Tom Watkins continues to make a positive mark locally and across the globe.

Oct 18, 2019 by

Tom Watkins, Michigan’s State Superintendent of Schools (2001-05) and State Mental Health Director (1983-90” has been a leader in supporting public education and pushing the envelope on sensible school reforms that lift up our schools, teachers and most importantly our students. EdNews recently caught up with Tom to get his take on the state education today.

Tom, first on behalf of our schools, teachers and students, thanks for your steadfast leadership over the years. You have clearly added value and made a difference in a multitude of organizations you have lead at the local, state and national level. It is such leadership that earned you the 2010 Upton Sinclair Award. and so many other accolades. 

Thanks for agreeing to sit for this interview today.

EdNews: You have a strong reputation for being a stalwart when it comes to supporting public education, where does this passion come from? 

It comes from within and a strong belief that quality schools build quality communities. As a first generation college graduate, I understand the foundation on which my successful career and life has been built began with great teachers and schools. 

We need to do more to build up our schools and the great teachers if we wish to restore the glory of our forgotten communities and the strength of this nation. 

EdNews: You have a exceptional communication style and are able to tell the story of the value of public education so well. Tell our readers how the image of the “Statue of Liberty” and public education came together for you.

Thank you. It came literally in the middle of a speech to hundreds of teachers at a union meeting. They had suffered through 8 years of a Governor that every turn tore down our public schools and the exceptional teachers that pour out their hearts to help our kids learn. Teachers were dejected and angry. In the middle of the speech it came to me— our public schools are the true Statue of Liberty of this great nation of ours and our teachers are the torch, lighting the way for us all.

I have been proclaiming since that day: “Our public schools are the true Statue of Liberty in this great country of ours — taking the tired, hungry, poor, kids who speak English as a second language, and children with disabilities to give them hope and opportunity. Our great teachers are the torches lighting the way for us all.”

As Michigan’s state superintendent of schools from 2001 to 2005, I had a simple measuring stick against which ALL decisions made by the Department of Education and state Board of Education were judged: “Show me how this helps our teachers teach and our children learn.”

We need to engage teachers in the process of reform to attract and retain the very best in the classroom.

We need to be doing more to lift up our teachers, students and public education— the foundation on which this nation was built. We need to continually ask: “If the future oof our state/nation inextricably linked to quality of our teachers and schools— why do we continue to disinvest in both”?

EdNews: You were at the forefront of encouraging schools to teach Chinese—Why? 

You can’t ignore 1.4 billion people, one fifth of all humanity. It is imperative that more and more of our people become educated about all things China. 

What has transpired in China over its 5,000 year history is amazing. The last forty years have been both remarkable and universally acknowledged. There once was a time when what happened in China had minimal impact on our lives. Those days are gone. What now happens in China no longer just stays in China. We not only feel the ripple effects; the tsunami wave of change will continue to wash upon our shores as the 21st century unfolds. How we adapt to and lead the changes that are coming will define our state and nation.

As large and powerful as is China, few in America know much about the country — its history, customs, geography, language, politics or people. This needs to change if American is to lead as the 21st unfolds.

As I lay out in this recent oped in the Detroit News. “Whining  and complaining about China’s rise is neither a strategy nor a plan. 

It should come as no surprise that China wants to rise. As a country, China was the world’s largest economy in 17 out of the past 21 centuries. The anomaly is just the past couple of centuries that they have been surpassed by other western countries economically. Since opening to the world four decades ago, China has been like an economic rocket on steroids. 

We ought to worry less about China’s rise, and focus instead on assuring that it does not come at the cost of America’s demise.

Michigan’s Chinese Pied Piper: Tom Watkins – CBS Detroit

EdNews: While others were tinkering at the margins discussing the value of blended and e-learning as a new mode of teaching and learning you wrote a research paper while serving as the Assistant to the President of Wayne State University in Detroit that drew international attention and changed education policy across the nation. Is this report still available and where can our readers find a copy?

