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." ?