My “Seething Hatred” for the Michigan Department of Education

My academic department is once again in the process of filling out matrices to satisfy the Michigan Department of Education. I did this several years ago and had to do it again last spring because MDoE changed them. The ones I did last spring were apparently lost by our particular faculty member who was in charge of coordinating our Teacher Education programs with the MDoE, and who left us without warning in the middle of the summer. But it’s not clear that these current matrices are the same as the ones I just did–there seem to be some new wrinkles. Fortunately I’m non sabbatical, so I don’t have to deal with the BS.

The matrices list the competencies Teacher Ed students in the social sciences are supposed to have, and we have to show which of our courses satisfy each competency. The list of competencies is ridiculously long. It’s almost impossible for a student to actually take enough courses to learn all of them. As it is, taking all the necessary courses to get a teacher education degree almost invariably takes more than 4 years, and that’s with many of those competencies not appearing in the courses they’ll take.

MDoE just tacks on new competencies each time someone says, “Oh, wouldn’t it be good for social studies teachers to know X, Y, and Z, also?” They never–never–review the whole thing and try to figure out whether it’s coherent and whether everything is needed. It is always a purely additive process.

Further, many of the competencies are of the “civics” variety. In my department, we don’t teach civics. Civics is K-12 level material. I remember staring at a poster with the “core values of democracy” on it in my daughter’s third-grade classroom, and laughing when the teacher said, “Oh, you teach political science, so you probably know that better than I do.” No. No, I don’t. But those “core values of democracy” show up in the competencies. My colleague, who has the misfortune of having to deal with this crap this term and who teaches democratic theory, contemporary democracies, and democratization, responded to that concept with the pithy rebuttal, “which democracy?” Sorry, folks, it’s not my job to turn out good patriotic citizens.

I think I mentioned all that before, on our dear departed Positive Liberty. But what has me steamed today is that now we have to attach our syllabi to demonstrate that our courses do indeed include the competencies we say they do.

First, I don’t teach in the teacher education department. Teacher Ed is a flea catching a ride on this dog’s back. What the high-school teachers and bachelor degree bureaucrats think I should teach in my college courses, and what I, with a Ph.D., think ought to be taught in my college classes, are different things.

Second, certain elements of what I teach change from year to year, and they will certainly vary from person to person teaching the class. We offer more sections than I can teach, to meet demand, so I have an excellent adjunct who does a great job, but teaches the course differently than I do. The syllabi I give them today is not his syllabus, nor will it necessarily be mine three years from now. There is more content to be taught in an American Government class than I can properly cover in a semester, so some of the elements get rotated in and out as my interest in them waxes and wanes. Apparently nobody in the MDoE has ever worked in a college classroom.

In general, MDoE takes absolutely the wrong approach to ensuring competency. In one of her books, animal science expert Temple Grandin discusses the way a particular bureaucracy (USDA, iirc) set up standards for slaughtering cows humanely. There were multiple individual steps that a slaughterhouse had to follow precisely. Grandin argued that instead of a process-oriented approach, they should just use a simple outcome-based approach: the proportion of clean kills. Require a sufficiently high proportion, and whatever methods the slaughterhouse used to get there would obviously prove themselves.

Ironically, MDoE has a simple outcome-base measurement, the Michigan Test for Teacher Certification in Social Science. It uses that to judge colleges’ and universities’ Teacher Education programs, so it has already set what it determines to be a sufficient pass rate. But instead of satisfying itself with that, it wastes resources (including my college’s and my own) by detailing the process leading up to that outcome measurement.

If they had confidence in their process, they wouldn’t need the test. If they had confidence in the test they wouldn’t need to define the process.


About J@m3z Aitch

J@m3z Aitch is a two-bit college professor who'd rather be canoeing.
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8 Responses to My “Seething Hatred” for the Michigan Department of Education

  1. pinky says:

    Ah, dear old Michigan.
    My ancestors had important roles in its founding.
    I’m happy I live in Michigan; but, I’d like to see some major changes in the way our politicians have given in to the UAW/CIO and the AF of L.
    There was a period of time when government was expanding at unbelievable rapidity and the complex off I 69 grew to enormous proportions.
    What ever happened to Frank Kelley. Does he still work in a Detroit law firm?

  2. What is the likelihood that the MDoE will actually read the syllabi? Or will they just keep them “on file” and never look at them again?

    At any rate, this all sounds like a big pain.

  3. Michael Enquist says:

    Thanks for reminding me what I have to look forward to when I start my teacher training next summer.

  4. James K says:

    That seems like a massive administrative apparatus just to check on a relatively minor aspect of your college’s function.

    Why don’t they just rely on their test?

