Implausible Solutions for Michigan Education

Ross Douthat of The New York Times has been presenting a series of articles that suggest ways of approaching difficult national challenges that he calls, “deliberately implausible ideas.” These particular columns approach topics with answers that are sure to irritate all sides of any selected issue. Today I am presenting solutions to Michigan’s education matters in a similar manner.

The only “ideas” we often hear anymore from Lansing and now from B. DeVos in Washington have to do with school choice. School choice is not a new idea. It has been around in Michigan since the passage of Proposal A in 1994. It is reasonable to expect that if choice were going to solve inequalities in our system, being given twenty-three years to do so is an adequate amount of time. After two plus decades for these ideas to prove themselves, the data indicate that charters and schools of choice do not produce better students.

Any reasonable attempt to irritate both sides of the issue in matters pertaining to education must have some balance. Not everything that has come from the Republican side of the isle has been bad for education. The changes made to the tenure system and evaluations under Governor Snyder have been a positive. Schools no longer have to lose a good teacher and keep a less able one simply due to seniority. Keeping the best teachers in classrooms is a win for students. While I cannot say that mandating any one type of evaluation model, as the state has mandated districts to select, will improve student outcomes—I can say that keeping staff in relation to earned evaluations is better for students than laying off due to the date on which a person was hired.

Additionally, Governor Snyder has proposed a budget for 2017-18 that at last recognizes that some students cost more to educate than others. High schools are more expensive to run than elementary schools. Gov. Snyder recognizes this in his budget when he recommends more per student for high schools. Gov. Snyder also recognized that providing education online costs far less than in a school setting. His budget correctly recommends cutting the budget for such programs in half and moving the dollars to at-risk funding. Again, children who have multiple risk factors need more and more costly intervention than students who do not face such challenges. The governor’s budget is in itself a fine example of a deliberately implausible idea. Gov. Snyder’s budget should be passed this year as is.

My implausible ideas for schools are drawn from my experiences, and my concerns about education learned from what is now approaching (much to my surprise) thirty years in schools as a teacher, curriculum director, principal and now as superintendent.

For some time now I have let anyone who will listen know of my concern about replacing our current teacher ranks as folks retire. Stagnant wages, increasing expectations, negative (and often unfair) commentary, rising college costs, and who knows what other factors have led to a pipeline of new teachers that is nowhere near significant enough to fill vacancies. Already there are districts that have had positions open for a year or more and been unable to fill them. My district has been lucky three times when we had openings and only had one qualified applicant for each. By lucky I mean that the folks who applied have been good teachers. I expect our luck will run out in the not distant future. I also expect that we will not be alone in our misfortune.

We simply have to make teaching a more attractive career for more and more capable people. Here is what I propose:

  1. Extend the school year to 200 days for students.
  2. Mandate teacher school years of 210 days.
  3. Mandate that schools use a portion of the 10 days for teachers during the school year in order to meet and consult about student in year data.
  4. Change testing in the state for students to a test that is given three times during the year in all core content areas in grades K-12. Data from said tests is to be available to schools to use during the aforementioned days for staff examination and discussion.
  5. Increase school funding on a per diem basis to schools for each of the extra required days.

Why these recommendations? We know that one of the reasons at-risk students lag behind their peers is due to the long amount of time between the end of one school year and the beginning of the next. Adding days will increase time in class and shorten the time between leaving one year and beginning the next.
Since the state cut the ability of schools to use teacher training time as class time, fitting time to meet into the school year has been more difficult. Mandating more time and time spent on student data should help staff respond quickly (with the suggested testing framework) to student needs.

These ideas are certain to irritate different folks for different reasons. The state has been reluctant to provide adequate funding despite studies showing Michigan’s funding system is inadequate. Providing more days for more dollars allows politicians to say they are simply adjusting funding to meet increased days. Having more per diem days will increase teacher salaries, perhaps to the point where more folks will find teaching to be an attractive profession. Some teachers will undoubtably balk at the increased number of working days.

Of course if we want a simpler solution we could simply look to Massachusetts, whose former curriculum some state legislators want to adopt, copy what they do and provide the same levels of funding and staffing as found therein. Doing so would also likely be an implausible idea. Regardless of the approach, Michigan needs better and new solutions for its students and for the state to be competitive.

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