Top 10 in 10: Reality for Michigan or Just Empty Rhetoric?

Yesterday I attended the METS Fall 2016 Rally in Jackson, MI at a wonderfully creative and innovative space created by Consumer’s Energy. It is a true example of combining new and old with collaborative and non-traditional learning spaces. Classroom design and flexible learning spaces seem to be on my mind lately as I begin providing input to our District Bond Committee in charge of purchasing new equipment, furniture, and other learning materials for our re-designed schools. While it is important to remember that simply changing “X” isn’t going to result in [insert educational buzzword here], it is equally important to begin the conversation about what learning looks like.

For myself, I often struggle to be creative or even productive in my office building cubicle. I’m constantly distracted by the ringing phone, people coming in and out, sounds of the copy machine, etc., not to mention being surrounded by concrete blocks, beige cubicle dividers, and no access to flexible seating or alternative lighting. Alternatively, when I can curl up on a beanbag, sit outside, or enjoy some natural light, I feel much more energized and engaged with my work. The same is true for our students. I always hear the comments from teachers after a long day at a conference about how tired they are – from SITTING!

One of our discussions at the Rally yesterday centered around the State Superintendent’s missive to make Michigan a Top Ten state for education in ten years. To that end, he has laid out a plan of 10 strategic goals that we as a state need to pursue and get better at if we are to thrive and improve education in this state. You can read more about the plan here.

While on its surface, these ten strategic goals sound wonderful and certainly no one is going to disagree with things like, “Develop, support, and sustain a high-quality, prepared, and collaborative workforce”. However, we spent a fair amount of time digging in to these strategic goals, and a few things struck me. There are a variety of underlying issues that must be addressed in order to truly help Michigan schools become one of the top 10 in the nation.

We discussed these strategic goals in a really innovative format. There were several tables set up; at each table was either a high school student from an area school or a young professional from the area. Each guest had a strategic goal they discussed with the others at the table. It was a unique way to discuss a variety of issues with a diverse group of people.

As I listened to one particular guest discuss the importance of strategic goal 4 – “Reduce the impact of high-risk factors, including poverty, and provide equitable resources to meet the needs of all students to ensure they have access to quality educational opportunities” – I was struck by how little of this is within the control of schools and districts. Michigan schools are funded through property taxes, but how much of those taxes are allocated for schools are decided by the state legislature on a per-pupil allotment. Resources to support families – welfare, affordable child care, access to reliable transportation, access to healthy food – have been whittled away and so many students come to schools without their basic needs being met. We have so many more responsibilities and duties as schools, but have less money than ever with which to fulfill these.

Another factor that strikes me as puzzling is the goal of creating “a prepared and quality future workforce[.]” We as teachers know that teaching students to fill in bubbles, take tests online, and memorize facts and figures aren’t what’s best for students. We also know that those types of skills are not in demand in today’s workforce. Children need to learn how to interact appropriately in a digital space, students need practice and access to engaging with others around the globe. Students should be creating and curating, not consuming and engaging in “digital worksheets.” And yet…teachers are evaluated on how well their students achieve on an assessment. We measure all students’ learning via a standardized test. We are still checking boxes instead of using a holistic approach that evaluates multiple factors of a teacher’s “effectiveness.” In fact, the state superintendent released his recommendations recently for ANOTHER new state test. For the past two years, schools have used the online M-STEP test that is administered in the spring. Districts throughout the state spent countless hours ensuring their networks were ready to handle the influx of traffic, that computers were functional. Teachers helped their students navigate the testing environment so that the test would measure what students actually know rather than how well they can take a test online. In our district, because many of our schools are 4-6, the better part of two MONTHS were engaged in testing, taking away valuable computer time because those labs were tied up with testing. Now, the superintendent wants to do away with the M-STEP, create a new, different assessment, and have it be administered in both the fall AND the spring.

We know what’s best for kids. We want students to show us what they know. We want them to be prepared to engage with and in the workforce. We want them to have access to a variety of educational opportunities. And yet, we also still seem to want them to be really good test takers. Teachers simply do not have time – or the freedom – to take risks in their classrooms when they know they are being evaluated on a state test.

It’s imperative that we as a society look at our values and our priorities. We cannot continue to cut taxes for the wealthiest 1% and lessen the amount of dollars going into social welfare problems and expect change. Schools cannot do it all. Parents cannot do it all. Even together, parents and schools, cannot do it all. Without the support, skills, training, and resources that can be provided through state and federal agencies, we risk being able to truly make Michigan a Top 10 in 10.

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