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State warns colleges: Prep teachers better

20% fail certification exams at 5 universities; schools chief wants to penalize those that churn out bad teachers.

By Christine MacDonald

State officials want to crack down on state colleges to ensure they are preparing future teachers to meet the state and nation's rising education standards.

Until recently, Michigan didn't report the number of prospective teachers from each university who flunked certification exams, and it ignored a federal requirement to identify low-performing teacher colleges.

Michael Flanagan, the state superintendent of public instruction, now plans by June to have a way to rate low-performing colleges and is developing a process to more thoroughly evaluate how well they prepare new teachers. State officials say the plans ultimately could mean taking away universities' authority to certify teachers if, for example, they have too many graduates teaching in failing schools and too few passing certification exams.

Flanagan also wants them to produce more instructors in subjects such as math and science, where the needs are greatest.

"It's not going to be automatic anymore," Flanagan told a convention of school superintendents earlier this year. "We are saying, 'Step up to it. You are going to be part of the solution or you won't get renewed.' "

At five of the state's colleges, fewer than 80 percent of first-time teacher candidates pass certification tests.

The state effort comes at a time when national criticism is being heaped on teacher preparation programs. Critics say they are graduating students with too little practical experience and a weak knowledge of the content they are supposed to teach.

The colleges say they welcome the attention but add that much of the current criticism is outdated and that Michigan is producing stronger teachers who are better prepared for today's classroom pressures.

"If people would look closely at education schools, everything they have been raising criticisms about have been addressed," said Jerry Robbins, a former dean of Eastern Michigan University and past president of the Michigan Association of Colleges of Teacher Education. "The right things are happening."

Teacher turnover is high

While the debate continues nationally over the quality of teacher preparation, an alarming number continues to leave the profession early in their careers.

Nearly half of new teachers switch careers after five years, with most citing low starting salaries, family obligations and lack of support, according to some experts. Turnover costs school districts $2.6 billion a year, estimates the Washington, D.C.-based Alliance for Excellent Education, a national policy and research organization. "Seriously, the first year is survival stage," said Amber Dillon, an early childhood teacher in Detroit Public Schools for five years.

She hasn't contemplated leaving, in part because she had supportive administrators, but she understands why many do. She feels Eastern Michigan did a good job preparing her for the classroom. But there were some gaps, such as how to get kids to work out anger issues: "What can I do with a child who is screaming at the top of their lungs for an hour?"

And she wishes she had more experience working with parents. One mom stormed into her room during class and yelled at her in front of her students.

"You need to know how to communicate and control the situation," she said.

Dillon said she believes much of the burnout problem isn't due to poor preparation but to whether the new instructor has mentors. "If you don't have the support and feel you are out by yourself that's frustrating," she said.

But many school leaders say new teachers coming to them aren't ready for the classroom. A 2005 report from the president of Columbia University's Teachers College in New York found that nine out of 10 principals nationally felt that teacher graduates weren't prepared, with many saying college courses lacked rigor and were outdated. About 80 percent said education schools were out of touch with K-12 schools.

Jean Schmeichel, an assistant superintendent in South Lyon schools, said she generally is satisfied with her new graduates, but said in some areas, education schools can be up to 10 years behind. She said some new teachers don't know how to develop quality tests that give a clear picture of students' skills.

She said the district has to spend time getting them up to speed. "It's time out of the classroom to help those teachers get what they need," Schmeichel said.

Certification scores are low

Flanagan, who has been in office less than a year, said that overall Michigan has some of the best teacher programs in the nation.

But he said the new review will push them to do more to help meet state goals -- particularly filling teacher shortages in math and science -- so the state's pending new high school graduation requirements will work. In Macomb County alone, officials estimate they'll need at least 70 new math teachers over the next couple of years as more students are required to take advanced math.

"There is no intrinsic motivation to fix the problems," Flanagan said. "We want to give them the motivation to fix those problems." The state has had a review process since the early 1990s for education schools, but much of the focus was on the details of the programs, such as faculty experience and the classes' syllabuses.

The new review, which would likely happen every five years, would be focused on how the schools are performing.

The state could use a number of factors to determine whether the schools are up to par, including surveys of new teachers, employer reviews and retention rates. At the same time, the state hopes to soon comply with the federal law that requires states to annually label poor-performing teacher programs.

Both would rely on the state's teacher certification test, which primarily measures content knowledge. The state started reporting scores of those who both passed and failed in 2005.

The scores in several subject areas, such as physics and social studies, are low statewide.

Wayne State and University of Detroit officials said they are working to raise their scores, but part of the reason they are low is some students may take the tests before they are done with most of their coursework, and others suffer because they returned to college later in life.

"If they haven't had a math class in 25 years ... they are going to need some extra attention," said University of Detroit's education department chairman Donald DiPaolo.

College officials say they hope the state does not rely too much on those test scores to measure a program because the exams generally just measure content, not teaching ability.

Real-world skills are vital

And it's that combination of strong subject knowledge and teaching ability that is essential to creating good teachers, experts say.

Rachel Roth-Haverland, a high school junior from Royal Oak, said she's felt the frustration of having a teacher who knew the subject well, but just couldn't explain it to all students.

She dropped out of Royal Oak's Kimball High School in January, in part because she became overwhelmed in her precalculus class. She said her math teacher tried to explain the concepts, even staying late after school, but just couldn't connect with her.

"I felt like he was trying to explain Latin," Roth-Haverland said. "It really lowered my self-esteem." The stress affected her health, and she opted for the district's alternative school.

University leaders say they are working hard to produce graduates with deep knowledge of content and the ability to convey it.

Deborah Loewenberg Ball, dean of the University of Michigan's School of Education, said she wants her students to spend more time in actual classrooms, particularly in urban schools, so they have more practical experience, such as dealing with parents.

And she's working to strengthen the content knowledge of teachers by better communicating with other education colleges at the universities where future teachers take classes in subject areas. "Good teacher education is an all-university problem," Ball said.

From the Detroit News, Sunday, April 16, 2006