America’s Teachers Lighting the Way

Michigan’s system of education has been in a death spiral now going on two decades from a deadly series of disinvestments, tax shifts, demographic decline, and ideological policy decisions. This perfect storm is wreaking havoc on teaching and learning in Michigan.

Leadership matters

And with education in Michigan at a critical juncture, steady and bold leadership that is focused on teaching and learning is vital now more than ever. Will Michigan’s leadership emerge from our education, business, labor, and political fields to fill the need?

Governor Whitmer’s proposed budget for education and workforce development begins to address some of the shortfalls— but has yet to be passed by the legislature.

According to just about every educational ranking, Michigan schools continue to flounder. The Michigan Department of Education has set a goal to be in the top 10 states for education by 2026. At the current pace of reform and investment, we are highly unlikely to reach this goal.

If studying Michigan schools actually produced academic progress, then Michigan would be at the top of the class. But it is high time to put aside further studies: we need action NOW to analyze what other states are doing that move their academic needle upwards.

If you are fortunate enough to live in an upper-middle-class neighborhood, now is not the time for smugness. While your schools are relatively better than some, they are far from where they need to be in order to prepare children for the hyper-competitive, disruptive, technologically-driven, global, knowledge economy they will inherit.

Unless we get serious about changing the trajectory of educational achievement in Michigan, we will continue to sink into an economic backwater.

Change That Produces Positive Results

Are the stars in alignment with where TLC (teaching, learning and children) is heading in order to prevail over PCPIA (Power, Control, Politics, Ideology and Adults)? We need a commitment to:

  • Fully fund our public schools.
  • Focus on quality in all public schools. A lousy charter school is no better than a lousy traditional school and vice versa.
  • Invest more resources in early and preschool education.
  • Make Michigan the brain bank of the world where everyone wants to come for deposits and withdrawals.
  • Call on our universities to study how we can tap artificial intelligence to advance learning that prepares our students and workforce for their future and not our past.
  • Celebrate diversity by providing the necessary resources to school districts with populations where English is a second language.
  • Stop the ideological, partisan debates around education and invest in data-driven, education educationally sound, research-proven educational programs that help teachers teach and children learn.
  • Carry through on the vision to make Michigan a Top 10 education state in 10 years.
  • Support Michigan Opportunity and Reconnect, Gov. Whitmer’s signature education and workforce preparedness initiative aimed at increasing our postsecondary attainment rates from 45% to 60% by 2030.

Helping Teachers Teach and Children Learn

Education from cradle-to-grave is vitally important to the collective future of our state.

We need to light a torch that helps guide policy and funding decisions to lift up public education and great teachers. But most importantly: our students who currently make up a small percentage of the state’s population, but are 100% of our collective future.

The true Statue of Liberty in this great country of ours is our neighborhood public schools and community colleges. There is not another institution in America that can take the hungry, the tired, the poor, huddled masses, children who speak English as a second language, and students with special needs to give them hope and opportunity.

Our pre-K-14 system of education is the foundation on which Pure Michigan is being built and from which our teachers are lighting the way for us all. We need to stand up for the classroom teacher to make sure their ideas and experiences are heard and incorporated into public policies that impact them.

We need political leaders to understand the critical role these institutions and the educators within them play in shaping our state and nation.


Michigan needs the new educational investments proposed by Gov. Whitmer to build a solid pre-K-14 education foundation and workforce preparation. It is what is needed to remain relevant as a state in this country.

Educating Michiganders to be competitive on the world stage and preparing more of our children to be able to collaborate and compete globally is the key to our country’s future prosperity. The city, state, and nation that creates an effective system of learning will thrive.

Gum on the Bottom of a Shoe

Educators have told me they have been made to feel like, “the gum on the bottom of a shoe.” They have been ignored and not engaged in the changes and “reforms” that directly impact their profession.

Let’s stop hammering our teachers down. Let’s snap that symbolic hammer in half. Turn it instead into a ladder to help lift our schools, teachers, and most importantly, our children in ways that make them partners in change that leads to progress for our students.

Do our schools and teachers need to constantly evolve, embrace change and adapt to a disruptive world where ideas and jobs can and do move around the globe effortlessly? Of course.

Yet, as this article in The Atlantic points out, we are not giving teachers the respect, support and financial backing necessary to build an American system of education that is necessary to reach our stated goal.

Without the ability to tap the energy, talents, skills and passions of these great educators that touch our collective futures daily, we are missing an ingredient necessary to soar in the 21st century knowledge economy.

Research and common sense reinforce that quality teachers matter. In the education enterprise, we must always remember that teachers have the lead role in preparing students for their future –not our past. We need to actively seek ways to engage teachers and make them a key member of any education reform effort.

If you are able to read, thank a teacher!

And if you are a policy-maker (governor or legislator, school board member, superintendent or principal), consider re-evaluating how you can harness the talents of this master-link in the learning process: our teachers.

Policymakers know what to do to improve educational outcomes. But the question remains: Is there the will and courage to do what needs to be done?

Our future as a state and nation is inextricably linked to the quality of our schools and teachers.

This article was written by Tom Watkins, Business Partner of WAY American School in China, and published in Dome Magazine. Tom Watkins has an eclectic career in both the public and private sectors. He served the citizens of Michigan as state superintendent of schools and director of the department of mental health. He has held leadership positions in higher education, business, and behavioral health. Watkins has an interest and passion in all things China and has written hundreds of article on the value of this most important bilateral relationship in the world today.