Opinion: State reforms tied teacher job ratings to M-STEP — and educators left the field

If it’s spring in Michigan, it’s Spring Break — for students across Michigan, and for lawmakers in Lansing, too. And in the coming weeks, when break is over and it’s back to school and back to work, many students will be sitting down to take the M-STEP, our annual accountability exam in subjects like math, English language arts, and in some grades, science.

Lawmakers will be getting down to business again, too, and much of their work will, as it has since January, focus on students and schools. It will be time soon to talk once more about teacher evaluations — what current law says, and what changes might be warranted.

What's the current situation?

In 2011, Michigan passed a series of reforms to the teaching profession as part of a larger, national effort focusing on the teacher workforce and teacher employment contracts.

Josh Cowen, professor of education policy at Michigan State University.
Josh Cowen, professor of education policy at Michigan State University.

Those reforms — with subsequent tweaks in later years — broadly required districts to include the results of student test scores in reviews of teacher job performance. The laws also narrowed the scope of collective bargaining and workforce decisions like seniority and transfer provisions. And they extended the state’s probationary period for educators and required multiple years of effective performance ratings — partly using M-STEP — to achieve tenure.

How did this impact teachers?

What did these reforms do to the teacher workforce in Michigan, and how if, at all, might these changes be related to current teacher shortages?

Over the last eight years, I and many other researchers both at Michigan State University and across the country examined these and other policy impacts. And taken as a whole, those results show that our teacher policy reforms disproportionately impacted at-risk kids and historically marginalized communities.

For example, the package of evaluation and tenure policies built around M-STEP scores appears to have pushed new educators out of the profession — but not everywhere in Michigan. Those teacher exits were concentrated in the state’s lowest income districts, where staffing difficulties were already greatest in the years following the Great Recession. As it turned out, rating teachers on student performance, without assigning more funding or resources to support the students, placed teachers in an impossible situation, and disincentivized educators from working with at-risk kids

Test-based teacher evaluation in Michigan all but stacked the deck against teachers of color — a pattern found by researchers in other states as well. Here as elsewhere, Black male teachers were hardest hit by those disparities, particularly if they had a white supervisor. These comparisons were made within the same school buildings, meaning Black teachers were less likely to be given strong marks than white teachers within the same school.


Although few teachers in Michigan rate poorly enough for mandatory removal, even one low rating can push a teacher out of the profession, instead of giving the teacher time to grow into the job — time most of us get in other fields. What’s more, research confirms the importance of a diverse corps of educators, particularly for communities of color. With inherent staffing challenges across the board, public policy should improve, not hinder, efforts to recruit and retain.

In 2011, Michigan included M-STEP results in job performance ratings. Since then, the teacher shortage has intensified.
In 2011, Michigan included M-STEP results in job performance ratings. Since then, the teacher shortage has intensified.

Then there are the issues with teacher contracts. Critics suggest that bargaining agreements can impede administrator flexibility on teacher pay and on staff decisions like filling transfers and vacancies. And there are concerns that relying exclusively on seniority-based layoffs disproportionately leaves at-risk kids with fewer teachers — because they’re served by less experienced teachers in the first place.

On the other hand, salary schedules in teacher contracts are important source of gender equity. When Wisconsin weakened salary schedules and gave more discretion over teacher pay to local supervisors, that change led to lower average salaries for women with the same credentials. That new gender gap however, was smaller for women in schools with female principals — suggesting that as with Michigan’s evaluation reforms, teachers experience more equity when they’re supervised by similarly situated leaders.

What should happen next?

The available evidence — and common sense with educational practice — is that just like employees in other sectors, it’s reasonable that teachers have routine evaluations. And it’s reasonable that local administrators should base many decisions on school and classroom need,s even if those break from time to time with strict seniority requirements.

But the state’s evaluation system contains too many categories, with too much reliance on M-STEP, an exam that was never built for teacher performance metrics in the first place. And in a politically charged nation — in other states, teachers face reporting hotlines and other employment threats for what they teach in classrooms — tenure remains a critically important part of due process. It’s also the right thing to do.

M-STEP, like other standardized tests, is a guidepost, not a detailed roadmap. It can point policymakers and local school leaders in helpful directions for decision-making, but it can’t set the destination. The Michigan Legislature has recently taken important steps to improve our state’s education policy over the last few months, and the upcoming courses of action should include a look at the rules governing our public school teachers.

Josh Cowen is a professor of education policy at Michigan State University. Contact the Detroit Free Press editorial page: letters@freepress.com. Become a subscriber at Freep.com. 

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Opinion: Unlink teacher evals from M-STEP standardized test