You can the report here: The New Education (R)evolution: Exploring E-Learning Reforms for Michigan

Yes, although I wrote this report nearly two decades ago, and I still have people contacting me from around the globe requesting a copy or for me to speak to these issues and there impact on schools today. 

EdNews: You have been recognized as a leader that looks to the future and does not shy away from addressing tough problems. It has been said repeatedly, that you, “speak truth to power.” As Michigan’s State Superintendent you wrote an analysis on the inadequate funding of the schools in your state that pointed out how the legislature and prior governors were underfunding public education— especially when it came to pensions and healthcare for public school employees. This report and what you foreshadowed is playing out in Michigan and across the nation to this day. Can our readers access this report today?

You can read the report I wrote in 2004 for the Michigan State Board is Education here:

Structural Funding Problems Facing Michigan Schools in the 21st Century

Sadly, what I predicted continues to come true. Until we get serious about matching sensible student and teacher driven  reforms with adequate funding we will continue to do a disservice to our students, communities, state and nation. 

EdNews: Speaking of foreshadowing, you helped create the University Public School at Wayne State University back in the mid 90’s – right at the time that Charter Schools we’re breaking on the scene. You wrote an article at the time for Ed Week Magazine that predicted the problems ahead with what you called “entrepreneurial scoundrels” and   “Zealots” that would drown out those student and teacher focused reformers that has prove true once again. Is this foreshadowing article still available?

Yes, you can read it here: So You Want To Start A Charter School? Tom Watkins Sept 1995

Sadly, what I predicted over a quarter a century ago is still playing out today. We need to get back to focusing on TLC-Teaching, Learning and Children, not power, control, politics and ideology. When we focus on teaching and learning good things happen for our children and our communities.

EdNews: You have been a strong believer that our schools are an integral part of every community across this great nation of ours and as an educational leader you need to be an active member of the community you serve. Can you talk about this belief?

One needs to look no further to the crisis to see the future of our leaders don’t get serious about the educational crisis in Michigan. Our schools are the heart and soul of our communities.  Benton Harbor school crisis is ground zero for a dysfunctional educational funding model and a state government that has been pretending to address the problem going back decades. If you have a hole in your roof, pretending to fix it does not keep the rain out. Our system of funding our schools is fundamentally, structurally unsound and follows economist Herbert Stein’s old adage: “If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.” 

Where you have strong and healthy schools you have strong and healthy communities. We need to partner with Mayors, City Councils, local health and behavioral health organizations, social service agencies, business, police and other first responders and yes, even the faith based community to enhance and improve educational outcomes for our children.

You can read additional thoughts I have expressed on this subject here: 

Advice for the new Michigan superintendent, from a former one

The future of work in Michigan

Gov Whitmer needs to prepare Michigan for the AI revolution

Our Muslim Neighbors’ teaches us about humanity

Benton Harbor’s school crisis needs more than a bandage fix

EdNews: You have a unique and eclectic professional career, cutting across leadership positions in: juvenile justice, elected and appointed politics, government business, media, Pre-K-12, higher education, health and behavioral health. All of these entities intersect with public education today. One area that has historically has not gotten enough attention in our schools is mental health; particularly suicide. What are your thoughts regarding this?

Suicide is godawful. It snuffs out precious life and leaves a wake of agony for those left behind. I know the pain all too well, as both my older and younger brothers took their own lives.

There is even a tinge of shame and stigma associated with admitting this ugly family secret. This stigma, and yes, I have to admit it is there — hurts, as well. We know that stigma is as deadly as suicide. Stigma is a major barrier in getting people the mental health care and support they need. We need to defeat this stigma to help give people a chance at life.

I have spent years working in the behavioral health field, serving as Michigan’s state mental health director and president and CEO of the Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority. We reached out to schools to help educate students and partner with other community asserts to address  this epidemic impacting far too many of our youth. There is still much work to be done.

