A fight for teachers weakens Detroit schools.

Social studies teacher Aaron Ames learned that his former school took summer paychecks back from teachers who quit in August when money disappeared from his bank account.

Like many school leaders in Detroit, Danielle Robinson spent the month of August doggedly searching for teachers.

Robinson is the top Detroit official for Phalen Leadership Academies, a nonprofit charter school network that took over three Detroit schools from another manager in July.

By late August, with the start of school just days away, Phalen still needed 34 teachers to staff Murphy, Stewart and Trix elementary schools.

And there wasn’t much time.

“We did $5,000 retention bonuses,” Robinson said. “We did  $5,000 signing bonuses. We did $1,000 referral bonuses … We needed to make sure we had enough teachers because that’s a huge thing for students when they come back — a permanent teacher in the classroom. ”

Phalen’s challenge was extreme — a problem exacerbated by management changes and by the dissolution of the state-run recovery district that had been overseeing the three schools. They’re now overseen by a Detroit district unsure of its plans for charters.

But the schools’ scramble for teachers is hardly unusual in a city where generous school choice laws, a decentralized school system and a shrinking pool of available teachers have so destabilized the teacher labor force that many school leaders say they’re constantly looking for new educators to hire.

“I’ve never seen anything quite like this in my career,” said Mark Ornstein who heads the seven-campus University Prep charter school network in Detroit. “There’s just not enough people to fill the number of vacancies ... We’re all seeing more and more teachers leaving in the middle of the year.”

So many schools are looking for teachers — in August, September and throughout the year — that educators can wait for bonuses and enticements to grow before accepting an offer. And every time a teacher takes an offer and leaves, that creates a vacancy likely to be filled by a teacher from another school. That other school then has a vacancy to fill.

As teachers leave, students suffer. Research shows that teachers hired during or just before the school year are less effective than those who’ve had more time to prepare and properly learn their school’s curriculum.

Experts say the teacher churn is driven in part by the fierce competition between schools in Detroit that has intensified as charter schools have expanded — they now comprise nearly half of the city’s schools — and as more suburban schools actively recruit city kids. Parents often enroll in multiple schools while weighing their options and schools are left to guess how many students they’ll have and how many teachers they’ll need.

“It’s another consequence of this hyper-competition that has been created by our charter school programs and laws here in Michigan and it’s really working to the detriment of everybody involved,” said Mike Addonizio, a professor of education policy at Wayne State University.

“The schools are competing for students,” he said. “The students will dictate the revenues and that dictates their budget and therefore their ability to hire staff … And if a school is plagued with high teacher turnover, that makes it difficult for students. “Outcomes won’t be good and as that information becomes public, those schools don’t do well in school choice decisions and enrollment will drop.”

Some Detroit schools are now pushing back on teachers who quit mid-year by putting financial penalties into teachers’ contracts that discourage them from leaving, but advocates say real solutions will require major changes.

Among them: improving conditions in schools so that teachers want to stay and creating partnerships between district and charter schools to minimize instability.

“In other states, schools set their budgets and know their enrollment so much further ahead that they can come to a [spring] job fair and know exactly who they need to hire,” said Karey Henderson, the director of the Metro Detroit Charter Center who was the assistant superintendent of a 10-school Michigan charter network called Global Educational Excellence.

In Michigan, enrollment “doesn’t really get fleshed out often until (student) Count Day” in  October, Henderson said. “Teachers are nervous and they’re applying around …. We would be trying to train new teachers but then a public school would get more kids and need more teachers and our teachers would get a call … We would have to start out the year with long-term subs in the classroom.”

Then, if parents see a substitute in the classroom, they might move their child to another school — and the churn continues.

Much of the attention this year has focused on the difficulties facing Detroit’s main school district as it works to fill scores of vacancies  in its 106 schools, but the problem is playing out somewhat differently in charter schools where teachers tend to be younger and are more likely to change jobs — or to leave the profession entirely — from one year to the next.

A recent report from the state education department found that charter school teachers are twice as likely to leave their jobs compared to teachers in traditional public schools. The same report found a higher teacher turnover in Michigan as compared to the national average and put the price tag of replacing a teacher at nearly $10,000.

Another state report shows the problem for all schools could get worse in coming years as the number of people applying for teacher certifications drops precipitously — much faster than the number of students who need a teacher.

School leaders say they’re taking steps to attract more teachers. Detroit school  superintendent Nikolai Vitti says he’s working to build a “teacher pipeline” that would encourage district graduates to go into education, do their training in Detroit and work here when they graduate.

Charter school leaders say they’re making similar efforts.

Grand Valley State University now provides scholarships to education students who do their training in Detroit charter schools overseen by Grand Valley, said Rob Kimball, who heads the university’s charter school office.  

Leaders from Grand Valley charter schools have also been meeting with their counterparts from schools overseen by Central Michigan University to discuss a “coordinated talent strategy,” Kimball said.

