Education leaders sound off at Novi policy summit


The Novi Education Association and other local MEA affiliates held a community forum Monday to discuss issues affecting school employees, students and families.

Providing proper support to educators while finding reliable methods of evaluating them was a hot topic of debate at an education summit held Monday in Novi that featured policy leaders from across Michigan

“Every day, we have great educators working in great schools across our state,” said panelist Michele Harmala, associate superintendent for instructional services and organizational leadership in Farmington Public Schools. “We need to keep teachers hopeful in these days of endless blame and disparaging.”

All too often, teachers and education support staff receive the blame for factors outside their control, several panelists pointed out. So-called reformers advocate for divestment in public education, then turn around and claim schools are failing and demand greater accountability from school employees.

“Public schools aren’t broken,” said Ryan Langley, a physics teacher at Novi High School. “There are great things going on in public schools in Michigan, and there are areas where we have challenges.”

State Sen. Hoon-Yung Hopgood, D-Taylor, agreed, saying “too much energy is put into saying ‘public education is broken.’”

Demoralizing school employees “is probably the worst thing we can do” when it comes to education children, Hopgood said.

Hopgood said far too much attention is paid to standardized test scores, when we must “more holistically look at what’s happening in our schools.” He mentioned a video project undertaken by high-school students at one of his local schools, where they interviewed World War II veterans about their life experiences.

“That’s not something that our testing system captures in any real way,” Hopgood said.

Projects like that don’t seem to be a priority for some policymakers, however, who view education as more of a job-training program. For example, Bill Rustem, a top aide to Gov. Rick Snyder, said public schools “have got to get better” so students can “compete for the jobs of the 21st century.”

“Education is not about job training,” responded Cassandra Ulbrich, a member of the State Board of Education. “Education is about citizen training. A piece of that might be a job, but there’s so much more to it.”

Most of the panelists agreed that addressing rampant inequalities is one of the top challenges facing public education. After all, it’s patently unfair to blame teachers for their students’ poor test scores when their students are hungry or homeless – yet that’s exactly what some school reformers do when they chastise educators in under-achieving urban districts with high poverty rates.

“I have seen and worked with teachers in urban centers, and I don’t think they’re a magnet for bad teachers,” State Board of Education member Michelle Fecteau said.

“I never said it was the fault of the teachers,” responded Rustem, despite his support for paying teachers based on their students’ test scores. “It’s a societal problem … We’ve got to do a better job for those kids.”

Monday’s event, organized by the Novi Education Association and other local MEA affiliates, was somewhat unique for an education policy discussion in that it actually involved educators, who are far too often are left out of the debate. The governor’s secret “Skunk Works” group, for example, purposefully excluded educators as it deliberated ways to introduce school vouchers and “value schools” to Michigan.

That must change, Langley said. School employees are on the front lines of education, and their voices must be heard.

“Teachers tend to know what their kids know and don’t know,” he said. “Sometimes I think we’re waiting for a computer program to do it for us, when we can just ask the teachers. We should trust the professionals in place who generally care for these kids and understand their needs.”