Becoming a teacher: too often in Michigan it’s come one, come all

One college advertises classes in “truck driving and teacher preparation.” Another program draws potential teachers from the bottom fifth of high school students.

Michigan imposes no minimum standards for admission to teacher training programs, leaving standards to individual schools that have little incentive to limit enrollment.

The result: Some Michigan teacher candidates studying in programs as tough to get in to as engineering, and some in schools with “open enrollment” – where no GPA or ACT is needed.

“How can we professionalize the profession if the approach (to teacher prep) is, ‘y’all come, if you can walk and talk,’” said a frustrated John Austin, president of the State Board of Education. “We have to raise the bar for entry to teaching.”

Michigan residents want the best and brightest

Education is the economic engine for Michigan’s future, and no factor inside school walls has a bigger impact on student learning than teacher quality. In community conversations and polls sponsored by The Center for Michigan, residents said they wanted teachers to be plucked from the most gifted, passionate and motivated students. That’s something that doesn’t happen in many education departments today.

The state doesn’t collect the ACT scores of college students enrolled in teacher training programs, but the scores of all incoming students to colleges offer a proxy. The average ACT score of incoming freshmen at the University of Michigan is 29, according to the National Council on Teacher Quality. See the admission standards for Michigan schools with teaching programs. That means the average U-M freshman scored in the top 7 percent of all high schoolers taking the ACT.

Seven other Michigan schools with education programs draw their typical freshmen from the top quarter of ACT scores nationally. But four schools with teacher prep programs draw students from the bottom half of those taking the test. Olivet College, Sienna Heights, Wayne State University and Marygrove College all have average ACT scores below the national average of 20.9 (out of a maximum score of 36), with Olivet and Marygrove students in the bottom half in Michigan, where the average is 19.9.

Marygrove College freshmen have an average ACT of 15, which means the typical Marygrove freshman scored in the bottom fifth of all U.S. students taking the college readiness test. Marygrove officials did not respond to requests for information about the school’s teacher prep program.

Baker College, with campuses across Michigan, is open-enrollment – meaning there is no minimum high school GPA or ACT score to enroll. Baker had 1,172 education majors in 2010-11, according to data from the federal Title II Higher Education report, making it one of the biggest teacher prep programs in state. While callers to Baker College are on hold, they are encouraged to enroll in Baker College classes in, among other things, “truck driving and teacher preparation.”

“Want to know which is best for you?” the message says. “Ask to speak to one of our helpful career counselors.”

Chris Schram, dean of the School of Education at Baker, said the number of students formally admitted to the school’s teacher preparation program is far fewer than the almost 1,200 listed by the federal government. “That number probably includes everyone who initially says they’re interested in education,” Schram said. Only 62 completed the education program at Baker in 2010-11.

Experts disagree on where the state can have the biggest impact on new teacher quality. Deborah Ball, dean of the University of Michigan School of Education, advocates tougher certification examinations and early-career mentoring; Suzanne Wilson, former chair of the department of teacher education at Michigan State University, argues Michigan should focus on “inputs rather than outputs,” raising the bar for entry to programs. Wilson believes there should be rigorous admission standards for teaching programs at all of the 34 colleges and universities now offering a teaching degree. “Some, it’s hard to get in to,” Wilson said. “Some, it’s easier.”

Do smart teachers matter?

In a report he co-authored for the National Academy for Education, MSU’s Robert Floden argues that focusing on the SAT or ACT scores of entering students is unfair to institutions that serve students from ineffective school districts, particularly urban schools.

“It’s fine that some places are highly selective, and that other places are not, because they’re each serving a purpose and serving different missions,” Floden said.

“We all know it’s hard to get teachers to go to the U.P.,” Floden said. “The students who are going to teach there probably grew up there. If it turns out that a (teacher prep) program in the U.P. wasn’t selective and you shut them down… the U.P wouldn’t have any teachers.”

Teaching ability isn’t all about grades, said Larry Corbett, chairperson of teacher education and professional development at Central Michigan University, the largest teacher prep program in the state. Teaching also requires interpersonal skills that high GPA’s don’t fix. “It’s a complex problem,” Corbett said.

Still, a growing base of research indicates that smart teachers lead to smart students.

A study in North Carolina, where student learning has been linked back to their teachers for a decade, found that students learned more in classes led by teachers who were graduates of teacher prep programs with selective admissions.

