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What do we want from our schools?

At a meeting in Lansing Tuesday morning, staffers from the Center for Michigan presented the results of their year-long series of “community conversations” about education, held all around the state. Three panels of experts, officials and education policy specialists met to talk about the key questions facing public education in Michigan.

The Center’s results, from both the “conversations” themselves and from a related poll, indicate that the state government’s priorities in the area of education do not necessarily match up with the public’s. In particular, participants expressed willingness to pay more for schools as long as the funds go to real improvements. They also ranked increasing school “choice” much lower among their top priorities.

As is often the case, respondents gave their local school a much better grade than they did to the Michigan public schools as a whole, raising the question of how much of the current popular mood about education is based on personal experience and how much is rooted in current public debates.

However, participants who indicated they had lower family incomes were in general much harsher critics of public schools, underlining the challenges facing public education in struggling communities.

Agreement, and some sparks

On the panels themselves, there was everything from unanimity to considerable dissension. On the one hand, the first group of panelists agreed that expanding high-quality early childhood education (preschool) was an important thing to do – there was less clarity about how to pay for it, however. On the other hand, there was considerable disagreement over recent policy initiatives to “unbundle” education and to use state takeover as the preferred method of “helping” struggling schools.

Probably the most nakedly political moment was the defense of the Education Achievement Authority (EAA) legislation by key gubernatorial aid William Rustem. Clearly expecting a new EAA bill to be introduced shortly, Rustem objected to what he called the “misinformation” and fear that had been spread about the bill. What he described, however, was the bill as it last stood in the House Education committee – the last ditch compromise that limited the EAA to 50 schools. As Oakland Schools superintendent Vickie Markavitch pointed out, this was a very long way from how the bill looked when it was introduced and for most of the feverish negotiations that took place on the issue during the lame duck session last year. (See, for instance, MIPFS testimony on one of the bills here.)

Rustem, along with Lansing attorney and political operative Peter Ruddell, kept on the theme that the Governor’s policy direction was the only game in town as far as helping students in struggling schools. “Tell me an alternative, and we’ll deal with it. We can continue to write those kids off, or we can do something about it,” Rustem said. This position neatly ignores the fact that those who agree with the current Governor’s agenda have been driving policy for many years now, especially since 2010. Alternative proposals, no matter how worthwhile, are never allowed to see the light of day in the state Legislature. In fact, any proposal that involves increased funding is quite literally shouted down in almost any public forum.

One of the most puzzling exchanges came when your correspondent asked about the impact of poverty and if school takeovers that replace the entire staff (as the EAA has done in its 15 schools) are really the answer. Ruddell, the main drafter of the Oxford Foundation proposal to change school funding by “unbundling education,” responded by saying that the “reading [he had] done” indicated that it was not poverty itself but the effects of poverty which were the main problem. While Ruddell should be credited for doing some reading, it is worrisome that someone charged with completely changing the method of funding our public schools is just coming to this realization. Household income is used as a proxy to represent a syndrome of circumstances that beset families in “poverty.” It is precisely the “effects” of poverty that most programs targeted to at-risk students are designed to address.

Ruddell went on to suggest that one of the Governor’s recent initiatives – to place Dept. of Human Services case workers in schools, presumably replacing the specially-trained social workers already working in our schools – was an important way to address the effects of poverty. Left unanswered was the question of whether or not a state takeover, implemented without consultation of the local community and aimed at sweeping away all the educators currently in place, would really address the problems that stem from the conditions in which students continue to live.

Are there really no alternatives?

This policy discussion was especially striking given the lengthy discussion of other ways to improve education which had been tackled by the first two panels. Aside from early childhood education, teacher preparation and evaluation was the main focus. Deborah Ball, dean of the UM School of Education and current chair of the Governor’s commission designing a teacher evaluation system, made a strong case for systems that would support and give feedback to all teachers. Professional educators need assistance and customized training to improve their craft, she argued, and evaluation systems should be aimed at providing that. Teacher training programs, the panel agreed, could be strengthened and new teacher mentoring should be a priority.

The panel discussions ended with Peter Ruddell venting his frustrations by comparing the educators in the room with the tobacco industry, which claimed that there were no problems and no need to change. He had not heard the “education community” come forward with any proposal to fix the problems that exist in our schools, he argued, except “give us more money.” The audience responded spontaneously with a chorus of “Then you haven’t been listening!” Given the constructive ideas floated earlier in the day, and the clear message from the community conversations that Michiganders would like to improve the schools they already have, the people currently driving education policy seem out of step – and out of touch.

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