Tom Watkins

What business needs to understand about education

There is great value in engaging the business community to enhance and improve the funding and educational outcomes for our students. I make this statement with having had a foot in both doors: education and business. I took a leading role in creating the first charter schools in Michigan and Florida during the 1990s and also served as Michigan’s State Superintendent of Schools from 2001-2005. I also served as president and CEO of the private Economic Council of Palm Beach County while serving as the executive director of the Education Partnership.

Reports dating back a decade or longer show how Michigan has been falling behind educationally. A child without a decent education today is an adult without much of a future tomorrow. Unless we are serious about changing the trajectory of educational achievement in Michigan, we will sink into an economic backwater. We need all the help we can muster to assure we are preparing today’s students for their future and not our past.

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A Brookings Institute analysis of the results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress shows Michigan students, since 2003, have continually made the least improvement in scores nationally. The article points out Michigan students were at the bottom of the list when it comes to proficiency growth on four measures in the exam (including math and reading).

Business to the rescue?
Business Leaders for Michigan is a big deal. Its membership represents the chairpersons, chief executive officers and most senior executives of Michigan’s largest companies and universities. BLM members drive nearly a third of the state’s economy, provide 390,000 direct jobs in Michigan, generate more than $1 trillion in annual revenue and serve nearly half of all Michigan public university students.

BLM has decided to weigh into education reform in a big way and issued both its review of best practices in K–12 education and a set of principles that can lead to better student performance with the goal of making Michigan one of the nation’s top 10 states for student learning and talent development. BLM leaders say the report, Business Leaders’ Insights: Leading Practices in K-12 Education that Can Improve Student Outcomes in Michigan, is aimed at prompting an important public dialogue that leads to effective fixes for the state’s poor student outcomes.

As my grandma would tell me, “It doesn’t matter why or how someone gets religion — as long as they get it.” Welcome, Business Leaders for Michigan, for caring about public education and engaging with the broader education community to build a plan to “make Michigan one of the nation’s top 10 states for student learning and talent development.”

All should welcome the Business Leaders for Michigan’s newfound interest in education — but let’s not forget the past.

Many from the business and corporate community have backed:

Historically failing, ideologically driven charter schools that take resources from traditional local public schools
Tax policy and tax cuts that take money away from local public schools
Legislative leaders who have pushed ideological, not fact-based policies that are harmful to public education
State budgets that have underfunded public K-12 and higher education going back years, if not decades.
It is imperative that we get everyone on board to improve the educational outcomes for more and more of our students. With technology, artificial intelligence, automation and globalization coming at warp speed, jobs can and are moving effortlessly across the globe.

It’s our collective job to clear out the underbrush that gets in the way of teaching and learning. It is impossible to rebuild the city of Detroit, the region, or the state on a crumbling educational foundation. The business community need to engage educators in their reform efforts, understanding:

  • Schools have a different mission than business.
  • Ideology and political spin don’t have a place in reform. Instead, do the hard research about what works.
  • Key educators, teachers, principals, and superintendents must be invited to the table. Smart business leaders don’t lay out a change strategy without engaging frontline workers and we won’t get buy-in from educators if a plan is developed without their input.
  • A unified, adequately funded direction for education is needed with a goal of helping teachers teach and children learn.

Welcome aboard BLM, you know better than most that we are living in an age where those with the talent and knowledge will win. To be uneducated is to be left behind in our global economy. This fact ought to create a sense of urgency for all.

Tom Watkins is a business and educational consultant in the U.S. and China.

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