“There’s definitely an interest in coming up with a shared solution,” Kimball said. “We need to design a solution to really stabilize the marketplace for teacher talent and to develop a pipeline [for future teachers].”

In the absence of a citywide solution, individual schools are doing whatever they can to fill classrooms.

At the Phalen Leadership Academies, Robinson, the top official, said her schools  applied for emergency certifications to put some people without teaching credentials into classrooms. The new teachers will get extra coaching to help them succeed, Robinson said, but it was a tough choice for an Indiana-based network that prides itself on hiring only highly qualified staff.

“None of our other schools in our network use emergency permits,” Robinson said.

Some charter schools have created bonus systems that require teachers to return for the next school year in order to collect last year’s bonus.

Others — including the University Prep schools — have contracts that don’t allow teachers to get their full summer pay unless they return for the new school year.

Social studies teacher Aaron Ames said he learned that the hard way when he resigned his job at the University Prep Academy Middle School on Aug. 18 to take a position with a different school.

Suddenly, he said, his last paycheck disappeared from his bank account.

“I looked at my bank account one day and saw a negative $900,” Ames said.

University Prep had paid him on Aug. 15 but took the money back when he quit three days later.

Ornstein said his teachers’ contracts begin on Aug. 1. If they resign before teacher training begins on Aug. 21, it means they didn’t do any work and shouldn’t have been paid.

Ames was furious. “It kind of makes me want to quit teaching,” he said. “They should find a way to keep teachers honestly, instead of trying to punish us for leaving.”

Contract provisions that seem designed to penalize departures are becoming increasingly common in Detroit charter schools, teachers union leaders say.

“At one charter school, the teachers call it the ‘death tax,’” said Nate Walker, an organizer and policy analyst with the Michigan chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, which represents teachers in the main Detroit district and in a handful of city charter schools. “They’re loading up penalties on teachers to try to deter them from leaving so close to the beginning of the school year … but that’s not going to fix the problem because the labor market in Detroit is destabilized and decentralized.”

Walker called for schools to give teachers contracts earlier in the year and to coordinate with each other so that teachers can know they’ll have income and health insurance over the summer even if they plan to change jobs in September.

The current structure encourages teachers to hold on to last year’s job until the insurance for next year’s job kicks in in August or September, Walker said.

“This is a lot easier said than done because of the multi-operator system that we have right now, but if employers were to make the commitment that any time they’ve given someone an offer to work in the fall, they’re also willing to turn on insurance for that employee, that could solve at least part of the problem,” Walker said.

The only way to fix the rest of the problem, Addonizio said, is to address the reasons that teachers leave in the first place.  

“The best thing that a school or a school district can do to combat the teacher turnover problem is to improve working conditions in the school,” Addonizio said. “For new teachers, their compensation might mean something, but more than anything, they want some mentoring, assistance from veteran teachers. They want some help.”

Henderson said schools need to find a way to start working together — instead of just poaching teachers from each other.

“Get everyone in the room,” she said. “I know everyone is protective over how they manage their schools and run their H.R. but if you get enough H.R. people together in the same room, I think you can come up with a solution.”

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

If you learned something from the story you're reading please consider supporting our work. Your donation allows us to keep our Michigan-focused reporting and analysis free and accessible to all. All donations are voluntary, but for as little as $1 you can become a member of Bridge Club and support freedom of the press in Michigan during a crucial election year.

Pay with VISA Pay with MasterCard Pay with American Express Donate now

Comment Form

Add new comment

Dear Reader: We value your thoughts and criticism on the articles, but insist on civility. Criticizing comments or ideas is welcome, but Bridge won’t tolerate comments that are false or defamatory or that demean, personally attack, spread hate or harmful stereotypes. Violating these standards could result in a ban.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.


Walter P. Duro
Thu, 11/30/2017 - 9:50am

“For new teachers, their compensation might mean something, but more than anything, they want some mentoring, assistance from veteran teachers. They want some help.” - Mike Addonizio, Wayne State University Professor

Am willing to help teach a couple of Algebra Classes (grades 5-9) & mentor - an individual or two who want to learn a bit about the Socratic Method.

Complete Autonomy

“The best thing that a school or a school district can do to combat the teacher turnover problem is to improve working conditions in the school” - Addonizio

"Working Conditions" is Code for the Kids are Crazy, the Parents are Crazy, the Administration is Crazy, especially the Teachers are Crazy, the entire System is Crazy.

Le Roy G. Barnett
Thu, 11/30/2017 - 9:50am

This article says that Grand Valley State University will give scholarships to students who do their raining in charter schools. It would be interesting to know if similar opportunities are given to those who do their training in public schools, or if the system is rigged in favor of charter schools.

Jim tomlinson
Thu, 11/30/2017 - 11:30am

The result of teacher/public ed bashing by neo cons and charter school business. Three solutions? Very high compensation, respect, fewer charters

Sun, 12/03/2017 - 9:33am

Upvote - yes absolutely.

