MEA Vice President Nancy Strachan's testimony before the House Education Committee, Feb. 13, 2013

Good Morning. My name is Nancy Strachan.  I am a veteran educator with nearly 40 years of Michigan classroom experience, with undergraduate and graduate degrees in elementary education from Eastern Michigan University. And I am proud to serve as Vice President of the Michigan Education Association. 

On behalf of our President, Steve Cook, and our 150,000 members – teachers and education support professionals from every corner of the state – I would like to thank you for inviting us to share our thoughts on how we can help every Michigan child get a great public education.

My fellow teachers and support staff are determined to give Michigan kids the education they need to succeed in college and the workplace.  Even though the challenges they face have increased exponentially over the past few years, Michigan educators continue to work hard and put their students first every day.

For school employees, what they perceive as continuous assaults on their wages, benefits, retirement, working conditions and basic collective bargaining rights have led many of them to believe that their work is not valued – by decision makers here in Lansing, by the popular media, even by our communities.

It’s led many qualified educators to leave the state – or the profession.  Not only are we failing to attract and retain the best and brightest; many feel like they’re being shown the door.

Students also have been dealt severe blows, as devastating and deep education cuts have forced school closures, larger class sizes and severely limited basic school supplies, like books and pencils.  We owe it to Michigan kids, parents and communities to restore all of the funding taken from our schools – not bit by bit, percentage by percentage.

Not only is it the right thing to do for Michigan children today —  properly funding education is critical and fundamental for the future of Michigan’s economy.

I’m sure, thus far, I’ve said exactly what you all would expect of a leader from the state’s largest school employee union.  And I do believe whole heartedly in every word I’ve said.  To be frank, negative actions of the past have shaped our present, challenging realities.

But the least we can all do – right now – is work together to improve the future for our kids and for our state.  And I hope today can start that important conversation.

In the broad sense, MEA members agree with Governor Snyder when he says that the best way to judge the effectiveness of school reform measures is through a data-driven approach.  One major difference, though, is the gauges we put on our “dashboard” may not be the same as those of the governor.

When we talk about using a data-driven approach, we mean using high quality, academically based research data – as opposed to simply gravitating toward student test scores.

Student test scores are just one measurement.  Focusing on the circles student shade in with a number two pencil – sometimes even at random – is short-sighted.  Especially while ignoring a whole range of academic-based research about what works – and doesn’t work – in the classroom.

It will always be burned into my memory – one of my last days working every day in a classroom, I watched as sixth graders moved from room to room in my building, carrying nothing but a number two pencil.  They marched from one test room to another…like young, test-taking robots.  That’s not the kind of education that I was inspired to dedicate my career toward.  And that’s not the education that parents want for their kids.

If we’re to do this right, we must look to the true experts in education — the people who are on the front lines, actually teaching our kids. Teachers and school support staff have valuable contributions to make when it comes to shaping the agenda for education reform. After all, they’re the ones who actually spend their days in the classroom.

To that end, our conversations with MEA members have identified three key areas that should be addressed in any effort to reform and improve public education in Michigan:

Number one: We must increase support and opportunities for early childhood education.

Number two: We must strengthen vocational, agricultural and technical education, to ensure Michigan public schools can do BOTH tasks we’re charged with – prepare students for lifelong learning AND supply the skilled workforce necessary for the jobs that drive our economy.

And number three: We must improve and intensify professional development opportunities for educators, and begin to treat teaching as not just a job, but a profession.

With regard to early childhood education, countless studies have confirmed what we already knew:  Increasing our investment in quality pre-school opportunities provides a high rate of return, both academically and economically.  Students engaged in these programs perform better throughout their academic careers than those who don’t get that good foundation at an early age.

Regarding vocational, agricultural and technical education, many of these programs have been decimated by budget cuts, curriculum changes and other factors. If we are to prepare ALL of our students for the jobs of the 21st century, we must renew our commitment to providing a broad array of educational opportunities for our students. 

Let me be clear: We do not have to diminish core curriculum standards to increase vocational, agricultural and technical education. Nor do we need to pit one subject against another, trading the arts or foreign languages for applied learning opportunities.  Instead, they should be included in curriculum standards for students who wish to pursue those career paths.  The key is the flexibility, both at the district and student levels, to provide the best possible education for each and every child in our communities.

As a third component of education reform — if we are to indeed go where the data and research leads us — we must improve, increase and intensify teacher professional development programs.  Better-trained teachers who are certified and are provided with continual and updated professional development produce the best possible student outcomes. 

Early childhood education, strengthening vocational, agricultural and technical education, professional development — these are some of the gauges on our dashboard. These are education reforms that come with data produced by rigorous academic research proving their effectiveness. These are the reforms the experts in the field – teachers in the classroom – feel should be emphasized.

Too often, political rhetoric gets in the way of what the research says we should do to help students succeed. The focus gets put on the trendy new idea that’s getting the media attention or the grants from a billionaire’s foundation or the spotlight in Hollywood movies.

That’s not to say that those ideas are bad ones…just that it’s incumbent on all of us to really listen to the facts and data about what’s working. 

For example, MEA’s position on charter schools has been mischaracterized for many years, often simplified to the concept that we oppose them entirely.  That’s simply not true. 

We believe in the original mission of charter schools – to try new ideas, see what works, and use that knowledge to help ALL our students in ALL our schools.  Now it’s time for charters to start sharing those lessons about what works – and for everyone involved in making decisions about all public schools to listen.

Listening to what works is important.  That accountability is important. We oppose having schools – traditional, charter, cyber or whatever’s next – that are not accountable to their taxpayers, their students and their local communities.

That leads to our fundamental concern with the concept behind the Educational Achievement Authority. Without the benefit of real data about its impact, we’re talking about expanding state control over local schools.  Local control is an essential layer of accountability for public education. Dismantling that in favor of a state-level bureaucracy – no matter how well meaning – isn’t a recipe for success. 

Rather, we should dig in and do the harder work – finding out what’s really broken in these schools and/or school districts and fixing it. 

Audit their academic and administrative programs.  Right size the administrative and organizational structure of the districts. 

Use existing reform models to train educators and move schools in exciting new directions.  Get input and buy-in from parents and the community about what’s needed.  Work to provide resources – educational or otherwise – to address the unique societal issues facing these students and schools.

Overall, what’s needed is the flexibility to meet high standards in a way that’s best for the local students.  That can’t be done from Lansing for struggling schools – or for early childhood programs – or for vocational, agricultural and technical education – or for teacher professional development. 

Regardless of the area we’re talking about, the state can and should provide tools and guidance and yes, even standards, for how to get the job done. But the specific tasks must fall to the local level to be implemented.  And the day-to-day operation of local school buildings falls into that category.

In closing, educators aren’t afraid of accountability.  If we were, we wouldn’t have gotten into a business where people trust us with the future of their children.  But what we want is fair accountability and decisions that are based on data about what works.  Not more bureaucracy, more tests, more unproven gimmicks – all with less and less funding.

Our students deserve a world class education.  And we must all hold each other accountable in making the decisions that provide our kids – and our state – that opportunity. 

I urge members of this committee and other state leaders to spend a day in a public school in your home district. Forget the so-called think tanks and foundations for one day.  Witness firsthand the dedication of those who work with our kids and the challenges they face. Listen to the teachers. Listen to the support staff. Listen to the administrators. Listen to the parents. Listen to the students.

Understand the consequences of your decisions, and understand how awesome your responsibility truly is.

Thank you for your time.