By MAUREEN O’HARA
Capital News Service
LANSING — For White Lake resident Sue Steigmeyer, her desire to teach began with her substitute teaching experiences — in the eighth grade.
“It’s always something I wanted to do,” she said. “My eighth-grade teacher would bring me down to substitute for the first graders, and I loved it.”
While many teachers like Steigmeyer are born with a passion to touch the lives of Michigan’s children, others across the state are dealing with grueling new requirements that are making it harder for college graduates to choose teaching as a career.
As a S.A.F.E Facilitator at Waterford Kettering High School, Steigmeyer understands the difficulties that teachers face in and outside of the classroom.
Results found in a recent study done by Education Week, a national education newspaper, concluded that Michigan schools ranked above average on national achievement but below in teacher quality.
In a report released by the National Education Association on April 8, Michigan teachers are the fifth highest paid in the country, earning an average of $50,694 per year. Steigmeyer said she was “very surprised” at that figure.
“The data should be broken down and looked at carefully,” she said.
According to the survey, Quality Counts 2002, Michigan’s lack of extended testing and certification procedures, along with a number of other factors, earned a grade of C-minus in terms of improving teacher quality.
Margaret Trimer-Hartley, director of communications for the Michigan Education Association, said that one important factor is the governmental funding of professional development for teachers.
“We need the money behind the effort,” she said. “There are many states that scored well because of their state funding. We need to follow the national trend.”
The task of “shaping young minds” is an important job that deserves adequate pay, said Rep. Paul Gieleghem, D-Clinton Township. The state’s teacher shortage, however, forces some teachers to instruct in a subject in which they are not trained. This unfortunate circumstance, he said, is possibly one reason for the low grade.
“I support the state increasing funds to further professional development,” Gieleghem said. “If they’re willing to step up and improve, then they should have the support to do so.”
Despite the efforts for increasing financial incentives, Gieleghem also said that it is an economic reality.
“When people decide to be teachers, they know they aren’t going to get rich,” he said.
Steigmeyer agrees that for teachers to perform well, they should be well compensated financially. She contends that with the new rigorous student teaching requirements, a good salary is needed to attract more prospective teachers.
“We often spend a lot of time and extra money outside of class to further our education,” she said. “Sometimes, we hear a backlash in terms of hours, but it’s also an issue of respect.”
Edward Wolfe, counseling and education professor at Michigan State University, discovered that through his experiences with a statewide evaluation of inservices in Illinois, financial compensation was a significant issue among teachers.
“It was important because of two reasons: the time outside the classroom and then being paid for that time,” he said. “Funding is something extremely important to a program’s success.”
Steigmeyer said she always felt comfortable with teaching. A combination of love for children and a feeling of confidence helped her to remain focused on being an educator. When asked what the greatest reward is, her answer included the benefit of flexible hours and camaraderie among teachers. The most important thing, however, is helping those who “hold the keys to our future.”
Learning on the job is another important factor for Michigan’s teachers, Trimer-Hartley said. While it is often difficult, staying ahead of students in terms of technology is significant to successful teaching.
Along with continual learning, an additional element to the state’s grade for teacher quality is the degree to which students are tested. Michigan’s children are not tested every year, unlike many of the states that earned top scores for doing so.
“A lot of states are grappling with the research on testing, and we suspect that as we move forward, our grade will improve,” Trimer-Hartley said.
Not all the results from the Quality Counts survey rated Michigan poorly in terms of education. Test scores from the 2000 National Assessment of Educational Progress -the NAEP, indicated that Michigan students are performing above average overall.
Twenty-eight percent of the nation’s fourth-graders ranked at or above the “proficient” level, but Michigan’s students surpassed the national average with 33 percent scoring at the same level.
As for the state’s eighth-graders, 37 percent scored at or above proficient, surpassing the national average of 30 percent.
In addition to outstanding scores on the NAEP, Michigan’s fight for equal education opportunities is something to be proud of, Trimer-Hartley said.
“We are working to ensure that there’s no gap between children in poverty and those in affluent districts,” she said.
According to the survey, Michigan is one of the top-spending states in education, earning a grade of an A-minus. The state spends, on average, nearly 112 percent of the national average, which equals about $7,922 per pupil.
Supporters of the report include National Education Association President Bob Chase, who called it “an essential roadmap in our journey to helping every child learn.”
Steigmeyer agrees that the state should pay attention to the survey, and especially watch how the money is spent across the various districts. She also believes in several outside resources that are key to the academic and social success of every child.
“We need to be safe and prepared in order to perform best,” she said. “Early intervention and after-school opportunities can help those that are left out.”
While Michigan excels in student spending and achievement, it is most important to look at those who help create that statistic, Trimer-Hartley said.
“We need to follow the national trend,” she said. “Our grade on equity is not as good as it needs to be, but we are trying to provide equal education opportunities across the board.”
© 2002, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism
By MAUREEN O’HARA