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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Ken McFarlane
Wed, 02/26/2014 - 4:18pm
You have overlooked several crucial factors in providing good teachers for our children. If you want talented, intelligent people to go into teaching, the pay needs to raised to be competitive with other professions. The working conditions also need to be improved. Teachers should not be constantly attacked and insulted by self-appointed experts who force unproven and destructive curriculums and testing regimens on teachers and students. Increasing teacher testing will not improve teacher quality unless these two factors are addressed, and a change takes place in the community's attitudes toward school and education.
Steven Smewing
Thu, 02/27/2014 - 8:50am
The teachers union is the road block in this regard. This article states that teachers are treated as interchangeable blocks, that is exactly what it forced upon you with a union in place. Now if we can get the union to actually partner with their employer they would get behind the clear need for performance based pay and employment. And to the vetted professional becoming a teacher, that is blocked more by the fact that you have to student teach a year. In my college years I met quite a few instructors who said they would love to teach in a public school but refuse to pay tuition and work free for a year.
Jan of MI
Thu, 02/27/2014 - 11:30am
Blaming the unions has become a "marching song" for those wanting to make public education open to privatization to line the pockets of the "for profit" charter operators. So many contracts have been gutted and protections that were negotiated to protect the teachers' working conditions have been changed. Many of these changes have had a direct impact on students. If you look at teacher contracts from the past (and some current contracts) you will find language about class size that said things like "the number of students assigned to a class will not exceed the number of work stations." This protected students from being assigned to a science class that did not have enough places to work. There might have been language about the assignment of special education students so that no class was overburdened with special education students without proper support. There could have been language about making sure that teachers were provided with enough and proper materials to do the job. This kind of language was not to protect teachers, but there to make sure that teachers were provided what they needed to do meet the needs of their students. Language about due process was put in place, not to protect inadequate teachers, but to provide a system that would make sure that administrators did their jobs correctly. Contract language about evaluations was put in place to make sure that all sides knew the expectations and evaluation procedures were clear. Unions have worked with school boards to provide compensation packages to attract people to the profession. Now, it is difficult to find districts where teachers have not had to take pay cuts, pay more for insurance, and lost pension benefits. If we want the brightest and best in our classrooms, we have to be willing to offer support and compensation that is commensurate with the responsibilities of the job. People have to stop denigrating teachers and show them the respect that is due. And don't tell me that they have to earn respect. Just step into any classroom and it will renew your respect for what teachers face everyday.
Fri, 02/28/2014 - 10:58am
Simple solution. Start teachers at $50,000 to $ 125,000. Good benefits and pension. Small classes, especially in the early grade. Get rid of Republicans that are trying to destroy public education. This will attract the better students into education. The testing of teachers is as meaningless as the constant testing of students Look at their college grades and courses they took toward subject area. STOP blaming the teacher's union. Make charter schools contribute to the Mich teachers retirement fund.
Thu, 02/27/2014 - 12:09am
The Editorial staff seems to take their lead from Mr. Power in their desire for the ‘big idea’ without offering how and why it will solve their problem, they want to spend more of other people’s money, and they want no accountability for the ‘big idea.’. I wonder what they think the problem is. Is the problem student learning or is it teacher certification? Do the current and new teachers have a lack of understanding of their subject matter, or is it how the students are engaged on their learning process? Does certification ensure the teachers will be successful in the classroom? Does certification verify how a teacher will relate to the students, how they present the material, how well the students will learn? Why do they see certification as the panacea? “raising the bar on education quality through tougher teacher certification is a cheap no-brainer.” Does this seem like an oxymoron? Does it make sense? Is there really such a thing that is a ‘no brainer’, something that has no unintended consequences, a solution that doesn’t have to be thought through? It sure seems that Bridge Editorial staff doesn’t seem to be comfortable thinking, about the ‘big idea’. Their thinking through their rationale for the ‘big idea’ comes in question when they exclude all other educational influences when justifying the ‘big idea’. “Countries across the globe that out-perform the United States on standardized tests are more selective about who gets into their teaching programs” indicates that they exclude the role of the student and culture of those countries they are holding up as their justification. It seems we hear much about the study habits of the students in those countries and the cultural importance of education, and yet the Editorial staff simply ignores that information to justify certification. If the Editorial staff is writing to convince the readers to consider their position, I would encourage them to consider that our culture has changed and people are more inclined to think for themselves and expect to have more information about what is being proposed before they chose rather than simply told what to think. What our kids need is interest and effort invested in understanding the student’s role/responsibilities in the learning process, in understanding student academic success, and in program accountability.
