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Posted on Sat, Apr 20, 2013 : 12:30 p.m.

Focus must be put back on children's educational needs

By Tom Watkins

Let's be clear, a child that does not receive a quality education today will become an adult without much of a future tomorrow. If we allow children to rot in historically failing schools we all will suffer.

The Education Trust Midwest released a harsh report on how Michigan's education system stacks up.

The report, "Invest in What Works: A Call to Michigan Leaders," spells out six steps Michigan should take to catch up with other states — and there's much catching up to do. The report states Michigan is below average on most educational metrics, and is falling further behind other states and nations.

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The needs of students must be the biggest focus of the educational system.

While much focus has been on Michigan's "brain drain" — students receiving a college education and fleeing our state — perhaps the greater problem is those we fail to educate that are staying behind.

A uneducated child does not disappear. They will be coming to your place of business, be that as a potential customer, employee or with some more nefarious idea in mind.

Holding onto the past and protecting the status quo are not prescriptions to help us thrive, collaborate and compete on the world stage.

Having just returned from China where I have been traveling for nearly a quarter of a century I can assure you they are not slowing down while we have prolonged ideologically driven, political debates about reforming our schools. Be clear, while we stall and debate, protecting adult interest at the expense of students, the world is moving on.

Gov. Rick Snyder spelled out his educational policy initiative in April 2011, identifying the problems he saw in our educational system and the solutions to address them.

Two years later, House Democratic Leader Tim Greimel (D-Auburn Hills) announced that the Michigan House Democrats have formed a task force that will find "real solutions for Michigan’s struggling schools." While commendable, they need to act with a sense of urgency, as though their child was trapped in these schools. Every year adults don't get it right, children suffer.

For those that say Snyder and Legislature are "moving too fast," ask yourself this: "If this were your child trapped in a failing school - in many cases a decade or longer - would you come to the same conclusion?"

If the Governor’s plan is not the answer, then what? Doing nothing is not an option. Pointing to islands of excellence in local school districts around the state even while other children are drowning in a sea of despair is not a plan.

As the second decade of the 21st century knowledge economy unfolds, Michigan is going to be dependent at every level on bold leadership with the courage to cast off the anchors of the past and set sail to create a new future.

Those educational and political leaders who believe we can go “back to the future” are selling fool’s gold. What we once had in Michigan is gone and it's not coming back — and change and progress is needed in these school buildings that we have neglected for far too long.

When it comes to providing the education our children need and deserve not merely to survive, but to thrive in a hyper-competitive, disruptive knowledge economy, where ideas and jobs can and do effortlessly move around the globe - the focus has deteriorated into adult power, control, and politics.

The viability of our society, the strength of our economy, the quality of our collective lives, the vibrancy our democracy, and our place in the world are sitting in our classrooms today.

Let's get the educational focus in Michigan back on TLC —Teaching, Learning and Children.

Quality education for all of our children remains a vital link to the future prosperity of Michigan and our country.

Tom Watkins served the citizens of Michigan as state mental health director and state superintendent of schools. He is a US/China business and educational consultant. He can be reached at


Usual Suspect

Mon, Apr 22, 2013 : 12:50 p.m.

Here's one incredibly simple idea that would help immensely if it were followed: stop having sex with guys (I refuse to call them "men") who won't stick around to raise the child that results. You can file that under, "Duh."

Steve Hendel

Sun, Apr 21, 2013 : 8:26 p.m.

Yadda yadda specifics, just lots of verbiage with which hardly anyone could disagree. What 's the point?

Tom Woods

Sun, Apr 21, 2013 : 6:08 p.m.

I skimmed through the study "how Michigan's education system stacks up" referenced in this article. I was surprised to see that charter schools are not very well monitored and are lower performing yet are publicly funded. Why aren't the charter schools monitored as closely as public schools? The end result of the charter school movement appears to be the public schools cannot offer the same level of services, larger class sizes, less community based schools, reduce transportation and fewer choices. To what benefit? To support underperforming charter school? See excerpt from report: "In 2011, the Michigan Legislature voted to remove the state cap on the number of university-authorized charter schools that could open in our state. But here's the problem: Nobody is minding the store. There is little, if any, monitoring of charter school performance. And, when the cap was removed, there was no provision for quality, so even the lowest-performing charters can expand wherever they want. It's time we got honest about Michigan's charter school performance. We are investing more and more taxpayer dollars in charters on the assumption that choice alone will produce better quality options. Too often, that's simply not the case. In fact, our charter schools often under-perform our traditional public schools"


