The education research community now recognizes what many parents have long believed — namely, that of all the factors schools can control, teachers matter most. [*] Policymakers, in turn, are starting to pay attention. The No Child Left Behind Act has attempted to make teacher quality a national priority by requiring all states to certify that students are being taught by "highly qualified" teachers.

However, the characteristics that are used to designate a teacher as highly qualified may not be the ones that actually affect student achievement. While it is true that Michigan students learn a variety of skills in their time at school, perhaps the most important charge of public schools, beyond providing a safe and healthy environment, is to ensure that students are learning their three R’s. Unfortunately, the achievement levels of Michigan public school students raise doubts about the quality of public education in the state. This volume has been written to assist policymakers at the state and local levels who want to initiate and support teacher quality reforms to improve K-12 public education in the state.

Many of Michigan’s teachers are truly outstanding, and recommending that policymakers focus on improving the quality of the teaching work force is not an indictment of Michigan’s teachers. In fact, it is because we recognize how important teachers truly are to Michigan’s students that they are the focus of this work. Perhaps the best way for the state to improve education for its 1.7 million students is to institute greater competition in the form of universal school choice.[†] However, until the state amends its constitution to permit this reform, Michigan policymakers should focus on improving the input most likely to raise the return on their high level of investment in the short term: teachers. Moreover, even when high-quality school choice is more readily available in the state, the teacher quality reforms suggested in this work can be undertaken as complementary reforms. [**] School choice initiatives and reforming teacher incentives are not mutually exclusive.

In the pages that follow, I begin by describing shortcomings in public education in the state. Next, I briefly describe the research consensus that good teachers matter and explore whether certification, experience, graduate degrees, academic ability and high licensure exam scores make teachers more effective in the classroom. Before using these findings to recommend particular teacher quality reforms, I discuss whether class-size reductions and across-the-board pay raises, two other popular reforms, might be more efficient ways to improve student achievement. Ultimately, the teacher quality reforms described here should help local and state policymakers encourage good teaching and raise student achievement. The book draws on extensive research literature and comprehensive reports to remain current with the latest findings.

The first step in reforming teacher quality is to redefine what being a highly qualified teacher truly means. The words "highly qualified" should no longer refer to a teacher with extensive pedagogical training or years of experience; they should refer to a teacher whose work improves student learning. This redefinition informs our recommendations, which include the following:

  • Change the teacher compensation structure by instituting "performance pay" for teachers and rewarding them for gains in student achievement as measured on standardized tests. This merit-based pay structure will motivate existing teachers and attract high-quality undergraduates and career-changers.

  • Adopt differential pay, which provides financial rewards to teachers in high-demand fields, such as math and science.

  • Lower barriers to entry for career-changers through more reasonable alternative certification programs than Michigan has now.

  • Evaluate teachers annually based on principal observations and student achievement gains; loosen restrictions on terminating ineffective teachers; and de-emphasize professional development as it is currently conceived.

Note that these are feasible reforms. Although they may require renegotiating union contracts or changing state certification laws, they do not require constitutional amendments or statewide initiatives. They can be instituted at the first opportunity.

To that end, this book emphasizes reforms immediately available to local school boards or possible through relatively modest changes to state law. Most of these reforms therefore dwell on encouraging quality instruction — and discouraging poor instruction — once teachers have entered the school system. I spend less time on teacher preparation reforms and other restructuring that might improve the quality of candidates entering the teaching work force. Such areas of reform, while also important, would extend well beyond the public school system and require a more extensive discussion than can be provided here.

Yet an important message remains: Teachers are key to student learning. Education policymakers can no longer afford to ignore the reality that teachers respond to incentives and that policies that protect low-performing teachers at the expense of student achievement — and other teachers — need to be replaced.[‡] Michigan’s children deserve no less.

[*] Dan Goldhaber recently summarized teachers’ impact in this way: "Education research convincingly shows that teacher quality is the most important schooling factor influencing student achievement." See Dan D. Goldhaber, "Teacher Pay Reforms" (Center for American Progress: The Political Implications of Recent Research, December 2006), 4, (accessed June 26, 2008).

[†] For information about school choice, see Matthew J. Brouillette, "School Choice in Michigan: A Primer for Freedom in Education" (Mackinac Center for Public Policy, 1999), 1-66, (accessed May 7, 2008). See also Lawrence W. Reed, "A New Direction for Education Reform" (Mackinac Center for Public Policy, 2001), (accessed May 8, 2008).

[**] For a discussion of how other education reforms are compatible with greater school choice, see Jay P. Greene’s commentary in Jay P. Greene et al., "Is School Choice Enough?" (City Journal, 2008), (accessed May 8, 2008).

[‡] This report does not address the specific strategies and research related to improving teacher quality for specialized instructors including: reading teachers, ESL teachers or special education teachers.