Michigan poised to be a STEM-teacher leader

Stephanie J. Hull

Michigan recently received $40 million from the U.S. Department of Education to help the public schools most in need take specific steps to improve student achievement. This was one of the state’s many initiatives in recent years to support high-need schools making valiant efforts to provide all of today’s students with an excellent public education.

While such investments help, research suggests the most effective influence on student success is the teacher standing in front of the classroom every day. Effective teachers can make even the schools with the fewest resources successful, putting their students well on the way to achieving their full potential.

Headlines in Detroit and elsewhere about teacher shortages and rising teacher turnover rates may make it seem that few good people want to take on the challenge of teaching in high-need schools, with even fewer ready to make a career of teaching difficult subjects such as math and science there.

And yet this summer Michigan hosted an event that disproved some of those assumptions. More than 350 STEM (science-technology-engineering-math) teachers from high-need schools across the nation gathered in Detroit for “Tomorrow’s Teachers Today,” a convening of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation’s Teaching Fellows from Georgia, Indiana, Ohio, New Jersey, and Michigan.

Detroit was selected as this year’s host city in recognition of the state’s work, over the past six years, to improve STEM teacher preparation through the Woodrow Wilson Teaching Fellowship. In 2010, the Woodrow Wilson Foundation selected six Michigan universities — Eastern Michigan University, Grand Valley State University, Michigan State University, the University of Michigan, Wayne State University, and Western Michigan University — with the capacity, willingness, and leadership to create model teacher education programs, working with support from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. These rigorous, highly selective, clinically based programs have combined disciplinary content and pedagogical instruction.

With more than 85 percent of the total sessions at the gathering presented by fellows themselves, these teachers from high-need schools helped their peers think about a remarkable range of topics: culturally based pedagogy, mastery-based instruction, strategies for engaging non-English-speaking families, service learning, 3-D printing in the classroom, technologies for assessment, and many others.

It is only because of the commitment of states like Michigan that there is now a critical mass of educators experienced enough to mentor others. Collectively, Woodrow Wilson Teaching Fellows demonstrate the potential and power of the opportunity for teachers to learn from peers, one example of the way in which teachers at various points in their career path can and should enjoy incentives to collaborate and lead. When teachers collaborate with each other, they leverage the investment of time and preparation each teacher has made into a return for thousands of students beyond their own classrooms.

This is just what Michiganians should be looking for from their schools, and it is what thoughtful teachers can provide. It’s time to give schools the kind of incentives, funding, and latitude to create robust peer learning opportunities for their teachers. It is hard to think of any other profession that so routinely overlooks the value of senior practitioners’ experience in strengthening the work of more junior people. American education needs to change that, and Michigan is positioned to be a leader in such an effort.

Stephanie Hull is executive vice president and chief operating officer for the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation.