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Putting Students First

StudentsFirst takes aim at public education reform in Michigan
By Jacquie Goetz Bluethmann
Page 38-40

On its inaugural State Policy Report Card, Michigan received an overall letter grade of C- for its education laws and policies. Despite this seemingly dismal ranking, Michigan’s overall report card grade was the sixth highest in the country. No state earned higher than a B- (Florida and Louisiana), and plenty earned a failing grade.

StudentsFirst, the national bipartisan education reform advocacy group behind the State Policy Report Card for Michigan (and every other state plus the District of Columbia), says these report cards are meant to serve as a launch pad for public education reform, something direly needed when you look at U.S. student performance data. From less than stellar literacy rates (67 percent of all U.S. fourth graders are not reading at grade level) to a 25 out of 30 ranking in an international assessment of student performance in math and science, the data paints a less than illustrious picture of the state of education in the U.S.

It’s for this reason that Michelle Rhee, the former chancellor of Washington, D.C. public schools and a well-known figure in the education reform community, founded StudentsFirst in 2010.

Michigan is one of the first states to establish a StudentsFirst chapter, which it did in 2011. According to StudentsFirst Michigan State Director Andy Solon, that’s because Michigan has taken a lead in advancing needed changes in education.

“Michigan passed a large package of bipartisan reforms in 2009 that address low performing schools. When StudentsFirst was founded, we looked at states already tackling education reform. Michigan was on that list,” notes Solon, the former legislative director for Michigan State Senator Phil Pavlov (R-St. Clair Township) who is the current chairman of the Senate Education Committee.

According to Solon, StudentsFirst in Michigan has since been focused on creating a conversation around education with state policymakers at a grassroots level. To that end, the group has built a membership database of approximately 40,000 individuals who subscribe via the StudentsFirst in Michigan website to receive updates on upcoming legislation and who may be called upon to send an email, make a phone call or show up in Lansing to testify on important education issues.

Likewise, StudentsFirst in Michigan is working with established groups in the state to help connect their members to policy-makers in Lansing. Among those are the Detroit Parent Network, Democrats for Education Reform, the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, the Michigan Association of School Boards and numerous neighborhood associations and communities throughout the state.

“We want to infuse other voices in the policy debate,” Solon said. “Voices that aren’t traditional stakeholders.”

For his part, Sen. Pavlov is encouraged by StudentsFirst’s efforts to leverage a vast network of parents across the state who are getting the word out that Michigan can and should be doing better by its schools.

“StudentsFirst in Michigan is doing a good job explaining complicated education reform policy issues to policy-makers,” Sen. Pavlov said. “Michigan has been on an aggressive education reform agenda for the past two years, expanding charter schools, reforming tenure, expanding dual enrollment and cyber education to provide more choices to parents and students, but our C- rating from StudentsFirst reminds us that there is still more to do.”

Taking Action

To put a framework around its efforts to guide education reform, StudentsFirst has outlined three policy pillars: elevating the teaching profession by valuing teachers’ impact on students; empowering parents with real choices and real information; and spending taxpayer resources wisely to get better results for students.

StudentsFirst in Michigan experienced early wins in 2011 in the areas of pension reform and teacher tenure.

“The reform of tenure laws will streamline the process for removing ineffective teachers, making tenure more difficult to attain and ensuring that ineffective teachers lose tenure,” Solon said.

During 2011, StudentsFirst in Michigan also lobbied the state Legislature to pass a law that ended the “last in, first out” means by which seniority was used to make staffing decisions. Now teacher evaluations are weighed in those decisions.

“Under the old way of doing things, young teachers with new techniques were jettisoned from the system,” Sen. Pavlov said. “Now ‘first out’ is based on competence and effectiveness versus number of heartbeats on the job.”

Looking Ahead

During the current legislative session, StudentsFirst in Michigan has set its focus on three primary policy areas. First among those is teacher evaluations.

“In 2011, Michigan passed a law requiring school districts to implement new teacher evaluations based primarily, but not exclusively, on student growth,” Solon said. “Teacher evaluations allow administrators to recognize and reward high-performing teachers. They will also be used to identify targeted professional development for teachers and administrators. Now we’re looking to make sure those evaluations are implemented.”

Sen. Pavlov notes that both he and StudentsFirst share a strong desire to see that the best teachers are in front of the state’s students each day.

“Tenure reform relies on having an effective measurement system in place that is fair to teachers,” he said.

The topic of teacher evaluations naturally links to performance pay, a second focus of StudentsFirst in Michigan during the current legislative session.

“Currently, teacher pay is not linked to student output,” Solon said. “It’s focused on input – meaning the number of years of experience and the number of degrees a teacher has. That doesn’t let us focus on the needs of the school and what schools need to do to reward and retain teachers and different kinds.”

The third area of focus for StudentsFirst in Michigan during the current legislative session is on school report cards. The idea here is that each school in the state be given an A-F letter grade calculated based on such things as student achievement, graduation rates and student surveys, Solon said.

“It’s critical that we are able to provide parents with high quality data about each school so they can make informed decisions about where to send their children,” he said. “Even in rural areas of the state, there are options beyond traditional schools.”

Jacquie Goetz Bluethmann is a metro Detroit freelance writer.