Ron French’s recent article about the Michigan exam for aspiring teachers (Bridge, January 20, 2015) has stimulated a discussion about the best ways to attract, identify and prepare prospective teachers. This discussion is critical as we work together to overcome the factors that are causing so many young people to dismiss teaching as a future career. These include never-ending teacher bashing, micromanaging at the local, state and national levels, and inadequate compensation.
However, I want to begin by clarifying three issues raised in Mr. French’s article.
First, all of us involved in preparing the next generation of teachers agree that we must attract young people who are able and willing to step up to the challenges of teaching children at all levels. We acknowledge that some sort of test is needed. We simply don't agree that Michigan’s Professional Readiness Exam achieves this goal.
Second, we believe that the Praxis Examination of Core Academic Skills, which is used in several states, would have been preferable to what the Michigan Department of Education developed. Finally, an official with the department is quoted as saying that some of the universities are unhappy with the current test. Actually, this feeling is virtually unanimous.
So, while I agree that some sort of test is needed to assess the academic preparation of aspiring teachers, I believe that much more is required. One important step is the development of portfolios organized around what Deborah Ball, dean of the University of Michigan’s School of Education, refers to as “high-level practices” in teaching and assessment. Moreover, aspiring teachers need clinical experiences in schools long before beginning student teaching. Here at Oakland University, this process begins two years before student teaching. Many of our students are enrolled in teaching methods and foundations classes taught in real K-12 schools by university faculty members who collaborate closely with their K-12 colleagues to provide authentic experiences for the teacher candidates.
A related issue involves retaining teachers early in their careers at a time when a significant percentage of them leave teaching during their first five years. Reasons frequently given for this early exodus include lack of autonomy, erratic support and the limited opportunities to make a difference. To counter this trend, approximately 30 Southeast Michigan school districts in the Galileo Teacher Leadership Consortium have committed themselves to creating systems in which teachers can grow as leaders both within and beyond their classrooms. Oakland University’s Galileo Institute works with the Consortium to support teacher leadership through a variety of projects and services. Recently, the Institute became a supporting organization for the National Teach to Lead initiative organized by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards and the United States Department of Education.
Equally important is the need to engage high school students in discussions about teaching and provide them with opportunities to experience teaching through volunteer and internship activities. At Oakland University, we are working closely with teacher cadet programs in several districts and exploring joining Educators Rising, a national movement designed to support such programs.
While I began with a criticism of the Professional Readiness Exam, my underlying concern is the need to adopt comprehensive practices and policies to attract young people to teaching, provide them with the best teacher education possible and then support them when they enter K-12 classrooms. Achieving those goals will require much more than a single test.