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Frustrated by teacher shortages, Michigan educators offer their solutions

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Paid internships, recruiting bonuses and reduced emphasis on standardized tests are among the recommendations of Michigan teachers to address the state’s growing teacher shortage.

The proposals, included in a report released Monday by the state’s two largest teacher unions and a consortium of urban school districts, are a response to teacher shortages hobbling some Michigan schools.

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The shortages have led to a startling rise in uncertified long-term substitutes leading classrooms, as well as a teacher workforce less diverse than Michigan students, challenges facing school districts across much of the country.

Enrollment in Michigan teacher prep programs dropped 70 percent in eight years. There were 16,000 fewer college students majoring in K-12 education degree programs in the 2016-17 school year (the most recent year statistics are available) than in 2008-09, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education. 

Meanwhile, a disturbing number of current teachers have soured on the profession or are looking for the exits. In a 2019 survey, only 25 percent of Michigan teachers said they’d recommend the profession to young people considering a career in education. One in 8 in that same survey said they were considering leaving teaching.

Those trends matter in Michigan schools, which, according to state rankings in the National Assessment of Educational Progress, often called “the nation’s report card,” are still below average.

Teacher quality is the most important factor inside school buildings influencing student achievement. Teacher shortages that force schools to scramble to find bodies to put in front of classrooms hamper the ability of the state to boost student achievement.

One result of teacher shortages, as Bridge Magazine first reported: The number of uncertified long-term substitutes, who can lead a classroom for up to a full year, grew tenfold in Michigan in just the past five years.

According to the teacher survey report released Monday, six focus groups, consisting of 120 Michigan teachers, were asked what public policies they believe would help make recruit future and retain current educators. Their recommendations included:

  • Incentives or recruitment bonuses for new teachers or early-career teachers
  • Equity-based funding for school districts (more money to schools with greater needs, such as schools with more low-income, special education or English language-learner students).
  • More classroom support staff
  • Greater educator input on working conditions and education reforms
  • Reduce reliance on standardized tests
  • Reduce barriers to, and the cost of, teacher certification and recertification
  • Improve mentor programs for young teachers
  • Paid internships for aspiring teachers
  • Diversifying the teacher prep experience of aspiring teachers

A common frustration expressed by teachers involved in the focus groups, according to the report, was the lack of teacher input in state-level education policy reforms.

“Too often, legislators think they know how to run a classroom just because they were once a student,” said Heather Gauck, a special-education teacher in Grand Rapids, at a news conference announcing the release of the report Monday. “They need to take the time to listen to frontline educators before implementing policy.”

Some of the teacher proposals are already being done. Saginaw Public School District is among those in the state offering signing bonuses to attract teachers. And the Michigan Department of Education offers advice for districts short on educators on how to “grow your own” teachers, by hiring uncertified workers and then providing those teachers training to reach certification.

Another recommendation of teachers in the focus groups — across-the-board pay hikes for educators — may be a tougher sell. The average Michigan teacher earns $2,200 a year above the national average, in a state with the seventh lowest cost of living.

Donna Roark, assistant superintendent of personnel for Niles Community Schools, said the report is meant to spark more conversation about teacher shortages between teachers and policymakers. 

“Our state lawmakers rarely seek input from those on the frontlines,” Roark said at the news conference. "We must begin making our educators part of the discussion to continue attracting new, enthusiastic teachers to our classrooms.”

The survey was sponsored by the Michigan Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers and the Middle Cities Education Association, and conducted by Lansing-based Public Policy Associates.

 

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