Michigan lagging in teacher quality says federal agency

Recent U.S. Dept. of Education study finds new federal law will require changes to teacher training, certification standards

Michigan is failing to produce the highly qualified teachers the recently passed federal No Child Left Behind Act requires, according to a new study released by the U.S. Department of Education (DOE).

According to the study, Michigan is one of nearly 20 states that has not implemented a policy linking teacher standards to academic content standards. Without such a link, the study finds there is no assurance that a teacher is qualified to present the specific material mandated by the state.

The DOE study, entitled “Meeting the Highly Qualified Teachers Challenge,” is the first annual report to Congress on the state of teacher quality nationwide, as required by the No Child Left Behind Act, which President George W. Bush signed into law last January. The study focused on teacher education, testing and certification in each of the 50 states, and discussed the effectiveness of state certification methods.

Teacher certification does not necessarily assure quality. The study cited evidence that teachers who complete the traditional state certification process do not necessarily produce superior academic gains in the classroom. A 1999 study by economists Dale Goldhaber and Dominic Brewer, published in the book Better Teachers, Better Schools, found that there was no discernable difference in student achievement between those students taught by conventionally licensed teachers and students taught by emergency-hire or temporarily licensed teachers.

The study is especially critical of general education and other “pedagogy” degrees that focus on “teaching strategies” and “the social foundations of education” rather than on the subject matter to be taught. “Research has generally shown that high school math and science teachers who have a major in the subjects they teach elicit greater gains from their students than out-of-field teachers,” the report states.

Although some analyses show positive results from teacher certification, the conclusions of these analyses are increasingly called into question. Last year Kate Walsh, a senior policy analyst at the Baltimore-based Abell Foundation, conducted an analysis of some 200 studies on teacher certification. From her research she concluded, “The body of research on the effects of teacher certification is astonishingly poor. Some of the most oft-cited studies had such serious flaws that no properly trained researcher would take them seriously.”

Not everyone is pleased with the results of the DOE study, though. The American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education (AACTE) is calling for an independent analysis of the teacher quality data, saying the report misrepresents information to advance a conservative agenda.

David G. Imig, AACTE president and CEO, said that although the report’s authors are “pushing ‘scientifically based evidence’ on faculties and researchers,” they offer little such evidence, instead repeatedly citing the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and other “conservative researchers.”

Many solutions exist for solving the problems of teacher certification and licensing. While the DOE study clearly favors state certification standards that require competency in the specific academic content to be taught, others believe that a more radical overhaul of teacher certification is in order.

Frederick M. Hess of the Washington, D.C.-based Progressive Policy Institute’s 21st Century Schools Project, for example, suggests that professional development and on-the-job training in particular should replace the “prescribed sequence” of certification classes, tests and other pre-professional activities.

The Michigan State Board of Education recently convened an “Ensuring Excellent Educators Task Force” to deal with the issues of teacher quality, certification, and requirements imposed by the federal No Child Left Behind Act. The task force was co-chaired by board member John C. Austin and board treasurer Ellen Lappin Weiser. A number of university educators, schoolteachers, parents and other individuals from public agencies and private interests alike were appointed to the panel.

The State Board of Education approved a one-page set of policies at a meeting on April 11, 2002, stemming from the task force’s report. The bulk of the specific recommendations, however, have not been adopted. For example, the report recommended that the state of Michigan “ensure teacher preparation courses are tied to the state’s academic content and curriculum.” Further, the task force recommended that the Michigan Test for Teacher Certification, the state’s teacher licensure test, be revised to reflect this standard. The Board’s official policies imply that future procedures will be developed later.

The task force also recommended enhancements to teachers’ ongoing professional development, and to “encourage professional development linked to school/district needs and student achievement goals.” The task force contended that this is necessary because “Professional development is not an add-on to the system. It is part and parcel of the work of all educators.” The approved Board policy calls for only “the completion of a practice-based professional development plan based on performance standards” but does not specify its implementation.

It remains to be seen whether the recommendations of the task force, if adopted by the Board of Education, will be sufficient to change the system and make certain quality teachers enter Michigan classrooms. The task force work will likely ensure that the state receives the $109 million in “Improving Teacher Quality” state grants promised from the federal government as a result of compliance with President Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act.