Tom Watkins, former Michigan schools superintendent, offers take on 2011 developments

Dec 28, 2011 by

Tom Watkins, who headed Michigan’s Department of Education from 2001 to 2005 and now works as an educational consultant, is known for his candid assessment of educational reform efforts, and so I asked his thoughts about the various developments in Michigan this past year.

Here’s excerpts from his response:

I give the Gov and Leg great credit for being bold and reimagining public education this past year. They were serious about the new 3 R’s — Restructure, Reform, and Reinventing teaching and learning.

Clearly, we are living in a fast paced, hyper-competitive, disruptive, transformational, technologically driven, knowledge economy where ideas and jobs can and do move around the globe effortlessly– staying even is falling behind.

Our children are not simply competing against the child in the next seat, district, or state—- they are competing with the children of the world.

Having recently returned from China– let me assure you– the Chinese are not slowing down because of America’s and Michigan’s fiscal problems.

Change is difficult and is avoided until it can be avoided no longer. 2011 was a year of change. As we witnessed– the only human that truly likes change is an infant.

The jury is still out whether the reforms initiated will turn out to be positive or negative in the long haul.



Will the future charter schools created be quality?– Focusing on: Teaching Learning and Children or will they focus on Power, Control, Politics, Profits and Adults? If is the former– a positive move– if not— terrible.

We have to get to the point where the only adjective that matters before school— is QUALITY!

To much of this years debate focused on political ideology (both from the left and right) and adults not quality, teaching and learning.



If teachers input is seriously considered and incorporated into the ultimate tenure reform plans it will be positive– if not– a disaster.

Over reliance on “The Test” is a mistake. Our schools, teachers and most importantly; our students are more than the sum total of a single test given on a single day.

Raising Cut Scores

I agreed with Amber Arellano, the Ex Dir with Ed Trust -Mid West when she said the state had been lying to students and parents for years. The previous cuts scores were so low to be meaningless.

Keeping the cut scores low benefited the adults in the system to the detriment of our students and the states collective future.

The State Sup and State Bd made the right decision to finally be honest on how well out kids are doing and raising the cut scores.

School Finance/Funding

The Gov and leg deserve credit for beginning to address the structural funding problems I identified in this 2004 report: “Structural funding Problems Facing Michigan Schools in the 21st Century:”
The state and schools have been pretending and spending on this issue for years– while ignoring the problem.

The rising cost of health care and pensions are absorbing every available new dollar invested in schools — and is unsustainable.

The City of Detroit is the “canary in the coal mine” and is foreshadowing what will happen to more cities, counties and school districts across the state unless they honestly address the unsustainable structural legacy costs.

I commend many local schools during these times of cutbacks — many have stepped up and found ways to recalibrate to the new normal.

There has been as much innovation, creativity and reform without new dollars than years when school funding was more flush. Seems to reinforce the old saying— “necessity is the mother of invention.”

Moving Forward

The Governor and Legislature are not done with “school reform.” I expect 2012 to be just as aggressive in recommending change—— time will tell if with the change— we get progress.

Reforms on my wish list:

Passing a sensible blended and e-learning legislation (check out;

Using technology to digitalize and personalize learning;

Focus on improving the quality of university teacher preparation programs– as the #1 variable to a quality education is a quality teacher.( If interested in a new model see my col at;

Rather that school to work–encouraging businesses to create School AT work

More emphasis on quality preschool education (perhaps the best investment we can make as a society)

Globalizing Education– making it easier for students from around the globe tap into our schools perhaps via e-learning

In schools that have for years had low test scores on reading and math— let the district stipulate the kids are not learning at grade level—- put a moratorium on testing—– and uses the testing resources to augment learning strategies.

We must come to grips with the dropout epidemic. If dropping out was considered a public health issue— it would be classified as an epidemic! We are losing too many kids to the streets. A child without a decent education today — is an adult– and a city/state nation without much of a future tomorrow.

More emphasis on closing the achievement gap between Hispanic and African American children and their white counterparts.

Tom Watkins can be reached at:

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