A study in New York found links between student learning and teacher cognitive ability.

Amanda Ripley, author of “The Smartest Kids in the World,” found that nations where students score highest on standardized tests are also the countries where teacher training programs are the most selective.

“Setting a high bar at the beginning of the profession sends a signal to everyone else that you are serious about education,” Ripley told the New York Times. 

Finland, where test scores are among the highest in the world, doesn’t have a rigorous teacher evaluation system, because “they screen them on the front-end,” said Sandi Jacobs, vice president of the National Council on Teacher Quality. Only 10 percent to 15 percent of applicants are accepted into teacher programs in the Scandinavian country.

“Smarts matter,” Jacobs said. “Yet we are so non-selective, especially at the elementary level, where we produce so many teachers,” Jacobs said. “Why aren’t we more selective? We both know why,” Jacobs said. “It (teacher preparation) is a cash cow.”

Teacher prep traditionally has been high-volume, low cost program for universities, said Michael Sedlak, an education historian at Michigan State University. Teacher prep is “a profit center” for many universities, with tuition from large education departments subsidizing more expensive engineering and science programs, Sedlak said.

It’s the opposite at Michigan State University, which has one of the top-ranked education programs in the nation – the university funds its teacher preparation program at levels similar to engineering and nursing. Because the program limits enrollment, only the top candidates get in – most with a two-year college GPA of 3.5 or higher.

Delaware raises the bar

Toughened admissions standards for teacher prep programs recently were passed with overwhelming bipartisan support in Delaware. The new standards require teacher candidates to have a 3.0 grade point average, or a GPA in the top half of their class

"The single most important school factor in a child’s academic success is teacher quality,” Delaware Gov. Jack Markell said in a news release about the law. “We want to attract the best candidates into the teaching profession because our state's success in the future is dependent on how well we educate our children today."

The Delaware State Education Association teacher union and colleges with teacher prep programs support the new admission standards.

Austin said Michigan has the authority to set minimum admission standards. “We have made some changes to the standards,” Austin said, “but not nearly as robust as would be most helpful.”

Higher standards, lower diversity?

Raising admission standards could have an unintended consequence of lowering teacher diversity. At Marygrove, for example, where the teacher program might be affected by state-mandated admission standards, 55 percent of students are minorities.  At Wayne State, which has among the lowest average ACT scores in the state, about half the students are minorities.

MDE considers raising the diversity of the state’s teachers to more closely resemble students a key goal; its teacher prep program scorecard includes a category for diversity.

That same scorecard, for 2012, gives Marygrove, with the lowest ACT scores in the state, the best overall score among the state’s teacher prep programs (tied with Madonna University, where incoming freshmen have an average ACT of 21).

Because the state’s colleges produce many more teachers than are needed to fill vacancies in Michigan schools, Michigan could increase admission standards without creating teacher shortages.

“Admission standards are not the reason we don’t have physics teachers,” Jacobs said.

Higher admission standards have an ally in Dennis Van Roekel, president of the 3.2 million-member National Education Association, the largest labor union in the U.S.

“What if of all the people who want to be teachers, we only take 25 percent?” Roekel asked at a recent journalism conference in Chicago. “We can’t continue to take everyone who walks in the door. Our kids deserve better.”

