Tom Watkins a “cheerleader” for public education

Feb 21, 2020 by

Tom Watkins

Tom Watkins has been criticized by some as a “cheerleader” for public education. He wears the “criticism” as a badge of honor. The former Michigan state superintendent of schools (2001-05) has been able to look into the future and to help prepare organizations for the hyper-competitive, disruptive, technologically-driven (think AI) world that our children are facing. He understand we must prepare our students for their future and not our past. He has truly thought globally (considered an “expert” on China) and has acted locally helping to create shelter for homeless/runaway youth, creating a university based public school, creating high quality community behavioral health programs for persons with serious mental illness and intellectual and developmental disabilities, advocating for youth and other vulnerable and people without a voice. Watkins has been able to weave his experience in the public, private, non-profit, philanthropy, business, government, political  and media sectors to add value and make a difference in all organizations he has lead. Some are said to have a “career ladder,” Watkins has had a career rock climb weaving the skills and experience together to produce results in a wide variety of organizations in the private and public sectors . 

We caught up with Tom recently and sat down with him to discuss his thoughts on  education in Michigan and across the country. 

  1. EdNews: Tom, you start your recent article off by asking a provocative question: “Can there truly be a shared vision and common agenda between the K-12 education community, business, labor, philanthropy, and civic leaders that helps propel our system of public education boldly into the future?” Without reading the entire article, what is your one word answer? 

A resounding yes!  I am happy to see a coalition of the willing come together and focus on what can truly prepare our children for the world they will lead. In Michigan, there  are signs in the air that an alliance between  groups that have historically been at odds may have laid down their swords long enough to concentrate on where they have agreement that can enhance teaching and learning— which is a hugh beginning an extremely good sign.

  1. EdNews: Education and educators across America has been under siege of late. What is taking place in your home State of Michigan?

Michigan educators are deserving of a statewide collaboration that has their and our children’s backs. Educators in Michigan today are feeling unappreciated and, in many cases, under siege. They clearly feel the support of Governor relatively new Governor, Gretchen Whitmer. The Governor, a friend and demonstrated supporter of quality public education, has unveiled her new budget containing the largest funding increase for classrooms in nearly 20 years. I happily cede my title as a public education cheerleader to Governor Whitmer. The Governor has set a positive tone for public education that has a positive ripple effect across the State. You can feel the energy in her State of the State address, when she invites educators to the Governors Mansion to discuss her education budget and when she gave the Democratic response to President Trump’s State of the Union from her daughters high school. She is not simply talking the talk, Governor Whitmer, through her budget is walking the walk In support of public education.

  1. EdNews: Tell our readers about “Launch Michigan”? 

Launch Michigan ( is an unprecedented partnership of business, education, labor, philanthropy, and civic leaders, as well as parents, all of whom care deeply about education and our state’s collective future.  Launch Michigan is the relatively new-coalition that has been busy working on an agenda across the political spectrum – one that all might rally behind and support. Their goal is to boost education excellence for every student, every school, and our state.

There research shows the things Michigan parents want for their children and we all want for our state: 

• A strong, diverse, and growing economy.

• Plentiful and rewarding jobs.

• A vibrant, thriving place to put down roots.

• Communities abundant with opportunities and thoughtful, engaged people.

• Income and lifestyle that exceeds our own.

They understand the public education system that served our students well fifty years ago is no longer preparing all of them to be the critical, versatile, and creative thinkers we need to sustain robust communities, fuel a vigorous economy, and live meaningful and rewarding lives. Put simply, it is getting harder and harder to achieve the American dream of having our children do better in life than we did.”

This coalition  offers a full set of thoughtful and aligned recommendations that have the great potential to truly move the educational needle for our children and our state. You can find the full list of the recommendations here:

  1. EdNews: Are educators, teachers, local superintendents, principals engaged in this effort/work or is it once again those outside the education world talking about “reforming” public education?        Much of the work of Launch Michigan is built on the solid efforts by educators involved in the School Finance Research Collaborative. These educators created roadmap for all Michigan students to achieve and succeed. You can read about their foundational and on-going work here:

I am pleased to see educators active in efforts to set public policy that helps teachers teach and our children learn.

Launch Michigan has pulled together many of the right people to both set and implement a shared vision and common educational agenda. We need these leaders from all corners of our great state and from the various political persuasions and ideologies to help get us out of the educational pothole that is holding back our children and state. Educators are an integral part of this effort. I have watched the incubation of Launch Michigan and I am impressed with the coalition formed, the work they have done to-date, and the promise their actions portend. 

As Henry Ford once said: “Coming together is the beginning. Keeping together is progress. Working together is success”.

