Frustrated by teacher shortages, Michigan educators offer their solutions


Teachers suggest signing bonuses and better mentoring could help Michigan’s teacher shortage. (Bridge file photo)

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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Mon, 02/17/2020 - 9:40pm

As long as the MEA and the legislature view each other as the "enemy" the chance for meaningful reform is probably hopeless. A mideast peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians probably have a better chance than education reform in Michigan.

Tue, 02/18/2020 - 8:02am

That's about right except the battle is a left vs. right thing. Better off letting people decide and go their own way …. oh wait, the MEA can't abide that!

Thu, 02/20/2020 - 10:11am

Not that I ever expect a coherent answer, but how exactly do you propose letting the people decide in this situation?

Jim tomlinson
Tue, 03/03/2020 - 9:50am

teacher shortages are due to demonization of teachers, public education and union workers. Privates and charters lower standards, depress incomes, resulting in teacher shortages

Tue, 02/18/2020 - 7:05am

This article has helpful insights, but it would have been more useful had the nine recommendations by teachers been ranked by them. The reason has to do with a problem with "wish lists": when people try to tackle them all, none get done. When they focus on the top two or three, those have a chance of getting done.

Tue, 02/18/2020 - 8:05am

Maybe signing bonuses for NEW teachers? And for first 5 -10 years? Just raising pay to above average status has clearly shown to have brought us nothing to very little.

Bob Balwinski
Tue, 02/18/2020 - 9:58am

Perhaps the national average for teachers' salaries is way to low for the amount of education and experience our teachers have. Perhaps we should treat teachers with respect as is done over most of the planet.

Tue, 02/18/2020 - 6:00pm

Well Bob, if it's pay, then shouldn't Michigan be relatively outperforming the average state? From the constant harping doesn't appear to be so. Most people and I as well generally like their kid's teachers so I'm not sure where this pity tale is from.

Thu, 02/20/2020 - 10:14am

Matt, I'm going to keep screaming this at you until you get it through your thick head: The largest indicator of academic achievement is poverty or lack thereof. We've got hundreds of thousands of kids living in poverty; we need to be paying teachers more, but we aren't going to see meaningful scholastic improvement until we address the systemic poverty across the state

Bob Balwinski
Tue, 02/18/2020 - 8:46am

How do our legislators' salaries compare to the national average? Are salaries from states with part-time legislators included since ours are full-time?
Just curious.

Tue, 02/18/2020 - 9:26am

It's going to cost a lot more than $2,200 per year to attract young college graduates to teach in a rural area...or Detroit.

Tue, 02/18/2020 - 9:45am

The Republican war on labor, most particularly, educators, has brought about this carnage. Educators and the MEA were seen as political enemies and the Republican controlled legislature has done all it could to weaken and defund them. Legislation has weakened tenure and underfunded retirement funds. School funding has not kept up with inflation. Millage proposals were stifled and school boards have scrambled to carry out their missions. Charter schools have snatched portions of the funding while escaping the same accountability that public schools face. College costs have risen and the debt that now comes with it gives people little hope that a teacher salary will comfortably allow them to reasonably pay it off. Teachers with years of experience and education beyond the basics find their skill and experience to be an albatross if seeking work elsewhere. Today’s best and brightest are not stupid. They see the whole picture and opt for work where they don’t have political enemies just because of their profession. A shame on both your houses!

Thu, 02/20/2020 - 9:36am

I hate to do this but if you adjust for costs and look at the percentages the US isn't top of the heap and education is a relatively small part of the total budget.

Wed, 02/19/2020 - 9:57am

Absolutely. The constant demonizing of educators has had consequences. Everyone in the state is paying for these actions.

