The Michigan Department of Education recently released its ratings of the state’s higher education teacher preparation programs, and two of Michigan’s 31 teacher preparation programs — Adrian and Marygrove — received the lowest possible score. A third, Olivet, was deemed "At Risk." Rating colleges of education provides valuable information for principals making hiring decisions and increases accountability for these programs, provided that the rating system uses meaningful criteria. Unfortunately, since Michigan’s rating system lacks data on teachers’ classroom performance, the state department of education fails to make the grade.

Michigan’s rating system has a 70-point scale. Forty points are attached to participant completion rates, the degree to which programs prepare teachers to fill high-demand slots, the extent of minority teacher preparation, and surveys of teacher candidates regarding their programs. The other 30 points are based on the single category of passage rates on licensing exams.

Instead of using certification test passage rates, a less predictive measure of classroom success, the state should base program ratings on the actual classroom performance of each university’s education graduates. Indeed, analyzing the standardized test score gains of a teacher’s students is the best way to determine his or her effectiveness, and this data should be the central criteria for rating teacher preparation programs.

The Michigan Department of Education’s report on Michigan teacher preparation programs is required by the U.S. Higher Education Act. The federal law mandates that all states rate their teacher preparation programs, but each state has discretion in the rating criteria that it will use. According to the most recent data in a U.S. Secretary of Education report, 17 programs nationally fell into the remediation categories of "Low Performing" or "At Risk of Low Performing" in 2005. These national data on preparation programs show that 11 states had failing programs. Three states, Illinois, Kansas and South Carolina, each had three programs on the list. In addition, no Michigan colleges of education were rated in either category from 2002-2005.

The same federal report also stated that in Michigan, at least 90 percent of public school teachers graduate from Michigan colleges of education. If our public schools continue to staff themselves with graduates of Michigan’s traditional programs, it is critically important that our colleges of education prepare teachers for success in the classroom.

It is worth noting that advocating that teacher licensing exam passage rates should not be central to preparation program rating does not equate to dismissing the tests altogether. Indeed, teacher testing may be valuable because it could provide a safeguard to ensure that no student is assigned to a completely incompetent teacher. Nonetheless, using results of certification exams to rate preparation programs misses the mark. The state should be evaluating the performance of a teaching program’s graduates in the classroom.

The state education department seems to acknowledge that its system can be improved, but its plan does not go far enough. In 2008, the state will add another component to the rating system by incorporating the number of a program’s new teachers earning satisfactory or better ratings from supervisors. While principal evaluations can be helpful in assessing teacher performance, they are incomplete without actual data on student achievement.

By employing a "value-added" component, the state can measure the contribution that a teacher makes to her or his students’ academic progress. Although the results of student standardized tests may be imperfect, the information that these data provide is objective and protects teachers from purely subjective peer or principal evaluations, which some consider arbitrary. The bottom line is that good teachers motivate students to learn, to value their new knowledge and skills, and to demonstrate that learning when tested.

Those colleges of education whose graduates impact student learning the most should earn the highest ratings. By grading the quality of teacher preparation programs, the Legislature and state education department are making limited progress in improving accountability and raising awareness of the importance of teacher quality. Until teacher preparation program evaluations account for student achievement gains caused by graduates of those programs, however, education officials will fail to capture the most important thing teachers do: teach students.

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Marc Holley is a doctoral fellow at the University of Arkansas’ Department of Education Reform and an adjunct fellow with 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 that the author and the Center are properly cited.

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