Are We Sure About This?

This morning I read about the Nexus School in RO.  Last week it was the Branch School in Livonia, both touting their unique approach to offering education--their innovation, their caring for each child.  And as I read about them, I was deeply saddened by what is happening to public education.  Both of these schools may be very good.  I want to believe that they truly have the best interests of each student at the core of their philosophies and practice.  As a former public school administrator I know that the desire for innovation; for project based learning; for smaller class size to focus more on individual needs is present in EVERY public school in Michigan. I know that public school teachers  go to work every single day hoping to reach each student, make a difference in each young person's life.  But, public schools have always struggled for enough resources to do the job they wanted to do.  In the past ten years or so, this struggle has reached epidemic proportions.  Public school teachers are hamstrung with rules, regimented curriculum, evaluations based on unrealistic expectations, declining resources, reductions in pay, health insurance and increased class size.  Their heads are spinning and the thought of introducing new ideas is not supported.  They are struggling to maintain even the tried and true methods that they know will work.  And on top of these issues, is the overwhelming attitude of the majority of the legislature and many community members, that teachers make too much money and don't do enough work.  They are often disparaged and disrespected.  Their motivation is suspect and instead of supporting the very people whom we want to care for and educate our children, we demonize and mistrust them.  And we ask them to do more and more with less and less.  We ask them to innovate and then we don't give them the tools they need to do so.  For example, in Farmington, we voted down an important bond issue that would have supported some of the very things that charter and for-profit schools will be able to provide.  We don't hold charter and for-profit schools to the same standards and yet without any proof that some of the advertised innovations work, we divert critical public school funds for experimentation. 
I am not against experiments.  I have always been an "early adopter" of promising educational trends.  But, this current fad of taking dollars away from public schools for non-proven charters and for-profits is frightening.  Why not shore up our public schools, give them the money they need to do a good job and demand that they show us the results?  We don't always have to throw the baby out with the bath water.  Let's save what is good and improve what isn't working.  We have thousands of bright, motivated, professional educators in MI, who would just love the opportunity and flexibility to do what the charters and for profits are doing.  We've invested in these professionals.  It would be wise to let them do the things they know how and want to do....make MI schools the best they can be. 
bill largent September 03, 2013 at 04:21 PM
Cheryl: You lay out a compelling case for the challenges facing educator's today. However your shift from facts... (Public school teachers are hamstrung with rules, regimented curriculum, evaluations based on unrealistic expectations, declining resources, reductions in pay, health insurance and increased class size)...to opinion...(Why not shore up our public schools, give them the money they need to do a good job and demand that they show us the results? We don't always have to throw the baby out with the bath water)... ignores two critical elements of this issue. 1. There was never any evidence that building $222 million in upgraded facilities would have any impact what-so-ever on the educational outcomes. In fact at the recent Board meeting, Superintendent Zurvalec specifically denied ever tying the issue to improved outcomes. (although the School Newsletter states exactly the opposite) And Board member George Gurola scoffed at the idea that there should be any relationship between the funding and educational excellence. 2. You equate more funding with better outcomes. Study after study shows funding levels have little to do with educational achievement. In addition, no matter how much money is provided to school systems, it is never enough. School systems around the country, not just Detroit are technically bankrupt. I am part of the community that wants to support our schools, teachers, music, arts and athletic programs. You may recall in 2004 when I was a candiate for the Michigan House of Representatives that I endorsed the school athletic field bond. But ten years of deficits, falling test scores and constant whining by the board that it was somebody else's fault (Lansing, the Legislator, Governor Engler, George Bush) have cost this board all credibility. Their "trust us" approach to now wanting to spend $180+ million is a non-starter. We anticipate once again we will defeat the bond proposal in November and hope the board will take us at our word when we say we can guarantee passage of a proposal if they will only allow us to participate more than 5 minutes (strictly timed) once a month.
Cheryl Willette September 04, 2013 at 08:13 AM
My commentary was aimed at the "whole cloth" of the war on public education. I used the Farmington bond issue failure as one example. But, since Mr. Largent wants to used this forum to debate the bond issue, let me clarify. Strictly speaking, one cannot generalize that more dollars equate to better education. One would be a fool to make that assertion. And, while I do feel that failure to pass the bond was very unfortunate, I am not saying that money alone is the answer. However, one can say that decaying infrastructure, lack of technology, larger class size and the diversion of limited resources from student instruction and purchase of up-to-date learning materials to pay for items like safety upgrades and costly repairs to old buildings, is going to have an impact on the quality of the education we are already providing. Doesn't it stand to reason that as costs for everything are rising, and our schools are getting older, that money has to be stretched farther each year. I think that Mr. Largent has an argument with the Board for some reason. It may be legitimate, it may be imagined. I have no knowledge of the reasons. I am only a citizen in this community. But, I must say, this sounds a lot like, "If you don't play the game my way, I'm going to pick up my marbles and go home." Only the stakes are higher---these are our children's lives and their futures. I have 30 years of experience in public education. I have 67 years of experience in life. And this is what I know: The learning environment DOES make a difference; Up-to-date materials and technology ARE necessary for today's students; class size directly relates to teacher ability to focus on individual needs; and failure to support public schools drives parents to charter and for profit schools, for which there is little proof of superior programs. And most of all, the way we treat educators in our society is a clear picture of the value we place on our children. We entrust our children to educators for a minimum of six hours everyday. We want them to be nurtured, taught everything from basic skills to job skills, fed healthy food, kept safe, offered after school programs and sometimes coddled. Yet, often we ask educators to do this for less money and reduced resources. In my humble opinion.....that's a real shame!
bill largent September 05, 2013 at 05:22 PM
Cheryl: I see no point in a protracted back and forth. Of course environment makes a difference. But there is diminshing return. For years I sat on the board of New Detroit. We commissioned a study to identify issues impacting performance and teachers ablitiy to help children learn and found the obvious; They had inadequate supplies, the schools had leaky roofs, kids had to walk past gangs and prostitutes and drug dealers to get to class, they often hadn't eaten breakfast. But that isn't the condition of our schools. We need some maintenance. We have already put locks and camera and remote opening devices on school doors. There was piece on NPR's "The Word" two weeks ago you mght enjoy entitle the "Smartest Kids in the World" and it examined the three countries with the best performing educational system; Korea...Where they work the kids to death, Finland...some pluses, some minuses and Poland where they have almost no technology but spend immense amounts of time on personal one-on-one instruction. In the past 10 years they have jettisoned up the education ladder. Last Saturday no NPR 101.9 (WDET) there was a 90 minute segment on a school that replicates the old one room school system. One teacher for each subject...one guy for math for all students, one for reading, writing, etc. They leveraged computer self paced training modules. The results were astounding. I am not an education expert. I simply know that continuing to throw money at things (healthcare, education, job training) is not working and is not sustainable. Our school board holds many in this community in contempt becasue we would dare to question their actions or intellectual superiority. If you allow someone ten years to control an entity and at the end of that ten years results are worse, reserve funds are virtually depleted, and the vast majority of the ten years they spent more than they received, would you not ask questions? It is true the cost of things are going up (albeit at a snail's pace) but the costs they are dealing with are health and pension (they will realize health savings this year due to state legisltation requireing staff to contribute 20% to health care cost) and labor agreements they negotiated years ago (wages have been and remain frozen at the moment) As I have said at every opportunity, I am part of a well informed, well educated and well connected community that wants to see a bond proposal pass. Just not this one. And not until the board agrees to accept our input. sorry for the long windedness. Bill


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