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
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.