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Alum advances dialogue

Nicole Michels | Tuesday, February 28, 2012

A Notre Dame graduate who now works as Michigan’s Superintendent of Public Instruction spoke Tuesday about education reform and the progress he has encouraged during his tenure.

Michael Flanagan’s talk “Education Reform-Mongering: A Practitioner’s Perspective” in Carole Sandner Hall was the latest event in the Notre Dame Forum 2011-12: Reimagining School.

Flanagan said the most pressing challenge for today’s educators is addressing the needs of the urban and poor. Sharing his experience of growing up in a working class family on Long Island, N.Y., he said education plays a critical role in realizing one’s potential.

“I think there’s a certain point that when you see other people believe in you, it changes your whole trajectory,” Flanagan said.

Flanagan said his critical point was when he had to adapt to his new environment after his family moved from Brooklyn to Long Island. 

Flanagan said when a teacher informed him he would be placed in the “89er” program, he assumed it meant he was going to “be put on the short bus” because he was a troublemaker. However, he said it turned out to be the opposite ­— a program for talented eighth graders who would be given ninth grade work. 

“It taught me a lesson that so much of this [education] is about expectations that you have for every child, and that almost without exception they can reach great heights if we believe in them,” Flanagan said.

While it is important to believe all kids can learn, Flanagan said change cannot be conceptualized until we begin to act on an individual level. 

“You have to be careful to design reforms that don’t make you feel good about all [the children, and in the process] forget to reach down to every child,” he said. 

Even after 30 years as a local, regional and state superintendent, Flanagan said he continues to act on the lesson he learned early on in his career when he examined a particular district: the need to improve the quality of education is more important than what people want to hear. 

“Overall, they were high achieving, but they didn’t look at individual schools,” he said. “I said that I bet we’re just like everyone else, that we’re losing women in science by high school.”

When he brought his findings to public attention, the reactions were far from positive, he said. 

“The headline the next day didn’t help me: ‘New superintendent comes to town, girls test scores go down,’” Flanagan said. “That and the reaction taught me a real lesson that you have to be willing to realize that change is easier said than done, that you have to confront the status quo.”

Flanagan said one of his most recent pushes for reform has been to raise the “cut scores,” or the cut-off score that students have to attain on standardized tests to be considered at grade level, which encourages greater achievement in Michigan schools. 

“All we did was raise the bar, and even though fewer kids could jump over that bar, we saw that they all ended up jumping higher than they did before,” he said.

Flanagan said his other goals include providing free ACT testing to all Michigan students, improving reading proficiency levels, establishing tenure procedures that protect teachers and require achievement and developing ways to address the varied needs of Michigan’s children.

The Notre Dame graduate said at times, critics have targeted his Catholic faith. 

“I’m very concerned with determining what’s right for the kids, and I know that some of this process is painful for the adults involved,” Flanagan said. “I know that’s part of the job.”

Fr. Tim Scully, director of the Institute for Educational Initiatives at the Center for Social Concerns, said this is due to Catholicism’s clearly defined positions on these contentious issues.

“Unlike some religions, we have a social teaching, that for example, takes a position in regards to parent choice. All parents should have the opportunity to choose a decent school for their kids,” Scully said. “Because this tradition has this teaching, it implies a certain stake in the ground in debates.”

Surprisingly, Flanagan said the economic downturn in Michigan helped them to enact these reforms. 

“We wouldn’t get some of these reforms and innovations if we had enough money where we could just keep throwing money [at problems,]” Flanagan said. “[It's not] that money makes no difference, but … you almost have to use it as an excuse to revamp the whole system.”

Scully said Flanagan’s speech continued the Forum’s focus on broad development in education reform. 

“I think Mike Flanagan is an example of a leader who has entered into a really contended field and has made a difference because of his deep empathy,” Scully said. “We hope that the people here today will leave asking questions, and at a Catholic university these questions are exactly the kind of questions that we ought to be raising.”