Mon, Apr 22, 2013 : 1:53 p.m.

aroo_mama You seem to have missed the point. It's not that there aren't good charter schools out there. It's that there are bad ones out there and there is no one interested in improving them. Bad public schools get ripped at a regular rate by our legislators; but if a bad charter school company wants to expand, well that's just business. I am glad you found a good charter school. But with schools of choice, you probably could have found a good public school system also. Plus you know the public schools have public scrutiny; the charters don't. (At least from the legislature.) And remember that this criticism is from a report that Mr Watkins, the author of this piece, is using as an example of how bad things are in Michigan.


Sun, Apr 21, 2013 : 9:09 p.m.

I wondered when someone would bring the charter schools into this. Just as *some* traditional public schools are really good, so are some charter schools. This is why so many parents are leaving the underperforming public schools for a charter. We left our public school for a charter midway through this school year and it was the best decision for OUR FAMILY. My children now have structure, accountability, etc. that they didn't have at our "home" district.


Sun, Apr 21, 2013 : 12:42 p.m.

Education starts at home when the child is born -- in my opinion, we need more parental involvement insuring that the parents are involved in the children's education from the get-go and teaching respect and responsibility starting at a very early age. Waiting to learn those attributes until they are in school definitely hampers teaching all the rest of the education skills.

A Voice of Reason

Sun, Apr 21, 2013 : 1:54 a.m.

AAPS achievement gap is disgraceful. It is easy to point fingers at the problem, but at the end of the day, we will have to take care of these children if they are not educated well. Ann Arbor spends all its resources on the academic elite in our town. The programs, schools, etc. for kids with aggressive parents is unbelievable. Magnet programs, Community High School, etc. Where is the imagination and compassion to develop magnet programs that may attract the bottom 30%? We are all paying the same amount for public education and the academic elite with aggressive parents win.

Usual Suspect

Mon, Apr 22, 2013 : 12:48 p.m.

I don't know. I've heard the only thing gifted about Emerson kids are their parent's wallets.


Sun, Apr 21, 2013 : 2:55 p.m.

There's plenty of openings at Skyline. The lottery has barely enough applicants. Anyone can enter the lottery at Community as well. It's a lottery. And there are plenty of non-academic elite everywhere. You get what you give. My kid has plenty of friends at Community that are from lower socioeconomic families, and the only difference is that they get a free lunch. If they do the work, they do well at Community, regardless of family income. If you're looking for academic elite, try complaining about Emerson. Sorry, but I can't afford for my kid to go there.


Sun, Apr 21, 2013 : 3:15 a.m.

Analysis of the achievement gap in Ann Arbor has shown the poor performers come from the lowest socioeconomic families, without regard to race. Often those financially distressed households have single parents and parents whose own educational achievement do not extend beyond high school. For children from this background changing the curriculum or doubling the time spent studying will not likely improve performance. Only improvement in family finance and attainment of more education by parents will offer lowering performing students the opportunity to improve.


Sun, Apr 21, 2013 : 12:06 a.m.

Not much substance in this. The only solution proposed was to focus on teaching, learning, and children. Yep, these are the variables involved (I'll say parents are included with the children). So, what was the point other than listing the variables of the equation? As a prior State Superintendent of Schools, he should provide deeper thoughts to improve the schools. I was impressed that he didn't propose to just increase the teacher's salaries. Asking "if the Govenor's plan doesn't work, then what" is not worthy of an opinion article.


Sun, Apr 21, 2013 : 1:28 p.m.

Yes, did you know he has visited China?


Sun, Apr 21, 2013 : 12:38 p.m.

The point was to put his name on an article that woud be found when people searched on him to boost his social networking value...

Dog Guy

Sat, Apr 20, 2013 : 11:15 p.m.

Michigan's education system is a tribute to John Dewey, who has been looking up at it with pride for the last sixty years as it pursued his social goals. If public schools are to reform and perform, they must return to long-abandoned goals and methods while abandoning politically correct lies. If the goal remains production of unthinking tax-parasites, no changes are necessary.

Ivor Ivorsen

Sun, Apr 21, 2013 : 12:36 a.m.