  5. James Hanley says:

    Pierre–I can’t imagine they will actually follow up on checking our syllabi. They’ll probably just make us update it every few years, pushing the compliance costs onto us, while utterly failing to actually ensure compliance. Theoretically they might be able to check up on us, as we have only about 200 social studies teachers in total. But the big state Unis like Central Michigan graduate thousands per year, so there’s no way they could manage to check up on them.

    JamesK–I’m not sure if that was a rhetorical question or not. If it’s rhetorical, I’ll just heave a weary sigh along with you. If not, I’d actually turn to you for an answer. You must know at least as much about government bureaucracies as me. But I suspect you do, and like me, you’re still wondering why they do these things. But there is in fact one reason why perhaps they shouldn’t. I took the test, to see what it’s like.* It’s predominantly reading comprehension. They have a few paragraphs of writing, then ask questions drawn from it. The questions that aren’t like that are ones that any person with a well-rounded education should be able to answer. My smart students have characterized the test as easy, and I have a pretty reliable rumor of a student who took it and passed it, despite having done their Teacher Education degree in math or science, rather than social studies. So, having both a bad process and a bad test, they probably don’t have confidence in either.

    Michael Enquist–You have both my sympathy and my best wishes. Good teachers are crucial, though, so I hope you persevere. Every well educated person I know has stories of teachers who inspired them.

    *One of my great regrets is that I took the test seriously and answered all the questions. My departmental colleague realized that it didn’t matter if he passed it or not, so instead of answering the questions, he just used his time to review the test and think about what kind of questions it was asking. He got a better understanding of it than I did, as well as coming off looking smarter and more strategic than I did. Grrr.

  6. James K says:

    James Hanley:

    That works as a first-level explanation, but I still don’t get why they don’t just fix the test. For that matter, does Michigan set standardised tests for it’s schools? Because if it did, it could just make prospective teachers sit those tests. All you have to do is increase the passing mark.

    I’m not sure why the state government would use such an inefficient system. In New Zealand the standard approach to policy design is to avoid hiring any more new government employees than necessary, especially if they’re “back office” staff rather than service providers. Certainly Treasury would push back on any proposal that involved spending more money than they thought was necessary. This is especially true at the moment since the government is running deficits, and will probably continue to do so for several years.

  7. James Hanley says:

    Well, I can give only partial explanations. For one, Michigan is a bureaucrat-heavy state by tradition. In the past we were able to fund a large bureaucracy pretty easily because we had a set of supersized businesses, most famously the big 3 automakers, but a couple of others, too, that funneled vast sums of money into the state treasury. We all know that time’s past now, but each bureaucracy is intent on protecting itself from being the downsized one. So it might in part be an effort by the MDoE to prevent being downsized by demonstrating how much work it has to do.

    But I think even more than that, these people are true believers in the approach they’re using. I don’t know that directly, but through conversations I’ve had with colleagues who’ve worked directly with them. They are of the mindset that for anything to function well, it must be controlled from the top-down. They’re believers in centralized planning; anti-Hayekians, so to speak.

    Why they believe that is a puzzle to me, but then I’m puzzled as to why anyone with a reasonable education still believes in centralized planning in that sense. But I know that lots of people still do–even people with advanced degrees. I guess they’ve just never read Hayek or any of the public choice lit, or they’re just the type that can’t stomach things being non-centrally organized. It seems to chaotic and uncontrolled.

    Another hypothesis, which comes to me from our academic dean and our recently departed Teacher Ed-MDoE go-between, is that the MDoE is trying to drive us small colleges out of the teacher prep business, so that it is all done by the public universities. I don’t know if that has any validity at all.

    I do particularly wonder why the large public universities don’t band together to demand a change. I doubt they care much whether we small schools have Teacher Ed departments, since they’d hardly even notice the addition of all of our students to their programs. But perhaps all the red tape enables them to demand more resources for their departments from their university administrations.

    So, I don’t really know. But I’ve rarely observed a bureaucracy that seemed so intent on fulfilling all the negative stereotypes of bureaucracies.

  8. James K says:

    James Hanley:

    Why they believe that is a puzzle to me, but then I’m puzzled as to why anyone with a reasonable education still believes in centralized planning in that sense. But I know that lots of people still do–even people with advanced degrees. I guess they’ve just never read Hayek or any of the public choice lit, or they’re just the type that can’t stomach things being non-centrally organized. It seems to chaotic and uncontrolled.

    I think it’s a matter of failed analogy. If you want to host a dinner party, or a wedding or a go on a holiday it’s customary to plan it out. Most people think (correctly I suspect) that top down planning makes things better. The mistake people make is to assume their range of experience translates into policy. It’s not unreasonable, but it’s still wrong.

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