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 Article of Interest - Michigan's Failing Schools

Watkins Prioritizing Services to Failing Schools
Gongwer News Service, April 7, 2003
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With the Department of Education down to about 240 people and about 60 percent of the general fund budget it had four years ago, Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Watkins is working to further focus those people and funds ensure the schools in most need of assistance are receiving help.

To shift more people and money into programs that provide assistance to schools, Mr. Watkins told Gongwer News Service in a recent interview that he had discontinued some services the department once provided, such as reviewing blue prints of new school buildings, as well as cutting back on how some services are provided, such as no longer reviewing the curriculum vitae of professors at schools of education up for recertification of their programs.

Looking at priorities for the department is increasingly important as it gears up for the requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Though the department will not release names or final figures for the number of schools not meeting adequate yearly progress until April 14, estimates put that number at about 400 with expectations that it will grow in the coming years.

While the federal legislation provides sanctions for schools not meeting adequate yearly progress, such as providing transportation to schools that do meet the standard and tutors for students who remain at the school, the department is also expected to provide some services to those schools to help them catch back up with their goals.

Mr. Watkins said the department is working to prioritize the schools that need assistance in improving, but said it could still be stretching resources thin without either more resources from the state or more collaborative efforts with educational and non-educational entities.

"The question is not how many are on the list but what are we collectively doing to get them off the list," he said. "We've got to be able to prioritize the energy and collective efforts."

It is particularly important to look at collective efforts because schools struggling to meet standards usually mean students struggling with home issues. "If the child didn't eat, if the child saw mom getting beat up by her husband or boyfriend, if mom or the child is using drugs, that impacts education," he said.

Mr. Watkins said Governor Jennifer Granholm's coming Children's Action Network, a collaborative of the human services and other departments with some connection to children or education, would bring support for some of those out-of-the-classroom issues that affect children's ability to learn.

While former Governor John Engler had a similar effort in his human services cabinet, Mr. Watkins said that effort did not have the strong backing that Ms. Granholm is giving to this effort and to education in general.

Mr. Watkins said Governor Jennifer Granhlom's attention to education and especially early childhood efforts have already begun to attract some philanthropic money to the state for those programs.

He said the effort also could make less relevant some of the proposals for executive order movement of some educational efforts. "Whether anything comes back to me is irrelevant," Mr. Watkins said. "Their collegial partnership is to not worry about bureaucratic lines or organizational charts."

But he said he did expect at least that the Michigan Educational Assessment Program would return to the department from its current home in Treasury. And he said he may be asking that some accounting functions to be moved to Treasury.

If additional funds can be found, Mr. Watkins said he would like to add to his field services staff. "I would like to be able to provide additional technical assistance to the locals," he said. "We exist to support the local schools."

But he said the department would provide what it can with the staff remaining. "The easy way to do it is with appropriated dollars, but we have a legal and moral obligation to do what the state can do," he said.

That focus on what the state needs to do means discarding many of the activities that are not essential to the focus of improving instruction, he said. For instance, the department cut back its reporting requirements on continuing education to mesh with requirements of the National Association of Teacher Education. "Eighty-five percent of the stuff they ask for was stuff we ask for," he said.

The department also is no longer reviewing school building blue prints. Though state law requires that schools submit them and the department review them, Mr. Watkins said he does not have staff with either the qualifications or the time to review the documents and he said in most cases local building officials were the more appropriate reviewers of the plans.

In the same vein, Mr. Watkins said he is looking for rules and regulations that might be excessive or unnecessary. "If there's a goofy rule or regulation that impedes teaching and learning we don't want it," he said.

Through a series of forums around the state, he has also been seeking input from local administrators and teachers on recommendations for changes to state regulations. He said he expected to have that list compiled in the coming weeks.

He said he welcomes the legislation Sen. Wayne Kuipers is developing to further restructure the School Code, including the provision to eliminate the Education YES! accreditation system. While many hours of staff time have gone into developing the new system and selling it to local school officials, Mr. Watkins said that was driven by statute, not by personal goals.

He did, however, request that the Legislature consider its timing as well as overall public policy before implementing changes to the state's accreditation requirements. The process will take additional staff time to compile all of the information into the grades that schools would eventually receive, and he said it did not make sense to put in that time for a system the Legislature is eliminating.

He also said that, while Education YES! and No Child Left Behind could be seen as duplicative, the former provides a broader-based look at school activities. "What Ed YES! does is helps us refine what schools are most in need," he said. If the system is eliminated, the Legislature needs to give the department at least guidance on what system should replace it.

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