The Aug. 10 Michigan Board of Education meeting was not a distinguished one. The first gaffe came when the state Department of Education reported an erroneously low number of certified teachers in Michigan’s charter schools – a mistake of just three percentage points, but an insult to the Bay Mills Indian tribe, whose charter schools were incorrectly reported to have much lower teacher certification rates than they actually do.

The second, bigger gaffe came when someone from the press later asked, for purposes of comparison, what the number of certified teachers is in the state’s conventional public schools. As reported the following day in both the Detroit News and the Detroit Free Press, the department’s answer was "98 percent."

Martin Ackley, spokesman for the Michigan Department of Education, says the number was "approximate" and based on the fact that about 2,000 of the roughly 100,000 public school teachers have only "permits" to teach, rather than certification. But given a recent report from the Office of the State Auditor General, this is almost certainly a misleading number. The education department doesn’t appear to have the mechanisms in place to track teacher certification figures. In contrast, Michigan's charter schools do.

The auditor general’s August 26, 2004 "performance audit" of the education department’s Office of Professional Preparation Services analyzed a sample of ninth- through 12th-grade teachers from the 1999-2000 to 2001-2002 school years and found that 18 percent "were teaching out-of-field." For grades six through eight during the same period, the number teaching out-of-field was 19 percent.

These figures for junior high and high school teachers diminish the credibility of the 98 percent certification estimate the department gives for all conventional public schools. Out-of-field teachers cannot responsibly be reported as "certified," especially compared with the charter school figure of 79 percent, which counted out-of-field teachers as uncertified.

True, the auditor general’s "out-of-field" figures involved both conventional public schools and charter schools. But the number of charter teachers included was far too few to meaningfully affect the overall percentages of uncertified teachers at conventional schools implied by the report. And although the auditor general’s office dealt with an earlier time period, there’s no evidence to indicate that a major shift in certification levels has occurred since then.

The problem appears to go deeper than a simple miscalculation, because the department lacks a tracking mechanism for determining teacher certification levels. The auditor general’s report stated, "The Department did not have a process to verify that school districts employed certified teachers and to identify ‘out-of-field’ teaching assignments." Mr. Ackley says more exact certification numbers are currently being calculated.

So what difference do the numbers make? The evidence for a link between student performance and teacher certification is pretty weak. For Michigan schools, on the other hand, the department's shortcomings means it "cannot ensure compliance with State and federal requirements including the [federal] No Child Left Behind Act," according to the auditor generals’ office. That’s a pretty big deal. The state receives close to $1 billion yearly from the feds, who might take a dim view of the state’s data failures.

In contrast to the Michigan Department of Education, Michigan’s charter school authorizers know exactly how many certified teachers are teaching in their schools, because the authorizers have developed mechanisms for tracking the data. For example, Central Michigan University, the largest authorizer in Michigan, has developed a teacher certification database to track certification in the 58 schools they oversee. CMU has also developed software for monitoring all other compliance issues in all their schools, known as the Authorizer Oversight Information System. This system is so well-designed it is now being used by other charter school authorizers around the state.

Dan Quisenberry, president of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, likewise notes: "The authorizers and the charter schools they oversee are providing detailed information that policymakers and parents can use. We’re actually a model that should be replicated for all public schools to give consumers the information they need to find the best school for their children."

Presumably, the education department’s Office of Professional Preparation Services should be able to do the same thing for teacher certification rates; in fiscal 2001, it had 27 full-time equated positions and an approximately $2.1 million budget. Yet they appear to have produced an "approximate" number that doesn’t hold water compared to the certification figures generated by charter school authorizers.

The department should not arrive at important figures like these through a back-of-the-envelope calculation. It’s a disservice to the both charter schools and the state.

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Brian L. Carpenter is director of leadership development at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and his affiliation are cited.

Note: Since the publication of this commentary, the Michigan Department of Education has released a revised document showing the correct percentages of certified teachers in charter schools.