Just who are these "unthinking tax-parasites"? Please specify. Thanks!


Sat, Apr 20, 2013 : 11:13 p.m.

Many children are coming to school hungry and neglected, more than 50% of children are coming from broken homes, many do not even bother attending school nor do they have parental support, these are just a few obstacles many children are facing today in comparison of 50 years ago where rankings and standards were higher. Without insuring that our children are cared for and given the nurturing attention at home don't expect any advancements in the educational system to develop a well adjusted and successful child for a prosperous adult life. Using the current comon core system only insures that our system produces the numbers but lacks any crediable results, just look at the rankings.


Sun, Apr 21, 2013 : 3:04 a.m.

Your facts can not be refuted. More attention is required for providing a supportive and encouraging home environment along with early socialization and mental stimulus provided at quality preschools.

Jay Thomas

Sat, Apr 20, 2013 : 9:16 p.m.

One way to improve education would be extend the school year. While there is no evidence to suggest that preschool is as effective as its proponents make it out to be (it's popular because it saves on babysitting) there is ample evidence that moving away from our nine months a year century old model (from when most people worked on farms) would make a real difference. So ditch the preschool and add a month to the school year (at least for high school). There are schools in Europe and Asia doing it and they are beating our socks off.


Sun, Apr 21, 2013 : 3 a.m.

If the students are unequipped to learn extending the teaching calendar will not enhance the educational experience. Students who come prepared to learn will and those who come unprepared won't. Plenty of date supporting the benefits of preschool including greater achievement in school and less teenage incarceration.

Ivor Ivorsen

Sun, Apr 21, 2013 : 12:28 a.m.

"There are schools in Europe and Asia doing it and they are beating our socks off." Asia is a pretty big place (Ural mountains to the Bering Strait)--can you be more specific? Please name countries, calendars, etc.


Sat, Apr 20, 2013 : 10:21 p.m.

mgoscottie.....I wish I could give you a half thumbs down.I can't so I won't do anything.I agree with you except for the last two


Sat, Apr 20, 2013 : 9:43 p.m.

The schools in Europe are radically different from American schools for the's not just they go longer, their training, respect, politics, cultures are all much better....

Little Patience

Sat, Apr 20, 2013 : 8:14 p.m.

Sadly, some parents rely completely on the education system. When my youngest started kindergarten, they spent a lot of the school year teaching colors, shapes, numbers, and letters because so many kids didn't know that basic information. Those same kids could tell you all about their favorite video games though. My child was beyond bored every day.

Linda Peck

Sat, Apr 20, 2013 : 8:03 p.m.

Here is a novel idea. Turn off television and video games and open books with children in the evenings. I do appreciate the plea of this article to return the focus of education to the needs of children. I hope that my statements are a contribution.

Homeland Conspiracy

Sat, Apr 20, 2013 : 11:40 p.m.

You left out cell phones


Sat, Apr 20, 2013 : 7:27 p.m.

A SUCCESSFUL EDUCATION INVOLVES MANY FACTORS Preparing every child to succeed with education begins during pregnancy. The mother must get adequate sleep, exercise and nutrition in order to deliver a healthy baby. The prospective mother should obtain parenting training so that she will be confident in providing a home environment with proper nutrition, low stress and mental stimulation for the baby. Where necessary enhancing the parents' education will maximize the parents contribution to their children's school readiness. An excellent preschool experience will prepare the young child socially and intellectually to deal with formal elementary education. Teachers who are encouraging and supportive can excite students about learning. Assessing individual progress repeatedly during school years and adjusting the educational effort to prevent learning deficits will guarantee academic achievement necessary to be success in higher education and in life. Minimizing distractions such as violence and turmoil in the classroom and encouraging respect for all students will allow learning to proceed unencumbered. Our governments, local, state and federal, should find no other effort as important as assuring our children obtain exceptional education, and cost should not be a factor. The future is our children.


Sun, Apr 21, 2013 : 2:54 a.m.

Jay Thomas - Not quite that severe, but the private sector has nothing more to offer than for profit charter schools that will actually spend less money per student to educate than the public education system spends now and will not produce a better product (nor offer education to all students). Only the government can finance all the facets that produce a proper education and, done properly, no dollar can be better spent.

Jay Thomas

Sat, Apr 20, 2013 : 9:10 p.m.

Sounds like you want the government to take the child at birth.