Charles Richards
Thu, 02/27/2014 - 12:12pm
Duane is guilty of the very thing he accuses the Bridge editors of doing: failing to think things through. The editors are correct when they say, “raising the bar on education quality through tougher teacher certification is a cheap no-brainer.” Even a "no brainer" has unintended consequences, but, then, everything does. He presents no evidence that the editors have not thought about all the consequences of sharply increasing requirements for teacher certification and found the balance between costs and benefits to be strongly in favor of tougher teacher certification. Yes, it is true that education is a complex process that has many components, but he has presented no evidence that the editors have not considered those components. What they have done, after having looked at everything involved, is decide that the most cost effective, feasible thing that we can do to substantially improve education is to markedly toughen teacher certification standards. They are correct in that judgment. Having done that and evaluated its degree of effectiveness, we can then decide what additional reforms would be wise. It is not enough to do as Duane does, and proclaim that the world is a complex place, with many things to consider. We must make consequential decisions with imperfect information. The Bridge editors are not saying that implementing tougher teacher certification standards is the final, only solution to our educational problems. What they are saying is that it is a first, fundamental step. Something that Duane has failed to grasp.
Thu, 02/27/2014 - 11:34pm
Charles, You make some good points. I do acknowledge there are limits/weaknesses in my thought process that becomes very apparent in my comments, and that personal recognition is why I seldom say I have THE answer. When someone strives to make a point by claiming it is a ‘no brainer’ they are saying it takes no thinking to do what they want done. If it takes no thinking then it follows they made no effort at thinking about it. If they have no thought about it then it suggests they have not made any effort to consider the unintended consequences. As you say everything has unintended consequences, however, when you are introducing something new shouldn’t there be consideration of those consequences, weighting whether the risk is justified, whether there are ways to prevent or mitigate the consequences, how to enlist others in addressing those consequences. Reading the article and your remarks by all appearances this is a ‘no brainer’ issue and there appears no interest in considering the unintended consequences. There are private organizations that are so interested the unintended consequences that they have established protocols that define risks levels (including public trust), weighting those risks and the value that maybe generated to help them decide whether to take the action or not. They have found that there is no such thing as ‘no brainer’ actions. I raise the concern of complexity when I see that simplicity can make matters worse and over shadow what experience indicates as critical. In this case the emphasis on certification over shadows the roles/responsibilities of the students. If a student has no expectation of success then how can the most technically knowledgeable teacher gets that child to study, if the child does not study how can we expect them to learn? Do you believe that higher certification criteria will ensure a successful teacher in the classroom, if you consider student learning the measure of success? When you have worked with certified professionals have you found that you are assured of successful results simply because of their certification? I have yet to find certification only establishes a minimum technical knowledge and never certifies the quality of applying that knowledge. To be clear, if student learning is what we want to achieve then first fundamental step is to understand the student and how they learn. Technical knowledge is good, but the delievery of that knoweldge in away the student will learn it is much more important.
Charles Richards
Sun, 03/02/2014 - 4:40pm
Duane is far off the mark when he says, "When someone strives to make a point by claiming it is a ‘no brainer’ they are saying it takes no thinking to do what they want done. If it takes no thinking then it follows they made no effort at thinking about it." He needs an introductory course in logic (or better yet, common sense). When somebody says that something is a "no brainer," what they mean is that the benefits so far outweigh the costs (including unintended consequences) that the decision is trivially easy to make. Bottom line: If he had to choose between limiting the teaching profession to those ranked in the top twenty percent of talent or accepting the top eighty percent, what would he choose? Can he make a decision on this issue, or for that matter, any issue?
