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Confessions of a former State Superintendent

Mike Flanagan retired voluntarily a year ago, after ten years as state superintendent of public instruction, a job often referred to as state superintendent of schools.

That he lasted so long and retired of his own accord is more remarkable than it may seem. Most of his immediate predecessors were fired by the state board of education.

Hardly anyone lasts that long in a leadership role in education these days. And Flanagan, who has worked in educational administration almost all his adult life, served in an especially difficult time. Less than halfway through his tenure, the nation was hit by the Great Recession, and Michigan suffered more than most places.

Additionally, he had to work with a legislature that often seemed to want to wage war against teachers and teachers’ unions in particular. Nevertheless, Flanagan, I felt, was responsible for some real improvements in education in this state, including adopting the Michigan Merit Curriculum, upgrading math standards in general and pushing to get third-grade reading adopted as a benchmark for how schools and students are doing.

Yesterday I met a happily retired Flanagan for lunch near Lansing. There is, whether we realize it or not, nothing more important to this state’s future than education, and I wanted to know, now that he has had a year to reflect, what he thought about it.

Flanagan thinks the two most important things are early childhood education – pre-Kindergarten – and getting testing right. “We can’t be besieging students with tests, and we can’t keep changing the rules every year,” he told me. Ideally, he’d like to see students tested twice:

Once at the beginning of the school year, and once at the end. He agrees that it is important to hold schools and teachers responsible and to measure performance. But he thinks the main thing we should look for is improvement.

Those who are teaching students who come from impoverished rural or urban backgrounds should not necessarily be faulted if their kids aren’t in the same place as kids from Grosse Pointe at the end of the year.

We should be instead looking at how much progress was made. The main thing, however, is reaching at-risk students before the traditional age of kindergarten.

He is a big fan of Governor Snyder’s Great Start Readiness Program, but he thinks you need to find a way to reach children from disadvantaged backgrounds even earlier, because if a child’s brain isn’t stimulated early on, it’s almost impossible for them to ever fully catch up.

That hurts not only the child, but our state and society. Flanagan was a gutsy superintendent who wasn’t afraid to push boundaries. When he discovered some colleges and universities had inferior schools of education, he gave their presidents a deadline to fix them, and said after the state would no longer certify teachers from those schools.

Some of the universities were aghast. They screamed, they complained, and one or two tried to get him fired, but then they cleaned up their acts.

The bottom line, however, is individual relationships between teacher and student. Flanagan, who was one of eight children in a working class family in Brooklyn, credits a special teacher for making him realize he could succeed.

Somehow, we need to find someone like that for everyone.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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