At the start of a new year, continue to push public schools to improve

Guest Editorial
It’s back to the classroom today for most kids in Jackson County — and not a moment too soon for some parents! It can be tough to keep the young ones busy and out of trouble in the last days of summer.

For educators, the start of school should be cause for anticipation. Finally, the focus can be on learning after a summer filled with budget worries, teacher retirements and anxiety.

While schools aren’t in the clear financially, let’s hope the new school year shifts public attention to the classroom. In particular, we ask how well students are learning and how effectively our state is recruiting and training teachers.

The answer may lie in a recent failure. Michigan this summer fell far short — 23rd out of 36 states — in chasing federal Race to the Top money. State leaders had hoped to collect a $400 million reward for improving this state’s public schools, but instead were left with nothing more than a pat on the back.

An analysis of the state’s Race to the Top application by Gongwer News Service reveals why:

• Michigan does not have — or at least didn’t explain — an efficient system to help people from other professions to become teachers.

• While Michigan is an “exporter” state — producing more college graduates who want to become teachers than it needs — it does little to encourage teachers to work in largely low-income or high-minority school districts.

• The state can do more to monitor or spur on professional development for current teachers. As one reviewer put it, according to Gongwer, “This is a bare-bones plan with little detail.”

If Michigan is going to improve student performance, it will have to direct some energy to improving its teaching ranks. That’s not our opinion; it’s the message from U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who has been praised from the political right and left for smartly pushing national school reform.

Focusing on teachers makes sense, too. Outside of parents and families, teachers are arguably the most influential adults in young people’s lives. They are the source of information in the classroom and often a role model for students.

Holding teachers to high standards and measuring their performance should be the norm. This isn’t a punishment. Active parents and colleagues already know who the best teachers are and who’s not making the grade.

Whether it’s merit pay or some other system, good teachers should be rewarded and those who fall short should be helped or dismissed. Similarly, administrators must be sure that teachers are getting the access to training and the latest teaching strategies — and that they’re taking advantage of it.

We ask a lot from our schools, and with good reason. Strong public schools are a tool to recruit businesses, an investment in our community’s future and, most importantly, places of learning.

Let’s be glad our children are back in class, learning in safe, happy environments after a summer off. Let’s also make sure we’re supporting our schools and pushing them to do better.