Written by: Donald Heller
Primary Source: The Dean’s Blog
It’s back-to-school time for approximately 55 million children and 20 million college students around the country. For those of us who are educators, it’s an exhilarating – and at times exhausting – time of the year. Teachers have been busy getting their classrooms ready for the new school year, and college faculty have been working over the summer to revise their syllabi for their fall courses. Anyone who wonders whether classes have started here at Michigan State needs only to look at the flow of students walking around campus to get the answer to their question.
. . . in the College of Education
Here in the College of Education, we are welcoming back over 4,000 undergraduate and graduate students to our classrooms and offices. We welcomed hundreds of new first-year and transfer students at the Colloquium With Your College event last week, where we bombarded them with information they need to know to be successful as a student. I spoke to all of the students together, and then with some of them in smaller groups. Some had bewildered looks on their faces, as they tried to comprehend everything they needed to know to satisfy all of the university and college requirements. But I know that, like past cohorts of students, they will manage to absorb all the information and plow ahead in their studies.
Besides new students, we also have many new faculty members in the College of Education. Thirteen new tenure-system faculty members are joining our ranks this year, with 11 starting this fall and two in January. I am very excited about our new colleagues, and they bring a wide range of experiences and expertise to our existing faculty. Five of them are joining us as associate professors, many of whom have already received multi-million dollar research grants. Seven are assistant professors, some right out of Ph.D. programs, some after post-doc appointments, and others after some years of experience as a faculty member already. And one of our new hires, Margaret Crocco, joins us as a full professor and the new chair of the Department of Teacher Education.
No matter what their experiences to date, I am confident that all of our new colleagues have wonderful careers ahead of them as teachers and scholars. With the dozen new faculty who joined our ranks last year, this means about 20 percent of all the tenure-system faculty in the College of Education have been here for a year or less. This presents a great opportunity for us to bring our college and its programs into new areas of exploration, both in the classroom as well as in our research labs.
. . . around Michigan
There will be a number of issues facing schools in Michigan this year. The Michigan Department of Education (MDE) has embarked on a project to select a new statewide assessment for public school students, after the Michigan Legislature passed legislation last spring requiring MDE to abandon the Smarter Balanced assessments that it had previously selected. The department has a large challenge ahead of it, as the new assessment system has to be put in place by next spring, or the state runs the risk of losing its waiver of the No Child Left Behind requirements granted by the U.S. Department of Education.
MDE and the state Board of Education will also be working with the Michigan Legislature to tighten regulations on charter schools, following a series of articles in the Detroit Free Press that outlined the weak accountability standards to which charter schools in the state are held. The Free Press series generated a lot of controversy and discussion, and policymakers from the State Board, to Governor Snyder, to members of the legislature have acknowledged that changes are needed.
One of the most important tasks the State Board will have this year will be to replace State Superintendent Mike Flanagan, who is stepping down next June after 10 years on the job. Flanagan has overseen education in the state during a decade when funding for K-12 education fell 19 percent in real dollars, creating a challenge for school districts around Michigan. One of the most important tasks the new superintendent will need to take on will be to determine how the state can help these school districts rebuild as the economy improves.
. . . around the country
One of the issues that will be at the forefront of educational policy debates around the country will be the status of the Common Core State Standards. Initially adopted by 46 states and the District of Columbia, the standards provide a collective framework for schools around the country to use in determining, in the standards’ words, “what a student should know and be able to do at the end of each grade” in mathematics and language arts (there is a parallel effort to establish a similar set of science standards; Joe Krajcik, director of our CREATE for STEM Institute, is one of the authors of those standards). Even though the Common Core standards had widespread support at first, some states have started to back off from their decision to adopt them, and criticism of the standards has come from parent groups, some policymakers, and educational think tanks.
Educator assessment will also continue to be a hot topic this year. The U.S. Department of Education’s Race to the Top competition, which provided billions of dollars in grants to states, required statewide educator assessment systems that incorporated student test scores as a component of how educators are evaluated. In addition, most of the states that were granted waivers for compliance with the provisions of No Child Left Behind pledged to incorporate student test scores in teacher evaluation. Yet the states are finding that the use of test scores for teacher evaluation, generally through a technique called value-added measures (VAM), is easier said than done. The debate over the use of VAM scores is very complex, as is the research into it. The College of Education has a research project on VAM scores, and last fall we held a national conference on the topic. Earlier this year, the American Statistical Association weighed in with a white paper that urged caution in the use of VAM scores for educator assessment. I expect that states and school districts around the country will wrestle this year with if, and how, to use student test scores in teacher evaluation.
A concluding note
I’m currently reading an interesting new book, Building a Better Teacher, by Elizabeth Green, which delves into a fundamental question: Are great teachers born, or made? I’m about halfway through the book, and it is clear that Green’s answer is the latter. The volume opens with a fascinating history of the work of Deborah Ball and Maggie Lampert when they were faculty members here in the College of Education in the 1990s. While I was generally familiar with their work, Green’s book provides rich details of how they sought to understand how to improve teaching and teacher education.
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