EdNews: You have a lifelong interest in China, have traveled and worked extensively to build cultural, economic and educational bridges between our two countries for over 3 decades. Where can our readers learn more about your thinking on the US/China relationship, which you rightfully call the “most important bilateral relationship in the world today”?

This relationship is critical to us all, Going forward, all major world issues will intersect at the corner of Beijing and Washington, D.C. How our leaders address these issues will impact the people of China, America and all of humanity. I just wrote a lengthy piece on the importance of this relationship which can be found here: The People’s Republic of China Turns 70 -Tom Watkins Looks Back

Also, I have written literally hundreds of articles on US/China relations. Some of the articles can be found here: Tom Watkins – CHINA US Focus

EdNews: You have been recognized throughout your career as seeing diversity as a strength and have always sought to have a strong a diverse leadership team. You grasped the near-universal understanding that diversity in the workplace is a competitive strength in itself that makes for a healthy flow of ideas and insights that simply isn’t as strong in a homogenous atmosphere where everyone tends to act, look and speak in the same way. What do you attribute this early belief to and why is it important to you?

My dad taught me through his words and deeds that “together we are truly better” and all people have value. I also have 4 sisters who reminded me throughout my life that I was not the smartest person in the room. I believe that surrounding yourself with people with different life experiences helps me make better decisions. I am proud that I have hired and mentored a diverse workforce throughout my career and our diverse teams have been recognized and awarded by Corp Magazine for our efforts to build a rich and diverse workforce. My dad is right— “Together, we are truly better.”

EdNews: This past year you virtually lived in China building educational bridges between our two counties and established American High Schools in China. Tell us about this effort.

Yes, as a young man, even before “Nixon Went to China” I envisioned myself living in China and I had the opportunity to do so after 30 years of extensive travel throughout the country. I have works for decades helping MICHIGAN and other states from K-12, community colleges and universities make connections with educational institutions in China. Last year  the co-founders of Centric Learning and WAY American School asked me to help them penetrate the Chinese market. We were able in short order to sign a contract to partner with the largest and oldest private school in China to offer a innovative project based learning environment that allows Chinese students to study the “American-Way,” with the potential to earn a US high school diploma.

WAY was founded in 2009 by Beth Baker and Glen Taylor two Wayne County educators to provide a personalized learning experience for all students. WAY is a personalized learning experience for all students, offering an innovative approach to education utilizing state of the art technology and project-based learning in alignment with state and national standards. Their mission is to change lives by creating engaging and encouraging educational opportunities for all young people and their vision is to make every young person a hero.

EdNews: Tom, thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts with our readers. If people wish to contact you for speaking events, consulting or leadership coaching- how do they reach you? 

Thanks EdNews for the opportunity. 

I remain optimistic about the future of our public schools and continue to be excited to work with great teachers, support staff, school board members and other community leaders to help prepare our young people for their future and not our past. 

I can be reached via email: or Wechat: tdwatkins88 

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1 Comment

  1. I had the great fortune to serve as Michigan Teacher of the Year in 2003-2004. With that honor canme a great opportunity for me to work closely with Tom Watkins our State Superintendent at that time! It didn’t take long for me to realize what a great visonary and leader Tom Watkins was(and still is) for Michigan’s education system!

    He truly cared (and still cares) about creating policy that will help teachers teach and students learn–all students! He also fought to shorten the gap between the the “haves” and the “have nots” between different school districts throughout our state.”

    Mr. Watkins believed, and continues to believe, in and campaign for the eqaulity of all students getting the same opportunities to receive a top rate education throughout MI.

    Tom Watkins is a strong leader, with a clear vision, and a doable plan to revamp our schools in MI and help us reclaim our spot as educational leaders within our country–a posiition we proudly held in the mid to late 80’s!

    Thanks, Tom, for your continued interest and support of our education system in MI.

    Bill Cecil
    Michigan Teacher of the Year (2003-2004)
    Recently Retired 31-Year Veteran Teacher