Michigan’s student achievement trends suggest that something needs to change in the state’s public education system. Spending on the state’s primary and secondary schools has increased considerably, while student achievement in Michigan is stagnating and even losing ground compared to national averages.

The consensus in education research is that among the factors that schools can control, teachers matter most. It is time for the state to consider reforms that focus on teacher quality.

The first step in improving teacher quality is redefining what is meant by a “highly qualified” teacher. The phrase should mean more than the teacher’s possessing state certification and passing marks on a few basic tests; rather, it should indicate that a teacher is highly effective at improving student achievement. These are the teachers Michigan needs.

Teachers’ effectiveness can be measured using “value-added assessments,” which measure the learning gains that a teacher’s students demonstrate during the school year on standardized tests. Reconceptualizing teacher quality in this way opens the door to important market-based reforms that can help improve student learning.

Within Michigan’s public school system, the reform with perhaps the most potential to attract and retain effective teachers is performance pay, which rewards teachers primarily for gains in student achievement as measured on standardized tests. This merit-based pay structure can motivate existing teachers and attract high-quality undergraduates and career-changers to the field. Concerns over the fairness of value-added measurements can and should be addressed by conferring with the teachers themselves. Including principal evaluations and rewards for belonging to effective teams of teachers may also help pinpoint quality teaching and ensure effective teachers are not inadvertently overlooked in a merit-pay system.

Another reform that could improve teacher quality is differential pay, which departs from the standard practice of compensating teachers based solely on their years of experience and academic credentials. Under a system of differential pay, higher salaries are paid to teachers in high-demand fields like math and science and in underserved urban and rural areas with disadvantaged students.

Additionally, policymakers should consider evaluating teachers annually based on principal observations and student achievement gains, while loosening restrictions on terminating teachers who show they are not improving student learning. To encourage better teachers to enter the field, policymakers should also lower barriers to entry for career-changers and for academically talented undergraduates through the implementation of reasonable alternative certification programs.

Such reforms will work best in tandem. No single reform is a silver bullet, although some, such as merit pay, could produce noticeable improvements on their own.

To provide context for the discussion of teacher-quality reforms, this book has reviewed the effectiveness of across-the-board salary increases and class-size reductions in improving teacher quality. These reforms appear to be at best inefficient solutions for Michigan’s public education problems.

In addition to these primary recommendations, policymakers should also address other practices that affect teacher quality. In particular, state and local policy should allow principals greater discretion in hiring, tie tenure evaluations to a teacher’s demonstrated ability to improve student achievement and consider reducing the role of professional development, which has not been shown to lead to better student outcomes. Teacher preparation programs and requirements should also be reviewed to ensure they do not provide unnecessary barriers to entry into the teaching profession; it is unclear that many of the requirements of these programs actually promote effective teaching.

This primer focuses on teachers because they are the key to student learning. A fundamental change in the incentives teachers face will encourage and reward them for doing what most entered the field to do anyway: help children learn. Education policymakers can no longer afford to ignore the reality that teachers respond to incentives — both intended and unintended — and that policies that protect low-performing teachers at the expense of student achievement must be replaced.