Commentary: Mackinac and Education

May 29, 2013

It sometimes seems that education reform has become a lot like the weather.  We talk almost incessantly about it these days, but you have to wonder if anybody really can do much to change things.

The Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce’s annual Mackinac Conference begins today, and education is a heavy focus. Michelle Rhee, the controversial founder of StudentsFirst and the former head of Washington D.C. public schools will give a keynote address. There will be a panel on 21st Century jobs and education, and another, moderated by Michigan Radio’s Jennifer White, on early childhood education.

There are two reasons we are paying so much attention to education reform. One is that we are trying to cut costs, in part because Michigan isn't as rich as it used to be.

The other, more appropriate reason, is that education is more important than ever before. Thirty years ago, a child who graduated without any significant skills or the ability to succeed in college still had a chance of getting a decent paying job.

That’s not true anymore, and the collapse of our muscle-based economy means that the need for a better educated workforce is more acute in Michigan than in many other states.

There are all sorts of theories about how to accomplish this, most centering around teacher performance. But the question I keep asking is: How do you successfully teach a child who is hungry, who lives in dreadful conditions, and has little or no parental support?

Nobody yet has given me an answer to that.

Last weekend, however, I talked to Tom Watkins. He is a former state superintendent of schools, and a prolific writer on education issues. He said that most of today’s education battles are about adult concerns like teacher benefits and the place of unions -- not kids.

He told me “The ideological fights, both left and right, are dooming our nation and have never educated a single child.”

Watkins added: “Imagine we just discovered these two beautiful peninsulas called Michigan, where there are 1.6 million kids to educate, and every year $12 billion dollars would wash up on our shores to do that with.” If that were the case, “No one in their right mind would recreate what we have today.”

I don’t know anyone who would disagree with that. I have been a college teacher for a long time, but don’t pretend to be an education expert. But it seems to me we are trying a band-aid approach, instead of tackling a broken system from top to bottom.

Watkins said, only half-joking, that he thought the governor should lock all concerned in a horse barn on Mackinac and “tell them they can’t come out until they have reinvented an education system in Michigan designed for our kids’ future, not our past.” 

A system, he told me, that “recognizes that the world has changed, that we are living in a hyper-competitive, disruptive, technology-driven economy where ideas and jobs can and do move around the globe effortlessly.”

True enough. And he added: “While the focus is on the brain drain -- kids getting an education and leaving Michigan -- the bigger problem is those we fail to educate, who stay behind.”  

If that doesn't haunt our policymakers, it should.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Jack Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflects those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, the University of Michigan.