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Special report/Talent & education

Teaching in Windsor: A few miles away, a world apart

Kristen and Eric Wideen have taught in Michigan and Ontario, and believe Michigan’s lower student test scores are linked to the state’s teacher training system. (Photo by Ron French)

Kristen and Eric Wideen have taught in Michigan and Ontario, and believe Michigan’s lower student test scores are linked to the state’s teacher training system. (Photo by Ron French)

Eric and Kristen Wideen are among a small number of teachers who’ve led classrooms on both sides of the Ambassador Bridge, and the differences run far deeper than the Detroit River.

Student test scores indicate children learn less in Michigan classrooms than Canadian ones. And while the Wideens emphasize that teachers on both sides of the border are dedicated and passionate, education experts point to one major difference between the systems: teacher training.

It’s easier to get into university teacher training programs in Michigan than in Ontario. There’s less mentoring and professional development here. And far more young Michigan teachers flee the profession after just a year or two, before attaining journeyman levels of classroom competency.

“Absolutely that is the reason,” said Eric Wideen, who grew up in Livonia, earned a degree at Western Michigan, and has taught in Michigan and Windsor. Kristen grew up and was trained in Ontario before crossing the bridge to teach in Inkster. Both now teach in Windsor-area schools. Having experience in both systems led them to the same conclusion: More rigorous teacher training increases student achievement.

It’s not just Ontario. Countries across the globe that outperform the U.S. in standardized test scores are more selective about who gets in to their teaching programs, and those programs offer more rigorous and long-term training.

“There’s probably no bigger determinant of economic growth than the quality of education,” said Marc Tucker, president of the National Center on Education and the Economy. “And the quality of education is determined by the quality of teachers.”

In the United States, “we say we want better teachers, but we don’t,” Tucker said. “We treat them like interchangeable parts.”

Spending like Luxembourg, learning like Poland

Even though the United States spends more per student than any country except Luxembourg, its students score about average in science and reading and below average in math in the test most commonly used for international comparisons, the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA).

Students in countries ranging from Finland to Singapore perform better on tests than American kids. Canada, perhaps the country most like the U.S., spends less on education but performs better. Canada is in the top 10 in the world in reading, math and science. And Ontario leads the way in Canada.

In the past decade, graduation rates in Ontario’s schools improved from 68 percent to 82 percent. Reading, writing and math scores jumped 15 percent. Ontario’s dramatic education turnaround is partly the result of an emphasis on teacher training, said Warren Kennedy, superintendent of the Greater Essex County School Board in Windsor.

“Teaching programs are hard to get in to,” Kennedy said, a contrast to Michigan, where students can enter some education programs with a high school GPA below 3.0.

Tucker is editor of a book comparing the world’s education systems, “Surpassing Shanghai: An Agenda for American Education Built on the World’s Leading Systems.”

“The countries we’ve studied are the top 10 performers in the PISA rankings,” Tucker said. “In many of these countries, by design, it is now as hard to get into teaching as it is to get into the high-status professions, making teaching high status.

“In virtually all of these countries, they’re recruiting teachers from the top quarter of their high school classes,” Tucker said. In Korea, it’s the top 5 percent; in Finland, 10 percent.”

And the United States?

“Most observers agree we recruit teachers from the bottom third of high school graduates,” Tucker said.

Once in the programs, the differences grow bigger.

Canada’s secrets aren’t so secret

All teacher candidates in Ontario get a bachelor’s degree before they enter a one-year intensive teacher training program. In 2014, the training program is increasing to two years, meaning all new teachers will have the equivalent of a master’s before they can even look for a job.

Competition is so fierce to get in to teaching programs that candidates must score at least in the 85th percentile of those taking entrance exams to be accepted.

“I had all A’s as an undergraduate, and I was worried about getting in (to an Ontario teaching training program),” Kristen Wideen said.

Once they graduate, teachers typically work for at least two years as substitute teachers before they are considered ready for full-time positions. It took Eric Wideen five years as an Ontario substitute teacher (all substitutes are certified teachers) before being “awarded” a full-time gig. The result: the average new teacher taking over a classroom in Michigan is 22 or 23; in Ontario, they’re 25-30.

