No matter how much money schools get, you can find claims that they are underfunded. Even today, with Michigan schools spending more than they ever have before, we see that claim. But it’s misguided.
A recent editorial in the Iron Mountain Daily News laments teacher shortages and asserts that Michigan school districts can’t fix the problem because they are “strapped for cash.” Paula Herbart, president of the Michigan Education Association, similarly calls for more funding for schools so they can increase teachers’ salaries.
But which schools are strapped for cash right now? Most have received record-level funding over the last several years, and many are still sitting on piles of federal COVID dollars. Michigan’s state budget still carries a large surplus, so schools can expect even more in the next couple years.
Funding is not a barrier to schools making improvements. The real issue is how schools choose to spend their revenue.
Research by economist Eric Hanushek suggests that a quality teacher is the most important in-school factor for improving student performance. And student performance growth is the best indicator of a teacher’s effectiveness. The best way to measure this growth and a teacher’s long-term impact on learning is standardized tests. Outside factors that also influence student performance, like socioeconomic background, are controlled to isolate the teacher’s impact.
Schools should be, then, trying to hire, reward and retain the best possible teachers they can find. This is not what school districts do, however. Instead, schools pay all teachers according to the dictates of a union contract, based only on how long they’ve been on the job and how many college degrees they’ve accumulated. This works against efforts to attract high-performing teachers.
Districts also fail to meaningfully improve the teachers they have. Evaluation systems that measure a teacher’s value added, as demonstrated by growth in student achievement, are the best way to predict a teacher’s effectiveness in the classroom. Michigan’s teacher evaluation system uses such a model — state law requires that 40% of an evaluation reflect student growth and assessment data.
But teacher unions and many administrators don’t like this type of accountability. In an editorial in The Detroit News, Herbart recommends decreasing accountability as a means to increase teacher retention.
“Lawmakers should work to reduce unnecessary stress and bureaucracy for educators by reforming the state’s teacher evaluation system and putting less emphasis on endless standardized testing,” she writes.
Nobody wants endless standardized testing or unnecessary stress and bureaucracy. But students must remain at the center of any discussions focused on teacher quality and accountability. Teacher evaluation systems that include student assessment data make it easier to see which teachers are performing well, which ones need improvements, and which ones should find a different line of work.
Even so, districts neglect to make effective use of the state’s teacher evaluation system. These evaluations rated 99% of Michigan public school teachers “effective” or “highly effective” in the 2021-2022 school year, despite failing school report cards. Clearly, funding a watered-down evaluation system will not improve student outcomes.
Michigan spends among the most per K-12 student compared to other states, yet its students lag near the bottom in outcomes. It isn’t a lack of funding that’s the problem. School districts must make appropriate use of this funding to make sure we have the best teachers possible in the best educational environments.
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