Thursday, August 7, 2008

Looking for a flashlight in the dark

Today, we bring you a true story...

Two years of looking for a flashlight in the dark: An astounding case study in government decision making

In 2006, the Michigan legislature passed the Michigan Merit Curriculum (MMC), a tough new set of high school graduation standards. Among other things, the standards called for every student to graduate with four years of math. Previously, students needed about three years to graduate.

Unintended consequence: in one blow, the MMC increased statewide demand for math teachers by a third. More math classes means more math teachers. Since math teachers were already in short supply and teacher accreditation (going through ed school, student teaching, etc.) usually takes years, this created a huge pipeline problem for Michigan's school systems. Apparently, nobody -- not the legislature, the Michigan Department of Education (MDE), or any of the research groups urging the curriculum change -- had thought through this part of implementation. MDE worried about it, but didn't have the capacity to really come to grips with the problem.

So after the legislation passed, MDE commissioned a study of "teacher supply and demand" from a group of policy students at U of M. I was one of the students, and -- I can say this now -- we never really understood what our task was. The research question was very broad and vague, so we did the study that seemed most interesting: an investigation of the distribution of "high quality" teachers across the state. We based our work on the registry of education personnel (REP), a statewide database that tracks all Michigan teachers. Our statistics were decent, but didn't speak directly to the question MDE needed answered. This turned out to be the first in a long sequence of research projects trying to figure out where the extra teachers would come from.

The next year, another U of M student group picked up where we had left off. They had somewhat better data and a clearer understanding of their goal, but were still overwhelmed. They arrived at one major conclusion: the REP doesn't contain the information necessary to answer the real questions about teacher supply and demand. The REP can only tell us about teachers currently teaching, not the pool of potential teachers. The team's recommendation was a statewide survey of building administrators to assess real needs.

At the same time, a research team at MSU was working on getting deeper into the REP to see what it *could* tell us. They came up with a set of three reports, gradually decoding the data structures of the REP. Major conclusion: Michigan has almost no reserve pool of practicing math teachers. Four out of five teachers currently teaching and certified to teach math are already teaching math. Again, the conclusion was that Michigan would need to bring in more math teachers from outside the pool of currently practicing teachers.

Bear in mind that all of this analysis so far has been based on the REP -- data that the state has collected routinely for years. Two years and five report later, MDE still doesn't know anything about potential teachers *not* captured in the REP.

By now it's 2008. The Merit Curriculum has been in place for two years and the first cohort of high school freshmen have gone through their first year of math. Newspapers are starting to run articles about failure rates. The most extreme claim that over 20% of high school freshman failed algebra I, the first class in the sequence. Editorial pages are running apocalyptic predictions about drop-out rates and missed graduations. The legislature is starting to discuss repealing MMC.

MDE is desperate to increase the number of competent certified math teachers, but still doesn't know where to look. The next school year starts within a month. The clock is ticking...

Moral of the story?
Beats me. "Reform is messy." / "Reform is hard." / "Reform takes time." "Unintended consequences dominate good intentions." ?


Kara said...

Wow! That is really interesting. Maybe they should look to Schools of Ed in the state to advertise how easy it will be to get a math teaching job, provide more support for pre-service teachers in the math fields, or even look to TFA or other places to send people in who can help until we fill the void? I think its a great lesson to be learned though for reform programs. This should be a highly advertised example to other states who are thinking of changing requirements without changing resources.

Abe said...

A quick update: I got a call from my boss at MDE this morning. Evidently, the office news/blog clipping service picked up my reference to MDE and a bunch of people there read this post. Reactions were mixed.

I'm guessing that most of these comments are based on misinterpretation. So let me get a few things cleared up.

First, I don't mean to imply in this post that anyone at MDE (or CEPI or the legislature, for that matter) isn't doing their job well. Solving Michigan's teacher pipeline problem is a big, complicated, non-routine problem.

The fact that it's a non-routine problem means that by definition, it's no one person's responsibility. Consequently, solving it has required collaboration between many different groups. One lesson I've learned is that silo-busting takes time. Every university, agency, and specialization speaks it own language and has its own set of operating procedures. Even with good intentions on all sides, sharing information and coordinating action have taken time. There's a tendency to blame the slow pace of reform on the people involved. I'm convinced that it has more to do with the organizations that people are embedded in.

Second, a response to a more specific criticism I've heard: my comment about the limits of research based on the REP reflects the limits of using a database of current teachers to learn about potential teachers. The REP is a great data source for understanding what Michigan's teachers are like, but it can't tell us very much about Michigan's would-be teachers. This isn't a problem with the data or the people who maintain it; it's just a reflection of the population described in the data.

In the same vein, REP wasn't originally intended as a data source for this kind of analysis. It's not surprising that it's taken time for academics to unpack it and figure out what it means. Dr. Schneider's group at MSU has done a particularly good job at this. I hope we can figure out a way to help researchers around the state maintain that data fluency -- it would shorten the academic learning curve the next time the state has an analytical problem of this type.

Finally, I've learned that MDE policy on blogs is up in the air. Personal blogs are okay, but no one's really sure if work-related posts are allowed. This blog is about sense making, not rocking the boat, so until I know more about policy, I'll keep a tighter lid on my interpretations of work-related events.