Future of Education holds the future of the community

How many citizens does it take to improve Michigan's schools? 
There may be no sure answer to that question but the Center for Michigan is working to get as many involved as it can. The Center is a nonprofit, nonpartisan company dedicated to programs that offer ways to learn about public policies and steps citizens can take to bring about changes that will improve Michigan. 
Or as founder Phil Power says, the Center for Michigan is a think-and-do-tank that works from the bottom up to bring the voice of the people to the attention of the politicians making policy.
A detailed look at what Michigan's citizens want of their schools is being presented in a series of meetings across the state. The report was presented to about 300 people in Kalamazoo recently as the Center for Michigan leads discussions on improving public education.
More than 5,800 residents participated in community conversations statewide and more than 1,900 were part of in-depth polls, providing the basis for the Center for Michigan's report on options the people prefer when it comes to improving Michigan's schools. 
The reports says citizens of Michigan want the state to improve education in four ways:
• Expand access to publicly funded preschool and other early childhood programs to greatly increase at-risk students' reading and math skills.
• Improve teacher preparation by raising the bar for entry into education degree programs. Teachers also would be required to have a deeper mastery of the subjects they teach than currently required and teacher certification would come with stricter standards.
• Develop stronger ways to support educators once they have begun to teach. Offer more intense mentoring of new teachers, ongoing in-depth training, and the development of master teachers. 
• Hold teachers more accountable for student success by removing poor performers from the classroom and rewarding top performers. 
Citizens also want to reduce class size, though the report says there are few ways the state can afford to do so. They are less interested in expanding charter schools and online learning options. There also was mixed reaction to lengthening the school year. 
In Kalamazoo, four panels took on various aspects of the issue: legislative priorities; the importance of early childhood education; teacher preparation, support and accountability; and strategies for success.
The session got off on a good note with the news that Gov. Rick Snyder wants to increase funding for a state-funded preschool program -- an investment  of $130 million it was announced later in the day. There were some skeptics (or perhaps they were the realists) in the full ballroom at the Radisson, however who expressed concern the funds would come from other parts of the education budget. 
State Sen. Tonya Shuitmaker (R-20th District) and Reps. Margaret O'Brien, (R-61st District) and Sean McCann (D-60th District) all were  enthusiastic about increased funding for early education. They also discussed other reforms the report puts forward. 
 O'Brien told the group that she has dealt with education policy for a number of years in the legislature and she has found support among teachers for improved evaluations.
"What they don't want is evaluations based on whether or not you have shared interests with your principal, which many say is the case right now," O'Brien said. "They want evaluations to have standards that are consistent from building to building. This needs to happen. It's time for teachers to be treated like the professionals that they are." 
The Early Childhood Education Panel pointed out this aspect of education reform is the one getting the most traction in Lansing. 
Jacque Eatmon of the Great Start Collaborative of Kalamazoo County offered statistics that show one-third of students who enroll in kindergarten are not ready for school and she detailed a pilot program that is now in place for children from birth to age 5 designed to see they are better prepared to enter school. A welcome baby basket, playgroups and books, and home visits from family coaches are a few aspects of the program that helps parents become teachers to their children. 
For Bill Parfet, CEO of MPI Research, education reform promotes economic development. "A well-paying job will solve a lot of the problems Michigan is now facing," Parfet said. 
He pointed out that despite Michigan's unemployment rate many employers say they cannot find skilled workers qualified to do the work available. "These employers want two things in their workers: They have to be educated at the college level and they have to be able to think and learn." 
Parfet is convinced that if the state is willing to educate its children so that when they graduate they can be assured well-paying jobs with benefits, "We can bring Michigan and its cities back to its glory." 
Carrie Pickett Erway, President and CEO of the Kalamazoo Community Foundation, described how The Learning Network is providing a unifying force to make sure that all children in the county are ready for school, college, a career, and the world. Through the Learning Network the community is asked to embrace education, to breakdown inequalities that keep children from succeeding, and include those who have been marginalized. The Network uses accountability and metrics to measure success. Toward that end a great deal of data is being recorded and analyzed to determine what is working and what is not.
The Learning Network is at work locally to bring together groups that have common goals, something needed in the community that is "resource rich and coordination poor," Pickett Erway said.
Other viewpoints that came out during the morning:
• Mark Pontoni, a teacher who said he drove five hours from Petosky, told the group that the current focus on standardized testing is like believing the sun rotates around the Earth. "Why can't be Copernicus? We all know standardized tests don't prove students have learned anything. Why can't we say we are not doing this anymore? Why can't we say enough is enough?"
Michael Rice, Superintendent of Kalamazoo Public Schools concurred: "Scrap the MEAP." 
• Elizabeth Lykins, a Grand Rapids-area parent, teacher advocate and school board member, pointed to the education system of Finland, the country with the top test scores in the world. Teachers there are recruited from the top one-third of the class. Teaching is a respected profession and teachers are well paid. Schools there also don't have standardized testing. 
• Walter Burt, Dean of the WMU College of Education, talked about the ways classroom education is changing. Students' ability to instantly call up information from the Internet means teachers are no longer the center of learning. "There's no question we have to do better if we are going to train children to be competitive in a global world," he said.
Giving teachers more field training before they graduate, requiring teachers to choose a major and learn standard information to be taught rather than simply a portion of the topic that interests them are some of the ways teachers can be better prepared, Burt said. 
• The economic development benefits of education reform were reiterated by Southwest Michigan First CEO Ron Kitchens, speaking as part of the panel on solutions. Education "is an economic engine for families," Kitchens said. And those who are educated have "economic self determination." 
Well-educated people drive a community's economic success because they can pay taxes that can be used to maintain better roads and sewers, to pay for police and schools, all of which are needed in the community.
"A well-paying job is a force for change," Kitchens said. "If we change people's lives we can create the community that we hope for, a place where people are educated and educated people want to stay." 
At the close of the three-hour session, Phil Power urged those in attendance to let legislators know their views on education reform.
"Speak up," Power said. "Let legislators know what you are thinking. Let community leaders know. When you do, society is in the hands of the people, not a bunch of special interests."

Kathy Jennings is the managing editor of Southwest Michigan's Second Wave. She is a freelance writer and editor.

Photos by Anthony Steinberg, ASI Studios. He is also found on Facebook

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