New teachers in Ontario work closely with mentors and take part in an intensive new teacher induction program.

“If a new teacher is having trouble, there’s lots of support, from other teachers, administrators and the union,” said Clara Howitt, new teacher induction program director for Greater Essex County School Board. “Everyone gets involved.”

In Michigan, training essentially stops once teachers leave college. In 2002, fresh out of Western, Eric Wideen started teaching at a charter school in Inkster.

“It was, ‘Whatever you learned, go apply it,’” Wideen recalled. “In four years, I went to one conference. I think it was $25, and I may have had to pay for it, I’m not sure.”

In Windsor, he has province-paid training sessions once a month in his school building. Several times during the school year, the schools rent a hall for a full day of training.

After one year, 17 percent of new teachers in the United States leave the profession; In Ontario, annual attrition is 2 percent.

“People (in the U.S.) would say to me, ‘Oh, you’re just a glorified babysitter,’ or “Oh, you just want summers off,’” Eric Wideen recalled.

It’s a sentiment that Eric and Kristen discovered stops at the Ambassador Bridge, even though teachers are just as unionized and more highly paid in Ontario.

“The reason we do so well, the key for all high-performing countries, is high regard for teachers,” said Howitt. “My impression is that it’s much more punitive in the U.S.”

Could Michigan adopt the Ontario system of teacher training? It would take a coordinated effort by state government, universities and public schools, said Tucker.

“We don’t select our teachers from the most competent kids out of high school,” Tucker said. “We don’t train them very well, we throw kids straight out of universities into classrooms and then don’t support them adequately, and they leave.”

Senior Writer Ron French joined Bridge in 2011 after having won more than 40 national and state journalism awards since he joined the Detroit News in 1995. French has a long track record of uncovering emerging issues and changing the public policy debate through his work. In 2006, he foretold the coming crisis in the auto industry in a special report detailing how worker health-care costs threatened to bankrupt General Motors.

28 comments from Bridge readers.Add mine!

  1. David Waymire

    Any compensation differences?

    1. Ron French

      After 11 years, teachers in Ontario earn about $94,000 a year. Cost of living and taxes are higher in many parts of Ontario, which moderates that figure somewhat.

      1. BJ Christensen

        I know a teacher in Michigan with a Master’s degree and 11 years experience who earns $53,000. That same teacher would earn $40,000 more pay in Ontario for the same number of years of experience and a Master’s degree. WOW!

  2. Jim

    A very good and interesting article. But it creates a lot of questions.

    What is the accountability for teachers in Ontario? What is the pay? Is there tenure? Is there a set wage fall all teachers, or are they different by district?

    1. Ron French

      I can answer one of those questions: After 11 years, teachers in Ontario earn $94,000. Thanks for reading.

  3. BluFox

    Sad to read. As with so many things the US is well down the list (even though we are told we’re #1). The current political climate makes me doubtful that we will do anything to change. To busy trying to take food stamps away from the needy.

  4. Read lady

    I think you need to review your information. I believe that the School Code, sec 1526, requires that new teachers have a mentor for 3 years and that tenure is not granted for 5. I don’t know what the mandates are for charter schools.

    MSU gradutes teachers have had a 5th year of an on site internship and classes.

    1. Ron French

      The comparison in the story refers to what is required to get a license to practice; 12 weeks of supervision in a classroom for teachers is all the practical experience that is required to become certified and take over a classroom. Mentoring in schools varies wildly.

      1. Catasetumkid

        Ron French
        September 19, 2013 at 10:32 am

        The comparison in the story refers to what is required to get a license to practice; 12 weeks of supervision in a classroom for teachers is all the practical experience that is required to become certified and take over a classroom. Mentoring in schools varies wildly.

        At MSU they not only have a fifth year as a student teacher, they also take 2 Master level classes – one with their own major (in my daughter’s case, it was mathematics) and one with the other interns in that school district. These classes allow problems to be solved, whether related to their major, or the district. I think it’s brilliant. So do a lot of districts outside Michigan, who come here to recruit at the education Job Fairs in spring. MSU has the top ranked education program in the USA according to US News and World report.

