Friday, April 22, 2016

MI: Let's Test Kids Into Oblivion

[Update: check the comments or this link for a bit more nuance and background from someone who lives there]

Congratulations, Michigan-- your state superintendent is nuts.

Brian Whiston was in front of state legislators last week to lay out his "vision" for education, and it's genius-- test the little buggers, all of them, into oblivion.

Where did Michigan find State Superintendent Whiston? Well, he was previously head of Dearborn Public Schools. He was a school board member for many years. And apparently he did some student teaching once. Oh, and he's won two awards-- he was Superintendent of the Year in 2014, and in 2007, he was Lobbyist of the Year. Because for part of his career he was a lobbyist for the Oakland school district (during which time he "learned some life lessons" about excessive expenses).

He did an interview with the Detroit Free Press back when he was elevated to the state level last summer, and in that he lays out some of his thoughts about education. These include ideas like model classrooms where the teacher is awesome and all other teachers can be trotted through and told, "See? Do it like this!" Let's imagine the teacher who replies, "Sure. Can I have this batch of students, too?" And he wants you to know that in Dearborn he was firing teachers all over the place, so totally working on that improvement of staff thing.

But his biggest plan of all is Top 10 in 10, Whiston's initiative to put Michigan among the top ten education states within ten years. That would be an impressive achievement, considering how far in the basement Michigan is on indicators like childhood literacy. That big strategic plan focuses on these goals:
  • construct a solid and sustainable P-20 system to educate all children for success;
  • meet and support the learning needs of ALL children;
  • meet and support the professional needs of ALL educators;
  • design systems to overcome the disparities experienced by children and schools;
  • empower parents and families to actively participate in their child’s education;
  • partner with employers to develop a strong, educated, and highly-skilled workforce; and
  • leading and lifting Michigan education through greater service from Lansing
That's an agreeably vague set of educational goals. But looking into the strategic details, we find a giant bureaucratic word salad laced with all the usual reformy suspects-- aligning with college and career ready goals, implementing with fidelity, deeper learning competencies, promoting teaching by "celebrating" educators, super-duper PD, providing choice for families, coordinate with employers to better produce worker drones for them, and also, most hilariously, "accelerate student achievement by adjusting the structure of the department," because if there's anything that has an influence on student achievement, it's how the state bureaucracy is organized. It is a reformsterific plan, and it deserves to have some abuse heaped upon its head, but I'll wait for another day.

Because there's one other thing that Whiston feels is super-important, and he stated that clearly to the Free Press in that big interview. Talking about what he'd do right out of the gate, Whiston mentioned calling a bunch of thinky tanks together to advise him (not, of course, teachers-- who the hell needs to talk to teachers about education), and also this:

Testing is obviously something I'm going to start day one trying to work towards.

Yes, obviously, Big Standardized Tests are necessary. Which brings us to his chat with legislators Wednesday. 

Because what Michigan's students need rather than, say, an actual investment of resources in their schools or the removal of the charter school boot from their financial necks or a reality-based attempt to recruit and retain teachers-- what Michigan students need more than all that is more testing.

Mind you, the Michigan Student Test of Educational Progress  (M-STEP) is only on Year 2. Also, it's expensive, time-consuming, and roundly criticized for being one more crappy Big Standardized Test. A state House committee voted to cut its funding. But when a BS Test is failing, the only thing to do is test more harder.

Whisten proposes to administer the test twice a year (or maybe even more) to "get a better sense of academic progress, and inform class instruction" says the man who has never been a classroom teacher. And instead of starting in third grade, Whisten believes that "age-appropriate" testing should start in kindergarten.

You know what kind of standardized testing is appropriate in kindergarten? None. None standardized testing is appropriate in kindergarten.

So condolences to you, Michigan. A child-poisoning governor, an entrenched system of replacing democracy with emergency managers-- oh, excuse me-- with CEO's, and a state education superintendent with no classroom experience and a BS Test fetish.


  1. Sad, Michigan teacher's would have to limit curriculum to what's needed to past a test for older students.

    As for Kindergarten, what in blazes is he thinking?!!!

  2. At least he brings his own pitchfork to sling his you-know-what.

  3. Hmm. I actually live in Michigan. And while you didn't say anything that was technically not true--there's more to the story.

    Michigan, as you mention, has a really creepy governor (more automaton than Captain Evil) and a batshit crazy, Tea Party-ish Republican legislature. The Superintendent is not--unlike most states--selected by the governor. S/he is chosen by an elected State Board of Education.

    Earlier this week, a team of some 30 Republicans crafted a resolution to dismiss the (duly and democratically elected) State Board and the Superintendent--and replace all of them with a CEO, chosen by the Governor. Of course, this would require a change in the constitution, so they're putting that on their to-do list, but they made a really big deal about it. It's their goal. Soon.

    The Superintendent was a kind of compromise choice, made by the (mostly Democratic) State Board. There were other (better) candidates, but Brian Whiston was chosen, largely because the Legislature loathes the State Board--and he had built relationships with legislators, when he was a lobbyist. That's right, they picked him *because* he was a lobbyist, and an actual public school superintendent, in a majority-Muslim district.

    He actually does know some things about running a school district. The piece you were referring to (start testing earlier!--test more often!) drew lots and lots of scorn, but it was mostly about dumping the MI version of the SBAC/CCSS test, and replacing it with MAP testing in the fall, to address something teachers have been asking for: early feedback on kids.

    Personally, I think it's a crappy idea, but I think it's the Supe's way of trying to make nice with the legislature, let them know he's not going to let go of accountability, even though he's recommending dumping the high-stakes test we most recently had.

    Furthermore--he's not really in control. The legislature doesn't want a Superintendent or Board. They want to completely trash MI ed funding and firewalls between public and private. They want to "unbundle" the public system. The Superintendent was hoping to give them an idea that would fly, and keep channels of communication open between the Board and the Statehouse.

    Brian Whiston is not the worst Superintendent we've ever had, by a long chalk. In fact, he hasn't been in place terribly long, and had a personal tragedy early in his term, so we haven't heard much from him. I would rather have him than someone appointed by Governor Endless Stare.

    Sad thing--MI used to be a flagship union state, with excellent public schools and universities.

    1. Thanks for extra information. That explains a great deal-- both better and worse than it first appeared.

  4. Thanks Nancy Flanagan for adding more context. There are some really great pieces to the Superintendent's plan, but there is a gigantic gap between the BOE/Super and the legislature. The legislature, as reminded by Tim Kelly, has the money and makes decisions where that money goes. The State BOE has, for years, tried to get certain support (through funding) for a variety of things that other states already do (like National Board Certification). As a state we will continue to be years (I would argue about 10) behind the east and west coasts. It doesn't have to be this way, but until families, the general public, and students raise their voices, the legislature will continue to control us and continue to deplete our public school system.