Rob Pollard
Tue, 12/05/2017 - 6:37pm

Absolutely. These charters complaining about lack of "stability" -- the whole idea of wide-spread, uncapped, largely unsupervised charters is to create fierce "competition" and "choice" for students. Well, having too many schools chasing too few students leads to a lack of stability and plenty of choices, but plenty of them poor.

This could have been helped by adding an oversight board in Detroit for traditional public and charter, but nope -- can't have that.

So this issue is only going to get worse. New teachers are not coming into the marketplace and the Repubs in Lansing keep making the job less appealing (see recent change to retirement system, even though it is fully funded). We'll continue our race to the bottom.

A Teacher
Thu, 11/30/2017 - 11:38am

Having worked for both Charter schools and Public Schools, neither is great or good. The Charter schools were just turn over mills, with teachers leaving left and right over and over again. I even left after the first half of the year due to pay issues. After 17 years of being a teacher, I was taking home pay checks that were the same size as when I started teaching. Now I am back in Public Schools and I am upset still with the oversize classes, administration having their hands too full to support their teachers, lack of students understanding what it means to be a student, and a legislature that does nothing but harm teachers' pay and comfort. How do you expect teachers to teach well if they don't feel comfort. When we are afraid, we don't teach as well. I have heard it many times by teachers (long time veteran teachers) to tell others not to go into teaching as it is not stable, safe, or paying. A person graduating from college will make more in 5 years, than I have working 20 years. How is that proper or acceptable to the masses? For that person to be able to do that they had to have teachers that whole time.

Thu, 11/30/2017 - 12:20pm

This article makes it sound like a Detroit problem but it is across the state. The warning signs were there but ignored. Students cant afford to do student teaching for an entire year, they are already saddled with student loans that will take 20 years or more to pay off. The universities need to get back to requiring only a semester of student teaching. With the universities requiring classroom experience prior to student teaching, a semester of student teaching is enough. Second thing, if the pension is gone, then teachers dont have a financial reason to stay. My son changed schools and there was a bidding war.
Teachers have not been valued the way they should be. The low pay coupled with plenty of off hours work has driven people into other fields. Try giving them back their 3% that the state took, try increasing the foundation grants so districts can give pay raises, let districts raise more funds locally, hire security guards at dangerous schools, reward good results and value the schools as you should and maybe Michigan can turn this around.

Kevin Grand
Thu, 11/30/2017 - 12:55pm

Perhaps Ms. Einhorn can tell readers why teachers would want to work in a district where the students don't want to learn and the parent doesn't care if their child to learns?

Fri, 12/01/2017 - 8:13am

Exactly right. Inner City schools like Detroit have become too much like Childcare Centers rather than Learning Centers. When you have ~90% of school children coming from Single Mother homes with the vast majority in Generational Comfortable Poverty....it doesn't matter how much you pay the teachers. Academic Achievement will always be stagnant.

Bob Balwinski
Thu, 11/30/2017 - 1:35pm

I retired but still have a MI Permanent Secondary Teacher Certificate and am "highly-qualified" in accordance with federal requirements. Hear me now.......I am NOT coming back. Note, also, that my Systems Architect son and my company CEO son are not quitting their high paid positions to enter the field of education.

Sun, 12/03/2017 - 12:08am

The article seems focused on money to the exclusion of all other considerations, that raises questions about how the people in the schools see education and people. I wonder if those seeking the teachers have paused in their recruiting to asked the teachers, the students, and others what are the issues that could be improved to make the individual schools and appealing place to work. I wonder if the schools have pause to consider if there is a different way to approach to student learning that will change the learning/teaching environment and make if a place where together people can have a more visible impact.

There are many work situations that are severe and yet people stay because of the impact they have, the influence they have on how they work, even when those outside the workplace do not show an appreciation of what they are doing, the conditions they have address, and the results they are achieving. I wonder if the struggling schools have reached out to successful organizations outside the education field to discuss the issues they are addressing and gather means/methods those outside organizations are using to address the issues at hand.

Many times by getting different perspectives on a problem those having to address the problem can discovery new approaches or modifications to existing approaches that can improve results. When problems seem insurmountable it may be time to let go of convention and develop innovative ideas.

Michigan Observer
Sun, 12/03/2017 - 6:55pm

"Henderson said schools need to find a way to start working together — instead of just poaching teachers from each other." Sounds suspiciously like price fixing and restraint of trade.

Mike Sayler
Tue, 12/05/2017 - 12:05pm

Eastern Michigan University provides support to high school students interested in being teachers, significant scholarships if they come to EMU for their teacher training, a community at EMU of education students from urban settings for them to belong to for support and friendship, and the K-12 schools from which they came agree to interview them for a job when they graduate and are certified. This applies to any student from DPSCD and from a number of the charter schools in Detroit (not just the ones chartered through EMU). The EMU program is call our Pathways Program and more information is available at emich.edu/coe/programs/pathways