Column: Another school study for the dustbin?

April 5, 2018 GMT

At a wonderful seminar recently called Solutions Summit: an Educated Michigan, the brand new report from Business Leaders for Michigan covering recommendations to fix our broken K-12 system was highlighted. There was a great cast of presenters. A real bonus was the inclusion of leaders from Massachusetts and Tennessee, both of whom are kicking our butt in education.

First, there is proof Michigan is a bottom-10 state in K-12 education. Second, providing a good education to all our kids should be the most important task for our state, even over roads. Third, we know what to do. Finally, we choose not to do it.

Why? The big things missing are a sharp focus on what moves the needle, and a hands-on leadership. For sure, this big effort will take participation from lots of folks, from kids to parents to teachers to administrators to legislators to business people. But this band can’t play without a real leader who is also a doer. Whoever is the governor has to play a leading role, of course, but it just won’t work unless the real leader is a small and permanent group chartered and led by the business community.

First, the focus. There are many things that must be done on the ground, but from a leadership position the focus areas should be few and sharp. We have to make a “big bet” on teachers. We need to get brighter kids into the teaching programs at our universities, and we need to give them more help. States like Tennessee, for example, put beginning teachers through a solid internship program where they get lots of help from veteran teachers. It works. Tennessee has gone from being worse than Michigan to being better than us. Money will help in parts of this, but Tennessee spends no more per kid then Michigan to get their superior results.

Second, we need to change the funding for schools to reach an equitable formulation for all kids. Here’s one basic fact that we have to agree on: poor kids need more money in education than rich kids.

Third, we need to change our terrible governance system over charter schools. Michigan has managed to give charter schools a bad name. Compared with other states, we have too many authorizers and too little accountability. And finally, we need to fix overall accountability. There are only six other states where the State Board of Education does not report to the governor. As a result, we have both an ineffective state board, and no central responsibility for results.

Next, on leadership. Massachusetts created the system and the focus that I have described over 25 years ago. The group run by business leaders that focuses entirely on education is still in existence and is working on an agenda for the next 10 years aimed at making Massachusetts better than any country in the world. One of the presenters at the seminar was Linda Noonan, executive director for that state’s business group. She made a point that she meets annually with every single Massachusetts legislator to discuss education priorities, and only education. In the beginning, this group did a new curriculum and budget for every school district in Massachusetts. It works and the results show it.

Imagine for a minute that a small group of Michigan leaders decided to take this on. And it should be small but powerful — say the bosses of Ford, GM, Quicken Loans, Meijer, DTE Energy, and a couple of others. They would set up a group like in Massachusetts, fund it to hire and consult with the best education brains in the world (including kids and educators), and to lay out an action agenda. Those powerful CEOs may not know how to teach a class of third-graders, but they know how to run a successful project, and they know how to hold the right feet to the fire to make sure it succeeds.

The template is there, and it can succeed. Our kids deserve it. But unless something like this small group steps up, we are likely to wallow in the present status, with lots of people working hard, but falling well short of what we need to do to keep up with the rest of the world.

Ken Whipple is chair of the Michigan Achieves leadership council, a retired Ford executive and former CEO of CMS Energy.

Fixing Michigan’s Schools

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