Public wants to help teachers improve

The best way to improve schools is to improve the skills of the person standing in the front of Michigan classrooms.

Teaching teachers to do their jobs better is the education reform Michigan residents believe will most improve our schools, according to the largest effort ever to collect and analyze public opinion on K-12 education in Michigan.

That approach is more popular than better-known reforms such as expanding school choice, online learning and changing the school calendar among more than 7,500 participants cited in The Center for Michigan’s* report, “The Public’s Agenda for Public Education.”

That report, representing the views of participants in more than 250 community meetings across the state and two scientific polls, revealed a public desire to improve teacher quality through better schooling before teachers earn a degree, more professional development once they’re in the classroom and more rigorous accountability to weed out teachers not cutting the mustard.

The road to high-quality teaching

While the impact of some education reforms remains murky, high-quality teaching definitely makes a difference, says Melissa Usiak, principal of Sycamore Elementary in Holt in mid-Michigan. She cites a 2003 study by Robert Marzano, a Colorado-based education author and reseacher, linking teacher effectiveness to student achievement.

In the study, a student at the 50th percentile 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.

“Those numbers are devastating,” Usiak said.

“A lot of people don’t understand how complex teaching is,” said Amber Arellano, executive director of Education Trust-Midwest, a reform group. “Great teachers are really works of art. They’re very rare.

“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.”

Topping the public’s reform agenda was a statewide effort to offer stronger support for educators. Among community conversation participants, 88 percent considered stronger support for educators to be “crucial” or “important.”

“More support is crucial – teachers are now being asked to be nurses, housemaids and more on top of their teaching duties,” said a participant in a community conversation in Grand Rapids.

Continuing in-school training, teacher mentors and professional learning communities (in which teachers work together to develop teaching strategies) all make a difference. Education Trust-Midwest recommends Michigan encourage teachers to earn National Board Certification – what amounts to a voluntary, national master teacher credential. Teachers earn certification through an exhaustive assessment process designed to recognize highly-effective teaching practices.

Students of National Board Certified teachers tend to do better academically.

“I started my career as a teacher outside Flint,” Arellano recalled. “I probably got about 20 minutes of feedback in my first four months. The void in support and training is incredible.”

“I remember the early 2000s, there were a lot of teacher mentors out there to work with new teachers, sharing the experience they’d learned over decades,” said Doug Pratt, director of public affairs for the Michigan Education Association, the state’s largest educators union. “They were incredibly valuable. Those positions are almost completely gone because of budget cuts.”

How best to teach teachers?

One way to improve teacher quality is to improve teacher education at Michigan colleges. Four out of five participants in community conversations and polls want incoming teachers to be better prepared when they enter the classroom.

Michigan residents also want teachers to be plucked from the most gifted, passionate and motivated students, something that doesn’t happen in all education departments today. Support for that idea was highest among African Americans, Hispanics, parents and people with low incomes. Even educators showed overwhelming support for raising the bar on teacher training.

“When I was in a teacher preparation program, I was disappointed with the expectations for us and the work we had to do,” said a community conversation participant in Flint. “I was embarrassed. It could have been my individual experience, but you would never see in a science class 90 percent of your students with a 4.0 grade point average.”

Gov. Rick Snyder has said he favors reforming how Michigan recruits and prepares educators, including raising the score necessary to pass teaching certification exams, which teachers must pass to get a job in Michigan.

Suzanne Wilson, chairwoman of the nationally ranked College of Education at Michigan State University, said there is “wild variability” in the quality of teacher training programs. “It’s perfectly legitimate for the public to be concerned about how we certify teachers. It’s a civic responsibility to produce high-quality teachers.”

State policy-makers need to “understand more about what it takes to be a good teacher prep program, and hold all (schools) accountable to meet those standards,” Wilson added.

One option Wilson advocates: responsible admission standards to get accepted into a teaching program.

“Some, it’s hard to get into,” she said. “Some, it’s easier.”

