Michigan: A Blueprint for Education?

CURMUDGUCATIONThe slightly-cranky voice navigating the world of educational “reform” while trying to still pursue the mission of providing quality education.

MI: A Blueprint for Education?

First announced in Governor Rick Snyder’s January 2016 State of the State address, the 21st Century Commission has been working diligently at an educational blueprint for Michigan. The final report on charting the edu-journey for Betsy Devos’s home state, and it is a hefty 146 pages. I’ve read it so that you don’t have to. Buckle up, boys and girls.

Who Created This Thing?

The commission was headed up by Dr. Thomas Haas, President of Grand Valley University. Members included some folks from industry and business, some school superintendents (including the Grand Rapids super), some charter school folks, some state board of education members, representatives from AFT Michigan and the Michigan Education Association, and some assorted bureaucrats. Oh, and one lone classroom teacher (Matt Oney from Escanaba Area Public Schools).

Part of the process was, apparently, a listening tour. The breakdown of that is not encouraging; the thank you section mentions thirteen hosts from Northern Michigan, six hosts from the Upper Peninsula, eleven hosts from West Michigan, and from Southeast Michigan, a single stop on the “tour”– a virtual visit to Voyageur Academy, a charter school in Detroit. (That visit was virtual, says the notes, “due to weather, so I guess Detroit has been socked in for the last year).

Introduction and Call To Action

The introduction hits several familiar notes. The economy has changed (and now it’s hard to get work). Education improves opportunity (education and employment correlate, ad we’ll lazily accept causation there). Education is a public good (Michigan would probably work better with educated citizens). We need to act now (we have just noticed that Michigan is at the bottom of the national education barrel– oops!).

So let’s rebuild the system. Let’s address K-12 performance. Let’s get the graduation rate up. Let’s transform, not tinker. Let’s set some big goals (Michigan will be a top-ten state on NAEP, and beat Ontario on PISA– really, I’m not making these up).

And let’s do all of this without questioning any assumptions about testing, education, or poverty. Let’s grossly oversimplify everything and fail to consider anything beyond surface fixes. Okay– this last paragraph is me, not the commission.

More assumptions about lessons learned

We’ll also talk about what we’ve learned from other states and nations– well, not so much what we’ve actually learned about education, but what we’ve learned about marketing oversimplified amateur-hour education reformy baloney. So let’s tick off some superficial, vague, obvious, and in some cases unsubstantiated ideas that we’ve strung together. Oh, and let’s claim all of these ideas come from “high-performing systems” without every identifying those supposed systems.

Let’s build a comprehensive, aligned strategy. Let’s have a shared vision of the future and shared strategies, because fixing a system by using central planning has never gone wrong before. Let’s develop excellent educators, even though we don’t really know what “excellent educator” actually means. Let’s set rigorous academic standards for students– in fact, let’s call them “internationally benchmarked” even though no such thing exists. Create multiple pathways, aka let;s put back some vocational training. Invest early; start intruding on children’s lives at, or even before, birth. Recognize and fight inequity– well, not actually either, because we’ll talk about how poor kids don’t get put in high-level classes and they get worse teachers and they get suspended a lot, but we will not consider any systemic issues involved. In other words, we ‘ll deal with poor kids by treating them as if they aren’t poor. Let’s set clear goals and measure what matters; let’s collect lots of data and take lots of tests.

Essential Cultural Elements

I’m not sure that we didn’t just take a right turn into the vaguely racist notion that non-wealthy non-white kids do poorly because they are culturally impaired. But here’s what values the commission says we need to install:

Value postsecondary education. So let’s get everyone excited about more school. Be honest about current performance; the old reformster standard that schools and teachers are just lying liars who lie about student performance. Do not accept excuses. Seriously– the commission is putting “No excuses” right here in their plan. “We cannot tolerate excuses for poor performance.” Stop whining about your poverty, you little snowflake. And, of course, persevere. I thought maybe they were going to say that students needed more grit, but by persevere they mean that for state leaders, this will be a marathon, not a sprint, and they had better plan on a long haul.

And now that we have all of that out of the way, it’s time for the main event.

Nine Principles of World-Class Education

This is the frame work the commission is going to work with, with the nine principles that we have gleaned from, well, somewhere organized into three main thrusts– focus on learning, create a strong culture of success and build a coherent, connected education system from prenatal to career. And here we go.

Principle 1: Elevate the profession

Michigan needs to develop, recruit and retain top teaching talent. The commission sees four ways to accomplish this goal. Spoiler alert: none of these involve improving teacher pay or job security. But we are gushing out new teachers and only half of new principals last more than three years. And teacher education programs are down a third over just seven years ago. Whatever could it be?

