Why Jessica isn’t majoring in elementary education–and what state policy makers need to know
By Nicole Geary
What does it take to be a great teacher? Passion? Hard work? Standardized test scores?
When Jessica Gonzalez, an Honors College student, applied to the Teacher Preparation Program at Michigan State University early her sophomore year, she took the state’s Professional Readiness Exam—which has since been discontinued—and did not pass.
She had been in the top 10 percent of her high school’s graduating class, but was unable to make Michigan’s state-mandated cut at that time for teachers in training to demonstrate “basic skills.”
So Jessica spent four hours a week that semester in tutoring sponsored by the MSU Department of Teacher Education to help students raise their scores. She also took the bus off campus for an additional four hours weekly in private tutoring she paid for herself. She studied tirelessly.
Ultimately, Jessica met the MSU-specific requirements for admission but after retaking the test she still did not achieve results required by the state legislature.
That is why she is not in the program. And she is not alone.
A POLICY WITHOUT EVIDENCE?
In a time when fewer young people are interested in going into teaching, Michigan State’s teacher education leaders say we must stop enforcing policies that create unfounded obstacles for those actively choosing the profession.
We know content knowledge is important for new teachers, says Corey Drake, director of teacher preparation. “But we don’t have the research yet that tells us which measures of knowledge are actually predictive of being a good quality teacher,” she said. “So why are we using generalized tests as a barrier into teacher preparation?”
The state law says students must meet the basic skills requirement prior to student teaching. However, Michigan’s institutions that prepare teachers, including MSU, generally require students to meet the standard prior to being admitted to programs. This typically occurs during sophomore year.
“We don’t want them to invest time and money unless we know they can get through to student teaching,” Drake said.
Drake says the policy disproportionately affects students of color and those who are already under-represented in teaching. By preventing entrance to the program, students miss the opportunity to learn the theories, practices and dispositions known to improve education from professional teacher educators. Ultimately, they likely miss the opportunity to enter the teaching force altogether.
ANOTHER BARRIER TO THE PROFESSION?
In fall 2017, the Michigan proxy for future teachers shifted again from ACT to SAT scores. The College of Education has continued to offer supports, such as advisement and access to test preparation materials for the SAT, to students who struggle to gain admission.
“As a field, we need to continue working to identify the measures that will help us predict and understand who will be an effective teacher,” Drake said.
Until then, she says, state lawmakers should create policies that encourage—not stand in the way of—young people like Jessica who are truly driven to teach. The shortcomings of the K-12 educational system have compelled her to make a difference; they shouldn’t also be a barrier holding her back.