that as a priority, and put the resources behind that priority.
NERAD: What the standards asserted – as developed by the professional groups – are what young people should know and be able to do. You have to have that as a foundation before you can make decisions about how you move kids through a system. Then you can look, ‘Does that child have that skill set right now? What else might be needed for that child?’ We’ve got to be able to get that into the hands of professional educators that are really focused on children and on knowing a progression of learning skills on a 13-year, pre-K-12 at least.
ROSS: And get the legislature out of it.
NERAD: What I’m worried is, we’re not going to be able to get to whole system kind of conversations – things like competency-based – if we’re still arguing about what kids should learn in second grade. The professions have weighed in heavily on what that should be. And that work should be respected.
We have examples in our district of multi-age classrooms, which is mixing kids, typically at third, fourth grade. That can blur the lines too, because if I’m in third grade, but ready for that fourth grade math curriculum, I’m in that class.
GLASS: I think it’s a mindset, too. It’s about accommodating the needs of the child first. Individual teachers can do it in our current systems – and do it very successfully in fully-graded schools. They look at that child as an individual and say, ‘Who are they? What do they need to be successful? How do I adapt what I do to meet their needs?’ and when you take that mindset, you can really do quite a bit without having to change grade level systems. You can change grade level systems, as well. Those are local decisions, I think. But when you’re talking about a system, and you’re talking about what Michigan’s going to be all about – then it’s a conversation about is the Department of Education empowered, and properly help with the ISDs, (intermediate school districts) properly help us with experts in how you do this stuff, so you’re able to get conversations going about best practices for doing this.
ROSS: When we looked at other countries, as well as some of the states, the other countries all had ministries of education; were highly-professional, very respected, and were constantly working to identify effective ways in teaching and learning, and had a major hand in shaping teaching and learning.
SHANER: If you think about Ontario, they set priorities and they left them alone for 10 years. Let them pursue those priorities.
ROSS: Here, first of all, we’re pretty fragmented, nobody has much scale to do that, and the Michigan Department of Education is largely a test-giving compliance agency. One of the major recommendations is we need to create that resource, otherwise how do you share that learning?
One of the biggest issues that I see consistently is with the legislature – the bifurcation and the funding in the state, between southeast Michigan and western Michigan, whether it’s talking to several of our legislators, or legislators on the other side of the state – and there’s a very different focus.
ROSS: The legislature – and I’m a former legislator, and I recognize I regularly opined on things I knew nothing about, including education – it’s more partisan now, but the reality is, and there are some exceptions, so many issues being debated are crazy. It’s crazy stuff. I think all of this opt-out stuff or changing the tests comps or...
COOK-ROBINSON: Third grade reading bill...
ROSS: Yeah. It’s stuff that doesn’t reflect any knowledge of educating kids.
SHANER: It lacks so much system-ness, to coin a term.
ROSS: And they get into, rather than governing, they get into managing. Micromanaging. It’s probably going to take, I think, a strong governor and the education community organizing more effectively to try to push them back to that. Because as long as they’re changing standards every two years, we have no standards. Term limits were very disruptive.
NERAD: You couple that with what the enrollment looks like in ed schools today – it’s not good. Education needs to be viewed as a profession of first choice. And obviously there’s a lot of 19-year-olds, 20-year-olds, who are opting out now. Why is that happening? Teaching jobs are demanding, very hard job, complicated kids, expectation of community – it’s hard stuff. But we’ve got to create – and hopefully some of these recommendations will create – a system of support to launch people in careers and support them when they’re in.
ROSS: That really emerged as huge. We need to be recruiting college-going high school kids from the top quarter of their class. You need about five years working with them in a school at a lower wage, and then you need to start earning the same as anyone who’s put in five years of college – an engineer,
a CPA, and see how you can get up to an upper middle class income while staying in the classroom. That would communicate that we value them.
GLASS: I’ve heard this narrative that we can’t get qualified people, it’s not just teachers. I tend to look at the fundamental disrespectful, or rude, assertion that teachers aren’t doing the job, they are the reason we are in this situation. It’s really misplaced. That more than anything, when you couple things, that is the tipping point that says, if I’m not going to have some basic respect and be supported then I’m going to look for something else.
SHANER: I couldn’t agree more. You keep the focus on kids, and less on the adult, petty jealousies and issues that come up, we would probably be able to educate children on a much higher level and far less expensively. We lack system-ness and we lack focus, and I don’t mean as a profession, I mean as a society, whether in Michigan or anyplace else.
