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Michigan needs ‘master teachers’ who exhibit excellence, not mediocrity

Imagine you are a Michigan public high school math teacher. A 15-year veteran, for years your students have learned nearly twice as much as students in your colleagues’ classrooms across the state. Your instructional abilities and attention to students’ needs have catapulted them beyond their peers.

Now imagine this: Our state leaders tell you that your excellent performance really isn’t appreciated. They announce you are going to receive the same leadership, promotion and pay increase opportunities as almost all of the other teachers in Michigan.

If that weren’t enough, state education leaders also tell you that if you’d like a leadership opportunity as a teacher, you’ll need to spend hundreds of hours of more time and money to get an additional credential that will make you a master teacher. What’s more, widespread research shows credentials are weak predictors of high teaching quality.

Sounds like a crazy idea, right? Yet this new plan is precisely what state leaders are planning to fully implement this fall.

The Michigan Department of Education has devised a new teacher credential called the Advanced Professional Education Certificate. Its criteria – which go into effect on Sept. 1 -- are intended to create a pathway for high-performing teachers to move into teacher leadership positions.

As former public school teachers, we applaud the state’s intention. We have long advocated for the identification of teacher-leaders, also known as Master Teachers. They can play a unique role in supporting their colleagues’ instruction. Research suggests that teacher-leaders can make a huge difference in helping catch up students who are far behind -- and make a pivotal difference in transforming failing schools.

But in order for such Master Teachers to make such a difference, they must be highly effective, skilled teachers. In other words, they must be truly masterful at their craft.

Therein lies the problem with the MDE pathway. The department plans to allow teachers to earn this new certificate without a single “highly effective” rating on their annual evaluations. Rather, teachers will be able to apply for the credential if they have received “effective” ratings on their last five evaluations -- and have completed a teacher leadership program or National Board certification.

The implications of this policy are enormous for both Michigan students and the teaching profession. In 2011-2012, 75 percent of teachers in Michigan were rated effective, while just 23 percent were rated highly effective. If that trend continues, about 98 percent of teachers in Michigan would be rated at least “effective” or better and, after five years, would be eligible to become Master Teachers.

Combined with new proposals on merit pay, we worry that, essentially, every teacher in Michigan could get a raise and a promotion, regardless of their skill and performance.

More importantly, under this plan, our state’s real Master Teachers would be marginalized. We cannot afford for that to happen. Many high-performing teachers are so disenchanted by the lack of opportunity in their profession that they leave teaching before students can gain the full benefit of their expertise. We’re also concerned about the state requiring our already-superstar teachers to spend considerable time and personal resources on programs that have been shown not to improve effectiveness.

Finally, relying on brand new training programs to turn average teachers into terrific Master Teachers doesn’t make sense. As we’ve mentioned, credentials are weak predictors of teaching quality.  Today there are better measures of effectiveness, which can be determined through a combination of observations of practice, measures of student learning and other indicators such as student surveys. Such measures will form the foundation of Michigan’s proposed new statewide system of educator evaluation and support, to be announced tomorrow.

Rather, being a Michigan Master Teacher should be an honor reserved for those who have proven their ability to perform at high levels. Michigan’s new teacher-leader credential should be reserved only for those teachers who are rated “highly effective” for three or more consecutive years.

In addition, the state should pilot new qualitative data-driven Master Teacher pathways. District-led pilot induction processes could help discern whether Master Teacher candidates are strongly skilled at coaching other teachers and serving as school and district leaders.

We urge the State Board to ask the Department of Education to change its criteria before Sept. 1.  Michigan should honor the differences between our teachers, and celebrate excellence. Our truly masterful master teachers deserve no less.

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