Tue, 02/18/2020 - 11:08am

I’ve taught for nearly forty years, in private and public schools, with at-risk and privileged students. My thoughts:
1. If we truly believe that mainstreaming is best for nearly every special-needs student, just plunking them in a regular classroom does not ‘cure’ their disability. Depending on the particular diagnosis and and behavior issues, that student and their teacher may need a lot more help, such as trained support staff and a resource room. No one can learn in a classroom where the ADHD kids are roaming around the room and shouting over the teacher, the ASD kid is having a meltdown, and the EI kid is threatening everyone. (True story, BTW.)
2. Figure out how to keep funding teacher pensions and decent health insurance. Teaching is a tough tough job and those benefits helped keep me in the profession. Otherwise I might have left for some other job that also had mediocre benefits, but less stress.
3. Stop beating up teachers. Parents need to be supportive of their kids, but also accept that the teacher is a trained professional with (usually) very good judgment. After a long exhausting day, the last thing a teacher needs is emails from parents demanding ‘do-overs’ on tests that were fair, ‘make-up extra credit,’ and the like. (Also true stories.) Administration needs to be respectful of teachers’ time and not schedule staff meetings that run two-hours-plus after a nine-hour work day (a day where we never got more than a three-minute bathroom break, another true story) and keep teachers in positions that are a good fit for their qualifications. They also should not force teachers into taking on extracurricular coaching jobs (I was told to take extra coaching jobs my first year of teaching as well as having a difficult teaching schedule. I didn’t get much sleep that year.) The community needs to support teachers with their wallets, including paying for smaller class sizes and support staff as needed. The community also needs to stop saying stupid stuff like ‘Teachers only work six hours a day,‘ (then why was I sitting at the kitchen table working at home night after night?) and ‘teachers get all summer off.’ (Eight weeks‘ UNPAID time, often while doing continuing education. All certified teachers are now required to complete the equivalent of a Masters’ degree within a limited time frame, on their own time, on their own dime. They get a bump in pay only after the degree is finished and documented. And they must do more professional education on-going, forever. And you know what? Most of us, at least the ones without caregiving responsibilities, would still rather work all year, as long as we were paid for it.)
3. I’ve been union and I’ve been non-union. The MEA has its flaws, as do all human organizations, but without it we’d have classrooms of 50 +kids, being taught by minimally-qualified staff, and no one would ever get even a 25-minute lunch or any prep time. We’d be working nights and weekends on-site at school as well as working at home. Teachers would be fired when the boss had a friend that needed a job. (Also, sadly, a non-union true story.)
Union’s better. Way better.
And Right-To-Work gives everyone the benefits of a union, without having to pay for it. I say, if you don’t want to pay union dues, then you be the guy whose job description changes in the middle of the year, who has forty or fifty kids in every class, who doesn’t get even the regular 25-minute lunch break, has no health insurance, and can be laid off without notice. (And for crying out loud, once and for all: YOU CAN fire tenured union teachers. I have seen it done. Administration just needs to have a paper trail, and principals do not like to do evaluations, especially critical ones. That is why poor teachers are retained, NOT because of the MEA.)
So ask yourself, given how things are—why would anyone go into teaching?

Tue, 02/18/2020 - 11:37am

And of course—teacher unions have fought hard for a living wage. When I was non-union, my pay was about 30% lower, with reduced benefits, with many more working days and hours required, including weekends and Sundays at the school—- than when I was in a union shop. Also my boss liked to remind us “This is an at-will work environment,” whenever he assigned extra hours or extra jobs to us. There’s a morale-builder for you.

Jim Ross
Wed, 02/19/2020 - 6:50pm

Anne: YOU are the treasure I've heard so much about over many years and recall during my personal learning journey , now entering it's seventh decade. THANK YOU for your service and here's hoping the students you serve and those going forward, recall the gifts you bestowed on them. (True story)

Mon, 03/02/2020 - 2:32pm

You are dead on! I spent 3 years earning a double Master's to become a Reading Specialist in Florida and worked with the drop out prevention kids for years. Then the state decided every teacher should have a reading endorsement and a standardized curriculum - right down to the minute of instruction. No longer me and my kids trying TOGETHER in every way to meet the ever-increasing "standards" deemed acceptable. This took every ounce of passion and creativity out of me … AND my students. We are no longer allowed to tailor our instruction to what we know will work for our students. The inclusion model is a disservice to the kids it is intended to help. Not to mention the detrimental effect it has on the "regular" kids. You cannot deliver any meaningful instruction at all anymore because you are too busy trying to corral chaos, keep up with ridiculous timelines, constantly documenting what you are doing and why, and having to explain yourself to multiple entities when you try to go out of the parameters because you know and have been trained to know what the kids need and how to give it to them. And you get to do all of this for the brilliant sum of $40,000 dollars a year and a shaky at best pension plan. It's exhausting, frustrating, and is being designed by fools who think they know what's best … who have never set foot in a classroom. Ready to sign up??? Didn't think so ….

jess atwell
Tue, 02/18/2020 - 11:12am

More money?? To do what?? Statistically, Michigan schools have been failing for as long as I can remember. We've plowed more and more money into the system which hasn't worked. Student testing has proven that education is failing them. The problem is political administrators have deteriorated curriculum's to the point that nothing is working for anybody. Why would anybody want to work in a culture which doesn't allow teachers to teach? Money won't solve that problem has been proven time and again. When do legislators dissolve the whole thing and go back to what worked for children before this mess began?

Tue, 02/18/2020 - 11:50am

I would argue that most schools are not failing. Tests results are poor in some areas with some students, but it would be useful to remember that testing companies make a lot of money selling tests, and grading test results. The charter school and people love to push the ‘failing schools’ narrative so they can claim more tax dollars.
The reality is that schools are doing about the same as they always have. Society has changed in that more kids are in single-parent families, less families can afford to have a parent at home full-time, and big money has gotten involved in ways to make money in education. Those factors have probably accounted for more challenges to schools than anything that teachers have or have not done. But most schools do have success stories—special-needs kids are finishing high school, AP and other high level courses are doing their job, and awareness of LGBT and racial issues have improved the social experience at least a little bit.
Test results are only one limited measure of how our schools are doing. And the tests themselves can be pretty flawed.

Bob Balwinski
Tue, 02/18/2020 - 4:29pm

Anne, it was because of a standardized test that I learned HIBERNATING BEARS ARE TORPIDLY LETHARGIC. Isn't this something all Michigan students need to know to be successful in the real world?????????????????????????????????

