Julie Western slaps a stack of resumes on the desk of Superintendent Kevin Miller. Croswell-Lexington, a rural school district in the thumb, posted a single teacher opening on their website. A week later, they’re swamped with 147 applications.
All of the applicants were graduates of college education programs. All had been student teachers. All had passed at least one – and many more than one – exam that certified they were qualified to be a teacher.
But which applicants were really qualified? How could Western and Miller tell?
These same questions get asked every summer across Michigan, by administrators looking to slow the revolving door of teacher resignations and re-hirings, by legislators looking for ways to boost test scores, and by parents just wanting to know why their child can’t read.
“You can give me a bunch of 4.0’s (straight-A college students) and it won’t tell me if they can teach,” Miller said. “Some … ( should) work in a factory and not have an impact on others.”
Michigan is failing its children by failing its beginning teachers, from colleges allowing academically iffy students into education programs, to state certification tests that don’t weed out poorly prepared teacher candidates, to schools where nearly half of educators quit in frustration within five years.
“If this were happening with doctors or airplane pilots, there’d be a revolt,” said Deborah Ball, dean of the School of Education at the University of Michigan. “I don’t think the public is alarmed enough.”
This fall, Bridge Magazine will explore the challenges faced by Michigan as it tries to improve an education system that, compared to other states and other countries, is floundering. A Bridge investigation found that problems start early, including:
Teacher prep programs that routinely accept students with high school grade point averages below 3.0 and ACT scores lower than that of students in other majors.
“Wild variability” in the quality of university teacher programs, with parts of several programs shut down by the state because of poor performance.
Certification exams so easy that the pass rates are similar to cosmetology. And the few teacher candidates who do fail? They can take the exam over and over until they pass.
A state-mandated student teaching requirement of just 12 weeks, while the same state government demands plumbers apprentice for three years.
One in eight Michigan teachers has one year or less experience in the classroom, and one in five has less than three years of experience, about the time studies show they are becoming fully competent at their jobs.
“We don’t have a teacher problem, we have a systemic problem,” said Nancy Flanagan, a retired teacher in Hartland and a former Michigan teacher of the year. “We’re going about this all wrong.”
Citizens want teacher prep reform
Michigan residents instinctively understand that the best way to improve student achievement is to improve the skills of the people standing in front of classrooms. In the largest effort ever to collect and analyze public opinion on K-12 education in Michigan, the Center for Michigan found that two of the most popular reforms involved teachers. Among more than 5,000 participants in community conversations across the state, 88 percent considered “strong support for teachers” to be crucial or important; 79 percent supported “improving teacher preparation.”
At the heart of those reform notions are 101,000 public school teachers – one in 100 Michigan residents and one in 36 women between the ages of 22 and 65 – who often shoulder the bulk of public blame for students’ lackluster academic achievement.
Tough times in the classroom
U.S. children score lower on standardized tests than students in many developed countries. The U.S. ranks 17th in reading, 23rd in science and 31st in math, behind countries such as Slovenia and Poland.
One of the main differences between high-achieving countries and the U.S.: a higher level of difficulty in becoming a teacher.
Within the United States, Michigan students are, at best, average. Take your pick of data:
- Education Week ranked Michigan’s k-12 education system 24th
- U.S. News & World Report tabs Michigan 28th in the percent of schools earning gold and silver status in the magazine’s annual school rankings
- Michigan is 23rd in high school graduation rate and 36th in percent of adults with a college diploma.
- Michigan kids are 39th in 4th-grade math and 30th in 8th –grade reading, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress exam.
Those numbers didn’t matter as much in past generations when Michigan was known for its low-education, high-wage jobs in the auto industry. But today, those same statistics raise uncomfortable questions: How well are Michigan students prepared for a world where a good education is virtually a prerequisite to enter the middle class?
“People like to blame teachers but bad teachers are probably 5 percent or fewer,” said State Schools Superintendent Mike Flanagan. “It’s rarely the teacher, it’s the system around them.
If a new teacher is not as prepared as she should be, it’s not her fault if the teacher prep institution didn’t do a good job. That’s a system fix. If you’re in a school district, and the district automatically puts the first-year teacher with the toughest kids, that’s a system thing. You’ve just increased the chances the teacher will fail and the kids won’t move.”
Good teachers make a difference
Studies show that factors outside of school actually play a larger role in student test scores than teachers.
But those same studies show that from the time a child steps off a school bus to the time the final bell rings, nothing has a bigger influence inside a school than the quality of the teacher.
The difference in learning in a classroom led by a good teacher and a bad teacher is sobering. A 2003 study found that a student at the 50th percentile of his peers entering a classroom with a highly effective teacher could end the school year scoring at the 96th percentile; in an ineffective teacher’s classroom, the child could leave scoring at the 37th percentile.
Despite the state’s imperative to improve student learning, there’s been little concerted effort to change the way we build our teachers’ skills. In fact, the colleges that train them, the state that certifies them, and the schools that hire them don’t even have a good sense of what a highly effective teacher looks like, said Amber Arellano, executive director of Education Trust Midwest and a former teacher.
“A teacher, especially early in their career, needs models of what great (teaching) looks like,” Arellano said. “It’s not like the medical profession, where you go from the Detroit Medical Center to Henry Ford (Medical Center) and the standards and expectations would be the same, with protocols that had been developed over decades to serve patients well.”
State could do more
“Other states are showing great gains … by investing in teachers,” Arellano said. “It’s not about pouring money into it — it’s about building more supports and systems, and building capacities of local schools to do that.”
No one wants to be operated on by an under-trained surgeon. Why would we put the future of our kids in the hands of an under-trained teacher, if we have the ability to improve that training?
“When you think about how important that role (of a teacher) is in lives, it’s kind of scary,” Arellano said. “Teaching is a lever for societal transformation. It’s an incredibly important role. But we don’t treat it that way.”