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Steve K
Thu, 10/31/2013 - 7:21am
The premise of the article is sound. The problem is that it doesn't function in the real world of today's America. Teachers are increasingly attacked in the media and by politicians. Under such pressure and scrutiny to solve all of the problems of society, especially poverty, teachers are asked to perform miracles and then blamed for not doing so. Recent legislation has gone out of its way to reducer teacher pay and benefits which also leads to less interest in teaching. Many non-traditional schools provide low pay which is unattractive to students leaving college with loads of debt. I'd love to see "brighter" people enter the teaching profession but the snarky public attitudes, social lack of respect and reduced compensation of the job make it difficult to hire those kind of candidates. Politicians love to overpay some consultant or staff member and say "That's the price you pay for quality." So these same leaders want to pay less, they'll get less quality and somebody has to teach kids. Comparisons to Finland, by the way, are disingenuous because they have made teaching a well-compensated profession that people respect. And, before any goes to the usual attack, Finland's teachers are 100% unionized.
Thu, 10/31/2013 - 8:54am
Steve, good points. Which means the powers that be won't listen to them. Until we realize that the failure of our system is less about the system and more about society's support of education, that early childhood education IS important, and that appropriate, stable funding is critical, then we will continue to struggle. You don't go to school to get an education, you go to school to take an education.
Thu, 10/31/2013 - 9:08am
The main premise of this article is sound but should be analyzed carefully. Many issues arise when discussing this topic. a. Establishing admissions guidelines for teachers that are similar to engineers would imply that teachers have the opportunity to earn what engineers earn. This simply is not true. Education will not attract the best and brightest until the profession garners the public respect it deserves. b. ACT score is not a completely valid predictor of success as a teacher. Many of us remember teachers or professors who were very knowledgeable but lacking in the ability to TEACH or transfer their knowledge to their students. Good teaching is so much more than content knowledge. c. Students willing to pursue higher education should be encouraged to do so regardless of ACT score or GPA. To do any less is to suggest that they don't have the potential to overcome what may have been a sub-par education or home life. Perhaps they should just resign themselves to minimum wage fast food work.? It is up to the hiring institutions to conduct proper searches. It is certainly a buyers market - strong, high achieving teacher candidates are out there and schools have an obligation to find them. d. What we should consider is better career counseling. The teacher market is simply saturated. Choosing this career is a gamble. There are too many quality candidates who never find a job. Students entering college would be wise to consider the need in their chosen field before committing.
Thu, 10/31/2013 - 9:40am
I always thought that if a person completed the curriculm to the satifaction of the college/univerity demonstrating the necessary knowledge and skills was the purpose of such programs. Isn't a certificaion program to verify that the people demonstrate the minimum knowledge and skills the state requires for that profession? If those are true that would suggest the the quality of teachers being made available is more due the college/universities training them and the quality of the certification program rather then the students qualification when entering the program. I would think that the final decider of the teachers in the classroom is determined by their employer, in their hiring practices and their retention requirements. It would seem the entrance standards reflects what the college/univeristy finds likely criteria for success in their programs. Rather than being concerned with the entrance criteria, since dedicated students can over come the problems of how they were prepared for college. Maybe there should be more concern placed on the teacher retention criteria, the teacher hiring criteria, the certification criteria, the college/university porgram certification criteria, the college/univeristy graduation criteria, and leave the college/univeristy entrance to the schools.
Thu, 10/31/2013 - 10:04am
This article has no merit. Teacher preparation at Michigan's state, brick and mortar colleges and universities are good programs. First you are admitted to the college or university, and in your last 2 years you are admitted to the teacher prep program. So you have to be a good enough student to have made it through the first 2 years of the college's literary school program or other program. Those first 2 years weed out the poor students from all programs. Classroom contacts have been increased, most teachers will have varying types of classroom contacts for all of the last 2 years they are in the education program. Education is a field where experience counts and expertise is built over time. However the for profit online colleges are no good period in any program they offer. They go for the bucks and as long as you have them or can get the bucks loaned to you they will keep you. These schools don't offer the human support and coaching in the classroom because they don't have live staff. Due to the great reduction in pay and the demonizing of teachers you are not going to get good people going into education in the future. It simply does not pay. Teaching is one of the hardest jobs a person will ever love that's why many teachers leave in the first 3 years. In addition there is no financial support to the schools. Many teachers buy their own supplies and have not enough books or computers. The lack of funding to education is making the job of teaching impossible for anyone, good or bad.
Thu, 10/31/2013 - 10:05am
