(Note: this story will appear on Imabeerhound.com !! With pictures!! I am so excited!!)
Back in the day, people gathered in pubs to discuss the issues of the day–politics, fads, local news, gossip…. In fact, I have heard them say that our founding fathers met in brewpubs to discuss the problems with the British rulers. Yes, it all seemed to happen in a brewpub back then. Those were the DAYS, amigos. The DAYS.
Last night, Michigan Radio sponsored an event at the Wolverine State Brewpub that recreated those magical days (albeit without the funny wigs). The event was part of a series called Issues & Ales (temporarily renamed Issues & Lagers, in honor of the featured style of this pub) which gathers folks together to discuss a variety of different issues. Last night’s topic, titled How Michigan Learns, was on the state of public education in Michigan.
After an introduction by the E.T. Crowe (a.k.a. The Beer Wench), the panel discussion got underway. The panelists were Tom Watkins, who was Michigan’s state superintendent of public instruction in the early 00s; John Bebow, executive director of the Center for Michigan, a nonpartisian “think and do tank”; and Michelle Herbon, an education policy consultant with the Public Sector Consultants. Jack Lessenberry from the Metro Times (and elsewhere) moderated the event (and didn’t call on me to ask my question, so I have a bone to pick with that man. Just kidding.).
The conversation kicked off with a deceptively simple sounding question: what is wrong with education in Michigan? Watkins and Bebow opined that it has to be quality education (regardless of if it is public or not) and that there “isn’t enough of it”, respectively. Personally, I liked Herbon’s answer the best–that the education system has looked the same for too long and, as the economy has changed, so too must the school system. While I would like to hear how she thinks it should be changed, I appreciated that she was willing to give a somewhat concrete answer.
It wasn’t long before the panel started talking about money. Several panelists pointed out several times that we spend between $11,000,000,000 and $19,000,000,000 on education (both of those numbers were bandied about and I’m not sure they ever said exactly which one it is; regardless, it is in the BILLIONS). The question was asked–how would YOU spend that much money? Me, I’d give it all to one particular teacher of the blind in the Detroit Public School system. Time did not allow for suggestions, sadly.
Another hot topic–the MEAP and “high stakes testing”–popped up early on. As Herbon said, if she was still a teacher and someone said to her that her pay would go up or down depending on how well her kids did on the MEAP, well, she would teach to the test, too. There is an incentive to “teach to the test” now, and we should be more thoughtful about what incentives we offer to teachers.
As one might expect, the subject of charter schools came up early and often. The most interesting part of this conversation, to me, was when the moderator asked the panelists what a parent is to do when deciding where to put his or her child. That is, the panelists all are educated, all have time to devote to researching schools, but what about parents of less education, with less time? (I would have added: with disabilities, with English as a Second Language, without a car). Watkins said that one had to “make” time as there is no more important decision and that parents should take the time to visit schools and talk to parents and teachers. Bebow said that when he and his wife enrolled their children in Ann Arbor’s school of choice program, they looked at every data point, at how diverse the school was, and so on. Herbon said that one should focus on how well a school is performing.
One of the last questions asked by the moderator was a call for a concrete suggestion to fix schools. The panelists gave suggestions such as focusing on more mentoring of teachers, offering more support for teachers, better teacher preparation programs and early childhood education.
The audience then took polls on how satisfied (or not) we were with the educational system. Not surprisingly, we seemed to not love the statewide system, but thought our local system was doing pretty well. The panel concluded with questions from the audience. The whole format worked very well, even if I wasn’t able to ask my question.
Did we solve the problem of the educational system in Michigan in an hour and a half? Of course not. But we began a conversation that could lead to another conversation that could lead to someone coming up with an idea that could lead to a law that could lead to something awesome happening in the world of education in Michigan.
And it all happened in a brewpub.