Op-Ed: Judge Warren Calls for Fundamental School Reform in Light of Coronavirus

The coronavirus has thrown our entire society in disarray, and no less poignant an example exists than our K-12 public schools. The closure of schools across the country has stopped the normal learning process dead in its tracks. In a valiant attempt to continue, many districts have sought to leverage long distance learning. Unfortunately, weaknesses in the law, technological infrastructure, and teacher preparation, as well as inequities among students, are barriers to success. For example, the Michigan Department of Education has announced that under the law, virtual learning will not count for funding purposes as “seat time.”

Head shot of Warren wearing a flag bowtie

Hon. Michael Warren

This position has serious ramifications. In Michigan – like K-12 systems across the nation – seat time is what is funded. To receive full funding, a Michigan district must provide a minimum number of days and hours of school. If a district misses those targets, its funding is reduced proportionally. This archaic system does not fund learning or competency, just time served.

Indeed, the K-12 system is both feudal and industrial in design. With the exception of charter schools, school districts are defined by property boundaries. Further, with the limited exceptions of charter schools, schools of choice and vouchers (where they exist), students are literally tied to the soil – just like serfs.

Moreover, although there have been some terrific advancements in the last few decades, most learning is still done in the industrial, assembly line fashion. Students come – at the same exact time – to mammoth buildings; sit in desks and learn the same subjects at the same time; are grouped by age; and the teacher lectures cookie cutter instruction in specialty topics to students who possess a wide range of skills, experience, and interests.

Our students are awesome; teachers magnificent; board members and administrators fabulous. The system is broken. Today’s crisis lays bare just how much.

If we were starting anew the endeavor of public education, do we honestly believe that we would establish districts defined by geography, bind students to the soil, and reward time on task? No. Our students and educators deserve a system based on academic achievement in American History and Civics, the Constitution, English Language Arts, math, science, and other vital subjects. Achieving those goals more efficiently and effectively should take priority over how long a student sits in a seat. We should incentivize excellence.

Our archaic system is stressed beyond measure today. The collapse of meaningful learning threatens our social fabric, the rule of law, and self-governance. A foundational reason justifying K-12 public education is to ensure that our students are well equipped to be informed, participating citizens to preserve our freedoms and liberties. We cannot maintain our republic if we fail to understand its generating history, the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution. Hence, my co-founding of Patriot Week with my then 10 year old daughter Leah.

Even when the schools are open, the results are disheartening. Less than half of the people can name the three branches of government. How did we expect to survive as a free people when we are so ignorant?

As a then member of the State Board of Education, I led a Task Force on Embracing the Information Age, which produced a groundbreaking report. The report was released 2001 – before the birth of today’s seniors. It advocated, among other things, teacher preparation and development adopting Information Age pedagogy; new Information Age based standards; transcending the four walls of schools; and the creation of virtual districts. There has been some movement, but the reality is that Michigan and the nation has fallen woefully short.

If the Report’s recommendations and its policies had been followed, in this time of crisis the education field might be leading innovation – instead of just being another casualty of this crisis.

The report warned that the reforms it advocated were necessary for our students to “be equipped to excel in the global economy and become engaged, vitally critical participants in our experiment of self-government and constitutional liberty.” Although such reforms would be difficult, “to ignore them could prove fatal.”

This warning is true now. The coronavirus crystalizes the need to act. It is time to embrace the Information Age or suffer the dire consequences.

Hon. Michael Warren is an Oakland County Circuit Court Judge, former member of the State Board of Education, co-creator of Patriot Week and author of America’s Survival Guide.

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