“Finland, along with some other European countries, recruits (teachers) from the top third of the class and we don’t do that,” said a community conversation participant in Hamtramck. “Education is looked at as a fallback career here in the U.S. An education degree should be more difficult to obtain.”

Tying classroom results to career tracks

Teachers should get a high-quality education in college and support in the classroom, but in the end they should be held accountable for the success or failure of their students. That’s the clear signal given by Michigan residents, two-thirds of whom support holding educators more accountable. Among the more than 7,500 voices reflected in the report, the measure received the most support from African Americans and employers. Educators showed the least support, with 61 percent of educators in community conversations and 46 percent in polls viewing increased accountability as crucial or important.

“There is no profession where people are not held accountable,” said a community conversation participant in Haslett. “If you don’t hit the objectives then a closer look can be taken to see what is going on. Without accountability then the oldest teacher wins and the new good teachers get pigeonholed.”

Michigan teacher evaluations traditionally rated almost all teachers as good or great. Those evaluation standards are slowly becoming more stringent, with student achievement becoming a larger factor.

Some participants worried that reliance on student achievement to grade teachers would harm good teachers toiling in high-poverty schools, where many students struggle academically.

“A lot of areas that teachers could be measured on, they have no control over, like poverty in students,” remarked a community conversation participant in Milford. “This results in more pressure on teachers, more likelihood of cheating from teachers wanting to hit their numbers.”

The Michigan Council on Educator Effectiveness is developing a teacher evaluation model that will be presented to the state later this year. That model is likely to take into account numerous factors, including the poverty level of children.

Bridge Magazine recently developed a school scorecard that analyzed standardized test scores adjusted for student income. That report looked at the performance of school districts and charter schools, not individual teachers.

Increased accountability alone won’t fix Michigan schools, argues John Austin, president of the Michigan State Board of Education.

“I’m for good evaluation, but you also need funding for teacher development,” Austin said. “Our teachers are getting less resources to get better while being asked to get better. States that are successful have accountability, but they also have master teachers and teacher development” on a scale Michigan doesn’t currently fund.

*The Center for Michigan is the parent organization of Bridge Magazine. 

Senior Writer Ron French joined Bridge in 2011 after having won more than 40 national and state journalism awards since he joined the Detroit News in 1995. French has a long track record of uncovering emerging issues and changing the public policy debate through his work. In 2006, he foretold the coming crisis in the auto industry in a special report detailing how worker health-care costs threatened to bankrupt General Motors.

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

If you learned something from the story you're reading please consider supporting our work. Your donation allows us to keep our Michigan-focused reporting and analysis free and accessible to all. All donations are voluntary, but for as little as $1 you can become a member of Bridge Club and support freedom of the press in Michigan during a crucial election year.

Pay with VISA Pay with MasterCard Pay with American Express Donate now

Comment Form

Add new comment

Dear Reader: We value your thoughts and criticism on the articles, but insist on civility. Criticizing comments or ideas is welcome, but Bridge won’t tolerate comments that are false or defamatory or that demean, personally attack, spread hate or harmful stereotypes. Violating these standards could result in a ban.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.


