Michigan Republicans Attempt to Get Out Ahead in Back-to-School Policy

The first thing I did when I retired from teaching was embark on a PhD program in education policy. When I enrolled, my advisor wondered immediately why a newly retired teacher would want to study education policy. She thought I should be in the teacher education program—or maybe the ed leadership division, with all the wannabe superintendents.

But I wanted to study education policy—to see just how the sausage was made, by whom and for what reasons. As a long-suffering object of education policy, I wanted to untangle the process that had so often made me ask: What were they thinking, when they came up with this?

I learned a number of things, most of which weren’t part of any syllabus, none more important than the fact that education policy creation is seldom measured and thoughtful, informed by research, goodwill and common goals.

John Kingdon, one of the most influential thinkers on policy creation, believes that there are ‘windows’ where changes in policy become possible as three streams—a problem, a policy proposal, and politics converge to yield something new.

That’s where we are right now. Big problem: returning to school (or not) during a pandemic. Tons of policy options to address this problem. Politics swirling around the issue, from state control over health mandates, a bitter election season and the devastated economy. What does this mean to our youngest citizens? How will they be educated? This is an oversized picture window for policy creation.

Michigan’s governor, Gretchen Whitmer, announced a ‘Return to Learn Advisory Council’ in mid-May. It was composed of educators, school leaders, public health coordinators and mental health specialists. The panel would use a data-informed and science-based approach with input from epidemiologists to determine if, when and how students can return to school this fall and what that will look like.‘  Last week, Whitmer said that students will be going back to school in some form, as long as our numbers remain low and the virus is reasonably controlled. All good, right? The rest is TBD.

Yesterday, Republicans in the state legislature released a one-page plan that they labeled ‘Return to Learn’ (sound familiar?)–and it is not really based on science or even data, unless you count the ROI numbers that the ed-tech-corp folks must be running about now (Ding! Ding! Ding!).

Perhaps the Republican legislators read Kingdon, and fear that the window to impose their will might close unless they wrest control of the policy proposals and (especially, given the governor’s 70% approval rating) politics.

The document is a mess (D- to the communications outfit they hired to write it). It’s filled with familiar, yet awkwardly worded, edu-mush like ‘Learning doesn’t stop when a student leaves the classroom. Schools should be measured for how they engage students, not how long a student sits in a seat.’

And there’s this gem: ‘Understanding a student’s knowledge of critical concepts is important to ensuring instruction is focused on the most-needed areas.’ I wonder who thought that one up.

My personal favorite: ‘Our plan empowers school districts to develop flexible learning plans for the 2020-21 school year to maximize student learning.’ What does that even mean?

Most of the items seem to be code for a few things the Republicans have long wanted—‘efficiency’ in education policy– and haven’t been able to get. In veiled and gauzy language, and extremely short on specifics, they cover all the various policy models I learned about in grad school:

Mandates:

  • Students absolutely will be tested whenever they return to school (no worries, testing companies). Because otherwise we’ll have no idea ‘where they are at academically.’
  •  Forgiven snow days (a really big deal in Michigan) would be limited to two (currently, six snow days don’t have to count toward annual required seat time, and school districts can apply for three more in an exceptionally snowy winter). For a document that proclaims ‘how long a student sits in a seat’ doesn’t matter, this is a bit inconsistent, but the legislature seems to be trying to appear tough, the law-making equivalent of ‘I had to walk through drifts to get to school, damn it, and these kids can, too.’ This and other items appear to be things the legislature is still smarting over, and wants to re-litigate, even though they have little to do with the pandemic.
  • In-person instruction will be required for grades K-5. This appears to be a gift to parents who must work, as the cutoff age for needing a babysitter is probably 11 or 12 years of age.
  • Benchmark assessments must be used. (You’re not getting out of that, you lazy teachers!)
  • Online learners will get the same scope and sequence of curriculum, and the same day and hour requirements as those learning in person. No more one-hour Zoom meetings followed by independent work or reading, even though ‘learning doesn’t stop when the student leaves the classroom.’ This appears to be assurance that the online education they’re gunning for is just as good for older kids as face to face classrooms.
  • Schools will be directed to focus only on math, reading, science and social studies, called ‘the basics.’ You know what means, and what will be missing, come fall.

