Is public education improving in Michigan?


Michigan public education is shifting from being the "establishment" to being the "movement." But while there is certainly much more to do, there is much to celebrate, too.

Our public schools are not nearly as bad as critics want you to believe. Michigan fourth- and eighth-graders recently scored higher than the national average on a National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) mathematics test. Many good things are happening, too. A bill in the state Senate, SB 614, paves the way for legislative approval for a specialty license plate supporting public education. And we have begun to build a new accreditation system involving everyone with a stake in public education.

Of course, there are troubles as well. I am frustrated by the gap between what those who wax eloquently about their undying support of public education say and what they do to support teaching and learning. It concerns me that there is an ever-increasing number of students entering school with limited readiness to learn. There also is a persistent academic achievement gap between middle-class and poor and minority children. Ideological and political battles often seem more directed at partisan gain rather than academic achievement for all children. Our educational system touts college as the only viable option for children when employers are begging for competent, technically trained people who may not wear a business suit to work but will earn comfortable middle-class wages.

It concerns me that many parents seem to believe a new charter school or an existing private school is automatically better than the traditional neighborhood school. I find it troubling that the violence and bullying that permeates our society may take the life of another child or educator. Too many excellent, creative teachers who make learning exciting will change professions for higher-paid opportunities while less productive teachers will retire on the job and coast toward their pensions. Too often we allow societal challenges such as poverty, English as a second language, uneducated parents, or drug and alcohol abuse to be an excuse for not educating all children.

I fear that we will allow calls for reform without funds and calls for more money without reform to drown each other out. And probably most important of all: Too many people are leaving the important task of educating our children solely to educators when we all should be taking responsibility.

The 2001-02 school year is already underway. For many, it will be an exhilarating year as students learn to read and write, master a difficult subject, are admitted to the university or technical program of their choice, finally grasp algebra, help tutor a classmate, go to the prom, excel in athletics or forensics, march with the band, or act in a play.

Yet, we also know that the number of dropouts, functional illiterates, and students with no direction and even less hope is overwhelming. These are our children, too. As a community, we must find ways to connect with all children.

Our public schools and the dedicated teachers who work in them have made America the greatest country on the face of the earth. Michigan has fabulous teachers such as 2000-01 Michigan Teacher of the Year Jim Linsell from Traverse City Public Schools. Jim, and many other high-quality teachers like him, believe in building a strong sense of self in students, emphasizing real-world connections in the classroom to motivate students, inspiring creativity, and most importantly, making learning meaningful. In short, the quality of our teachers today is the gift we give ourselves tomorrow.

Yes, there are problems, inequities, and injustices in our system of public education. However, let me paraphrase the words of President Bill Clinton in his first inaugural address: "There is nothing so wrong with our public schools that cannot be fixed by what is right about them." The tragic, recent events emphasize the thought I share as I travel across our state-our public schools are our bedrock. They are the implementation of all the Statue of Liberty represents.

Public schools are the foundation of our democratic society. Which other institution takes in the hungry and tired to make their dreams come true? Now, more than ever we need to support our public schools.

The school bell is ringing and the beginning of a new school year still brings mixed emotions. But I believe that together we are better. If we all work together to do what is right for all of our children, great things can and will happen.