A Quick Chat With State Superintendent Brian Whiston

John Tramontana

By John Tramontana, MASB Director of Communications, PR & Marketing

DashBoard, May 24, 2017

MASB spoke with State Superintendent Brian Whiston earlier this week about what’s happening at the state level and the presentation he’ll be giving at the Summer Leadership Institute, Aug. 11, 2017, at Mission Point Resort on Mackinac Island.

Tell us about your session on Mackinac Island. It’s focusing on the State of our Schools. What can you say about the state of public education in Michigan today?

I think there are a lot of exciting things going on in a lot of schools, but as a state we’re not performing where we want to be. Depending on the metric you want to use we’re somewhere in the middle to the bottom third of states. Michigan should be a leader. We should be a top 10 performing state. So, we need to take the good things that are happening in our districts and replicate them. A lot of that has to do with what’s taking place in the classroom—deeper learning, looking at different ways of having kids do more project-based learning. Those kinds of things. That helps to create multiple pathways so students have choices.

Talk about the Top 10 in 10 program. How is that working and are we on track so far?

The Top 10 in 10 plan deals with classroom instruction, the different, deeper learning models that could be competency based or project based. It could be like what Dexter is doing, their 30/70 plan where 30% of the time the students are self-directed, self-taught with a teacher facilitating and 70% they’re working on projects. You know there are different models out there that districts can adopt, adapt to and implement.

So are we on track to be to top 10 state? I’d say, not yet. What boards of education can do is ask their superintendent to look at what’s taking place in the classroom and how we can implement the deeper learning goal setting by students, students take ownership of their learning. These kinds of things can make a real difference. In addition to that, we want preschool for every student, so what districts can do to make sure they have early 5’s programs, preschool programs, that’s key to success.

And then as a state we need to focus on teacher preparation and what kinds of programs our teachers are going through and what kind of supports are in place to help them be successful. So that when they come into our classrooms, they’re ready to help students more facilitate the learning and not be directing the learning. It should be all about students making choices, setting pathways and owning their learning. So boards can adopt budgets that align to that, they can set goals for moving in those directions. We need boards to be working with their superintendent to say, “Yeah we are a good school district, but we could be even do better if we focus on some of these deeper learning kinds of things.”

What’s the single biggest threat facing public education today?

You know I think certainly teacher shortage and pay are big threats in moving us forward. I think the fact is that our districts are doing good work but they need to really focus and do great work and so are districts going to be willing to take a look at themselves and say, “Yes, we’re doing good but how can we even do better?” So, I’d say those are the three challenges that districts face and boards need to look at starting pay procedures, they need to look at ways they can raise teachers’ salaries and still meet the needs of the curriculum and extracurricular activities and then focus on that deeper learning.

What do we as a state need to focus on to help improve student achievement?

Well, I think it’s taking the examples of what Fraser is doing with competency based, what Dexter is doing with the 30/70, what many districts are doing—highlighting those great programs and encouraging boards and superintendents to do field trips and take the principal, the superintendent, the board members too and go look at these districts and the exciting things that they are doing and see how they can bring those back home. I think the department can highlight great programs and encourage districts to take a look at those. I think when we look at grants and as we are working with the Legislature on school funding to try to create some incentives for districts to go in these directions.

How can school board members help? What should they be doing?

I think they need to go to the [Summer Leadership Institute] and learn from other school districts. A lot of times I hear board members say, “Oh we’re already doing that” or “We’re already a good district” and those statements are true. But they need to go to this conference with an open mind and really search out districts that are doing things differently, and asking how it’s working and how they can come and learn from it.

So, I think going to the conference is important, I think asking their superintendents and principals to schedule some trips to other districts to highlight some of the programs that are going on out there. I think is key. And finally, really, as a board, staying laser focused on meeting the needs of students and not getting caught up in a lot of the other drama that can happen in the community, but to stay focused on students and student success. I think if they do those three things, the school districts will see we’ll become a top 10 state.

For more information on the Summer Leadership Institute, visit the MASB website.

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