Dr. David Mielke is the Retired Dean of the College of Business at Eastern Michigan University.
U.S. children score lower on standardized tests than students in many developed countries. The U.S. ranks 17th in reading, 23rd in science and 31st in math, behind countries like Slovenia and Poland. One of the main differences is that high achieving countries have a higher level of difficulty for becoming teachers. Concern is growing that we will become less competitive globally unless our education system improves. It may be even more critical in Michigan because of our relatively low performance. Education Week ranked Michigan’s K-12 system 24th, 23rd in high school graduation rate, 36th in percent of adults with a college diploma, 39th in 4th grade math and 30th in 8th grade reading, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress exam. How do we start to improve the educational performance in the U.S. and even more importantly in Michigan? What is the “Right Thing to do?” Let’s look at some issues:
1. Critics state that teacher preparation programs, universities, routinely accept students with high school GPAs below 3.0 and lower ACT scores than for other majors.
2. Critics also state that there is wide variability in the quality of programs and that states should shut down parts because of poor performance.
3. State certification exams are so easy that the pass rates are similar to cosmetology. The few that fail can take the exam over and over until they pass.
4. The state mandates student teaching for just 12 weeks, while plumbers must apprentice for 3 years.
5. One in 8 Michigan teachers have one year or less experience in the classroom, and one in 5 has less than 3 years of experience.
6. A 2003 study found that a student in the 50th percentile of his peers entering a classroom with a highly effective teacher could end the school year scoring in the 96th percentile, in an ineffective teacher’s classroom, the child could leave scoring at the 37th percentile.
7. The nation spends $15 billion a year on salary bumps for teachers who earn masters degrees, even though research shows the diplomas don’t necessarily lead to higher student achievement.
8. Some states are getting rid of the automatic pay increases for masters degrees. North Carolina eliminated the increase, Tennessee adopted a policy that mandates districts adopt salary scales with less emphasis on degrees and more on teacher performance. Newark, NJ recently decided to pay teachers for masters degrees only if they are linked to the district’s new math and reading standards. Research has shown that teachers with masters degrees are no more effective unless the degrees are in math or science.
9. About 52% of the nation’s 3.4 million public elementary and high school teachers have a masters degree and about 90% are from education programs.
10. Of the 730,635 master’s degrees awarded by U.S. colleges in 2011, 25% were in education, the second highest percentage of any field behind only business.
As one critic explained, despite the state’s imperative to improve student learning, there’s been little concerted effort to change the way we build our teacher’s skills. In fact, the colleges that train them, the state that certifies them and the schools that hire them don’t even have a good sense of what a highly effective teacher looks like. What is the “Right Thing to do?” Can we continue to have lower standards for students entering education degree programs, require less on the job training than we do for plumbers, have certification exams on par with cosmetology and then pay more for a master’s degree which do not improve student performance? Our universities should be leading the way. At a minimum entrance standards should be raised, a more demanding curriculum developed, more actual classroom participation, a bar raised for state exams and pay increases for results—not degrees. My guess, they won’t do it—we have a glut of students graduating with education degrees, low entrance requirements mean more students which means more tuition and in times of decreased state aid and declining numbers of high school graduates, every tuition dollar counts. Alternatively, it is an excellent time to create a highly competitive, rigorous program to attract the best and brightest and jobs.