        I would also like to point out that not all districts in Michigan are failing, quite the contrary. I feel the bigger challenge is to bring up the districts that are not achieving as they should. Not all parents care about education. They don’t know anyone that is more successful because they have a high school education…when the most financially successful person in the neighborhood is the drug dealer, you are bound to have problems.

        1. JacRey63

          Point of clarification please. Are you saying that a Preservice teacher in the School of Education at MSU, after completing all required courses on the program is required to student teach for five (5) years (or semesters) before she/he can be considered for a permanent classroom position?

  5. Bill Vajk

    I went through high school at Princeton NJ during the period before the university professors were receiving the high levels of pay they now achieve. As a result, I attended public high school with the professors’ children. The pressure from those academics to guarantee that their children received a first class education was incessant.

    Princeton High School was in a constant competition with one other school in the state for first place, and many years Princeton won. Then the university began paying better salaries and the professors sent their children to private schools they could finally afford. Princeton High School’s status slipped and will probably never recover. As a transplant to the UP of this state I have come to the view that parents who don’t demand any better of their schools than they do of their politicians reap the rewards as, unfortunately, do their children.

    In an angry meeting last night (9.18.2013) the city council in Iron River told the people that there is no money to repair half a block of Blossom Street so it will remain closed. But where were those people during the past 20 years while the street was deteriorating? They seem to think that anyone they elect will look out for the interests of those who elected them. That simply is never the case. Similarly the comparison of a Michigan education to those of other states as well as foreign districts has been available for decades.

    Parents of today should know the quality of their education compared to that of people they compete with from elsewhere, and have made no significant moves to improve the Michigan standards. In theory, in the representative democracy we live in, the key isn’t the legislature, but the electorate, the parents who have the power to apply political pressure if and whenever they will. Until they do that, the best that Michigan has to offer will, for the most part, leave for greener pastures.

    1. Marie Holem

      Well said.

  6. Nancy Flanagan

    “’Most observers agree we recruit teachers from the bottom third of high school graduates,’ Tucker said.”

    There’s a reason why Tucker qualified that comment with “most observers agree.” First–we’re not really “recruiting” the best candidates into teaching. We’d be a lot better off if we did. We’re accepting applicants, rather than framing teaching as a high-skill job involving complex intellectual work, and aggressively seeking top-flight people willing to commit to a long-term professional career in teaching.

    Second–there’s evidence that his remark is incorrect. Matt DiCarlo has done perhaps the best study on the origin of this widely-promoted factoid: John Merrow breaks it down for the casual reader: In many ways, the pre-teaching test scores of current teachers are not connected to their effectiveness in the classroom–so where they started matters a whole lot less than how well they’re trained and mentored.

    There’s also evidence that America’s secondary teachers, those with majors in academic disciplines, come from the top half of HS graduates.

    But it certainly is a provocative thing to suggest: American teachers are dumber than the general population.

    1. Jon Blakey

      Thank you for sharing this info. I get tired of people saying how “dumb” our teachers are too. Very few of the less able teachers ever get past the interview process in moderately well-off school districts because they stick out like sore thumbs. Some might make it into teacher shortage areas, because we are required to offer students certain classes.

      The bigger problem lies in our teacher preparation programs that are simply inadequate. They have been inadequate for years, requiring only 12 weeks of student teaching in most cases (special education teachers must usually do 24 weeks).

      What are the reasons for our failure to change this aspect of teacher preparation? One is that many universities make lots of money off their education programs as currently structured and the more people they let in, the better. Michigan State is a not has to do with table exception to this, having relatively stringent entry requirements for their teaching program. I suspect another reason has to do with the fact that in many districts, we pay starting teachers less (inflation adjusted) than what I earned ($8,900) in my first year of teaching in 1972. Who wants to pay for 6 years of schooling and then earn substandard starting professional wages? Certainly not our brightest students. Instead, today’s teachers often end up learning important skills (classroom management being one of the most important) on the job. Often, there is minimal professional development offered (5 days a year), and very often these new teachers are placed in very challenging (high poverty) environments. This is a recipe for failure and we seem more than willing to blame these young people for the problem. Non-rational world thinking at its best.

