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Opinion | No teacher shortage yet in Michigan, but the talent pipeline is leaking

Governor Gretchen Whitmer has announced plans to make improving education in Michigan a top priority of her administration. This can’t be accomplished without a supply of dedicated, well-trained teachers - the most important in-school factor to student learning. Our new report, Michigan’s Leaky Teacher Pipeline: Examining Trends in Teacher Demand and Supply, is an opportunity to inform policymakers and other stakeholders about this vital component of any improvement plan.

There is good news. Michigan does not appear to have an immediate teacher shortage. The teaching workforce is aligned with student enrollment, the primary demand factor, and should allow the state to maintain its current student/teacher ratio. We know some individual school districts have had trouble attracting teachers, but that suggests a maldistribution of talent rather than a shortage.

However, just dipping our toes into the data revealed a number of issues that may not bode well for districts hoping to ensure sufficient teachers to lead their classrooms in the future.

Michigan’s teaching workforce has shrunk by 16 percent over the last decade. That decline corresponds with the 12 percent reduction in the number of students enrolled in Michigan public schools. School districts are consolidating students into fewer classrooms and buildings. Obviously, fewer teachers are needed at the front of those classrooms.

More alarming is the high rate of newly certified teachers aborting their nascent careers, as well as high rates of turnover, as teachers move between districts. Young teachers are leaving the profession at a rate of 17 percent in the first five years. Additionally, Michigan has higher teacher turnover than the national average, with the highest rates found among urban districts and charter schools (regardless of geographic location).

My first piece of advice is for state policymakers in charge of education funding and administrators burdened with the continuous need to fill holes in their teaching corps: Concentrate on retention. Hiring new teachers is expensive and disruptive to student learning. Districts must do more to keep the ones they have.

Retention might be addressed on several fronts.

The average teacher salary in Michigan was roughly $62,000 in 2016-17. While Michigan compensates teachers well relative to other states, we also must examine what people with college degrees (master’s degrees for many teachers) earn in other professions. The student loans many graduates are burdened with may lead many to reexamine their career choices.

Administrators also should focus on teacher residency programs. Like a medical residency, they partner newcomers with master teachers for individualized training and mentoring. The programs should go on for longer than the half year of paired classroom experience many rookie teachers currently experience.

These reforms require funding – made available by the state and allocated by administrators. While salary levels are set by districts, funding is determined at the state level, necessitating a coordinated focus.

Those administrators also should aim to ensure that school leaders are working to provide positive organizational structures in every building.

We also looked at the paths leading people into the teaching profession, the “pipeline.” Trends here do not bode well for the future.

Michigan’s pipeline is leaking. Fewer high school graduates are enrolling in and completing teacher prep programs offered by our state universities. As a result, the number of new teaching certificates issued by the state has declined by 62 percent in the last 15 years.

The state has opened alternative paths to the profession, but those taking them are not sufficient to overcome declines in the traditional pipeline.

Pending shortages become a greater threat when we look at the subject areas that new graduates are being certified to teach. While the greatest needs are in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), special education, early childhood, English as a Second Language, and career technical subject areas, an increasing number of college graduates are being certified for elementary teaching.

My second piece of advice is for state policymakers to develop programs to lure potential teachers into the pipeline and prepare them to teach these high-need subject areas. Student loan forgiveness and/or assistance would be a great start.

One path could have the state emulate the Michigan State Loan Repayment Program that aims to get more primary care doctors into underserved areas by offering tax-free funds to repay student loans over several years. These programs should be targeted to districts and subject areas where the evidence of needs are the greatest.

A third approach could focus on a “grow your own” strategy. College scholarships could be offered to high school graduates from high-need areas if they become teachers prepared to tackle high-need subject areas in their own cities, towns or neighborhoods.  

Again, save for some individual districts and subject areas, a shortage of teachers has not become a statewide problem. But our pipeline is leaking. Policymakers would be wise to pay attention before those leaks drain it dry.

Bridge welcomes guest columns from a diverse range of people on issues relating to Michigan and its future. The views and assertions of these writers do not necessarily reflect those of Bridge or The Center for Michigan. Bridge does not endorse any individual guest commentary submission. If you are interested in submitting a guest commentary, please contact Ron French. Click here for details and submission guidelines.

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