This story was corrected Jan. 20.
While Superman is fixing the nation’s schools, could he also swoop into Lansing and, faster than a speeding bullet, bypass the district’s school board, leap across the gaping budget hole, shake up the city’s somnolent citizens and create a globally connected school system for the coming century?
Public education has always been fraught with angst, but the 2010 documentary film, “Waiting for Superman,” has ratcheted up the dialog. Davis Guggenheim spent two years visiting schools across the country asking why inner-city schools are doing such a poor job of producing America’s entrepreneurs for tomorrow.
Implied in “Superman” is the notion that the nation’s schools are doing so badly that only a superhero could save them.
So City Pulse armed some local educators with fanciful powers, asking them to not only “change the course of mighty rivers and bend steel with their bare hands,” but also to use their fictitious but fabulous skills to ramp up the Lansing School District.
Those who agreed to help: four just-retired teachers; the superintendent, T.C. Wallace; and Yong Zhao, a former consultant to the Lansing School District and author of “Catching Up or Leading the Way: American Education in the Age of Globalization.”
All of them concurred: There is little work as important as this.
In general, they said they would stop trying to support a 33-building system when there are students to fill only half as many; they would pay the teachers well and do away with seniority and the need for unions; they would pour money into teacher training, then globalize the systems using every available piece of technology. And they would drastically increase the number of days students are in school.
Making such changes would challenge the status quo. John Koppisch, a Forbes magazine columnist, refers to this as the “infamous education blob of union leaders, administrators and elected officials that absorbs and defuses just about any attempt at (school) reform.”
Koppisch writes of the national education picture. But the problems faced from New York to California play out here as well.
In every state, the issue of testing is praised in some areas as a relevant measuring device and criticized in others as a distraction from the real work of learning.
The reliance on testing is a natural symptom of Americans’ losing faith in their education system, Zhao said. That loss of faith rests partially in the corporate world’s claim that the American workforce is not prepared for 21st century jobs. In reality, corporations are driving to cut labor costs by moving their factories and call centers to other parts of the world.
Further, test results can yield false assumptions. While American children’s test scores appear to be falling, Zhao says that in reality America is not so much falling behind as underdeveloped countries are catching up.
Zhao taught for 15 years at Michigan State University’s Department of Education, shuttling back and forth between East Lansing and China, gathering data. He served as executive director of MSU’s arm of the online Confucius Institute, a Chinese-government supported effort to promote Chinese language and culture.
Interviewed in December on his last day at MSU, Zhao now resides at the University of Oregon as the associate dean for global education.
His book notes how China has admired America’s educational prowess, discovering that its own workforce-dominated, rigidly test-oriented system has produced too few entrepreneurs. Rather it has created millions of unemployed college graduates. Instead of preparing students for a job market that may not exist when they graduate, China is loosening its system to create students capable of more creative thinking, enabling them to function in many milieus.
Ironically, the U. S. is doing just the opposite, trending toward tightening its education system to specific subject areas. STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) is the focus for now, thanks to former President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. The U.S. is increasing its emphasis on tests at every level, and the flaws of such a system are showing up in mid-Michigan, Zhao said.
When Zhao lived here, his two children attended area schools. He prefers not to identify the schools to protect the identity of the children. His son’s grades and test scores began to drop. The boy appeared to be losing interest in school. But then he suddenly did an about-face.
“What’s up?” his dad asked. “I’m learning to take the tests,” the boy answered.
With that, Zhao yanked him out of public school and sent him to a private school on the East Coast, one oriented toward teaching to a student’s passion. The boy is now in college, doing well, Zhao said.
In 2008, Zhao worked
closely with Lansing’s Wallace to set up the Chinese language immersion
program at Post Oak Elementary School. Zhao had high praise for Wallace,
calling him one of the more creative educators he’s met. As for the
Lansing School District, his praise was faint.
Lansing schools have great room for improvement. Of its approximately
13,000 students, more than 2,000 students are expelled every year. Only
64 percent of seniors expected to graduate did so in 2009. Twenty
percent of students missed 21 days of school or more, Wallace said.
annual statewide test of eighth graders in 2008-2009 showed Pattengill
and Dwight Rich middle schools 20 and 17 points below the state student
averages in reading and 28 points below in math, according to the
Michigan Department of Education.
“I don’t think Lansing can turn around unless it changes what it thinks a good education is,” Zhao said.
of focusing on job training, a short-term goal, the district should
emphasize problem solving and reaching for new ideas. It should move
from rewarding students for being good test takers to recognizing them
when they are entrepreneurial and innovative, Zhao said.
Standardized testing kills creative thought, he said, while emphasis on book knowledge creates worship of the past.
But as long as we have tests, they should be nationalized,
Wallace said. What is tested in Indiana may not be tested in Michigan,
so comparisons are impossible. The same is true globally. While Chinese
high school students are gleaned from the cream of students nationwide,
American schools are open to all, including the disabled and those whose
first language is not English. At Riddle Elementary, Lansing’s one
elementary school that did not make enough improvement last year under
federal guidelines, English is a second language for 65 percent of
like comparing apples and oranges,” one of the retired teachers said,
referring to China’s selectivity and the U.S.’s openness in accepting
public school students.
teachers asked that their names not be used as they expect in time to
be seeking consulting jobs, possibly within the Lansing system.
even before he would tinker with tests in his fantasy school district,
Wallace would pour dollars into training the district’s teachers.
and General Motors set aside 20 percent to 25 percent of their budgets
for employee development. We allot about 1 percent, bolstered to 3
percent with grants,” Wallace harrumphed.