Wed, 02/19/2020 - 2:12pm

This is true, but can't you (most people) say the very same thing about 90% of what they learn in high school? Let’s face it, most learn what they must long enough to take the test then forget. Standardized tests have very little to do with this, it's always been so. Maybe this is the argument for more independent individualized learning that you can use and is likely to stick? Seems after reading, writing and arithmetic and some basic science it's pretty much up for grabs. This is not the direction the Ed establishment you are part of wants to go.

Tue, 02/18/2020 - 5:20pm

"Student testing has proven that education is failing them. " Student testing has proved that student testing has failed students. Student testing has proved education has failed those students who live in poverty and are segregated. Students who live in areas of affluence are doing just fine. And again, it is not just the lack of resources provided poorer districts; it is the environment in which these students live.

Tue, 02/18/2020 - 12:56pm

Michigan republicans would have you believe that they are fiscally conservative, yet they would rather invest in growing the prison population than in public schools. It costs Michigan taxpayers $38K per year to warehouse someone who does not contribute to the tax base, but we only spend $11K per year on each student to build our future economy. This model is backwards and is irresponsible. None of these bullets tell the hard truth that we simply need to raise revenue in order to attract and retain the best and brightest teachers in order to be competitive in the future global market. Someone who is honestly fiscally conservative would rather spend more money today to avoid paying a whole lot more money tomorrow.

Tue, 02/18/2020 - 4:42pm

As a retired teacher of 33 years it has been sad to watch the continuing decimation of the profession. Why have the teacher education programs declined by 70% ? Simple. Who would go into education when the republican legislature and former governors declared war on teachers starting with Engler in the 90's. Virtually all the job protections have been eliminated. If someone doesn't like you, you can be gone. These buffoons in the legislature think they know how to run a school and are still mad about that teacher way back then they didn't like. Any young person asks about going into education I strongly advise against it. Who needs the grief. The parents questioning every move. The politicians deciding every kid should read at age 8. The lack of respect in the community created by Lansing politicians. My only hope is that the gerrymandering commission will take care of business. Perhaps we should save a lot of money if we eliminated all the teacher education programs at state universities. Obviously they aren't needed any more.

Wed, 02/19/2020 - 1:00am

It is the same old things, adults talking to adults about how to spend more of other people's money.
Who needs to do the learning, the adults or the students, there is nothing about listening to the students, there is nothing about what the barriers to learning that the students face, there nothing about how to helping understand and apply the learning process, there is nothing about how and why students are succeeding and how that differs from those that aren't succeeding.
There is nothing about listening to parents and what their learning expectations are for their students, there is nothing about what, how, and why the parents of successful parents do and how that differs from parents activities of children that aren't succeeding.
There is nothing about learning culture within/out of neighborhood schools and how that influences learning performance and how that can be leverage across all schools.
There is nothing about the community and its expectations, about parents/others that don't have kids in school, nothing about what they would like to do to help.
The list about what is left out seems longer than what is on their list of what to do, and there is nothing new on the list in the article from what we have been hearing for decades.
The reality is there are thousands of successful graduates every year and yet none of the adults in doing the talking or those being talked don't show any interest in learning how they have succeeded that all the adults are claiming is failing.

Wed, 02/19/2020 - 9:32am

“Too often, legislators think they know how to run a classroom just because they were once a student,”
“Our state lawmakers rarely seek input from those on the frontlines,”

According to our state constitution, lawmakers have the responsibility to fund education, not set policy. Policy decisions are supposed to be made by a different elected body, the Michigan State Board of Education.

State education policy making is splintered and mangled among: the governor, multiple state departments, numerous legislative committees, both legislative houses and last and least, the organization that is supposed to have sole policy making authority, the elected Michigan State Board of Education.

This mish mash of fragmented leadership and fragmented authority is the biggest reason why our public education system is on the decline.

Bill Swift
Wed, 02/19/2020 - 11:13am

Wow. Maybe the DeVos family and conservative Republicans should have waged a 20 year war on public education. Bridge magazine, being the mouthpiece for these powerful special interests, bears responsibility for this sad state of affairs.

Wed, 02/19/2020 - 4:37pm

Calling Bridge a mounthpiece for the DeVos family is like Bernie Sanders calling Nancy Pelosi a right winger and just sounds ignorant.

Fri, 02/21/2020 - 4:27pm

Nancy Pelosi is right wing, simp. You're so far out in insane libertarian territory that you think the defender of silicon valley and supporter of the American war machine is a Leftist

I Parker
Mon, 02/24/2020 - 10:03am

I also would add that many of us former teachers decided to stay home with our babies and our certification expired as the number of college classes I would have to take to keep certified was way too expensive. I was never given opportunities to go to teacher conferences to get those credits. I had to seek them out and pay for them myself to get very little credit.

Jim tomlinson
Tue, 03/03/2020 - 9:46am

Dislike public money finding its way into private hands. This a ideological and financial conspiracy.