Paul B.
Thu, 02/27/2014 - 8:36am
If you want great teachers you need to make the profession attractive. Teachers tend to be people who want to help children, to make the world a better place. However, if they are paid poorly, attacked from several sides at once, and have their hands tied with mandated curriculum and pacing, it is likely that they may choose another profession. Toughening up on evaluation won't solve the big problem. Institutionally we are driving the best away from the profession and this approach will further that momentum.
John Rose
Thu, 02/27/2014 - 9:02am
A little while ago there was a New York Times article and the article started of by saying that if we are at war and we are losing the war we don't blame the soldiers in the field, we blame the generals, politicians and others who are involved with the process. It also went on to say that we would give soldiers the best equipment and latest technology to achieve victory. Now let's look at education. We always balme teachers, cut all funding and resources and blame them for everything that is wrong with education. As others here have noted, we don't pay them anything, cut health care and then have this expectations that they need to be super human and anything less than this is a dismal failure on their part. Also, there is an expectation that a first year teacher needs to be super human as well...COME ON AND WAKE UP People!!!!! Teachers have been paying for education as this state has dramatically cut funding to education and we are suprised by the results. What we have done and continue to do here in Michigan is a recipe for disaster and it will continue to get worse if we stay on the same pathway. Keep it up..keep blaming teachers and see how it goes:)
Sun, 03/02/2014 - 1:30pm
Maybe we should instead place harder tests for competency on the legislators and state officials who have presided over the decline of what was once one of the best education systems in the country. Let's see the legislators MEAP or ACT scores. Wages for Michigan teachers have declined by 8.1% from 2001-2002 to 2011-2012. That does not include any cuts in benefits that increase employee costs for health insurance and retirement contributions. You do not attract top people to hard jobs by cutting their pay by 8.1% over ten years when the Michigan CPI has increased by over 22%. That is a net cut in compensation of 30% when adjusted for inflation. Yup, the guys in Lansing and the editors here at Bridge sure have the right solution to our education problems, blame teachers; make them more accountable for things completely beyond their control; demonize and blame them for our collective failure to prepare children for school and support them in that endeavor. And of course let's make all those demands at the same time we reduce their inflation adjusted compensation by 30%. It makes you wonder both how stupid the legislators in our state are, and more importantly how stupid they think we all are to accept the drivel they peddle everyday.
Thu, 02/27/2014 - 9:57am
Once again, the proffered remedy is all Stick, no Carrot -- and misses of the underlying reasons why many teachers underperform, and why 40% have left the profession in four years or less. Teaching as a career choice pays less than other professions that require a Masters' degree to reach the top, and is fraught with obstacles (job security, ideological disdain from the right, the need to pay both figurative and literal dues, etc.). Most smart, career-minded students -- particularly those who hope to someday pay off their college loans -- know this and choose a different field. Meaning the 4,000 educators Michigan colleges "churn out" every year are largely men and women who choose teaching for other reasons: Because they don't intend to make teaching a career, or as a fallback when other academic paths proved too difficult, time-consuming or costly. In short, "academically iffy" students end up in education programs because they're the ones who apply. Once in the classroom, too many teachers face a system that disrespects them at every turn. Parents blame them, administrators micro-manage them, school boards cut their pay and benefits while issuing annual layoff notices, and politicians and pundits call them "lazy" and "union thugs" -- implicitly endorsing even harsher language and treatment from others. The open disrespect validates the choice of all those people who avoided teaching in the first place: Soon many of them BECOME the finger-pointing parents, complete with a condescending attitude towards the "poor teacher who couldn't get into a better program" and "needs the union to protect her job." Yet time and again, teachers go above and beyond the call -- from buying school supplies out of their own pocket, to intervening on behalf of a struggling student, to literally giving their lives to protect children as happened at Sandy Hook Elementary. I'm actually surprised the burnout rate isn't much higher than the 40% figure cited. And don't get me started on the debacle that is the Education Achievement Authority -- a poor idea, hastily implemented, that bypasses those 4,000 new teachers in favor of poorly-trained (but earnest and a little naive) Teach For America candidates. Eclectablog has posted an ongoing series describing a punitive, unprofessional, hostile work environment at the EAA schools. The series is well worth reading. But sure, go ahead and make it even tougher for a young teacher to thrive and grow. There's always the "cyber schools" -- just don't look too closely, or you might find that the very people being frog-marched out of classrooms in the name of "reform" will end up proctoring hundreds of students online.
