Overshadowed by growing evidence of a broken education system, this year’s celebration of Teacher Appreciation Week offers a real inflection point. Will Michigan cling to old policies and structures that limit its most dedicated teachers, or will it give those teachers new ways to shine?
Last year, during the pandemic’s early phase, some teachers persevered through the challenges of Zoom classes. The dramatic changes brought on by ongoing school closures have left fewer students to be educated in most corners of the state’s K-12 system. A years-long statewide enrollment decline accelerated as many parents, especially those of younger students, kept their kids at home or sought out other options. Some teachers have struggled through the extra stress of teaching both remotely and to students in the classroom.
In-person schooling has worked well in some places — nowhere more than in private schools, which are heavily invested in listening to tuition-paying families. But in Detroit, a group of public school teachers last summer physically blocked kids from getting to summer school. Just last week in the nearby Grosse Pointe district, 100 teachers protested new, more relaxed school health protocols by calling in sick.
It’s safe to say these actions don’t represent the attitudes of most teachers, though an active minority has an outsized ability to disrupt student learning. With greater will and flexibility, school leaders could do more to rein in such overreaches that frustrate parents.
But these same leaders, along with state officials, remain in the dark about how effective many individual teachers are, despite earlier well-intentioned reforms. And if school districts can’t distinguish among teachers with different performance levels, they won’t implement meaningful merit pay systems.
Perhaps more teachers could be rewarded for their skill and results if middle- and high-school students could do more to choose courses and to chart their own path to graduation. Earlier this year the Mackinac Center proposed the Flex Learning plan to give participating students the ability to direct a portion of school funding to purchase instructional experiences from other districts and public entities. The policy would most benefit students in rural or underserved areas, as well as students whose unique plans and schedules clash with school offerings.
Districts that embrace this opportunity for families would respond with quality course offerings. They could creatively deploy their best teachers according to their strengths, and reward them for their extra effort and impact.
Just as Flex Learning would enable some students to take an unconventional path and customize their education, it could similarly unleash some instructors from the collective labor rules and procedures that promote mediocrity and stifle innovation. Participating teachers could get exceptions from things like one-size-fits-all pay scales, standardized workday schedules and class size limitations.
Michigan teachers who have quietly persevered over the last two school years merit appreciation. Likewise, many professional instructors may appreciate the opportunity to excel and share their skills in new ways. Flex Learning could open that door.
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