  7. Jeff Counts

    Love this series, it needed to be done, but you don’t seem to acknowledge the special challenges in Detroit, where half the population, about 350,000 people, can’t read. That’s a challenge for a teacher of any skill lovel.

  8. Chris Profeta

    “Student test scores indicate children learn less in Michigan classrooms than Canadian ones.” That’s only if you believe test scores are an accurate measure of what students are learning, which they aren’t.

  9. Keith Warnick

    @David Waymire: the article states “……even though teachers are just as unionized and more highly paid in Ontario.”

    For several years, as a local school board member, I accompanied Oakland County school board members to a NSBA lobbying conference in Washington DC. Our last day was usually spent visiting a local embassy to learn about educational initiatives around the world. I personally visited Finland, China, Canada, Israel, Singapore during my term and all of them paid high regard to teachers. Although the task is great, we need to have a complete collaboration of all parties to change the training process. But, I don’t see any legislative support for that.

  10. ***

    I’m not so sure they are recruiting from the lower third of high school as much as those who do better don’t really want to get into
    teaching as they can make more money in the private sector. There is so much BS to put up with in the teaching profession with administrators, students, parents and with a new evaluation system coming in Michigan a lot more are going to be leaving on their
    own or being forced out.

  11. Steven Norton

    There is no question that quality training and mentoring is crucial to developing effective, professional teachers. But so far our society has not been willing to spend resources either before or after teachers begin their professional lives.

    But one important feature deserves comment: when we compare education spending across countries, are we taking into account differences in how retirement and health care are handled across nations? Many of the highly ranked countries in educational performance also have strong social welfare systems and public health insurance. It’s hard to find exact figures on this, but how much of the increase in US education spending went to cover rising health care costs that were running at a clip of 3 to 4 times inflation (or more) for much of the last two or three decades? In other words, how much are we spending on real education costs and how much are we spending to try to hold the line on decent benefits for our public servants?

    Comparing spending across countries without taking that into account is simply dishonest.

  12. Rachel Wolf

    I substitute taught for the Livonia school district for almost ten years. My four-year degree is in Child Development, so I taught on a permit. During that time (around 2003) I considered returning to school to obtain a teaching certificate. What I found in my research both online and talking with teachers within the school district is that Michigan graduated some of the best teachers in the USA and was know for having some of the best education degree programs in the country. To enter an elementary teaching degree program was highly competitive as was finding a teaching position in Michigan in elementary education once you had graduated. Has it changed that much as the authors of this article say it has? My daughter is now attending GVSU for a degree in secondary education. As her parents paying for her college education – are we throwing money down the drain as the authors of this article are leading me to believe?

    1. Jon Blakey

      After 40 years in public education, I have nothing but admiration for teachers committed to helping students become all they can be. You are not throwing money down the drain if your daughter understands what she is facing as she enters the teaching profession today, she is pursuing a major that is in relatively short supply at the secondary level. Teacher shortage areas are available on the Michigan Department of Education teacher preparation website. Your daughter does need to be committed to do whatever it takes to assist her students in learning, take advantage of every extra opportunity GVSU offers in its teaching education program, continue her own lifelong learning after beginning her career, and find teacher mentors who can support her in her early years of teaching. Sounds like a lot, but there are many good school districts in Michigan and elsewhere that provide these types of opportunities. They are very selective in who they hire, so you daughter will want to do everything she can during her undergraduate work to stand out. Good luck and good effort to her.