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  1. EdNews: As I recall, as Michigan’s  Superintendent you were all about engaging teachers in helping to steer reform efforts and the implementation of the Bush era, No Child Left Behind law. What were some of the ways you attempted to lift up teachers and assure their voice was heard?                                              Absolutely. In the disability movement there is a “refrain”, “Nothing about us without us.” With the support of the Michigan State School Board we incorporated this thinking into all that we did. We gave the Michigan Teacher of the Year an honorary seat at the State Board table so a teachers voice was part of the delineation ok all policy we pushed. We also created the Michigan Support Personnel of the year award to recognize those support staff that are an integral part of any school community and culture. We also used symbolism in other ways to demonstrate our teacher and student focus. We had a ruler that read: “Show me how this helps a teacher teach and and student learn.” The Michigan Department of Education Ruler. Everything we did had to measure up to this statement.                     Key educators, teachers, principals, and superintendents must be invited to the table, every step of the way. Smart leaders don’t lay out a change strategy without engaging frontline workers and we won’t get buy-in from educators if a plan is developed without their input. 
  2. EdNews: what is BLM and what do they have to do with efforts to enhance public education in Michigan?

Business Leaders for Michigan (BLM) (, under the leadership of Doug Rothwell, a co-chair of Launch Michigan, has decided to weigh into education reform in a big way and issued both its review of best practices in K–12 education – a set of principles that can lead to better student performance with the goal of making Michigan one of the nation’s top 10 states for student learning and talent development.  

BLM leaders says their report, Business Leaders insights: Leading Practices in K-12 Education that Can Improve Student Outcomes in Michigan is aimed at prompting an important public dialogue that leads to effective fixes for the state’s poor student outcomes.

As pointed out by Koby Levin, with Chalkbeat Detroit, (, Launch Michigan’s first set of recommendations is that the Legislature immediately allocate extra funding to schools with a higher percentage of poor students. It’s the first step in what the group says will be a comprehensive plan to reshape how Michigan pays for education. These recommendations are solid, backed by the governor and should be followed my Michigan’s legislators.

  1. EdNews: How is EdTrust involved in these efforts? Amber Arellano, Executive Director of the Education Trust-Midwest, a fierce advocated for the high academic achievement of all students – particularly those of color and living in poverty and has advocated for state leaders to improve key research-based levers to lift Michigan’s public education system and its student outcomes. She recommends “investing more to support educators and improve evidence-based strategies that might dramatically boost third-grading reading levels.” They are pushing key principles for transforming the state’s system of funding schools into one that puts the needs of the student first.

Ms. Arellano points it in this compelling op-ed in The Detroit News, “Improving Michigan public education will not be easy. Yet, as leading states demonstrate, it is possible with strong leadership and commitment to not only best practices but also greater investment that helps ensure all children and communities have access to strong public schools.”

  1. EdNews: Why is this coalition called Launch Michigan important to enhancing public education in Michigan?  Educators in Michigan have continued the hard work of educating children during years when they were getting very little assistance from our national or state policymakers. Yet, we know in this complex world having allies that cut across the political spectrum that are about lifting up our schools, teachers and most importantly, our children is paramount to changing the trajectory of success. It is imperative that we get everyone on board to improve the educational outcomes for more and more of our students. With technology, artificial intelligence, automation, and globalization coming at warp speed, jobs can and are moving effortlessly across the globe.

  1. EdNews: You have a unique perspective having worked internationally and across multiple fields in education, health care, mental health, juvenile justice, higher education media, government and politics. What are your thoughts on the direction education is heading in Michigan/America?  The individual, family, city, region, state and nation that invests in education and workforce preparedness will soar as the 21st century unfolds; those that don’t will sink. A child without a decent education today is an adult without much of a future tomorrow. Unless we are serious about changing the trajectory of educational achievement in Michigan, we will sink into an economic backwater. 

Today, we need all the help we can muster to assure that we prepare today’s students for their future and not our past.

We owe it to our children to come together— and most importantly, produce results.  

  1. EdNews: You were an early adopter of e-/blended learning and as  I recall wrote a seminal report a decade and a half ago  on the topic that was translated into multiple languages and is as relevant today as it was when you wrote it. Can we still access this report? 

Yes, you can download the report here: The New Education (R)evolution: Exploring E-Learning Reforms for Michigan

  1. EdNews: Is there any organization or individuals that you think our readers should be looking at for cutting edge research/ideas to help educate more and more of our children in this world they are inheriting? Yes, Michigan Future ( Michigan Future, Inc., a non-partisan, non-profit organization. Michigan Future’s mission is to be a source of new ideas on how Michigan can succeed as a world class community in a knowledge-driven economy.  This organization consistently produces work that educational leaders should be studying and incorporating into their work. I was particularly interested in a recent article by Kim Trent, a  former policy associate for Michigan Future and a Wayne State University Board of Governors.  She focuses on education policy and race, class and gender issues. Her article: Preparing black students for life and career, not just a job.” is worthy of reflection as we do our work.

Also, those seeking to get a better understanding of Michigan’s and the Midwest economic challenges ( think educators and presidential candidates should explore the work of John Austin who served 16 years on the Michigan State Board of Education, the last 6 as president. His new report: A Vital Midwest: The path to new prosperity” just released from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs paints a true picture of the Midwest economy (hint it’s not a “Rust Belt” anymore!). He points to the key levers to pull to spread economic growth and opportunity to more people and places, and lay out a blueprint for action. Read it here at:

  1. EdNews: Thanks for your time and insights. How would our readers connect with you if they want to connect? 

Happy to hear from your readers. They can reach me at: or WeChat: tdwatkins88

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