Charles Richards
Thu, 02/27/2014 - 12:21pm
The editors say, "Inexperienced teachers are clustered in Michigan’s poorest schools." but they are not so bold as to say that union contracts generally require teachers to be assigned by seniority.
Rita Casey
Thu, 02/27/2014 - 12:22pm
If you think the high attrition from the ranks of teachers is due to low ability, you haven't been surveying the persons who are currently teaching or who have left the teaching profession. Teaching is very hard, full of stress, with increasing demands, criticism, and lower pay. I do want to see more highly capable students becoming teachers. And I agree that there should be high standards for admission to teacher training. However, you seem to imply that having persons who score higher on a test makes it more likely that those persons will stay in the teaching profession. There is no evidence whatsoever that more rigorous test performance predicts a willingness to stay in teaching long enough to reach that journeyman level that your editorial finds desirable. How many Teach for American students - so often touted for their sterling academic credentials - stay as teachers? Very few.
Thu, 02/27/2014 - 2:29pm
Teaching is hard work & undervalued. There are many who think it is an easy job but few of them have set foot in a classroom in years. Many think the smartest should be the ones to teach. But the smartest are not always ABLE to teach. The teacher who had the experience of having difficulty learning a concept may be better able to teach it. Not every person learns in the same way & a good teacher recognizes that. Our current situation is that there are a lot of teachers in the state who are not teaching. The reasons are varied including fewer teachers being hired to replace those retiring. Teachers are dealing with behavior in the classroom that was unheard of decades ago. Current class sizes are increasing & districts are hiring fewer teachers & supporting them less administratively. Kids come to school tired, hungry & with so much insecurity in their lives they are not able to learn. Motivating these kids is a difficult task. Contacting parents may be impossible & fruitless. Even finding out what factors are in play with middle & high school students may be impossible, thanks to No Child Left Behind. The best teachers should be mentoring our young teachers as well as working with the most difficult kids. We as tax payers don't want to pay for that. It should come as no surprise that teacher turnover is so high.
Gene Golanda
Thu, 02/27/2014 - 2:45pm
After having spent more than 40 years in public education, I have developed some strong opinions regarding the effectiveness of teachers. Some of the best teachers I have witnessed might not have been able to pass an examination of general knowledge on the first, or maybe even the fourth attempt, but they all possessed the ability to relate to the learning difficulties faced by many of their students, and to inspire them to learn. Some of the most intelligent and learned teachers I have worked with lacked the temperament and the patience to work with students who couldn't learn on their own. The background, values, belief systems and motivations inherent in prospective teachers seem at least as important as subject matter knowledge in determining prospective teacher effectiveness, from my experience. Emphasizing one without the other is not likely to produce desired results. Additionally, the current emphasis on teaching the test that is being mandated in our schools seems counterproductive to real educational improvement in that it impedes the ability of teachers to develop effective relationships with their students and to concentrate on relevant learning outcomes.
Fri, 02/28/2014 - 11:35am
The real problem is economy, no education. Our top students can compete with any students in the world. With 75% of the new jobs in the service sector, how much education do need to say "Greetings to Walmart ". We have no manufacturing jobs that used to pay good wages for the lower 2/3 of the student population. As for small, rural areas, they are doomed.
Fri, 02/28/2014 - 11:41am
The Bridge Magazine is the mouth piece for Snyder and the Republican Legislature.
