State Superintendent Reports on Michigan’s Failing Schools, Education Committee Members Point Fingers at Teachers

Written by: Amy Auletto

Primary Source: Green & Write, February 17, 2016

On February 16, Michigan’s Senate Education Committee met to hear a presentation delivered by State Superintendent Brian J. Whiston. The presentation focused on Michigan’s failing schools and the Michigan Department of Education’s (MDE) plans for improving them. Whiston and his colleagues highlighted schools that have moved from priority to reward status and shared turnaround strategies that have been successful in these schools. The state superintendent also invited legislators to aid the MDE in their work. Whiston’s requests included the following:

  •  Partner with MDE in the implementation of the Every Child Succeeds Act (ESSA) and the Top 10 in 10, an initiative that intends to make Michigan a top 10 performing state in the next 10 years
  • Continue to invest in at-risk funding
  • Support school turnaround efforts
  • Support the use of Surveys of Enacted Curriculum, a tool designed to help schools report and reflect on their curriculum and instructional practices

State Superintendent Brian Whiston: “We Are Still Failing Some Students.”

A recurring theme throughout the state superintendent’s presentation was the need to support students attending low-performing schools, especially those in high-poverty areas. While Whiston shared success stories demonstrating how a number of schools have been making significant progress, he did not downplay the fact that many schools are still struggling. The superintendent pointed out that a majority of priority schools are located in urban areas and argued that the conditions in these schools are, “not fair to the students, community, and taxpayers.” Whiston also proposed a tiered funding approach, where districts with the highest numbers of at-risk students would be given additional per pupil 31a dollars (state funding for at-risk students). The state superintendent made it clear to Senate Education Committee members that there is still work to be done, reiterating the fact that “we are still failing some students.”

Senator Knollenberg: “Sometimes It Takes New People to Implement Those Changes.”

Photo Courtesy of Pentax K-M

Photo Courtesy of Pentax K-M

Throughout Whiston’s presentation, committee members repeatedly called into question the abilities and motives of teachers. Senator Marty Knollenberg pointed out the fact that a majority of education expenses go to teacher salaries and that significant changes in personnel are sometimes required to reform a school. He voiced concern over the fact that the plans presented by Whiston do not make reference to any plans to replace teachers in failing schools. Senator Goeff Hansen went on to question whether or not teachers have the ability to understand achievement data and suggested that an inability to interpret this data may be hindering teachers’ capacities to improve their instruction. When the topic of teacher incentives for extra instructional time came up, Senator Darwin Booher pushed back and alluded to the fact that teachers are being paid additional money to improve achievement when this is something they should already be doing.

To each of these criticisms, Whiston was prepared to respond. He replied to Sen. Knollenberg by explaining that school leadership comes first and that staffing changes are made when the data indicates that teachers are not effective. In response to Sen. Hansen, he clarifying that the MDE provides training on how to interpret data, and he countered Sen. Hansen by stating, “Dedicated staff are making sure it happens regardless of incentives.”

Are Teachers Really to Blame?

While Whiston delivered a very balanced presentation, highlighting both success stories and future work that needs to be done in Michigan’s failing schools, committee members were focused on placing blame on classroom teachers. While research repeatedly demonstrates that teachers do matter (see here and here), the importance of other factors – building quality, adequate funding levels, and the impact of poverty – cannot be discounted. In a state that funds high-poverty districts at lower rates and allows Detroit’s students to be educated in abysmal school buildings, it’s no surprise that some of Michigan’s schools are failing. Let’s hope that the superintendent’s message was not lost on education committee members. Rather than participating in the ongoing war on teachers, it’s time for legislators to acknowledge the real causes of Michigan’s failing schools and work in partnership with the MDE to address these issues.

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Amy Auletto
Amy Auletto is a doctoral student in Educational Policy. She is interested in the impact that equitable funding and access to effective teachers have on the educational outcomes of disadvantaged student populations. Prior to beginning her studies at Michigan State University, she taught middle school math in Detroit. Amy earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology, master of Social Work, and MA in educational studies from the University of Michigan.