Do Michigan’s schools of education prepare students to be “highly qualified teachers?” Yes

Michigan colleges have a rich history of fostering great teaching skills

There is a lot of talk these days about "highly qualified teachers." One of the goals of the federal No Child Left Behind legislation is that every class be led by a highly qualified teacher. It is possible to argue about how that portion of the act has been implemented, but I do not think anyone would argue with the basic premise that our nation’s young people need good teachers.

So, the real question is, How do we get more of them? How does a teacher become highly qualified? The federal government has defined a highly qualified teacher as one who has a bachelor’s degree; full state certification or licensure; and proven knowledge of each subject they teach. Teachers in middle and high school must prove that they know the subject they teach with credits equivalent to a major or passing a state content test.

My personal definition differs a bit from the federal definition in that I would specify that for highly qualified teachers, the "full state certification" must include rigorous content preparation; equally rigorous preparation in learning theory and pedagogy; and in-depth field experiences, all provided by an accredited institution. Institutions accredited by the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education must demonstrate that their students are accomplished in all of these areas, as well as demonstrate that their graduates positively impact student learning. Institutions purporting to prepare teachers but lacking any of these key components do not pass muster among their peers.

In my childhood, my mother looked for the Good Housekeeping Seal as a signal of quality in household products. A variety of studies show teacher preparation that occurs in accredited programs brings similar assurance.

Unfortunately, such definitional specificity is necessary because of the movement afoot to "remove barriers to teaching," and to consider individuals certified whose only preparation is the ability to pass a multiple-choice test on content and teaching methods. This is akin to asking me to study for a multiple-choice test on biology and types of medical equipment, then sending me off to the emergency room to learn nursing on the job. I might be able to be helpful in handing out supplies, but I would hardly be considered a "highly qualified" nurse.

However, I might attend a high-quality nursing program that takes a form different from traditional programs. Perhaps I might attend night classes and spend my weekends in supervised activities in the emergency room. When I graduated from such a program, I could be a well-qualified professional.

Similarly, some individuals prepared in so-called alternative programs are highly qualified, and some are not. When those programs are associated with accredited teacher preparation programs, we have quality control. At Eastern Michigan University, our post-baccalaureate certification students follow requirements equal in rigor to our undergraduates. Other rigorous alternative programs prepare similarly qualified teachers who earn bona fide teaching credentials. In fact, one study of Teach for America graduates that has been cited as evidence supporting minimizing teacher preparation can be seen to do the opposite. In that study, a majority of the TFA candidates had gone on to complete full certification requirements. It is a tragic truth that they had a higher rate of certification than the novice "teachers" to whom they were compared. According to the study by Decker and Glazerman, it’s not surprising that those who had more preparation to be teachers were more effective in their classrooms.

High quality alternative preparation can be a good thing. However, not all alternative programs are created equal. I do not believe that an individual who has a few weeks of preparation — or worse yet, no preparation beyond taking a test — can be called highly qualified by any reasonable observer. Preparation in one facet — content without pedagogy, pedagogy without content, or either of these without field experiences — is "partially qualified," rather than "highly qualified."

Why, then, if schools of education are preparing highly qualified teachers, do we continue to have students who fail in schools? While it would be nice to have a simple one-reason answer to that question, the truth is more complex. Students fail in schools for a host of reasons. One of them is that the students most in need of highly qualified teachers are least likely to get them. We do not have a crisis in teacher preparation in this country; we have twin crises of teacher distribution and retention. We are not preparing sufficient teachers to meet the needs in high-demand areas such as math, science and special education. In many cases, these shortages occur because individuals with skills in shortage areas have many other employment options, which typically include higher pay and more respect. In many institutions, including my own, high-quality post-baccalaureate programs are helping to ease some of those shortages by giving math and science professionals the preparation needed to succeed at teaching.

We also have terrible distribution problems across districts and buildings. Our neediest schools sometimes serve as de facto training grounds for teachers who put in a few years and then move on to schools with better facilities, better pay and fewer challenges. Worse yet, our most challenging schools are those most likely to be staffed by those teachers with little or no preparation. Addressing these issues will require a concerted national effort, resources and will. They will not be solved by minimizing the criteria for becoming a teacher, but rather by ensuring substance and rigor across both traditional and alternative preparation options.

As I contemplate the expertise our new teachers bring to the field, I often think, as the old television ads might state, "This is not your mother’s teacher preparation program." Education classes today are not those remembered by my Baby Boomer colleagues. In my own preparation, long ago and far away, I experienced one of the best programs available at the time. But I did not major in a content area, as students do today. And when I was learning to be a teacher, our knowledge of teaching and learning was more limited. Our students of education are more knowledgeable than I was about learning theory and motivation, lesson strategies that maximize understanding and assessing student learning in ways that support instruction. While no human being can be prepared for every need in today’s complex classrooms, Eastern Michigan University graduates — undergraduate and post-baccalaureate — by any definition, are highly qualified. I am proud to send them out to our nation’s schools.

Alane J. Starko, Ph.D. is interim dean of the College of Education at Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti, Mich.