First, let’s make it harder to become a teacher by raising requirements for college programs, including a year-long residency and “evidence of skills in their subject matter, social-emotional intelligence, and pedagogy.” Also, let’s “look for strategic opportunities to attract diverse candidates.”

Second, let’s create new career pathways so that we can reward teachers for achieving new “ranks” of awesomeness (and withhold rewards from less-awesome teachers, and also avoid giving teachers more pay just for seniority, because years dedicated to teaching should not be rewarded with either job security or pay– do you feel strategically attracted to teaching in Michigan yet?)

Third, professional development should be individualized in reaction to teacher evaluations. And PLCs– we hear those are cool.

Fourth, “to improve student outcomes, Michigan should implement a performance-based leadership development system that will ensure that building-level leaders are invested in student outcomes.” In other words, any advancement up the career ladder should be tied to student test scores. Because the only measure of teaching that matters is student test scores (good luck to you who don’t teach reading or math).

Principle 2: Build Capacity To Do What Works

The state should decide what good teaching means and disseminate those principles throughout the state.

The commission does allow that the state should provide the funding to match its mandates, but the commission would also like to see the state “amplify evidence-based practices and coordinate efforts to deploy them.” Because nothing elevates the profession like having bureaucrats tell you how to teach. As with many of these strategies, one of our measurements for success is “Are student outcomes [aka test scores] improving?” Because one of the unstated recommendations here is that Michigan’s entire school system be test-centered.

Principle 3: Invest in an Efficient and Effective System of Public Funding

We need to actually fund the system. That includes recognizing that some students need additional funds.

Okay, actually, this part is nuts, borrowed directly from efficiency experts and time-study work in industry. The commission would like the state first to make sure they’ve gotten rid of all the wasteful slack in education spending by having the governor and legislature (educational spending experts all) decide what money is being wasted.

Then they should figure out “base funding” built on “a transparent calculation of what it costs to meet performance standards.” In other words, the state should be able to say, “It should cost $5,000 to get a fifth grader to score 255 on the Big Standardized Reading test, and if we want an additional 25 points on that score, it should cost us an additional $500.” Then figure out how much extra it costs for students with “greater educational needs” (like, you know, figuring out the cost of cup holders and seat warmers in a new car). Add in some “foundational allowances” for other school costs, and figuring out funding is just a simple math problem. Piece of cake.

Principle 4: Increase Access to Postsecondary Education

Everybody needs one, so how do we make one available to everybody?

First, figure out the “proper funding level” for higher education. Then consider some strategies like direct funding and performance-based funding “as well as other methods to incent best practices, tuition restraint, and spending efficiency.” Colleges can also earn more money by coining and copyrighting new words like “incent.”

Next– and this is novel– turn P-12 systems into P-14 systems. Provide universal access to community college. It sure looks like the commission is recommending free community college for all, but it avoids any word remotely resembling “free.”

Also, let’s award merit scholarships to four-year schools. And let’s put good guidance counselors in every high school.

Principle 5: Partner with Parents

“Our system must clearly recognize that parents are children’s first and most important teachers.”

Embed human services in schools as well as connecting them to homes. “Nurture” parent-educator collaboration– “Michigan must be more intentional about nurturing parent engagement.”

Annnnd create user-friendly online tools with which to “navigate educational options.” Like, alllll the choices, from preschool providers to postsecondary job training. Also, somebody should be overseeing this to make sure it’s not passing along marketing baloney instead of facts. This all actually seems kind of noble, but practically speaking it seems like a very high mountain to climb and maintain.

The rest of our principles are related to the cradle-to-career pipeline building.

Principle 6: Enhance Accountability

Michigan’s assessment system should be enhanced to better align and measure 21st century learning skills known to prepare our students in becoming both career and college ready and should also disseminate useful data that informs instructional practice in the classroom and measures the performance of our schools for the general public and policymakers.

Emphasis mine, because there are no such skills. Also, college and career ready. But this one gets worse.

Hold the right people accountable– find out who’s to blame for a low score and hunt them down. “All actors in the system, from pre-K providers to teacher preparation institutes, should be held accountable for student achievement outcomes.” Notice who’s not on that list? How about “legislators who failed to properly fund the school.”

“Michigan must collect, analyze, and share quality data to hold all stakeholders accountable for performance outcomes.” Everybody is supposed to be making “data-driven decisions,” based on crappy BS Test scores. But wait– could we come up with something worse? Sure we could:

Over the next decade, Michigan should move its P–20 education system toward a competency-based learning model, an approach that focuses on the student’s demonstration of desired learning outcomes as central to the learning process. The focus of learning should be shifted toward a student’s progression through curriculum at their own pace, depth, etc. As competencies are proven, students will advance academically.