I agree with most of the articles comments. Teachers are not given the respect that they deserve and are unfairly held responsible for their students scores. The comment by Delaware Gov. Jack Markel that the single most important factor in student success is the teacher is wrong. Its the parents who are the most important factor. Our society needs to value education if we are to improve teacher quality and the success of our students. Improve the standards for admittance to education programs and do more to support young teachers but remember that without parental involvement we are not going to see the improvements necessary to compete on a global stage.
Chuck Fellows
Thu, 10/31/2013 - 2:42pm
Why does anyone enter a "Profession" that disallows professionalism? Education is in the grip of well meaning but totally incompetent hierarchies intent on the preservation of their institutional status at the expense of individuals (teachers) that want to make a contribution to the future and those who are the future - our children. Place the responsibility and the authority for learning excellence in the hands of the people that actually do the work, the teachers, the students and the parents. The what, when, where, how and how much depend upon a why determined by those doing the learning, not the MDE, the Legislature, Academic specialists, textbook publishers or testing companies. Take a lesson from Sugata Mitra (Google it) or Dennis Litky or Deborah Meier, or Ted Sizer (deceased) or Pasi Salhberg or Dewey, Piaget, Pestalozzi or even Socrates. Children know how to learn. They are born that way. So why is it we persist in in destroying their natural ability. (If a 30% dropout rate, 25% of children in poverty, some of the poorest scores in the world in STEM subjects - and on and on and on isn't destruction . . . )
Charles Richards
Thu, 10/31/2013 - 2:45pm
Mr. French is absolutely right when he says, "Education is the economic engine for Michigan’s future, and no factor inside school walls has a bigger impact on student learning than teacher quality. " He quoted Delaware Governor Jack Markell as saying, “The single most important school factor in a child’s academic success is teacher quality,” That is something that Mike failed to read carefully, otherwise he wouldn't have accused the Governor of saying that teacher quality is more important than parental quality. Deborah Ball, dean of the University of Michigan School of Education is mistaken when she advocates tougher certification examinations and early-career mentoring. That is enormously inefficient and results in the waste of a lot of resources. "Austin said Michigan has the authority to set minimum admission standards. “We have made some changes to the standards,” Austin said, “but not nearly as robust as would be most helpful.” If that is the case why haven't standards been raised? Is that up to the State Board of Education? If not, who? Mr. French should have provided more detail on this. "MDE considers raising the diversity of the state’s teachers to more closely resemble students a key goal; its teacher prep program scorecard includes a category for diversity." How important is diversity relative to quality education? Is there any evidence that diversity contributes to a quality education? If so, does that contribution outweigh the contribution from having a superior teacher? Diversity is fine, but only among those who have met high standards. Mr. French should have included the weights given to different categories. "Because the state’s colleges produce many more teachers than are needed to fill vacancies in Michigan schools, Michigan could increase admission standards without creating teacher shortages." Why is this relevant? Does Mr. French mean to say that only graduates of Michigan colleges are eligible to teach in Michigan? Surely, we are not so foolish. Many of the commenters complained about the lack of respect for teachers. Has it occurred to them that if our teachers were more capable, had been selected from the top ten percent of students, that they would have more respect?
Steve K
Thu, 10/31/2013 - 3:33pm
Mr. Richards, In reference to your closing statement, I think you're making an argument that is irrelevant. We are now locked into a position that teachers are not respected by those who control much of the messaging. Drawing from the top ten percent has nothing to do with the level of respect. Let me explain. Thirty years ago, when I screwed up in school, my parents wanted to know what I did and held me responsible. Now, parents hold the teachers responsible rather than their kids. Why? Because they've read countless stories about "failing schools" and "lazy teachers" which are not true a vast majority of the time. In that environment, when mixed with lower pay and fewer benefits and less security, how do you propose to get this top ten percent interest? I've had many former student s who say they would love to teach physics or math or some other subject. Except that they can make twice the money in another profession. If you really want the best and brightest, you must pay them. It's really that simple. Otherwise, you're expecting a high level of altruism that does not fit the narrative of human nature. And the lack of respect has nothing to do with a teacher's quality of intelligence. It has to do with the fact that people think this job is easy and therefore the people who teach are compensated with an unfairly high wage. I worked in an office for five years before I taught. My office job (accountant) was way easier. I teach because I love the challenge of it and my social conscience is rewarded. I could zone out for ten minutes in the office. Can't do that here. I never took work home. I do every day as a teacher. When I told people I was an accountant, they would say something that seemed congratulatory. When I tell people that I'm a teacher, they say "Must be nice to have summers off!" Which ignores the fact that I put in 60 hours per week. That's the lack of respect. It is unrelated to my college GPA or raw intelligence.
Fri, 11/01/2013 - 8:59am
