Back to School: The Most Important Issue

Last week I had the pleasure of catching up with dear old friends during a trip "up north." As their daughters geared up to return to school, my friend Marsha shared an observation about why her daughter's public school does such a fine job.

"The teachers are great -- and that's what really matters," Marsha said.

Marsha's observation resonated. High academic standards, a rich curriculum, adequate funding -- all of these factors are important in why some schools succeed and others don't.

But none of them matter as much as the quality of a school's teaching. Teachers -- today's undervalued heroes in our society -- are the force that brings all of these component together to nourish our students to ensure they succeed.

Over the last decade, research has demonstrated this over and over: teachers are the most significant in-school factor in student learning. This means that, of all of the things that schools can control -- including class size, curriculum, and text books -- the quality of teaching that a child receives is the strongest predictor of student achievement. Low-income students who have effective teachers multiple years in a row can actually beat the odds -- and close the achievement gap with high-income students.

In a state like Michigan, that is nothing less than remarkable. Our Great Lakes State, so rich in natural beauty and abundant water, lacks such an abundance when it comes to great schools. Our state has declined dramatically in student learning compared to other states around the country over the last decade. We have among the worst achievement gaps in the nation. Even our non-Latino white and higher income students are lagging increasingly behind their equivalent peers in other states, not to mention other countries.

Over the last year, my organization -- a team of Michiganders dedicated to raising achievement for all of our state's students -- has taken a look at what leading states around the country are doing to raise learning. They include Maryland, Massachusetts and Florida. These states have made remarkable learning gains for their students. Their state-level educational strategies are quite varied.

What they share in common is, in their own unique ways, they have been investing in and implementing smart strategies to improve the quality of the teaching in their state's classrooms. They aren't simply saying to districts: "Good luck with this" as Michigan has largely done over the last decade.

In other words, they aren't leaving teaching quality to chance.

In the coming months, Michigan has two important, mutually dependent opportunities for our state to better support and train teachers -- and to hold them accountable thoughtfully and fairly -- to raise learning in all of our public schools.

These moments are rare in our state's history. We need to take this one.

The first opportunity is the development and implementation of Michigan's first state-wide system of educator support and evaluation. An international teacher preparation leader, Deborah Ball of the University of Michigan, led a group of experts to develop a blueprint for this system. Now the legislature needs to approve it and fund it -- and state leaders need to ensure thoughtful implementation.

The second opportunity is the legislative funding of, and the quality implementation of, the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and assessment. This state-led effort will provide clear information to educators and parents on what students need to know to be successful after high school, whether in a college or career. This change will require many teachers and districts to raise the quality of their teaching.

At first glance, these two initiatives may seem unrelated. In fact, their success is deeply intertwined.

The new statewide educator evaluation and support system is the vehicle through which Michigan teachers will get the feedback, data, and training they need to raise the level of their instruction so that all students will be able to meet the standards set by the CCSS. If done right, teachers' annual evaluations will include multiple annual classroom observations of teachers' instruction, analysis and helpful conversations on how much their students are learning, and professional development targeted at where they need help most.

The data and training teachers receive should be based on Common Core standards, which if done well, will help teachers learn how to raise the quality of their instruction. We need to make sure we invest in helping teachers effectively learn how to teach at higher levels.

Ultimately, the best standards in the world do not teach students. Teachers do.

Like our students, they are worth our investment.

This post originally appeared on WDET's "The Craig Fahle Show." Read more editorials on the state of education in Michigan at "The Craig Fahle Show" website.