There are currently 540 traditional school districts in the state, 302 charter schools, and 56 intermediate school districts. However, enrollment has been in a decline, with nearly two-thirds of districts experiencing a decline – 13 percent since 2002-2003 – creating significant financial challenges because funding is tied to the number of students served. A recommendation in the report is to have local school districts consolidate, as they have in many other states, which would save money and allow districts to more efficiently provide services. It also says that Michigan needs to rename, reconfigure and reassign the tasks intermediate school districts do in order to enable the high-quality and economically efficient delivery of services to students. As superintendents of local districts and the ISD, what are your thoughts, and why, or how, would you help accomplish this?
NERAD: Efficiencies are important, but we also have to be mindful that people in communities want to have conversations with people on locally-elected school boards, too. These entities were created a long time ago as proud, local institutions. There are numerous ways we can get at greater efficiencies – I’m not saying that consolidation in some instances shouldn’t be looked at.
GLASS: I think you just can’t underestimate the politics of consolidation. In other words, you can have a lot of good reasons, but there’s nothing in the system that incentivizes a thoughtful way to do that. Dan (Nerad) and I could have a conversation, and our boards could have a conversation, and we could agree that it makes so much sense – same with any of our districts – and we do have a lot of conversations, share a lot of ideas, we work together – look at trying to merge our two high schools. It isn’t always about what makes sense or what is logical. It becomes about that emotional component and that identity and the fear of the unknown.
One of the things highlighted that I appreciated – it doesn’t go into detail in the report about how you incentivize it – there can be financial incentives or other kinds to make it happen where it makes sense. And you’d see districts doing that. Other than that, you’d have to impose it. I’m not advocating that that occur. It would have to be some kind of a governmental decision at a higher level. And I question the efficiencies – I think they’re overrated. Whenever there’s that kind of disruption, there’s a suspension of productivity in the short run.
SHANER: And the million-dollar question is, or billion-dollar question, what size is the right size? I have grave concerns about creating massive, countywide school districts (like in Florida). When a parent has a complaint about a ride on a bus, who do they call, and how are they attended to? Do they feel satisfied that someone heard them, and someone will attend to their child. Some of the disparities in a district where you can have abject poverty and extreme affluence. How you make that an equitable opportunity for all students is something I wrestle with. I happen to believe there is something fundamentally right about having a locally-elected board of education. It’s a foundation of a political unit in the United States.
COOK-ROBINSON: I completely agree.
ROSS: I have reservations. In too many places, boards become small and petty, not knowledgeable, put pressure for the wrong sorts of things, do not provide high quality governance to the district. In fact, often the challenge is for a very good superintendent to figure out how to manage the board; whereas ideally a good board manages between priorities and supporting, but gets out of the schools, gets out of all of that.
SHANER: I am uniquely blessed – I truly am. I think we’re a great example of what a school board should be and what governance looks like.
ROSS: Administratively, (consolidation) has economies of scale. But high schools – especially low income, I don’t think they should be larger than 500 students.
COOK-ROBINSON: I’m glad to hear you say that, because as I hear this conversation, like about Florida, where they have county schools – I do not see a county school in this region. I think you start to lose – you talk about personalized learning, which is one of the elements here – I think it’s very impersonal when scale starts to be too big. The question is, what is the right size and still have economies of scale. I think that’s the issue that we have to rassle.
SHANER: And having that discussion in a forum that’s not politicized, that’s the challenge.
NERAD: I too, have had the benefit of working with school board members that are true stewards of the community. As I look out into the community where I serve, people out there have a lot of pride in the Birmingham Public Schools. When they send their children to school, it’s with the hope that they’re getting the best education possible, with the commitment to work with us.
ROSS: One of the things that drove this was an urgency in respect to overall performance of the system. The struggles of Detroit, and others have been known – the fact that if an African American had been educated in Mississippi they’d do marginally better than if they lived here I find very distressing. But non-poor white kids compared to their peers in other states – we were 48th. It may be, with upper middle class kids, like your districts – if Birmingham were a nation, you’d rank pretty high. But a lot of the other communities in Macomb, Oakland, and western Wayne, don’t.
NERAD: Now you’re really putting the elephant in the room, which is, what’s the difference between those places. Some of it is in those people’s commitment to education, but poverty is a dis-equalizer for kids. When you have higher poverty, it’s not that we don’t have a responsibility to take the kids every day as far as they can possibly get, but it seems to me we’re not willing to have that conversation as a society. You look at kindergarten, going back to the beginning, the difference in words that some children come into kindergarten with compared to the kids in Birmingham...
COOK-ROBINSON: 5,000 words, children in poverty; 11,005 in children like these.
ROSS: Our middle class kids, regardless of race, it’s not that they’ve gotten particularly worse, it’s that others have improved faster.
GLASS: It really comes down to an educational system difference. And frankly, a disinvestment. You can argue that the pensions are eating a greater percentage of the budget, but that doesn’t educate students, and that’s not something that school districts created. That is a governmental/legislative issue.
