BY PHIL POWER, Columnist
---- — In my experience, there are two basic types of conferences:
A) The rehash, where you see/meet new people but don't learn much new; and B) The eye-opener, where you hear something quite new that suddenly shoves your thinking in new directions.
Tuesday's gathering in Lansing, sponsored by The Center for Michigan to consider expert response to the report, "The Public's Agenda for Public Schools" was one of the mind-changing sort.
Here's a few of the many comments that forced rethinking on how best to train and evaluate teachers — as well as why increased support for early childhood education is so important:
n "We don't let medical students practice surgery on live patients before they've been carefully trained "¦ imagine if pilots learned to fly on their own!" — Deborah Ball, dean of the University of Michigan's School of Education and chair of the Governor's Council on Educator Effectiveness.
Ball, whose much-anticipated report on teacher evaluation is due later this spring, is a passionate advocate for much more intensive and much more individualized training for teachers. Indeed, schools today are entirely different than they were when most teachers were initially certified.
Classrooms now often contain half students of color and one quarter who do not speak English as their first language.
That means we need an enormous change in the ways teachers are trained. Especially since the work they do is simply essential to the workings of our society.
n "Teacher evaluation is at heart a civil rights issue," said Amber Arellano, Executive Director of the Education Trust-Midwest. She noted that the people who need great teaching the most — poor people, minorities, those at the bottom of the social heap — are the ones who all too often don't get it.
An evaluation system that encourages great teaching and discourages bad teachers is a fundamental way to provide the full rights of citizenship for those most in need of it.
n State Sen. Roger Kahn, R-Saginaw Township, the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee and a powerful force in budget policy decisions, powerfully signaled his long-term dedication to sharply increasing state support for early childhood programs.
Last year, Kahn proposed spending $140 million more on the state's pre-K program for low- and moderate-income 4-year-olds, the Great Start Readiness Program. The state now spends a little more than $100 million annually to support the program, which leaves 30,000 eligible children out in the cold, for lack of slots.
Kahn promised "if the governor's budget (to be released Feb. 7) falls short of that, I will advocate for more in the Legislature. If that falls short, there is the May revenue enhancement (which could come if state tax collections increase more than predicted.
"If not then, there are budget supplementals."
And if they still "fall short to some degree, we have next year," he said
But some are weary of waiting for next year. "We've been talking about early childhood ever since 1972," said Vickie Markavitch, Superintendent of Oakland Schools.
Yet she said that until this year, Michigan hasn't gotten much farther down the road to serious early childhood programs.
Paul Hillegonds, Senior Vice President for Corporate Affairs at DTE Energy, pointed to enormous returns gained from investments in early childhood: "We want every child to enter kindergarten ready to succeed. And so many are coming to the starting line and they're 50 or 100 yards back when the gun goes off for kindergarten.
"Catching up is very difficult," he noted. "So schools spend a lot of time and energy trying to bring them up to speed. If we invest on the front end and they are ready to succeed when they come in for kindergarten, we save those costs down the road."
That's just a small sample of the worthwhile dialogue at the conference, which, besides being thought-expanding, provided an unusual and valuable experience for those used to the standard high-conflict discussions about education in Michigan:
It was a sustained adult conversation, conducted by people who actually know something. Nearly 500 attended Tuesday's conference in Lansing. The tragedy is that each of the 147 current members of the legislature could have taken a short walk down Michigan Avenue to the Lansing Center and had their eyes opened.
But we're not giving up till they are.
Phil Power is a former newspaper publisher and University of Michigan Regent. He is founder and president of The Center for Michigan, a centrist think-and-do tank. The opinions expressed here are his own. By email at: firstname.lastname@example.org.