Wed, 01/23/2013 - 10:26am
As a veteran school board member, it is frustrating to know top-notch teachers who would love to come back home to Michigan or return to the teaching profession, but there are no jobs available.
Wed, 01/23/2013 - 11:37am
Attract gifted, passionate and motivated students; raise the score necessary to pass teaching certification exams; recruit teachers from the top third of the class; and at the same time reduce salaries and benefits, increase class sizes, raise expectations without additional support, weaken the retirement system and further decimate the teacher associations (the only real advocates for teachers). There's a real plan for improvement!
T Scott Galloway
Wed, 01/23/2013 - 12:00pm
It is amazing to me how conservative education "reformers" demonize teachers, make their job harder, reduce overall compensation and reduce school districts funding then complain about how teachers and public schools are failing to deliver a high quality experience for what is supposed to be our most treasured asset - our children. In reality conservative education "reform" is all about privatization with an eye toward breaking teacher unions and enriching for profit education schemes. end of story.
div buegeleisen
Wed, 01/23/2013 - 2:07pm
When I taught elementary school in Detroit, I was appalled at the incompetence of most of the teachers. They kept insisting that because the students came from poor families etc-etc they could not do any better. However, I was able to get them to do amazing work in my room by giving them interesting and challenging work to do. Some of the teachers finally realized- when they saw what my students accomplished - wanted me to show them how I did it. HOWEVER- they were only interested in doing it NOW. Not interested in the slow planning of skills over a few months or in the enthusiasm necessary to reach them. But- one thing that is missing in all of the talk about poor teachers- is the complete lack of interest in the administrators. It is very difficult to be a good teacher in a school where there is an incompetent principal.
Wed, 01/23/2013 - 8:24pm
I teach in one of the top schools and districts in the state, and I work with top notch teachers. So how are they responding to the legislative and political attacks of the last 2 years? About one third, including some of the most talented, are looking to get out of education. It is clear that there is no future to teaching in Michigan. The Republican agenda is to turn back the clock and make teaching into a low paid non-union profession for those who don't have a family to support. I just finished working with a very talented student teacher from University of Michigan. After the right to work bill passed, she turned down an interview with Northville Schools and went back to school to work on a second non education degree.
Sun, 01/27/2013 - 8:19am
Either the those talking about improving education were so narrowly focused or those supposed listening to the conversation only heard what they wanted to hear or were expecting to hear or no one understands how quality performance is achieved everywhere outside of teaching. The reality is that all those who are trained (doctor, lawyer, engineerss, electricians, etc.) and a pass a common ceritification process have simply demonstrated an ability to repeat the knowledge they were given. Passing a higher threshold of intiial certification does not raise the quality of service that is provided, it only broadens what is tested on. The quality, the effectiveness, the efficiency that is so desired is on develop in the practical application and coaching of thos who are certified. We hear a lot about on going education for those who are certified as if that will changed their ability to apply what is learned, home builders have that requirement and you still get good and bad builders and even some very good ones, But that is most likely the distribution before the ongoing classes. If you want better teachers, better any certified professional, is has to do with the means and methods use for coaching better perfromances. If you want to know how it is done start going to those orgainzations that are succeeding and learn how they develop their people. This is another case of I want, we want, but nobody is working on what it takes to achieve those wants. Rather than simply raising the certification standards it may be time people start looking at the process of education. If you want accountability you first need to establish expectations (well defined, specific, measurable), you need a feedback system (that involves all who are impact, or at least a slice of all), you need engage the teacher in establishing their individual parts of the system/school/grade/class/individual expectations and perfroamnce process. You need to apply this aproach to the school admin staff, the teachers as a group and individually, the parent, and the students. It isn't simply a higher teach certification standard, it is a whole learning process and cultural approach. Look around the State at those orgainzations that have been sustainable though ching times/technology and people and ask how have they succeed and why. If you want a better system of learning then you need to determine what the results of that learning should look like so you can identify those who are being successful and then investigate how and why to find the root cause of their success (each time you have had the how and why answered ask again at least five times or until there are no more answers to be given). If we only investtigate the exceptions (the failures) we will only get a system that does a patch work job that bounces from problem to problem. If we foucs on what we want to achieve and understand the means of success we build a system that achieves success and is sustainable. The reality is that in this competetive world it doesn't matter where you come from it is what you deliver. When we buy a house we don't care if it was built brand new or if is a hundred years old, what we want it one that meets our needs today. I really don't care if a school is in a 'poor' area (I grew up in what was called the 'projects' and 'shantytown', I got my education, I have had many experiences) or a 'wealthy' area once you are out od school it is about what you learned and what you do with what you learned. Get over compensating for the external and focus on the kids and the expectations that the teachers have for them. People will rise or fall to the expectations, if they are given an excuse (they are 'poor') they will use that to the path of least resistance. Either you believe in equal opportunity or you believe in a caste system of education. Knowledge is one thing but skills and their appilication are what determine quality, effectiveness, and efficiency. Remember the best golfers in the world have coaches to help them continuely be competetive and improve.