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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Chuck Fellows
Tue, 07/23/2013 - 10:04am
At what point is the MDE going to demonstrate how this new "Master Teacher" certificate is going to impact the learning opportunities in the classroom? That's the point isn't it, to improve learning opportunities. Learning is an activity that takes place between a teacher and a student. Teaching is the activity, teacher and student learning is the goal. Why do policy makers at all levels pointedly and continuously ignore the voices of the two most important participants in a learning journey. Maybe its time that the legislature and the MDE revisit the meaning and purpose of "policy" and stop trying to run the classroom from Lansing. At this point they have proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that they are incapable of either. And the children pay the price for their ignorance. A cynic might say that the leadership of the MDE is looking for ways to justify their existence on the public payroll since they are being threatened, wrongfully, by a minority in the legislature with an agenda to turn education over to the free market, You know that process that gave us the second great depression. Nah, only a cynic would think that.
Susan Buckley
Tue, 07/23/2013 - 10:10am
"Both" Michigan students? Which two? Do you mean Michigan students and teachers both?
Tue, 07/23/2013 - 10:24am
And just how to do measure a teacher's affectiveness? Based on student achievement? How do you even compare student achievement from WEst Bloomfield to Detroit. Detroit may have the best teachers in the State, but if the students aren't motivated to learn, they aren't going to no matter how good the teacher is.
Ann O'Connell
Tue, 07/23/2013 - 12:52pm
I heartily second that MDE should pay more attention to teacher effectiveness and less to additional time (and money) spent on programs from our various schools of education when considering which teachers should be designated as "Master Teachers". While evaluations from skilled colleagues and administrators are also helpful, the proof of excellence in teaching is the growth in student learning. Additional "education" from academic programs, almost all of which have repeatedly failed to demonstrate any effect on student achievement should not determine teacher retention, promotion or pay rates. Lisa above- you compare student learning across districts the same way you would within a classroom, or a single school district. You give them all the same test or assignment and compare the results according to a standardized measure of what students are expected to know at each grade level. Then you compare the average change in achievement level from the start of the year to the end of the year in order to compare teachers. Because a teacher who takes their students from an average of 3 years behind to only 1 year behind has done a significantly better job than one who takes their students from an average of 1 year ahead and maintained that same 1 year lead.
Chuck Jordan
Tue, 07/23/2013 - 2:51pm
Imagine this: you are a teacher in a high poverty district who has always chosen to focus on those most in need. Your students do not always make great progress, but most make some progress and many are beginning to see the value in education. These students often come to see you later in their lives and tell you how you were the beginning of their road to success, though they didn't realize it at the time. Often a great teacher in not appreciated by many students until much later. Several of your colleagues have become master teachers. They are competent and very popular. Their honor students and AP students have always succeeded and they say they owe it all to their master teachers. You know these teachers are good, but why don't others see how much difference you have made in your students' lives? Maybe it's just because you always put all your effort into your students and stayed away from politics and sucking up to the many administrators (mostly coaches) you have seen come and go. You'll just have to continue to take heart from your students and their hugs. Imagine that.
Thu, 07/25/2013 - 1:58pm
In his book, Why Don't Students Like School: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Question About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom, Daniel Willingham’s says, “The emotional bond between students and teacher—for better or worse—accounts for whether students learn”. Unless and until the MDE, The MCEE (Michigan Council for Educator Effectiveness), the state legislature, or anyone else concerned with teacher effectiveness (and/or evaluation) recognizes and values this quintessential teaching “skill” they will continue to add to the mediocrity schools have passed off as learning for decades. We need to first place a value on and then figure out which teachers are the best at relating to students – these are our best teachers. Without this ‘skill’ of forming good relationships, there can be no ‘Master Teacher’ because this is the skill that inspires students to do their best.
Mike R
Sun, 07/28/2013 - 12:29pm
I want to compliment all of the above contributors to this discussion. These are among the best reasoned, researched, and thoughtful comments I've seen in response to a Bridge guest opinion column. The best part? There is nary a hint of overt partisan vitriol in any of them. Let's keep this going....
Wed, 07/31/2013 - 3:55pm
Unfortunately I was out of town when the article was published. I challenge Sarah Lenhoff and Amber Arellano to back up their assertions that National Board Certification is not a quality measure of teacher effectiveness. Based on their comments I wonder if they took the time to go the the NBPTS website and read the volumes of research that show clear, convincing and consistent evidence of the impact that achieving National Board (NBC) Certification has on student achievement and teacher quality. I would challenge you to watch the movie The Mitchell 20 for further evidence of the impact NBC has on children's learning and teachers. It is silly to suggest that: "In addition, the state should pilot new qualitative data-driven Master Teacher pathways. -" When NBC is already a highly proven model that does just that. with the inclusion of data as one part of the measurement of teacher effectiveness. Why spend the money to re-invent the wheel when the NBPTS already has a proven model that is objective and successful. Many state recognize the importance of NBC and have thousands of NBC that are improving education for all students. Michigan should be applauded for the effort to improve teaching and learning through NBC. Jan Pardy National Board Certified Teacher-retired