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Michigan Radio's special week-long series on teacher education in Michigan.There's wide agreement among education experts that teacher quality is the most important school-based factor in how well students perform in school. So how are Michigan schools of education doing when it comes to turning out effective teachers?

Tougher test challenging Michigan's future teachers

Kids at a public school in Flint.
Steve Carmody
Michigan Radio

The State of Michigan wants its next generation of teachers to know more.

Butraising educational standards for teachers is proving to be a challenge.

Aimee Hare is studying to be a teacher.    

But she has a problem.  Before she can take the next step and become a student teacher, she has to pass the Professional Readiness Exam, or PRE.She’s taken the test twice and failed both times.

“I consider myself fairly intelligent,” says Hare, “I have a lot to offer my students and it’s hindering the abilities I have to give to my future students. This test is in the way.”

She’s not alone. Many prospective teachers are failing the test in Michigan. 

In the last year of the old Basic Skills test, roughly 9 out of 10 prospective teachers passed. But in the first year of the new Professional Readiness Exam, that pass rate fell to less than a third.  

Leah Breen is the director of the office of professional preparation services at the Michigan Department of Education.

Breen says the old testing standard rested on the question: What does a teacher need to know to be minimally qualified? The new the standard is: What does a teacher need to know to perform effectively?

"That language change, as slight as it sounds, has made a big impact on the content that is in our assessments," says Breen.

That language change, as slight as it sounds, has made a big impact on the content that is in our assessments," says Breen.  

However, those teaching Michigan’s future teachers say the new test is not relevant for what most teachers actually need to know. 

Bob Barnett is the dean of the school of education at the University of Michigan-Flint. He says many students wait until they’ve invested two or three years earning a degree before taking the PRE.

“If they don’t pass when they’re ready to student teach, then they’ve invested a lot of time and money into a degree that may not ever happen for them,” says Barnett. 

He fears fewer students passing the exam will significantly decrease the number of new teachers entering the profession.

“And so the problem is that we have a teacher shortage ahead of us and a set of rules and regulations that are decreasing the potential number of students who could become teachers,” says Barnett. 

But the state education department’s Leah Breen does not expect the tougher test will lead to a teacher shortage.

“We don’t think it’s going to impact our shortage areas, which are sometimes the higher math and sciences, because we expect that those individuals probably won’t struggle with the content of the PRE as much as other candidates might,” says Breen. 

Another potential side effect of the higher standards is that some smaller teaching programs at Michigan colleges and universities could have a hard time attracting enough students. Several schools have already cut back because of falling interest in teaching as a profession. 

Many deans say they hope the legislature will do something to change the PRE.

But that appears unlikely.

State Representative Amanda Priceis the chair of the state House Education committee. She says she’s glad to see students struggling to pass the Professional Readiness Exam.

“If we are going to be world-class in our education system,” says Price, “it starts with really highly motivated and educated teachers.”

Meanwhile, Aimee Hare is not giving up on her quest to become a teacher.

“It’s very frustrating.  I’m very frustrated over it,” Hare admits. “But I’m not letting it get the best of me.”

State officials expect students will get better at taking the test and they will be better teachers.  

Steve Carmody has been a reporter for Michigan Public since 2005. Steve previously worked at public radio and television stations in Florida, Oklahoma and Kentucky, and also has extensive experience in commercial broadcasting.
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