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New State Schools Chief Aims to Put Michigan in Top Tier

Tells Kent ISD Superintendents He Wants Their ‘Voice in the Room’

If Michigan is to become a top 10 education state within 10 years, its students need to spend less time taking tests and more time taking college courses.

Those were among the reform ideas new State Superintendent Brian Whiston brought to the superintendents of Kent County, as he embarks on a mission to raise Michigan from the bottom half of U.S. schools to the top tier. Speaking to leaders of the Kent ISD’s 20 school districts, Whiston said he’ll push for innovations to turn the state around, including further reducing state-mandated tests and broadening ways to evaluate students.

“I can never support an accountability model based on one test, one day,” Whiston said at the Oct. 15 retreat in Big Rapids. “What drives me crazy is that’s what the Legislature wants to do to us. Why don’t we create an accountability model for them that says one vote is how we would judge them?”

Instead, student success should be evaluated on “multiple measures” and their individual academic gains within each grade, Whiston said, adding, “We have to change the conversation: Are we getting growth out of students?”

In an interview afterward, Whiston said he also wants to get more students into early college courses or certificate programs in areas such as technology, food service or car repair.

“I’d like to see every child graduate from high school with a year or two of either college or a certificate program,” Whiston said, noting that would save on tuition bills by having the state pick up the cost. “That will make Michigan not only a top 10 performing state in terms of education, but economically.”

Superintendent Brian Whiston wants to make Michigan a top 10 education state nationally

Urges Unity on Legislative Proposals

The meeting gave most Kent ISD school chiefs their first chance to hear from Whiston, who took office July 1. The former superintendent of Dearborn Public Schools weighed in on current controversies, including proposed legislation on teacher evaluation and concealed carrying of guns in schools. They in turn peppered him with concerns ranging from inequitable school funding and proposed third-grade reading legislation to the prospects for a year-round school calendar.

Whiston assured the group that he wants to include them and other educators in formulating proposals to improve school performance and finances.

“My goal as superintendent is to have your voice in the room when decisions are made,” said Whiston, a former legislative lobbyist for the Oakland County ISD. “Our voice for a long time has been missing for part of the conversation.”

He invited superintendents to serve on one of four committees to study reforms in testing, accountability, funding and teacher preparation. Along with ideas gathered at state Board of Education hearings and on a state website, the committees will help shape a school-improvement “game plan” by year’s end, Whiston said.

He urged the group to take a more proactive and unified stance to help get better results in state legislation, adding, “The Legislature wins when we’re divided.”

‘If we get rid of art, music, gym and other things and (are) just driven by a test, we’re going to destroy America’s education system.’ – State Superintendent Brian Whiston

Among legislative controversies, Whiston said he opposes proposed bills to allow gun-permit holders to carry concealed weapons into schools.  Current law allows permit-holders to openly carry firearms in schools. Whiston said he favors either a total ban or leaving policies up to local school boards.

“I just don’t believe there’s any place for weapons in schools,” Whiston said in the interview. “From a safety perspective, we want law enforcement and school security personnel tohave weapons and nobody else.”

Stop the ‘Race to be Test-Driven’

As for school funding, Whiston said he supports further closing the gap between wealthy and poor schools — and doesn’t want to see a road-funding bill take money from districts.

“They need to increase the tax to pay for it, not take it from us,” Whiston told the group. “If you look at states that are thriving, it’s states investing in education and infrastructure.”

When it comes to testing, Whiston already has overseen changes that will reduce the time students spend on the M-STEP state tests introduced last spring. He said he would like to further reduce testing time, and let districts instead use other standardized growth tests aligned to M-STEP. In any case, students shouldn’t be measured solely by tests and at the expense of other subject areas.

“We win in America on creativity, on patents, on ingenuity, on problem-solving. That’s what makes us great,” he said in the interview. “So why are we trying to race to be test-driven?

“If we get rid of art, music, gym and other things and just be driven by a test,” he added, “we’re going to destroy America’s education system, not improve it.”

In visits to schools around the state, Whiston said he’s seen “great things” along with deep problems such as poverty. He said he would like to bring increased focus to what’s happening in classrooms and to the role parents can play.

“We love the fact they have popcorn sales and do all these things. But we really want them in the classrooms, engaging in what their students are doing, so they can help their students at home.”


Brian Whiston bio

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Charles Honey
Charles Honey
Charles Honey is editor-in-chief of SNN, and covers series and issues stories for all districts. As a reporter for The Grand Rapids Press/mLive from 1985 to 2009, his beats included Grand Rapids Public Schools, local colleges and education issues. Honey served as editor of The Press’ award-winning Religion section for 15 years and its columnist for 20. His freelance articles have appeared in Christianity Today, Religion News Service and Faith & Leadership magazine. Read Charles' full bio


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