  13. Martha Toth

    Steve Norton is right, both about the tremendous diversion of “education funding” here to pensions and benefits and about the dishonesty of straight-up comparisons on spending that do not acknowledge that.
    I hope it did not escape your attention that this year’s vaunted increase in K-12 funding was a shell game. Money that had been earmarked for the state retirement system (which local districts MUST participate in but over which they have no control) was put into the per-pupil Foundation Allowance instead. For districts, that means it came in and went right back out to MPSERS. It took an extraordinary measure beyond the Governor’s request to guarantee a net increase of $5 per pupil. Meanwhile, charter schools (which do NOT have to participate in MPSERS) got the full increase of $78. Are we to believe this was not by design?
    It was profoundly dishonest.

  14. Mary Beth

    Very much appreciated this excellent article. Have forwarded to our son, Jordan, who has completed post-secondary studies in both Michigan and Ontario. After attending the Faculty of Eduction, U of Ottawa, he now teaches in Quebec. Had a special interest for me, having spent my childhood in Windsor ON.

  15. K

    As a student in education who is about to enter student teaching in Michigan, I could not agree more. There are students in my pre-student teaching classes that have received D’s in education courses (and our education courses are far from rigorous), and they are still around. The other day in class we had to plan a 3-day lesson plan (and we were given a week to complete it), and all that could be heard from the classroom was whines and groans. This lesson plan wasn’t even something we had to perform for a class, but it was just something to add to our portfolios. A student from my class showed up in the school we are observing at wearing a “Get Lucky” t-shirt and jeans…And yes the t-shirt was referring to sex…The same guy, a bio major, tried telling my class that proteins are made from carbohydrates (I happen to be a Bio major myself and I could not have been more disgusted). I go to a smaller university where the education program is not as competitive, so that may be why I am surrounded by unmotivated students who do not understand the enormous importance of applying themselves in this career, but I still feel as though there should be a statewide or nationwide increase in teaching program standards. G.P.A. is not an absolute criteria for judging intelligence, but it is an excellent indicator of motivation and hard work. A 3.0 G.P.A. is simply not high enough for the people who will be molding our children’s futures. Of course this is easy for me to say since I have a higher G.P.A., but I know that if I had to bridge the gap between what my G.P.A. is now and something even higher, I would because I think teaching is worth it and I know that success is not usually handed out…On that note, let’s not just hand out teaching degrees. Honestly, it’s not fair to the college students who believe they can succeed in teaching and get a job with minimal effort, and it’s certainly is not fair to the kids in our elementary and secondary schools.

  16. Javan Kienzle

    Is there a “test” or a “study that compares the involvement of the parents in the schooling of their children?
    What would the comparison be between Finnish, Asian, Canadian and U.S. parental involvement?
    Would the answer to that tell us something important?

  17. Ryon List

    “The reason we do so well, the key for all high-performing countries, is high regard for teachers,” said Howitt. “My impression is that it’s much more punitive in the U.S.”

    I’m not sure that will change much in the US, as politicians seem to make it a point to demonize teachers for their own gain. Thus, the public loses respect for the profession.

  18. JacRey63

    As a former middle school teacher who left the classroom to pursue a doctorate in education I enjoyed reading this article and the comments. I know from my
    personal experiences and my research that the majority of the Preservice teacher candidates, who are White female, middle class, English speaking, and come from homogenous backgrounds graduating from Educational institutions throughout this country are unprepared to teach in the school districts where the jobs will be available. School districts where the student population is culturally different from themselves. Educational institutions programs are not addressing this cultural disconnect between teachers and students and how it directly relates to the Cultural Proficiency of these White Preservice teaching candidates.

    There are many situations that need to be address in educational institutions. In my opinion a major issue which has not been discussed in this article, which I believe is an important component is the cultural disconnect and the importance of understanding ones cultural proficiency.

  19. Liz

    I graduated from CMU and I had very good grades, worked hard and tried my best. But when I actually found a teaching job, and I had to move to North Carolina to do it. I was in no way prepared to lead a class of 5th graders. I had absolutely no classroom management skills, it wasn’t the actual teaching or the content that was the problem. It was controlling the classroom so learning could actually take place. When I was researching universities pretty much all the public universities had very similar education programs. So I do believe that there needs to be better teacher education programs because though I did everything right in school I was not able to be successful in my own classroom.

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