Sun, 03/02/2014 - 10:26am
We do not want teachers, we want alchemists who can turn copper or lead into gold. In most districts in this state 15 to 50 % of the students are deficient in some aspect of their preparation, hunger, parents who do not value or support education, entering the next grade unprepared from the last, and dozens of other reasons. In many districts, this group represents a majority of the students attending school. To borrow a term from the manufacturing sector they have some defect that inhibits their capacity to perform their job or function. Ask any auto manufacturer if they can build cars if 30% or even 5% of the parts they receive have defects and they will tell you that is impossible if you want any kind of quality in the final product. Ironic that the business community that understands this better than anyone, consistently believes that the reality of their world has no relevance to the far more complex and varied world of K-12 education and college. They maintain that all these defective student graduates are the fault of the teacher who has absolutely no capacity to regulate the quality or preparedness of the students that enter their classroom. Give teachers the right to reject defective students and send them to some other remedial program or at least give them the right to remove those students who distract and disrupt other students opportunity to learn. In this environment, most will become all-stars. If you cannot control quality on the front end, you have no right to expect quality in the final product. More importantly, why would any bright and competent young person enter a profession where you are blamed for every student’s failure, your pay and benefits are cut, and you are constantly demonized for societal ills over which you absolutely no control. The best and brightest are fleeing the teaching profession and rejecting it as a long-term career path. GM and Ford do not cut investment to increase quality. They do not cut pay to attract the best engineers and designers. Why would the act of cutting resources to K-12 education improve quality? Why would cutting pay and expecting teachers to be alchemists improve education? After all, if any of them really could transform lead into gold, they would not be teaching, would they?
Chuck Jordan
Sun, 03/02/2014 - 12:12pm
I wonder if the same people who are saying we need to raise the bar on incoming potential teachers are willing to increase teachers' pay and benefits, and give these "better prepared" teachers autonomy in the classroom to improve student learning. If this is true and we are moving towards a system like that in Finland, then I'm all for it. Big ifs. Bet not.
Sun, 03/02/2014 - 3:09pm
Harder tests for teachers will not change the performance of a child who has lived in extreme poverty since birth. Their brain has been rewired to survive.....learning capacity is reduced, behavioral disorders are caused and chronic health issues are created. Until we realize that poverty is the issue for many of the kids failing in school nothing will change. If you look at other countries with better performance for their students in school you will find an amazing support system of high quality daycare and preschool programs for ALL children....not just the ones who can afford it. These other countries are unified in their commitment to young children and invest in their future, knowing it will have a positive impact on their entire society. Investing to make sure all children have access to high quality daycare to mitigate the effects of this Toxic Stress and finding new methods to reverse brain change caused by toxic stress will help change school performance. This is a societal problem,not something to be blamed on teachers and If we continue to be short sighted as a state and a nation nothing will change.
Sun, 03/02/2014 - 5:12pm
I want the best possible teachers we can get for our kids. However, I often wonder why we seem to pick on teachers so much. I'd like to see our legislators and politicians pass some tests, fill out some questionnaires detailing who is funding their campaigns and how much money they receive from each donees and tell us what campaign promised they have kept and those which they haven't kept. It seems that our legislators tend to pass judgment on everyone but themselves, often about subjects with which they have no expertise. As legislators listen to parents and do all the educator bashing, I often am reminded that parents establish the initial learning foundation along with their kids morals, accountability, and, yes, a love of learning. I'm all for better teachers, but I hate to see teachers take the entire blame for situations that often times have started with parents and hate to see legislators buy into that fairy tale. Furthermore, I hate hearing the opinion that "if you aren't smart enough to become anything else, you become a teacher," because that is so untrue. As a grandmother, I remember when my kids went to school I supported teachers and taught my kids to respect them. Today, we often see and hear parents blaming and criticizing teachers right in front of their kids for all their kids' shortcomings. Education should be a joint process; and until that happens, we will continue to see many of the problems we see today, many of which are not the fault of MOST teachers. I'm not, never have been, never wanted to be, and probably never could have been a good teacher although I possessed the smarts to do so. Frankly, I believe it takes a certain type of individual and a little bit of an altruistic nature to be a successful teacher, and I for one applaud them, rather than degrade them.