ROSS: We have to face up to that. And there isn’t a sense of urgency. I don’t think most middle class parents, if you said, ‘How’s your child doing?’ ‘They’re doing great.’
NERAD: I don’t think many of us would argue against improvement. The question is – what is that improvement that will leverage the right kind of education for children? An ‘initiative of the month’ will not do it. In places like Ontario, that had designed a province system – what are the right things to have in place to get the right outcomes – is where I think, we have fallen short.
SHANER: Ten years ago, Ontario started two initiatives: literacy and numeracy. That is what they were going to be good in. We are going to make sure our kids can read and perform in math at a very high level. That will enable them to do great things in other disciplines.
GLASS: Everyone at the classroom level could articulate that and really understood that focus. We tend to not have that focus.
Funding has historically been challenging – especially since 1994, when the school funding model was changed and no longer tied to property taxes. To enact the changes in this education blueprint would come to approximately $2 billion, which would need to be appropriated from the Michigan legislature. How likely would that be? What priorities do you see, and what do you feel is unnecessary, or less than necessary? How do you convince local legislators their district – you – would benefit, while they’re concerned about reelection?
COOK-ROBINSON: I think the first thing we have to do is go back and look at the Michigan Adequacy Study that was conducted. It was an excellent, excellent start, but we didn’t have a comprehensive data set. I think most educators would agree if we said that our funding system is broken. Most of the adequacy studies that have been done around the country used at least two or more to look at that iterated reliability. There is a project, through the Oakland Schools Education Foundation, not Oakland Schools, the school finance collaborative, is looking at using private funding and a grant from the Kellogg Foundation to complete that comprehensive data set, because as you know, the original study looked at about $8,817 per student with about 3 percent increase per English Language Learners and 4 percent for students that have challenges.
For example, the school district for the city of Pontiac has 30 percent of its students that are English Language Learners. That impacts how you learn.
We want to complete that data for the legislators so we can have an accurate sense of what resources are needed per student. That’s going to vary per region. Until we find out what those resources are and what it takes to educate a child per region – because it’s a little different when you go up north, in the Upper Peninsula, than down here in southeastern Michigan, it’s hard to talk to legislators how do we do that, and how much money do we need.
ROSS: The school aid fund is what – $14 billion? We kind of guessed at some of these numbers broadly. So if you said you needed another $2 billion more, that’s 14-15 percent. Over a couple of years, to increase education spending another 14-15 percent sounds right. Right now, we reduce it every year it seems – we go backwards.
COOK-ROBINSON: And if we had not reduced down to where we are, we’d be a lot closer, and that number would be smaller.
We have to keep in mind that the legislature has reduced what’s coming to these classrooms over the last five to 10 years. Dramatically.
GLASS: I think this report really did a nice job of actually estimating what each cost was, so you can have a menu of priorities – what should we attack first. Should it be early childhood education? They noted it’s a long-term investment, it’s hard to be patient. But it goes back to other countries, where they have a mindset of this is really important, and we’re going to spend a lot of money on it, because in the long run it’s going to give us really good outcomes, maybe even save us money.
We have two really important things: first, we can understand the real cost from a data perspective, an unbiased perspective. Then you have, for those who say just throwing money at things, which it’s not, you have a pretty nice blueprint, and you put those two things together, and if you have creative leadership and people coming together, you have ingredients to make really good decisions.
What will the questions be that will emerge politically because none of us have all the levers to make this happen?
Is Michigan ready for an education revolution, or does it just need to be tweaked? How do you convince all of the constituents – parents, teachers, unions, legislators, lobbyists – that this is in the long term best interest of everyone, but especially students, when every few years there is a new education reform, such as Common Core, that is then discarded a couple of years later, and this is not another thing that will be discarded?
ROSS: We said there was a kind of urgent optimism. The urgency was, we’re in trouble. The optimism, other people have done it. Ontario is an example – if you pick some reasonable goals, and you stick with them and focus on it, you can get somewhere. We have had no steady focus. We don’t have a strategy.
GLASS: A lot of what gets in our way is the mechanism – the reporting, the funding, the systemness, the ability not to get gridlocked between the three bodies – the governor’s office, the legislature, and the Michigan Departure of Education. They have so much shared authority that nobody has authority.
NERAD: My priority remains, what can we do to improve learning for kids in classrooms. There’s a variety of governance models, and what I worry about is that ends up being the priority focus, and we’re not going to get to the things that make a difference for children. We need to get adults in classrooms and be more bipartisan and have more discussions about improving the lives of children.
SHANER: We have a legislature that doesn’t understand the context of the problem.
ROSS: We have to have both people who run for governor put this on their agenda.