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Education in Michigan can improve, if it’s done right

Publication date: Oct 31, 2015

by Amber Arellano, Detroit Free Press guest writer

Imagine a public education system where many educators lack a clear sense of what skills their students need to learn each academic year, where instruction doesn’t build always on instruction of the previous year in a coherent way for students, and even when it does, the standards for teaching and learning often are set terribly low.

Now imagine a system where the standards are not only set high for all students, but educators are trained and effectively prepared to meet those new standards. Each year they regularly receive data-driven feedback on how well they are teaching those new standards, and over time they will be held accountable for them. What’s more, over time teachers report feeling more satisfied with their profession.

This is the kind of dramatic shift — and incredible opportunity – Michigan now faces. It’s also the kind of systemic change that’s been needed in our state — and it has the potential to catapult Michigan students’ achievement levels just as it has in leading education states such as Massachusetts and Tennessee.

This shift is being driven by two major changes under way this month. The first is the Legislature’s approval of Michigan’s first statewide educator evaluation and support system, which was designed in large part by Deborah Ball, a nationally respected dean at the University of Michigan’s School of Education. So far, state leaders have invested $14 million in the new system, which has been four years in the making.

The second driver of this shift: Michigan’s implementation of new college- and career-ready standards for teaching and learning. Just last week, the state released the first assessment data based on these new standards.

In the nation’s leading and fast-improving education states, the first step taken toward dramatic learning improvement was raising standards. By expecting more from our educators and schools, and over time holding them accountable for effectively educating at these new higher levels, Michigan will better serve its students in every corner of the state.

Taken together, the new standards with the emerging statewide evaluation and support system represent one of the most important opportunities to significantly improve teaching and learning in Michigan in decades. But transformation for students will only happen if these changes are implemented well.

Strong implementation takes strong leadership. It takes investment. It takes a state commitment to ensuring teachers and principals are properly trained to teach at higher levels; that principals know how to lead these instructional shifts for their teachers; and helpful instructional resources and other aligned supports provided to districts that today are often so strapped, they are struggling to balance their budgets, much less spend millions on curriculum and data.

It takes state leaders who are willing to learn from leading states and who are open to adopting fresh approaches to things like training, rather than utilizing the same methods through Intermediate School Districts that far too many educators in the field say are downright unhelpful.

Michigan’s state leaders have a poor track record on this type of work. In part, that weakness has led Michigan students to become among the lowest achieving children in the country. Just last week, the national assessment showed Michigan fourth-graders fell from 38th to 41st in reading.

The bottom of a national ranking in a country that’s far behind the industrialized world for student achievement is not where we want to be.

Still, I am tremendously hopeful about these changes. Educators across the state tell us how rich the new standards are, and they want time and resources to implement them well in their classrooms. More state leaders are expressing greater interest in investing in educator capacity-building efforts.

It will take time for leaders and educators to learn how to implement these new standards and systems, too. We know from other states that learning levels are likely to improve over a few years — again, if implementation is done well — as students and teachers become more familiar with higher expectations.

Providing great schools for all children in Michigan is not just a sound investment in our future. It’s also an investment in a more democratic society, one where every child is given a fair and honest chance to achieve the American dream. It’s a civil rights issue.

For Michigan to become a top 10 education state, we need to expect more from our teachers, administrators, students, parents and policy makers. It won’t be easy, but if we focus on the right priorities, and are tenacious in our commitment to them, we can do this.

Amber Arellano is executive director of Education Trust-Midwest.

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