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Bridge Michigan
Michigan’s nonpartisan, nonprofit news source
Topic: Editorial

Michigan can't wait for tougher teacher tests

When Michigan schools hire new teachers, they need applicants with clear, tested, and proven ability to teach.


Not a decade from now.

The Michigan Legislature can – and must – act now to assure all of our state’s K-12 students benefit from highly qualified teachers. There is an easy way to do so.

Michigan has not updated its full battery of teacher certification tests in well more than a decade. These old tests do not reflect today’s education standards. The Michigan Department of Education plans to update the tests. But officials say it will take 11 years .

That’s unacceptable.

The sticking point, as usual, is money. But not very much money. New tests to better assure that aspiring teachers have mastered their subjects material could be implemented over the next two years at a cost of $3.6 million.

That’s chump change in a state budget which includes a $13.8 billion School Aid Fund and $326 million for the Michigan Department of Education. Indeed, as one legislator joked to us recently, “Just pick up all the empty pop cans in legislators’ offices.” And state bean counters recently announced state government is awash in hundreds of millions of dollars in surplus revenue as the state recovers from the Great Recession.

So, raising the bar on education quality through tougher teacher certification is a cheap no-brainer. As the Legislature moves toward approving this year’s state budget in the next several weeks, it shouldn’t take more than a few minutes to write legislation to solve this problem.
And, be assured, Michigan citizens want this to happen. In 2012, the Center for Michigan asked thousands of statewide residents what they wanted done to improve education quality. Eighty percent of participants said it was crucial or important to improve teacher preparation.

The Center for Michigan’s urgency on this issue is heightened further by great investigative reporting by Bridge Senior Writer Ron French. In a six-month investigation called “Building a Better Teacher,” French recently found:

• Michigan is failing its children by failing its beginning teachers. Colleges allow academically iffy students into education programs. State certification tests for years have not weeded out poorly prepared teacher candidates. And in some Michigan schools, half of the new teachers quit in frustration within five years. “If this were happening with doctors or airplane pilots there would be a revolt,” said Deborah Ball, dean of the School of Education at the University of Michigan and chair of the Michigan Council for Educator Effectiveness.

• Countries across the globe that out-perform the United States on standardized tests are more selective about who gets into their teaching programs, and those programs offer more rigorous and long-term training. “There’s probably no bigger determinant of economic growth than the quality of education, and the quality of education is determined by the quality of teachers,” said Marc Tucker, president of the National Center on Education and the Economy. “(In the United States) we say we want better teachers, but we don’t. We treat them like interchangeable parts.”

• Inexperienced teachers are clustered in Michigan’s poorest schools. Students in those classrooms will, on average, learn less than their suburban peers taught by more experienced teachers, widening the already yawning achievement gap between Michigan’s academic haves and have-nots.

• Teachers drop out at a higher rate than their students. An estimated 10 percent leave the profession in their first year. Between 30 and 40 percent flee the classroom within four years, about the time it takes for teachers to attain a journeyman level of skill at their job.

• 34 colleges in Michigan churn out more than 4,000 new educators every year. Yet Michigan knows little about which programs are producing great teachers and which programs are not. And Michigan imposes no minimum standards for admission to teacher training programs, leaving standards to individual schools with little incentive to limit enrollment and produce high-quality teaching candidates.

The Michigan Department of Education, many policy makers, and most of the major education trade organizations in Michigan know this situation must change. That’s exactly why the Michigan Department of Education recently introduced a new, beefed-up “basic skills” test that aspiring teachers must pass before they do their student teaching.

Only one in four aspiring teachers passed that revised basic skills test (now called the professional readiness exam) the first time it was administered last fall. That means three out of four education students who are paying hefty college tuition will have to retake the test or find another career. And it means teacher prep programs have to do a better job. “These results presented a wake-up call not just to students who did not pass the test, but to schools and colleges of education across the state,” said Donald Heller, dean of the college of education at Michigan State University.

The next step in this much-needed wake-up call is new content-specific teacher exams. This change needs to happen now. Legislators can easily make it happen now.

By doing so, Michigan begins to catch up to other states that are raising the bar for entry into the teaching profession. Illinois toughened teacher certification exams four years ago and is steadily developing a smaller crop of new teachers who are more prepared for the classroom. Delaware went one step further on the front end with tougher admissions standards into teaching programs – another step Michigan should consider.

Michigan’s children simply can’t wait another decade for new teachers of the highest quality.

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