Michigan Top 10 in 10 in Education? No Time Soon (excerpt from new book) by Dr. Rajah E. Smart

Updated: Jun 26, 2019

#Michigan was once known for its innovation in #education. Now the state is known for trending downwards in #studentperformance. Under the previous state superintendent, the Michigan Department of Education adopted the Top 10 in 10 which would be accomplished by multiple strategies. The strategies would improve education outcomes for our historically low performing populations. Unfortunately, it is difficult to fix years of educational degeneration due to the many changes in Michigan cities. The Top 10 in 10 was a wonderful idea on paper but the years it took to send the education system into disrepair would take more than hopes and dreams, a pie in the sky idea, with a concept that was barely measurable with the data collection mapping. We do that well in education. We use anecdotal information to lead to an outcome which is essentially a best guess. Anecdote is not a terrible concept. On the contrary, gaining insight from various experiences provides great context. However, the issue with the Top 10 in 10 is it is again a one size fits all approach from a compliance organization working with various stakeholders that are often political.

Politics is defined as the activities, actions, and policies used to gain and hold power in a government or to influence a government. Politics is the umbrella I will use to frame how Michigan is slipping. Each of the areas is often politicized to support an agenda. The areas named are hardly exhaustive. These are merely to wet your palette.


According to the Michigan School Crossroads Report (2019) from Michigan State University, the state controls the operating revenue of Michigan schools (Proposal A) but has yet to assess the cost schools (e.g., special education) face in meeting federal and state accountability standards (Arsen, 2019). While funding has increased, the question of where the funds are used is the better ask. The programs that need the funds are reduced to meet the accountability. The Michigan Education Finance Study contracted by legislation confirms the fall below the national average (Augenblick, Palaich, & Associates Inc., 2016). While funding has increased nationally, the funding remains below average in Michigan. How do the many disadvantaged areas compete?

Marketplace Competition

Introducing charter public schools (charters) to disadvantaged areas was supposed to improve education opportunities but it essentially causes competition between charter, traditional, and other charter schools. There are stories written and supporters spewing inaccurate facts about the effectiveness of charters in Michigan. The introduction of charters was meant to take pressure off the Michigan budget because charters "can perform better than traditional public schools using the same or fewer resources" (CATO, 2018). Realistically, they do perform better but the students are still failing. It is like the genie in the bottle...be careful what you wish for and read the fine print. Charter schools in urban centers are failing but they perform better than traditional schools. Michigan does not have a cap on charters and the open and closing of those schools has damaged the education environment in urban centers. Using Detroit as an example, it is unfair to compare charter and traditional schools because of enrollment practices. Charter and traditional schools are operationally similar, therefore, the equity is not significantly better. In my dissertation, I studied resource allocation practices and found that "the number of special education students has an adverse impact on student proficiency and growth" (Smart, 2019). Traditional schools in Detroit have nine percent more special education students enrolled in K-8, and adversely impacted student performance using a regression model.

Education Priorities

In Detroit, the state legislation felt that a new arena was needed so Trickle Down Economics was introduced and the Little Caesars Arena was born to bring suburban white people to watch hockey. Little to none of the income generated by the arena goes to the city. The money used to help fund the arena is taxpayer money. Now, ask yourself, how that is possible in a city that has been ravaged by poverty, loss of jobs, and lower educational attainment? The arena skyrocketed to 863 million dollars (Gullien, 2017). The state also used money set aside for fixing the disrepair of Detroit school buildings to fund the arena. So, what does this tell us? The priorities of disadvantaged students has not been a priority. Being from Flint, if the previous administration didn't care about the safety of our water, why would they care about education? I'm not sure why the billionaires that own the parking lots around the city and the arena didn't simply pay for it or sell more pizza. Did I mentioned they owned most of the blight in the area where the arena is located...

Collapetition (collaboration and competition)

I can't remember who coined the term but "collapetition" is the illusion of working together for a common goal. What typically happens is stakeholders meet to address an issue collaboratively but steal a peer or colleagues idea to promote their own agenda. This can happen at the state level, higher education, K-12 agencies, associations, and more. If we are all in the same game to promote quality education, why report a colleague for seeking to be innovative? Why take the legs out from under a program seeking to do the same thing but do it differently. Instead of seeking to understand and support, organizations steal and attack. Is it truly about the kids then? Differences are not appreciated and attacked because of a lack of understanding.


There is nothing worse than someone pretending to have passion regarding education, especially when related to our native and black populations. There is a lack of collective passion that has been replaced with selfish or self-centered approaches to education. Passion can be destroyed leadership that creates ideas in a silo or feel like they understand the needs of all children in education. We sometimes stand in our own way and forget the product at the end of the road.


Leaders can make or break an organization. This is seen constantly in the leaders who make decisions based on a party, leaders that obtained the position not based on experience or leaders who believe they are good. I'm unsure which is worse. Find any education agency in Michigan and examine the leader. If the agency is poorly implementing the mission and vision, the leadership and leadership team is typically to blame. Employees begin seeking ways out, seek ways to be P.A.I.D, take pay cuts to leave or become removed from the day to day and work to survive. This can be boards of education, the leaders they choose, and more. Some leaders have only one bullet in the chamber and use that one accomplishment to push their careers. The leaders chosen by boards are only as good as the board. I can think of several examples. Poor leaders have an idea in their brains but miss the forest for the trees and ignore the talent of their people.


We constantly hear how important diversity and inclusion are in the workforce. This seems like another one of those taglines. Essentially, it can be a fallacy because if you are different and in a room of like minded individuals, the likelihood of you being heard or feeling included is low. At some point, those with passion become robots to the organizational system. Diversity is not only race or culture, but intellectual, experience, age, and more. Anyone can debate this point but ask a person of color their thoughts and listen to the answer. The answer can help with growth but people are too scared to have the real conversations.

Hiring Practices

I can't tell you the many times I have seen individuals hired or promoted into positions that required a particular skill set because they are a good worker. Being a good worker can include sucking up or being fake which is often considered a butt kisser. I don't have an issue with that, however, the dumb down approach to change a position to award someone with is a detriment to an education agency. The lack of the skill set lowers the gates of expectations and has an impact long-term on the credibility of an education agency. A great example is the appointment of Betsy DeVos to the United States Department of Education. The impact she has had on education has been profound. Think about the impact when thinking about choosing a principal, manager, state superintendent or an administrative assistant.

Re-imaging Ideas for A Single Shot

We know ideas repeat in education. I call this re-imaging because the idea is simply found and re-purposed. For example, the community school supported a systematic approach to educational improvement and worked. Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs was exercised in the community school model as a whole. Now, we see pieces of things re-imaged like new concepts. For example, socio-emotional is spreading like this is a new concept but without the other components to support the concept. That's what we do in Michigan, we forget a system is needed to combat poor performance of disadvantaged student. Using socio-emotional in this single fashion is like eating an omelet without the eggs. Changing a certification structure or changing the curriculum at the building level are nice steps but the overall system needs to be understood and challenged at the same time.


Until Michigan can put education first in regards to the people hired to support it, the groups used to improve it, the money needed to support it, the concepts needed to systematize it, and understand that education from K-12 to higher education to skill trades is the cornerstone for a successful state, the state will continue to drop. On paper, the Top 10 in 10 provided tons of strategies that were rather extraneous. In order to improve a system, we must first take inventory and evaluate the system. These are just thoughts of a kid from #Flint who eventually worked at the K-12, state, and higher education levels. This includes the communities within the Michigan. Use your voices to fight for the change needed in our schools.

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