Persuasive Policies:

  • There’s a whole section on health and safety, but all it says is that schools will ‘partner’ with their local health departments to ‘ensure’ health and safety practices that ‘make sense,’ and that intermediate school districts will get $80 million to ‘coordinate safe learning measures,’ whatever that means. No money directly to school districts for these health and safety needs. For example, cleaning and sanitizing, ventilation systems, more classroom space, masks. Stuff like that.

Inducements:

  • There’s a section on ‘Restarting Extracurricular Activities Safely’—with a lot of murky language about empowering parents and local guidance. If you don’t understand what that means, there’s a little basketball icon to subtly explain: Yes, there will be sports.
  • A one-time $500 reward for ‘front-line’ teachers. This—essentially a signing bonus for coming back to teach during a teacher shortage as well as a dangerous pandemic—fools not one single teacher. It’s not gratitude. It’s desperation.

System-changing Policies:

  • The lack of specificity, beyond the 5th grade, and the drumbeat of ‘innovation’ and, especially a promise of $800 per student to implement ‘robust distance learning’ is the biggest deal here. In fact, the concept of ‘attendance’ will be ‘redefined’ to mean ‘engaged in instruction rather than physically present.’ That’s huge. Who needs bricks and mortar schools—except for sports?
  • Schools have already been told to expect cuts—as much as $2000 per student, in a state where baseline funding per student hovers just over $8000/per. Now, in a financial sleight of hand, the legislature is promising $800 per student to spend on distance learning plans.

There’s more, hidden in the policy weeds and glittering generalities, but we all know that a budget, not fancy talk, is how priorities are revealed. A lot of this language comes directly from the Great Lakes Education Project, a DeVos-funded policy house

You don’t need a degree in education policy to see this sloppy one-pager for what it is—exactly the kind of ‘innovation’ that will make educators ask: What were they thinking, when they came up with this?

11 Comments

  1. Gobbledygook! Why did they bother! I believe in teachers. Some more than others, just let them do the job they trained to do. Each class, when assembled, will need to be evaluated, by the teacher first. Then, let’s trust the way forward will define itself for that teacher.

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  2. Thank you Nancy for a well thought out Op-Ed. As soon as I saw the GOP announced yesterday…I knew that it was a product of Betsy DeVos and her minions. Enough is enough. The young people of today are crying out for adults to do the right thing; providing a quality public education is a start. I am awaiting Governor Whitmire’s announcement on June 30th. I know that she will provide the common sense approach to what public education will look like in Fall 2020.

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    1. Michigan State produced a large and detailed white paper, listing many options for a safe return. There are plenty of ideas. Schools need permission to shape the upcoming year in ways that benefit their students. What the legislature ought to be doing is tracking down enough federal funding to ease the pinch over the next two years, and praising the teachers who patched together an end to the school year, using their own ingenuity and resources. Instead, we get this incomprehensible blah-blah.

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    2. A predictable and a nothing burger from this faction of repubs, The DeVos roots are deeper than the Koch bothers influence in American life. Vote them out please!

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    1. But only for students (6th grade and up) who can be left home alone. For K-5, these Republicans see school as ‘free’ public child care (everyone does–it irritates teachers and school leaders to be considered child care, but it’s part of the economic structure of the United States).

      A few years ago, the Republicans in the legislature and the Republican governor had a secret project they referred to as a skunk works–it’s linked in the blog–to reduce the price of public schooling to $5K per child. The idea was to make school a learn-and-test model with no ‘seat time’ requirements. Kids could, under this model, finish all their online modules and graduate in a couple of years, if motivated. There were financial incentives for kids to do this, because it then cost the state a lot less.

      As soon as I saw the reference to seat time in the first paragraph, I knew this was an update of the skunk works project.

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  3. Bit ridiculous. A bunch of made up language trying to hide money grubbing or something.

    Another point, not quite related: You used “schizophrenic” to describe the way the plan was set up in one section. This feels like ableist language; you could just use the word “contradictory”.

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