Tough Times Spur Serious School Reform From the Ground Up


Education consultant Tom Watkins likens tough school reform to home repair.  Some folks buy a fixer-upper hoping a few changes will work.  But then they pull back the paint and tear off dead wood only to find that much deeper structural renovations—sometimes a tear-down—must be done in order to create a building that is functional and sound.

Now, as many of the nation’s school districts are engaged in painful renovations, driven by the sagging economy and major budget woes, Watkins, a former Michigan public schools superintendent, says difficult changes may ultimately yield better teachers and leaner programs—refocusing energy away from adults and more toward students.

“It seems, for the last 20 or 30 years, we’ve been talking about reform, but we see still children trapped in a system that is in essence going to ground any hope for a positive future,” he says of the landscape.  “Too many are invested in protecting the status quo.  But the status quo won’t take our city, our state, our nation, where we need to go.”

In Detroit, where the urban school district remains under the emergency financial manager control backed by the state’s governor, schools will be closed, class sizes will grow and administrators will be under the microscope as the district works to close a massive deficit—and decades of underachievement. The city, where many, including the mayor, are committed to a full-scale renaissance after the auto industry meltdown, has a high school graduation rate of 62%.

“We have an unnatural disaster in Detroit in that it’s manmade and continues to be perpetuated.  We have the equivalent of what happened in New Orleans without the national media being there for Katrina,” Watkins said.

“It’s been devastating.  I know some of the most exceptional teachers—decent, hardworking and loving.  There are islands of excellence surrounded by a sea of despair,” he continued.  “It’s amazing to me that the children and the teachers and support staff there do as well as they do in such a dysfunctional system that is set up to protect power and adults.  It’s the theoretical equivalent of educational genocide.  That is just unacceptable.  And yet people want to deny it.”

Denial is not coming from Michigan’s new GOP Gov. Rick Snyder.  He signed Public Act 4 in March, allowing emergency school district managers to terminate or modify teacher collective-bargaining agreements.  Now, layoff notices have been sent to Detroit’s more than 5,400 teachers, a trend that is growing across the nation as organized labor faces increasing loss of power amid significant state budget problems.  A repeal effort is under way in Michigan to end the emergency manager provision—what some activists in the state have dubbed “financial martial law.”

Michigan is not the only state making hard choices.

In Florida, new Gov. Rick Scott and a Republican-led state legislature have driven forward new reforms, including $1.3 billion in cuts to the state education budget, an 8% drop in per-pupil spending. The budget cuts come even as districts such as Broward, Pinellas and Duval are facing millions in budget shortfalls.

Now some Florida districts are considering cuts to sports programs, along with employee furloughs and school closings.  Thousands of teachers and school supporters rallied Tuesday in Fort Lauderdale, led by the teacher unions there, to protest the termination of 1,400 Broward teachers, as many state pundits dub the educational issue a crisis.

Even as union protests continue in several states, recent legislative sessions across the Midwest have seen state education reforms taken to new levels. In Indiana, Gov. Mitch Daniels ushered in what has been described as “monumental” education improvements, offering $15 million in merit pay for teachers—given after an annual performance evaluation—during 2012 and 2013.  Indiana’s new education law also will limit collective bargaining efforts to salaries and wage benefits, and expand charter schools and school vouchers.

One bright spot of kinder, gentler education debate is Illinois. The state has earned attention this spring and praise from Education Secretary Arne Duncan for bringing many factions—including labor—to the table to create new education rules under Senate Bill 7—which passed 112 to 1 earlier this month.  Many education proponents think the legislation will bring renewed flexibility to public education and also help teachers to heighten achievement.  It tightens rules for teacher union strikes, lengthens the school day and streamlines the process to remove teachers who are unsuccessful.

Robin Steans, executive director of Advance Illinois, an independent education reform group, praises the inclusivity of teachers, lawmakers and activists who worked for more than a year to patiently add to the debate.  “Change is good,” she said of the success.  “We have to work together—not at each other.  The fact that we have avoided that here is huge.”

Unlike Wisconsin, where legislators headed to the border and political rancor drowned out some constructive dialogue, Illinois education partners “seriously stayed at the table.”

“There were moments in this process when things could be polarizing, but I think we happened to have the right people in the right place at the right time,” she said of the drive to create solutions that worked for many factions. 

Economic realities were also high on everyone’s mind, Steans said.

“It was important to us at Advance Illinois that these reforms be cost-neutral in the time when you don’t have money to throw at problems.  It’s a nice moment in time to talk about changes that aren’t primarily about dollars.”

She added:  “Parents here are concerned.  The teacher layoff situation was in most of the districts in the state, and there isn’t a parent who doesn’t worry about who is going to be let go.  This helped to ground some of the arguments in some way.  Making performance such a key driver of personnel decisions around layoffs is critical.  Parents get this.  It’s very tangible.”

In a policy brief from the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, Executive Vice President Mike Petrilli and senior data and economics adviser Marguerite Roza of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, argue that difficult economic times offer “opportunity to make some real changes in education.”

Among their recommendations to help states stretch education dollars were several focused on teachers, including ending “last hired, first fired” policies, creating a rigorous teacher evaluation system, eliminating mandatory salary schedules and tackling the fiscal viability of teacher pensions. They also urge states to remove class-size mandates, limit the length of time students can be classified as English-language learners and eliminate excess spending on small schools and small districts.

“The challenge for education policy makers is not only to cut carefully so as not to harm student learning, but better yet, to transform these fiscal woes into reform opportunities: to cut smartly and thereby help our schools and students emerge stronger than ever,” they write in the brief, which can be found at

Looking at tough reforms through their impact on children is where lawmakers and educators must refocus, added Michigan’s Watkins.  While the grown-ups rumble, another generation of students gets lost for good.

“In many districts, it’s about power and control, politics and adults. When the focus is on those, the system produces exactly what it was set up to do.  Money flows in that direction,” he said.

“There are very real consequences when we as a society don’t provide the education that the children need and deserve, especially in this hypercompetitive global economy.  While we dither and put the focus on adults, the other countries in the world are taking what works here and finding a way to make it work for their children. We need to get serious about what is happening before it’s too late.”



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