While in school and universities, I have always been one of those in the top 10 %. However, teaching never made much sense to me, because of the low pay, and low status of the profession itself. I could make much more money and garner much more respect in the business world. I moved to teaching as a second career much later in my mid 50's. Teaching has become a passion and a joy for me. However, the pay is low for the amount of work you put in, and teacher support tends to be very limited because of funding. I would have a very difficult time recommending the profession to the best and brightest of the young, because the profession is not competitive in pay with the business world where the same or less education is required to earn much more. Students burdened with high loan debt would look at a life living near poverty, if they choose the teaching profession. There are times when "love" of teaching is not worth the lifestyle it affords. There is a saying in the teaching profession: "Teachers do not teach because of the great money they make, but because of the love of teaching others." I find this to be true. I made 3 - 4 times more the amount of money in business than in teaching. Teaching works for me as a second career...but it is not for the financial compensation. I have traveled around the world in my business endeavors. The one observation I have made in those travels is that all of the richest countries provide free education to students through college levels, and compensate teachers with higher pay as well. These countries have the highest rates of creativity and production from their citizens. The poorest countries, without exception, do not fund education sufficiently and give it a very low budgetary priority. All of these countries have a history of rebellion and violence, because the majority of the citizens are poor and uneducated, and thus unemployed. What concerns me about the United States today is that trend of cutting education funding at the government (state and federal) levels. Colleges were 80% funded by the states during the 1960's. What followed were tremendous technical advancements made by those who were thus educated. It helped make the United States the most powerful nation on earth. That government support has dropped to 12% to 15% funding today. Students are called upon to make up the difference with much higher tuition rates. Thus, we have burdened students with untenable student loans that MUST be paid back and no way given to dispense with them. The teaching profession does not pay well enough to compensate for this. Jobs that pay well are becoming less and less available. Creativity is being discouraged at all levels. Education is being discouraged for the majority. Only the wealthiest can afford it in today's market. What does this predict for the United States' future? Someone came up with blaming the teachers for this lack and saying it is "their" fault for the drop in standardized tests, etc. Is it? Or is it the lack of financial support for the entire system?
Fri, 11/01/2013 - 2:03pm
jrishel, You make many points worthy of discussion. The disappointing part of the conversation is how it has gravitated to placing 'blame' and being proponents of historic actions. As best I can tell placing blame is only promote for political reasons (intrernal and external) and seldom or ever solves a problem. Historic solution need to be left in the past if they are no succeeding today. There is much talk about more and more money for schools and yet no where do we hear about how that money will be spent or how what it is spent on will achieve some undescribe success or how what it is spent on will be held accountable. You promote more spending an yet you address none of these question, that maybe why where the public was trusting of the education professionals and always accept spending more and more are now resistant to support without accountability. How do we change the conversation toward better public understanding of the educational process, the issues that will have the greatest impact, and how current proposal will improve results (with accountability included)? How would you describe what a successful student results would look like?
Sat, 11/02/2013 - 7:01pm
Mr French, I understand your obsession with this recruiting the top students to be teachers but it just simply does not and will not work in the United States. It's a point you kept harping on during the community discussions but it seems my conversation with you never got through. The Europeans are able to get the top students to be teachers for two reasons- they are well compensated and they are usually guaranteed to teach the top 20% of the students because of the European tracking system. Neither one of those things is something you will see any time soon here in the US. Some of us experienced that system and have tried to relay it to our political leaders but obviously it falls on deaf ears because many people are trying to cut public education (spare me they would really pay teachers 6 figures or more) and you would have people irate if the AP and IB kids were seggregated from the rest of the student body while being guaranteed the best teachers. Because our teachers have to cater to all students, having the "best" scholars will simply not work more often than not. There is a reason that some teachers who were in the upper half of the student body (lets say 3.3-3.7 GPA) are better teachers because they may be more creative and reach more students than folks that are really the elite minds but will never have te delivery or techniques to stop over half of their students from nodding off in class. It seems you and many people with that mindset just want to reward people for obtaining great grades and think that is the magical elixir to all problems without acknowledging everything else that is going on (poverty, family involvement, Europeans only testing their top 20%, folks who just want to dissolve public schools, etc..). I know this from my own personal experiences and have been rewarded for my teaching.
Sun, 02/09/2014 - 11:29pm
Eastern Michigan University alone graduates more certified teachers each year than there are job openings in the state. Okay, that alone tells you that the standards must be raised. I received my MA in Teaching from Wayne State and yes, I felt that there were people in my classes that did not belong there. And I had to compete with those people for jobs, and sometimes lost to them because they had a relative or two in the district. The nepotism I saw was staggering. You wouldn't believe me if I told you the I won't bother. After a couple of years as a teacher I went back to the business world.