The most important job

"We can't wait any longer. The perfect storm is heading toward Michigan — the pressures of the global economy that our current system is not set up for, and the belief that the old auto industry will come back and everything will be fine just the way things were. Well, those days are over and we need to change the culture of education in Michigan.

—Mike Flanagan, State Superintendent of Public Instruction


When you look back at either world history or your own life, you often find that what later turned out to be the most important stuff was really what was going on underneath the radar and out of the headlines.

That is certainly true right here, right now, in Michigan. I'll bet you a ticket to heaven that today's Detroit daily fishwrapper devotes far more space to the Super Bowl than it does to what's going on with fixing education.

Yet not only do you know damn well which one is more important — what's going on right now behind the scenes is sort of equivalent to the Super Bowl of education. Except that, in sports, there's always next year, and another Super Bowl might even come to the ruins of Detroit someday.

But if we blow our chance to fix education, it might be too late to fix it, and us, down the line. Here's the scoop. I have scarcely been a cheerleader for Gov. Jennifer Granholm, who's been a disappointment as a leader in many respects. But in the area of education, she has made some excellent moves.

And education is the most important thing there is, if Michigan is to have a future. Nearly two years ago, she asked Lt. Gov. John Cherry to run an important commission that would take a look at higher education and economic growth in the state. Their report, released a little more than a year ago, was a blockbuster.

It was tough, honest and didn't mince words. Basically it revealed that we are failing, big-time, at higher education, and that we're especially bad when it comes to that crucial group of 26- to 34-year-olds, those young professionals who are just settling in to build lives and careers.

In Michigan, fewer of those people have college degrees than in almost any other state. That's partly because people in that age range who're educated are fleeing the state. Also a factor is a residual, absolutely stupid feeling among white blue-collar workers that higher education isn't necessary, an attitude left over from the days when there were plenty of jobs on the assembly line.

Even worse, there is an attitude among too many black students that those who do well in school are "acting white," and somehow aren't authentically black. They ought to know that black militants who fought and sometimes died for the right to an education, from Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. DuBois to Martin and Malcolm, would probably whack their little noggins.

Too few even realize that the hip-hop mayor, who many of them idolize, has a law degree. No. You cannot make it in today's world without education.

The Cherry Commission got a lot of attention for its recommendation that we double the number of bachelor's degrees in the next 10 years. But something else in it was largely overlooked. Part of the reason Michigan is failing when it comes to higher education is that the state already has failed at lower education.

Reliable statistics for this are, oddly, hard to come by, since school districts play games with the numbers. But possibly as many as a third of all ninth-graders fail to graduate from high school in four years.

Those who do are often woefully behind when it comes to being prepared for college — or anything else. That's partly because of what's called social promotion — passing kids on to the next grade whether they've learned anything or not. But it's also due to a lack of standards.

Right now, in Michigan law, the only thing you legally have to do to earn a high school degree is pass one semester of civics. That is cheating our kids, and Mike Flanagan, the new state school superintendent appointed by the governor last year, is heroically trying to do something about it.

In November, he proposed radically tougher requirements for high school graduation. They include four years of math and English language arts, three years of science, three of social studies, two years of world languages and one year each — at a minimum — of physical education and visual and performing arts.

Last month, the elected state board of education unanimously and enthusiastically adopted those recommendations.

"This change was absolutely necessary," said Kathleen Straus, the board's president. "With global pressures on what education and skills students will need for the jobs of today and tomorrow, we needed to act now."

To her credit, the often too-cautious governor herself came out to praise the new standards "on behalf of the parents, who are grateful to you for requiring a certain core curriculum ... that really dovetails with the economy."

But now for the hard part.

What has to happen next is for the state Legislature to give these standards the force of law. Otherwise, the board's action is purely advisory; sort of like Ferndale voting that the United States should withdraw from Iraq.

And make no mistake — there's bound to be heavy opposition, even though these reforms are clearly necessarily if our children and our state are to have any chance of competing in the future.

First of all — these changes would cost school districts a considerable amount of money. Teachers and administrators are going to have to do things differently, and do them better. School administrators who take pride in their statistics (many of which are bullshit) may not like these reforms, because their precious numbers, their graduation rates, will almost certainly go down, at least at first.

But they are vitally necessary — and they must not be watered down. Right now, they're before the education committees in the state House and Senate.

What you should do is let your state senator and state representative know, in no uncertain terms, that passing these higher standards is a top priority for you. You also should write, or e-mail, the people who really run things: Senate Majority Leader Ken Sikkema, R-Wyoming, and Speaker of the House Craig DeRoche, R-Novi. The poorer your district, the more important this is.

Some years ago I had a promising student whose husband was a white man who taught in a Detroit high school. Hearing the usual horror stories, I wondered if he wanted to get into a suburban school, like the one where my wife is an overworked advanced-placement history teacher.

No way, his wife told me. "He doesn't give them any homework, since no one will make them do it anyway," and so he has time to run a business on the side.

We, the citizens of Michigan, need to save our children, and make that man's job a whole lot harder in the process.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]
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