Sat, Apr 20, 2013 : 5:44 p.m.

I would have loved to read specific recommendations for change, combined with examples where these changes have been implemented and succeeded. It appears Mr Watkins has the background to be able to provide this information. I am disappointed he did not provide a small sample in his editorial. I believe almost all of us recognize there is a serious problem, we need great ideas to lead us out of the morass.


Sun, Apr 21, 2013 : 2:10 p.m.

Spyker You are absolutely correct. Extremely disappointed in what Mr Watkins has to say - largely because he says nothing. I was especially bothered by the throwing of bogeyman CHINA into this piece. For someone who has been visiting China for 25 years, you would think he could mention something about their school system other than 'I can assure you they are not slowing down'. The whole article seemed to be nothing more than a rah-rah to the current plan of Gov Snyder without the slightest attempt to explain why it is a good plan. If it is that good, at least 1 or 2 positives could have been specified.


Sat, Apr 20, 2013 : 6:38 p.m.

The problem is that these studies don't exist or have inconsistent results. Take charter schools run by for-profits, for example. There have been some absolute disasters; there have very limited successes, and no long-term studies to know whether a small boost in attention to an area has any long-term effect. Information does not rule these decisions, politics do. Testing is not the solution -- ask any college professor. The testing obsession has resulted in kids who cannot think for themselves and care nothing about learning, only getting the "right" answer. And bashing teachers constantly and telling them that they earn too much doesn't seem like a brilliant solution. Catholic schools provide an interesting case study because the kids there succeed irrespective of income and resources. The answer -- involved, dedicated parents, and allowing teachers to actually teach.


Sat, Apr 20, 2013 : 4:59 p.m.

I noticed that you didn't mention the parents responsibilities ( which so many parents ignore )

Usual Suspect

Mon, Apr 22, 2013 : 12:43 p.m.

tdw identifies the biggest problem accurately. The problem is, nobody in any official position can address this, because addressing it take a discussion toward certain cultures, and of course nobody is going to commit the career suicide that will result from pointing that out, no matter how true it is. Single-parent homes, absentee dads, the lack of belief that hard work leads to results, and the futility drilled into kids by the victim mentality they are being raised with are holding back many kids who could otherwise excel.

A Voice of Reason

Sun, Apr 21, 2013 : 1:49 a.m.

The teachers do not want the parents anywhere near them.


Sat, Apr 20, 2013 : 10:50 p.m.

bus...Yes, there are other factors.But just blaming the schools because of the parents failures does nothing to solve the problem


Sat, Apr 20, 2013 : 10:37 p.m.

What if parents don't participate or can't because they abuse drugs? What if the kids are hungry when they get to school? Should we just build new jail cells for those kids? We need to figure out how to educate all kids, not just the ones who's parents participate.


Sat, Apr 20, 2013 : 7:18 p.m.

@Dilbert: YES! A+ 100%


Sat, Apr 20, 2013 : 7:15 p.m.

This is where the MEA completely fails; it should pushing parental involvement on behalf of its members. "We have trained and dedicated teachers; but try as they might, they can't do the job alone." Teachers can't say that as it sounds like whining; and BOE/Administration has difficulty telling the voting public they're part of the problem.


Sat, Apr 20, 2013 : 4:58 p.m.

While all of this is admirable, here is the problem. Right now, Republicans are in complete control, and it appears their only goal is to punish those who didn't vote for them.

Usual Suspect

Mon, Apr 22, 2013 : 12:38 p.m.

"and it appears their only goal is to punish those who didn't vote for them." Are you for real?

A Voice of Reason

Sun, Apr 21, 2013 : 1:49 a.m.

Well, the Republicans seem about the kids and the parents and the Democrats are only for the teachers. So, if this is your premise for your comment, that thank goodness that the Republicans are finally servicing the kids in our state.

Jay Thomas

Sat, Apr 20, 2013 : 9:08 p.m.

Don't try to get around the law, don't lose your funding. Only a real dummy would believe that an 8 year contract is a good thing.


Sat, Apr 20, 2013 : 5:22 p.m. may I ask can they tell who and who didn't vote for them ? But keep using the Democrat liberal playbook. Blame Republicans for anything and everything.I'll bet you money that the majority of kids who's parents take no interest are Democrats." hey its not my responsibility I'll let the village take care of it "