Education, Rick Snyder — August 4, 2017

Want to improve Michigan’s schools? Ask teachers, not Gov. Snyder

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A jointly-authored article from Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder and State Superintendent of Schools Brian Whiston appeared recently in The Detroit News. The article was supposed to be a defense of the state’s school reform agenda–which has been, shall we say…underwhelming…in terms of actually…you know…uh…reforming our state’s schools.

The overarching theme of the article, such as it was, was that greater accountability was the solution to all of the state’s education problems. Never mind that we are currently in the throes of the most metrics-obsessed, data-driven, test-it-if-it-moves accountapalooza of an “accountability era” in education history. The current ed reform mantra in Michigan appears to be “if some accountability is good (depends on what kind of accountability, how it’s designed, who it’s administered to, how many times per year, how the results are used), then more accountability is better (hardly ever)”. And yet, after a solid decade of “No Child Left Untested” in our state, the results do not show that the reform agenda has been successful–if anything, just the opposite. Student graduations rates are down, teacher education admissions are down, test scores are down, state spending on education is down, teacher morale is down. It’s almost as if the only thing that’s not accountable in the state are the school reform initiatives themselves, and the persons and organizations behind them (I’m looking at you, Betsy DeVos and the Great Lakes Education Project).

Among the questionable assertions made by Gov. Snyder and Superintendent Whiston in this article was this gem:

“As we wrestled with how to best improve the academic achievement of students, we found that each school’s case was different and unique.”

Sometimes people tell you things that they don’t think they are telling you. In this case, Gov. Snyder and Mr. Whiston are revealing just how much they don’t know about how education works. And why our state’s education policies have been so spectacularly unsuccessful. In fact, what’s truly surprising is how good Michigan’s schools really are, given that the state’s education policies are so stunningly bad.

While I’m glad that Snyder and Whiston have “wrestled” with the thorny problem of improving student test scores, I’d remind them that those test scores are a pretty poor proxy for real academic achievement. For one thing, they only measure “achievement” in two subjects–math and reading. For another, these kinds of test scores are really, really poor indicators of learning, even in math and reading. Also, the test results are not used to help students improve their learning, or to help teachers improve their teaching–they are mostly used to rank and sort schools that are then targeted by the state for “assistance”. Here’s how Snyder and Whiston put it:

The Michigan Department of Education’s Partnership Model is built to improve student academic achievement by identifying schools in need of additional support and drawing up a partnership agreement with the school and community partners to generate a plan for success.

In practice, what this “additional support” and these “plans for success” have really meant is that low scores get your school placed on the state’s “naughty list”, and enter you into a fun-filled raffle resulting in massive teacher turnover and school closings.

The other use for these test scores is equally heinous–to decide which teachers get fired. And we do this even though we know that using student test scores for this purpose is invalid, unreliable, and just flat out wrong. It’s almost as though Michigan’s school reform efforts are impervious to research, careful thought, and common sense.

So, here’s my research-informed, carefully thought-out, and common-sensical response to Gov. Snyder and Superintendent Whiston’s claim that “each school’s case was different and unique”:

  1. Really? Who could have known that schools in Detroit could be so different than schools in Grosse Pointe? Who could have known that trying to build “a model…to improve student academic achievement” by placing schools on a school closing list, or convert them to charter schools, could be so counter-productive and discriminatory?
  2. If “each school’s case was different and unique”, then why are all schools being evaluated in the same way?
  3. If “each school’s case was different and unique”, then why are all teachers—regardless of what, or who, or where, they teach—being evaluated in the same way?
  4. If “each school’s case was different and unique”, then why are all students—regardless of where they live, or how much money their parents make, or their specific learning needs or challenges—being evaluated in the same way?

With all due respect to the governor and state superintendent, neither of whom has ever worked as a teacher for a single day, or ever taught anyone anything, why these two men are making education policy for our state, instead of asking questions and listening to teachers, parents, and students across Michigan, is simply beyond me.

Here’s a research-informed, carefully thought-out, and common-sensical suggestion for Snyder and Whiston: leave the improvement of student learning to the professionals, and use your power to work to improve the learning conditions for our state’s students, teachers, and schools.

Instead of slashing budgets for schools, colleges, and universities in your state, make sure that appropriations are adequate and reasonable.

Instead of targeting “38 schools at risk of closure, all located in majority African American schools with 25 in Detroit,” ask why those students deserve less than your children, who attended schools with safe, clean, and well-maintained facilities, and rich curriculums including music, art, physical education, libraries, school counselors and nurses.

Instead of ratcheting up the rhetoric that demonizes teachers, attacks teacher unions, and abolishes teacher pensions, show your support for these individuals by implementing policies that treat them like professionals, and respect the work they do with our state’s children.

All of the citizens in Michigan are united in wanting our schools to meet the needs of our children. The difference is that those making the policies that govern our educational system don’t know what they don’t know. If Gov. Snyder and Superintendent Whiston are truly interested in finding out how to improve our schools, they should start by asking the experts–the people that spend every day working in those schools–our children and our teachers.

I’m pretty sure our state’s education policies would look very different if they did.

  • Heidi Lindborg

    FYI, the picture on this article is of a school in Seattle Washington that was closed for renovations 20 years ago. I lived across the street at the time, and that sign was my view. In reality, that building is filled with high tech and a rainbow of students.

    • Mitchell Robinson

      Thanks! Pic has been changed…

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