Yes, the commission wants to go full CBE, the current Big Mack Daddy of unproven bad ideas. Also, note the P-20– the commission repeatedly assumes that’s the way to go. Cradle to career, baby– all the way.

Principle 7: Ensure Access To High-Quality Learning Environments

That means, of course, loaded with tech. And as we noted with the CBE love above, a learning environment doesn’t really need to be a school. Because with CBE, all you’ll need is a comfy spot to curl up with your computer screen.

The commission shares a fun fact– Michigan is one of 11 states that provides no support to local districts for capital outlay. Hmmm– I’ll bet that makes it really hard for poor districts to get nice buildings. The commission bets that, too. Does that seem generous? Here’s the other shoe– the state should also help pay for Public School Academies (aka charter schools). In other words, let’s spend public tax dollars to buy buildings for private education businesses.

Principle 8: Invest Early

The commission would like to see universal preschool for four-year-olds, because the little slackers are just sitting at home and playing and generally acting like children. But if Michigan is going to get top-quality teachers for such a program, then it will have to start paying them better, so the commission would like to see some financial help thrown that direction.

Alas, this support for early childhood development comes with a goal to “enhance early learning outcome measurement and tracking.” So we need to tag each child early on and start  gathering child-specific data and outcome stuff. Not, the commission assures us, standardized tests. Just, you know, observational tools. That will be attached to your child’s data backpack to stay there forever.

Principle 9: K-12 Governance

Do you remember when the GOP was the party of small government and local control? Boy, those were some good times, huh. This set of recommendations definitely makes me nostalgic. The commission wants to develop “a coherent P–20 governance structure that ensures the public education and higher education marketplace produces high levels of learner outcomes, equity, efficiency, innovation, and collaboration.” Doesn’t that sound swell. Just watch.

First, we “reform” the state board of education. Specifically, we “reform” it by giving the governor more control over it. Currently members are elected by voters for eight year terms. The commission suggests that three options be brought to a constitution-amending vote. 1) Let the government appoint all the board members. 2) Let the governor appoint the state superintendent and then abolish the board entirely. 3) Make the board bigger by adding governor-appointed members. Any one of these will help by keeping those damn voters from sending people to the capitol that the governor just doesn’t want to work with.

Next, we “enhance” the Michigan Department of Education. We will make them more helpy because we will “situate education functions that are currently performed by a range of state agencies within the department.”  This is not all foolishness– some of those agency functions exist because governors created them to get certain functions away from the department. But combined with the previous recommendation, this puts everything back under governor control, which is good because reasons.

Then, we “reconceptualize the structure and function” of the intermediate school districts. Yikes. We should also “support” local efforts to consolidate school districts. We might even incent it.

Finally, we must make sure all students have access to high quality options, whether those options are public or charter or voucher-choicey or charter or online charters or, you know, charters. In other words, we should expand choice a whole lot. And yes, this recommendation comes under the same heading as “we need to combine school districts because we have too many empty seats.” The rationale is that Michigan has too many empty seats, but not enough quality seat. Also, Michigan’s “expansion of school has improved outcomes for some students,” which is yet another assertion for which I’d love to see some evidence.

Invest in the Future

We’re getting close to the end, so I’ll make this simple– doing all these things would be really, really expensive.

Where to start

This is a thirty year plan. The commission offers a chart putting all these ideas in order. CBE and district consolidation is long term. Everything else is medium or short term.

What do we have here?

This is a plan that enshrines testing. It promotes charters, choice, CBE, and other methods preferred by privatizers and profiteers. It offers a system that keeps teacher pay and job-security low and tries to mask these as great ideas. It consolidates the governor’s power over the school system and takes it away from voters. It extends the government’s grubby data-sniffing nose from cradle to grave. It even holds onto those Common Core dog-whistle-words “college- and career-ready.”

It is, in short, a plan that doubles down on every lousy reformer idea of the past fifteen years. The only good news is that is expensive, and if Michigan’s leaders were willing to actually spend money on education, they wouldn’t need a commission to spend a year telling them how to dig themselves out of the hole they put themselves in (and offer up the answer “dig harder”).

If anyone imagined there would be something in the report that would actually offer support or assistance to beleaguered Michigan public education, they can let go of that faint hope. This is the same old reformsters Bible, writ long and large. Betsy DeVos must be happy to know she left her home state in good hands.

The best we can say about this report is that it’s has some honest parts about how bad a hole Michigan has dug for its education system. Unfortunately, it doesn’t have a clue about how to get out of that hole.



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