State superintendent releases plan for improving Michigan schools

Feb 9, 2016

Credit Sarah Hulett / Michigan Radio

The Michigan Department of Education Tuesday unveiled its plan to dramatically improve the state's schools in the next ten years. 

Called the "Top 10 in 10 Years," the proposal aims to put Michigan in the top fifth of U.S. school systems. The proposal is the result of a seven-month planning period, with the department taking input from education policy experts and the public. 

The plan is made up of seven specific goals, including improved collaboration between teachers, students, and communities to improve student performance. The department wants to alleviate the negative impacts on education of poverty, expanding programs like free lunch, for example. It also includes improved resources for students with learning disabilities or developmental challenges. 

In an interview, State Superintendent Brian Whiston said the most of the changes center around adding individualized focus both to the students and teachers. He said it's a proven way to get kids engaged in learning.

"How do we get them excited about going to school? I think we do that by investing in them as individuals and say, 'What is it that you want to accomplish, and how do we help you accomplish it,' " he said.

Before discussions on this proposal began last year, reports from The Education Trust-Midwest last year found Michigan was on track to enter the bottom ten states for education by 2030. Additionally, a report from December found the state had one of the poorest funded education systems, cutting K-12 funding by 7.5% since 2008.

But Whiston said he expects the reorganization he's proposing will improve education without incurring serious costs. He said programs like expanded school lunches and hiring more counselors will cost money, but many of the other goals can be met in creative ways. 

He gave examples like having schools partner with local businesses so students can get real-life experience in fields they might enjoy.

"There are things that do cost but our first reaction cannot be, 'just give me money and I'll solve the problem,' 'cause there are districts all around the state who have gotten less, or the same amount of money, and have made these improvements," Whiston said.  

Mike Sayler, Dean of Eastern Michigan University's College of Education, submitted suggestions for the proposal himself. He said one of the needed improvements is collaboration, stressing the need for parents, teachers, and other members of the community who work with kids to be working together. 

"We've tended to work in silos – the universities, the K-12 schools, the business community, the health community, the daycare community, the police and fire – all of us are part of this whole milieu but we don't work together very well. Or, we haven't, and I think this plan encourages that kind of collaboration," Sayler said.  

"None of us have all the answers but each of us have a part of it, and if we try to solve it independently, just pour money in, probably won't make a difference."

Sayler called the plan "ambitious," saying it will likely take a significant investment from the state. But he said the goal is worth shooting for, and even if Michigan doesn't become a top 10 education state in ten years, there will still be worthwhile improvements in the schools.

He added that education should contribute to the long-term economic health of the state, citing good schools as the flash point for an efficient workforce and migration to the state. 

"If you have to build around something," he said, "this is a good plan to build around."

Whiston said he hope legislation on these changes will make its way to Lansing by June, but with everything else going on in the state it may be held until the fall.