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The Education Reform Dance Continues – Who Is Leading?

Dome Magazine

By Tom Watkins

The Center for Michigan has one. So does the Governor and the Legislature. Even the Oxford Foundation has one ( It seems that everyone—with the exception of the educational community—has one. What is it? A plan for educational reform.

Gathering last week in Lansing—the home of our State Capitol—was yet another conference on educational reform, this one hosted by The Center for Michigan ( The Center is to be commended for putting ideas on the table via their new report on education reform, and for hosting The PUBLIC’S Agenda for Public Education. However, “education reform” is beginning to feel like the peace process in the Middle East.

Certainly educators are part of the mix in the various reports, but where is the road map from the educational community showing us their way? Shouldn’t the education community—which includes teachers, principals, parents, superintendents and school board members—be developing a shared vision and common agenda for ensuring that our children receive the education they need and deserve? At the end of the day, providing quality educators with the right tools and support to do their job—educating our children for the hyper-competitive, technologically-driven, knowledge economy –is what really matters. NOT rhetoric from the State Capitol!

So, where are the educators amidst all of the educational reform buzz in Lansing? Shouldn’t they have a leading role? I am not talking about lobbying efforts against Governor Snyder’s reform agenda or the legislation he introduced. It is easy to be against something. The more difficult task lies in creating a comprehensive agenda that addresses the issue. Quite simply, the educators’ plan is missing from the debate. Complaints from the traditional education community center on the direction Governor Snyder wants to take — with no comprehensive counter plan that addresses the shortcomings of our schools (traditional and charter). Educators have left a void that others are rushing to fill.

While the Center for Michigan’s latest report captures a segment of the public’s voice on education reform, we need more visionary leadership. Direction that does not tether change and progress to what the public wants or is ready to accept. We would still be working on how to improve the horse and buggy if we adhered to that philosophy. The voices of those in the classroom—teachers and their students—are as yet too anemic in this vital debate. We need to ask, “What if the impossible isn’t impossible?” We need pioneers—not settlers—who are willing to innovate to educate, and not be held back by public opinion. We need to think about how our system of education should prepare our children for their future rather than our past.

In 2004, I pointed out that we had a structural funding problem facing our public education system ( that would bankrupt our schools if not addressed. Unfortunately, that has proven to be accurate over time.

In 2005 I wrote, The New Educational (R)evolution; e-learning for Michigan ( setting forth policy recommendations to facilitate technology uses that would help personalize learning. Unfortunately, they have yet to be fully implemented.

I am not advocating reckless change without progress, but instead the change that puts TLC (Teaching, Learning and Children) above the political fray that far too often favors PCPA (Power, Control, Politics and Adults). When asked what made him so great, Wayne Gretzky often replied, “I skate to where the puck will be – not to where the puck is!” I am reminded of this quote as I watch policy wonks flock once again to the State Capitol Education Reform watering hole, even as hard-working teachers and principals toil in schools and classrooms.

Governor Snyder spelled out his educational policy initiative in April 2011, identifying the problems he saw in our educational system and the solutions to address them:

If neither the Governor’s nor the Center for Michigan’s plan is the answer, then what? Doing nothing is not an option. There are a slew of Lansing-based educational organizations: The State Board of Education, the Parent, Teacher Association, the Michigan Association of School Administrators, the Michigan Association of School Boards, The Principals’ Association, the Michigan Education Association and The Michigan Federation of Teachers…the list goes on and on even as they group themselves into an, “Educational Alliance.” But, where is their plan? I have heard from many of these groups that they dislike what the Governor is, “doing” to public education. However, I have yet to see their alternative solution.

The voice of the educator needs to become louder, more productive and more forceful in the reform debate. Opposition is not a plan. Our schools remain a vital link to the future prosperity of Michigan and our country. The debate is critical but it must be larger than shooting the messenger while asking for more money…or simply complaining about what the messenger is proposing. Sadly, great educators know we need real change to produce real progress. Yet, their voices remain mostly silent. Isn’t it about time that education’s Rip Van Winkle wake up?

Leadership does matter. But with leadership missing from the education community, others are rightfully filling the void. Educators, our students await your ideas and action!