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Cook: Why prospective teachers shy away from field

Steven Cook

When it comes to teachers, parents want the best and the brightest teachers standing in the front of their child’s classroom.

Historically, Michigan public schools have been among the best in the nation. But outstanding public schools are the result of outstanding public school teachers. The vast majority of those highly skilled teachers are products of the colleges of education here in Michigan.

In the last four years, enrollment in teacher training programs has dropped by nearly 40 percent. This precipitous decline can be traced to a number of factors. Attacks on the teaching profession have not helped.

Prospective teachers see those attacks — cuts in salaries and benefits, deterioration of collective bargaining rights — and are dissuaded from pursuing careers in teaching. Those attacks are compounded by the continuing chorus of criticism directed at teachers when student performance expectations are not met. As one member of the State Board of Education put it: “Teachers are demoralized. They feel like they are blamed for everything.”

The increasing reliance on standardized testing, much like the attacks on the teaching profession, has also diminished student’s interest in pursuing teaching careers, even for those students who finish college and receive their degree in education. According to the Michigan Department of Education, the number of people receiving teaching certificates after receiving their teaching degree fell by 27 percent over the last four years. These are students who completed their education, but were no longer interested in becoming teachers. The innovation and new ideas these young teachers hoped to bring to their own classroom are met with an increasing emphasis placed on standardized tests.

Standardized tests not only determine the curriculum on a day-to-day basis, they also affect the financial security of the teacher. Under recent teacher evaluation laws, standardized tests are an increasing determinant in a teacher’s evaluation, affecting both salary and job security. Current law will make state standardized tests 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation, beginning next school year. This will place more pressure on teachers to teach to the test — something abhorrent to teachers seeking to incorporate innovative teaching techniques in their classroom. The best and brightest did not enter the profession to teach students to score well on a standardized test. Variables like early childhood education, childhood poverty, hunger, homelessness and domestic abuse are all factors that weigh heavily on student performance.

If we want to continue to attract the best students to become teachers in our public schools, we must build up, not tear down teachers and the profession. Incoming State Superintendent Brian Whiston understands this reality. Whiston told legislators recently that teachers need more training, stronger evaluations and better pay if we want better student outcomes. “Districts will need to be able to pay teachers more to continue recruiting the best teachers,” Whiston said. Whiston, who formerly served as superintendent of Dearborn Public Schools also weighed in on standardized tests: “We are testing too much. It would be a better approach if we take some of that testing time and allow teachers to focus more on teaching.”

We should heed his advice.

Steven Cook is president of the Michigan Education Association.

Labor Voices

Labor Voices columns are written on a rotating basis by United Auto Workers President Dennis Williams, Teamsters President James Hoffa, Michigan AFL-CIO President Ron Bieber and Michigan Education Association President Steven Cook.