Arellano: Michigan must invest in teacher effectiveness

Amber Arellano

A teacher’s effectiveness is the most important in-school factor in improving student achievement. It’s more important than class size, where a school is located, and even more important than the overall performance of the school. The idea that great teachers can improve the life trajectory of their students long after they graduate is universally accepted as fact, and many Michiganians have experienced for themselves the undeniable influence of a great teacher.

Last month, The Education Trust-Midwest launched Michigan Achieves, a campaign to put Michigan on a path toward becoming a top 10 education state for all students by 2030. Ensuring that every Michigan student has access to highly effective teaching and quality learning is a critical step in the right direction and a pillar of our campaign.

Leading education states show that educators are well worth our state’s investment and focus. States like Tennessee have implemented high-quality, statewide systems of educator evaluation and support, and have reaped the benefits. Tennessee has become a national leader for student learning gains, including for early literacy.

Last week, state leaders took an important first step in establishing a stronger system of educator evaluation and support, by including $14.8 million in the state budget to support and implement a system, and train evaluators. This kind of modest investment – of only about $9.50 per student – can have a significant impact on student growth. Now, we must make sure that we spend this money well.

The Michigan House Education Committee is now debating this system of educator support and evaluation. The discussion provides Michigan with an important opportunity to invest in our schools’ most important change-makers, our teachers. We urge lawmakers to incorporate best practices from leading states to drive Michigan’s educational improvement, including:

■ Research-based criteria that districts’ evaluation tools must meet, as well as an approved list of evaluation tools that districts can choose from if they do not want to create their own.

■ A statewide student growth model based on the new state assessment system, which will give districts a common measure of teacher performance throughout Michigan. At least half of the student growth portion of a teacher’s evaluation should be based on these state data.

■ Training of evaluators on the evaluation tools they are using to give teachers feedback and help them improve.

■ A meaningful pathway for Michigan’s most effective teachers to become ‘master teachers,’ and have the opportunity to mentor new teachers and serve in teacher leadership roles.

■ Targeted investment in the new system, including for a statewide growth model, oversight of the new system, and training evaluators.

Like most professions, teachers need and deserve honest data, feedback and support to help them identify weaknesses and improve their practice. Despite our troubling student performance rankings, a whopping 97 percent of Michigan teachers were rated effective or highly effective last school year. We are marginalizing our exceptional teachers, dismissing disappointing student achievement data, and failing to hold teachers, schools, and districts accountable for their performance.

By ignoring the importance of high-quality diagnostic information and support, we are shortchanging our teachers and continue to invest in a system that is failing far too many of our kids. Michigan’s current evaluation system has simply not produced the learning gains that our students so desperately need.

Michigan’s teachers are a hugely important asset to our students and our state’s future. A better system of educator evaluation and support requires concrete investment in that system. This is the first step.

Michigan can achieve, and our teachers should be empowered to lead the way.

Amber Arellano is executive director of The Education Trust-Midwest.