Guest Column

Education needs to become a top priority

April 10, 2015
| By Lou Glazer |
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I read with dismay a recent Business Journal article entitled “Shrinking number of teachers signals end of a dream career.”

The article cites a lack of societal respect for the profession, reduced job security, reduced salaries and benefits, increasing class sizes and increased emphasis on standardized tests as some of the main reasons for the fewer and fewer people going into the profession. Not smart!

How it is that conventional wisdom now views teachers as the problem rather than the solution to Michigan’s low education achievement is beyond me. Demonizing teachers, as too many of our political, business and media elites have been doing for years, is the wrong path to increasing education attainment in Michigan.

The two best books I have read on what matters most to student achievement — “The Smartest Kids in the World” by Amanda Ripley, and “Building a Better Teacher” by Elizabeth Green — come to the same conclusion: good teachers matter most. Both books are worth reading.

Do we need better teachers? Absolutely. Unfortunately, it seems more and more of us don’t believe that. Many think the key to better student achievement is privatizing schools and/or substituting technology for teachers.

The evidence from across the globe shows that neither will work.

In a terrific New York Times column, Professor David L. Kirp at the University of California, Berkeley, writes:

“Today’s education reformers believe that schools are broken and that business can supply the remedy. Some place their faith in the idea of competition. Others embrace disruptive innovation, mainly through online learning. Both camps share the belief that the solution resides in the impersonal, whether it’s the invisible hand of the market or the transformative power of technology.

“Neither strategy has lived up to its hype, and with good reason. It’s impossible to improve education by doing an end-run around inherently complicated and messy human relationships. All youngsters need to believe that they have a stake in the future, a goal worth striving for, if they’re going to make it in school. They need a champion, someone who believes in them, and that’s where teachers enter the picture. The most effective approaches foster bonds of caring between teachers and their students.”

Good teachers are required. Ripley highlights how Finland — which consistently scores at or near the top on international tests — attracts the best and brightest to teaching.

The Scandinavian country does it by limiting access to education schools to only the best high school students, offering high starting pay that competes with other professions, having a high social status for teachers, and having a system that both empowers and prepares teachers to meet rigorous standards. All of this is built on a foundation of national commitment to education as the essential ingredient to economic success.

All of the above are missing in Michigan’s (and this country’s) approach to the profession of teaching.

We have too many teaching colleges, many with low admission standards; starting pay that is not competitive with other professions with the gap getting larger; low status for teachers; and an almost nonexistent system of developing the craft of teaching detailed in Green’s book. And, maybe most importantly, there is a lack of understanding of the essential role education attainment plays in economic growth and prosperity.

If we are to turn around Michigan’s near-the-bottom education attainment, all of this needs to change. Education needs to become a top priority. We need to value teachers far more. And we need to completely redo our system of preparing and supporting teachers.

Lou Glazer is president of Michigan Future Inc.

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