Commentary
9:57 am
Mon April 25, 2011

Education Reform

The governor is supposed to deliver a major speech on education this week.

We also don’t know what he’s going to say, though his spokesperson indicates that he is going to talk about systems of education, and producing results.

And that much is hopeful. So far, most of the education debate across the state has been over the wrong question.  We’ve been arguing over whether teachers are paid too much and receive benefits that are too generous, and that’s not the point.

Mike Flanagan, state superintendent of public instruction, hasn’t said much about policy issues. But his predecessor, Tom Watkins, has been anything but silent. Now a business and education consultant, Watkins says we have seen the enemy, and it is the status quo. “We have one chance now to help prepare our kids and our state for the future,” he told me. “Let’s not blow it.”

Watkins, who was pushed out of his job by Jennifer Granholm midway through her administration, is a Democrat who has been cautiously supportive of some of Republican Governor Rick Snyder‘s initiatives. 

However, when it comes to education, Watkins asked a trillion dollar question in a recent Muskegon Chronicle column:

“If we had just discovered these two Michigan peninsulas, with 1.7 million school-age children, would we re-create the education system that now exists? The answer is a resounding NO!”

He thinks we need to go back to the drawing board. He urges our leaders, “Let‘s live up to our image as an ‘innovation state,’ one that sets the trend for new ways of doing things, and create new possibilities for learning, with more sense of urgency.”

Those who worry about the cost of education have a point, even if they come from the wrong motives. The sad fact is that even if the present system were adequately educating our kids, it isn’t financially sustainable. Watkins notes that the rising cost of pensions and health care would take an additional half a billion dollars a year, every year. We don’t have it. Beyond that, however,Watkins has been asking a series of annoying but necessary questions that we all should have been demanding answers for:

Why do we pay to operate 550 local school districts plus 50 intermediate districts? Why not save millions by consolidating? Why do we wait to start school at age five or six, when research shows that most brain development happens earlier?

Why do we think of education as being anchored to five days a week in a building, in this age of rapidly evolving technology?

Why do we spend millions on testing when everyone knows our kids are deficient, and spend that money on learning instead?

And finally, he asks, why do we fight to maintain the existing public education system when it is clearly not meeting the needs of many children? Why do we argue about whether to support traditional or charter schools, when the only adjective that matters should be quality? Watkins doesn’t know what the governor will say this week. But he said we should judge his ideas this way:

“Do they support teaching, learning and children, or continue the focus on power, control, politics and adults?”

Very soon now, we should know.