Majority of Michigan public schools started school year short on teachers

Six out of 10 Michigan school districts started this school year without enough full-time teachers to fill their classrooms, according to a survey of Michigan school superintendents.

The survey, conducted the second week of September by the Michigan Association of Superintendents and Administrators, found 518 classrooms in 178 school districts that did not have a full-time, certified teacher.

“It’s disturbing,” said Chris Wigent, executive director of MASA. “This confirms the teacher shortage that leads to using long-term substitutes.”

Long-term substitutes can lead a classroom for as long as a full school year, but are not required to be certified teachers or have a college degree in any subject. In Michigan, someone can qualify to become a long-term sub with as few as 60 college credits.

A Bridge investigation found that the number of Michigan classrooms led by long-term substitutes grew 10-fold in five years, with the total in the 2018-19 school year reaching 2,500 such teachers.

Students who need good teachers the most – low-income and academically struggling students – are the most likely to be stuck with long-term substitutes who aren’t required to have a four-year degree or any teacher training.

Superintendents in over 50 percent of the school districts in the state responded to the survey. In 12 percent of those districts, there were four or more classrooms without permanent, certified teachers.

The biggest shortage in certified teachers by far was special education, where superintendents reported 216 openings (41 percent of all reported openings).

“I’m tired of reading articles saying we don’t have a teacher shortage,” Wigent said. “This data, whether people want to agree with it or not, shows our districts are seeing a shortage of quality educators.”

Fewer college students are going in to teaching. Enrollment in teacher prep programs at Michigan universities dropped 66 percent over seven years between 2009 and 2016. While overall, there are enough students graduating from Michigan’s university-based teaching programs to replace teachers who retire and quit, they are not evenly distributed geographically or by teaching specialty, according to a report by the Citizens Research Council of Michigan.

Shortages are most severe in urban and rural schools. In Benton Harbor Public Schools, 42 percent of teachers were long-term substitutes last year, for example. Charter schools, where teacher salaries often are lower than in traditional public schools, are more likely to be staffed with long-term substitutes, according to Bridge’s analysis. Charter school students were four times more likely to have a long-term substitute as a teacher than students in traditional schools. 

The decline in college grads choosing a career in teaching is a national phenomenon. Teachers generally earn less money than others with comparable levels of education.

 That shortage is forcing districts to turn to less-qualified long-term substitutes at a time when Michigan is struggling to turn around its K-12 schools, which rank in the bottom third in the nation in test scores.

“You won’t find a superintendent who thinks that [long-term substitutes] are a good idea,” Wigent said. “We all agree it’s not the best way to go for children, but we’re forced to go that direction.”

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