Politics & Prejudices
Save our schools
The unusual idea that schools are for children
Published: December 1, 2010
A few years ago, a woman I knew moved into Detroit and decided to try putting her son, a slow learner, into a public high school.
She had been warned that the schools were impossible. However, she was somewhat of an idealist who believed public schools were essential to our democracy. So she felt it was important to at least give them a try. She thought the horror stories had to be exaggerated.
They weren't. The district put her son, for whom graduating would have been a challenge in any case, into all Advanced Placement classes. There was no way he could pass those classes. She called the office. Sorry, they said.
Those are classes where we have empty desks, so that's where we put him. He dropped out, and I lost track of them. Other educators have told me that stories like that are common.
But Detroit's wretchedly dysfunctional schools aren't the main issue. What really matters is the impending failure of all our state's public schools. Michigan, once a high-income state, is now headed for the cellar, thanks to the collapse of our old brawn-based economy.
In terms of per-person income, we are now 37th or lower, and on a rapid transit ride to the bottom. Tom Watkins, perhaps the most thoughtful state superintendent of schools in recent times, says our system of public education is "bankrupt — fiscally, morally and academically." Watkins was our state's top education official until 2005, when he challenged the prevailing orthodoxy.
Gov. Jennifer Granholm then promptly forced him out of office. Watkins is a man of integrity; when the Toledo Public Schools offered him the top job this year, Watkins asked for unanimous support of the board, so that he could make the hard and necessary changes that urban school district needs to make to survive. They wouldn't give it to him, and so he declined to take the job. Now, he works as a business and education consultant here and in China, a nation he tells me, is getting the better of us in both arenas.
The biggest trouble with education in this state, he says, is not the amount of money we are spending. It is that we aren't thinking about it in the right way. "Conservatives" are all about slashing teacher salaries, benefits and pensions, which account for the vast majority of education spending. So-called liberals want to protect our teachers' standards of living. Neither camp thinks much about the only thing that matters — educating our children.
We have other things to worry about than the "brain drain," of graduates fleeing our state for jobs in Chicago. "We need to be equally concerned about the uneducated and undereducated ones that stay behind," Watkins notes.
You'd never know from the newspapers what happens to the hundreds of thousands of dropouts and barely literate high school "graduates" the system churns out, year after year. Many, maybe most, will eventually become an expensive drain on society. The bottom line is that our education system is clearly not designed for the benefit of the person who is supposed to be its focus: the student. Six years ago, realizing this, Watkins took on the education establishment. He posed, in various ways, the question he asked in a guest column in the Dearborn Press and Guide last week: "Would our schools exist for teaching, learning and children, or exist for power, control, politics and adults?"
Watkins soon found out that, as he puts it, "the latter won." Outgoing Speaker of the House Andy Dillon found out much the same when he suggested that, in a state with shrinking resources, teacher pensions and health care benefits couldn't stay the same as in the good old full-employment-at-high wages days.
The angry teachers' union bureaucrats did their best to destroy his candidacy for governor. Meanwhile, Watkins knows better than most people that "unless we reinvent our schools, and have the imagination to do so, we will fail as a state and a nation."
How to do that is tricky — but not the hardest part. "Clearly, I do not have the answers," Watkins told me last weekend. "But we are at a period where if we are going to forge meaningful change in our society, this is it."
Though a lifelong Democrat, he is hopeful Gov.-elect Rick Snyder will really be willing to think outside the box and revamp education. Otherwise, it won't make a damn bit of difference if they cut our tax rate to zero. New economy, high-paying jobs and businesses aren't coming. Devising a new, student-centered statewide model for education may be challenging, but is certainly doable.
Watkins is a fan of the WAY Program — Widening Advancement for Youth, a personalized learning experience for students who haven't done well in traditional high school. WAY is being tried in the Washtenaw Intermediate School district this year.
Regardless of method, what's really needed here is what amounts to the equivalent of a World War II-style, full-mobilization attitude. Michigan needs to make properly educating our children our top priority, period. We shouldn't even be thinking about the costs until we find out what we need to do to get the job done.
For Tom Watkins, that means reinventing education, as a step in reinventing and reviving our state. "We must substitute brain power for brawn power. Quality education, from the womb to the tomb is the foundation a repowered Michigan needs."
"The only question that remains is will we commit ourselves to it?" We haven't so far. With a new governor, a new Legislature and a huge new deficit, we have a new chance to find out.
Justice for Debbie: For years, right-wing blogger Debbie Schlussel has whined a lot, in an apparent attempt to convince the metropolitan area she is some sort of local Ann Coulter, and/or an expert on Islam. She's done about as well with both goals as Rodney Dangerfield did with being universally respected.
> Email Jack Lessenberry