A large percentage of the district’s staff has been with the district more than 30 years.
was not taught in teacher education schools 30 years ago,” he said
bluntly. And because they are unfamiliar with computerized education
programs, the teachers use less than 10 percent of the technology
The cost-saving potential is enormous. Lansing students could join students from Texas or India doing land surveys in Australia without ever leaving their desks.
Such teaching would help students take their place in the global community — an imperative for their futures, Zhao said.
Community College is teaching writing classes in Second Life, the
Internet world inhabited by avatars. In what started out as a
recreational game where users could create a virtual persona, the game
also allows for educational applications like holding conferences or
starting fictitious businesses.
The public schools could not do that for lack of technologically skilled staff, Wallace said.
the younger teachers with digital mastery, because of staff seniority
practices, they are the first to go in early retirement schemes.
Seventy-four Lansing teachers and 19 administrators took advantage of
the state’s retirement incentive last year.
the Confucius Institute, Zhao formed a site whereby young people from
around the world can visit and interact while speaking Mandarin Chinese —
an immersion role-playing program in cyberspace.
Same old, same old
such creative programs happen “requires a governing board receptive to
thinking outside the box,” Wallace said with some sadness.
“You keep doing the same things, you get the same results,” he said.
years ago Wallace convened a study group of experts from Australia and
China that proposed a creative computerized program for Pattengill
Middle School, but the district’s school board would not concur. Zhao
was part of that team.
the other hand, in a nod to the board, it did approve the
technologically driven alternative education program called AdvancePath
at the Sexton High School annex. That is set to expand this month to
Everett and Eastern high schools.
Davis, a school board member since 1999, said the board cannot decree
that there will be innovation nor can it bypass the teachers’ union
contract, which is laced with restrictive provisos.
And according to the teachers' union contract
and under Michigan law, test scores may not be used in teacher
evaluations. The current contract expires in June, and negotiations will
the retired teachers lamented the “us versus them” atmosphere that has
grown in the district of late. That they felt underappreciated is a huge
union, the Lansing Schools Education Association, is working on
developing tools that measure teacher performance, President Jerry
Swartz said. Meanwhile, the union contract insulates the staff from the
political winds that can stymie the elected board, he added.
Wallace, still armed with his fantasy school board and an unlimited
budget, had his imaginary staff fully trained and technologically
implementing global programs, he would turn to the district’s middle
has a quality elementary program beginning with Head Start and
preschool. “Our elementary programs rank academically with most
districts in the state,” he said.
But the middle schools are a different story. They are in the lowest measurement quartile in Michigan, he said.
Davis: “Everyone knows we just move kids along in middle school because
of their age, not their achievement, so they may appear in high school
would shuffle the middle school students onto gender-based campuses
with strict uniform regulations: no baggy pants, no big loopy earrings
or oversized sweatshirts, no baseball caps or sneakers.
“At that age, young people no longer come to school solely to learn,” he said.
on the street is that one of the three high schools will be closed, but
Wallace did not use his imaginary powers to make that change. Rather,
he extended the school year to 220 days. In 2009 Lansing students
attended school 173 days, according to a Center for Michigan report
called “School Daze.”
“Our children spend over a month less in school than children in South Korea,” President Barack Obama said in 2009. “That’s no way to prepare them for a 21stcentury economy.”
One of the retired teachers recommended year-round schooling.
breaks are killing us,” he said, because at-risk children,
particularly, fall further behind. “Mt. Clemens implemented year-round
school, and achievement went through the roof.”
Wallace was superintendent at Mt. Clemens School District, about 26 miles northeast of Detroit, before coming to Lansing.
of the educators wished they had the power to get parents involved with
the schools. In 2009, only 22 percent of parents made parent-teacher
conferences at Dwight Rich Middle School, while Pattengill pulled in 66
percent, according to the schools’ websites. Zhao would give the
individual schools more governing power to broaden the diversity of
programs and to perhaps instill parental investment.
believes he can meet the district’s challenges, even without Superman’s
powers. Even though the district faces a $12 million budget hole, he
says money is not the answer to Lansing’s challenges. It is courage and
willingness to change.
he became the superintendent in Mt. Clemens, Wallace was handed an
83-page list of state-required changes. When he left Mt. Clemens, the
pages were reduced to four.
“People didn’t like me so much. But I did get the job done,” he said.
he arrived at the Lansing district in 2007, Lansing’s three high
schools had not met federally mandated Adequate Yearly Progress goals in
six years. Last year, both Sexton and Everett highs achieved it, and
Eastern fell short by a fraction of one point. That job won’t be
entirely done for some time, however, because every year the bar on AYP
is president of the Michigan Association of School Administrators,
selected by his peers, giving him access to creative school problem
the public is waking to the schools’ need for support. Lansing voters
in November approved a $21 million, five-year property tax for building
repairs, and 17 people applied for the one-year unpaid board position to
complete Hugh Clarke’s term when he was appointed to be a District
Lansing may not have to wait for Superman. In fact, Swartz says,
Superman and Superwoman are here every day in the form of the teachers
as well as every child that is learning: “All we have to do is get out
of their way.”