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Michigan residents say they oppose uncertified teachers leading classrooms


In an era where education policy can be divisive, Michigan residents overwhelmingly agree on one thing: They want trained, certified teachers leading school classrooms.

A large majority say they are skeptical that long-term substitute teachers who currently are in charge of thousands of Michigan classrooms can provide a quality education for students, according to a new report based on polling and feedback from more than 1,800 residents across the state. 

A majority of those surveyed say that a relevant educational or professional background should be a prerequisite for substitutes who lead classrooms for long periods. And they want to be told if their child’s regular teacher lacks a state teaching certification. Neither of these things is currently required under state law.

Most residents surveyed say they also support a variety of ideas to increase the number of certified teachers in Michigan classrooms, including expanding the state’s Interim Teaching Certificate program for mid-career professionals who want to teach, and providing greater financial incentives to existing teachers.

Those were among Michiganders’ messages for state leaders in “No Substitute: The public’s agenda to reduce Michigan’s reliance on uncertified, long-term substitute teachers,” which summarizes public sentiment on the issue, released Thursday by the Center for Michigan and Bridge Magazine. 

A Bridge investigation published last summer and fall uncovering the state’s metastasized reliance on long-term, uncertified substitutes amid a shortage of certified teachers across much of Michigan. Though no part of the state is entirely immune, the increased reliance on substitutes intensifies in low-income rural and urban districts.

After identifying the issue, Bridge and the Center launched a statewide poll and hosted a conference in Lansing in late 2019 to see where the public stood. In the end, over 1,800 residents lent their voices to “No Substitute”. The report will be delivered to every state-level elected leader in Lansing to ensure residents’ voices are amplified to Michigan’s policymakers.

Desire for stricter standards and a heads up

Michigan residents told Bridge they want the state to demand more qualifications from long-term substitute candidates. 

Currently, the state requires 60 college credits in any subject to be eligible for a long-term substitute position. That is the equivalent of two years of college. By contrast, a certified teacher must complete a four-year bachelor's degree in a teachable subject, a teacher preparation program, and successfully complete student teaching experience.

Those who participated in the poll, including parents or guardians of K-12 students as well as members of the general public, said current qualifications for long-term substitutes are insufficient.

Nearly nine in 10 residents surveyed said they want the state to require formal teacher training before long-term subs step into a classroom. Nearly eight in 10 Michiganders said a bachelor’s degree and/or work experience relevant to the subject they are teaching should be required.

“Making those requirements — that's a good first step. We need to go back to having those requirements for anybody who's entering a classroom and working with children,” Dr. Elizabeth Birr Moje, dean of the University of Michigan School of Education, said in an interview with Bridge.

But, she cautions, if Michigan “made these changes, but they weren't able to provide the other sorts of changes that make teaching a profession that people want to enter and stay in...I don't know that those changes themselves would make a difference.” 

Without increasing the number of properly qualified teachers, the teacher shortage that is driving school districts’ reliance on uncertified teachers to fill vacancies will continue, she said.

Just over 45 percent of state residents said they are “very confident” that a full-time, certified teacher provides a good education, compared to 17 percent who expressed the same level of confidence that an uncertified, long-term substitute teacher can do so.

The poll revealed that 87 percent of residents would be “somewhat” or “very” concerned about a long-term sub leading their child’s classroom for a full year. A nearly identical portion say the state should require schools to tell parents and guardians if their child will be taught by a long-term sub for more than a week.

Some promising solutions 

Expanding the state’s Interim Teaching Certificate program was the most popular idea among state residents to reduce reliance on long-term, uncertified substitutes. The program is designed for mid-career professionals who already have a bachelor’s degree to get a teacher certification in one year. Ninety-seven percent of residents surveyed said they would support expanding the program.

“Young people … can go to four years of college and do another year-and-a-half of practice teaching, so we have to change that model for people [who want to teach but]  aren’t young people,” one Michigan resident said at a Bridge Magazine and Center for Michigan fall conference, Subbing Out Teachers: A Solutions Summit. “There’s a huge bulk of the population that is not young people.”

According to the Michigan Department of Education, nine secondary education programs issued 1,019 interim teaching certifications between 2012 and 2019.

Other ideas polled included: encourage undergraduates to enroll in education programs; providing financial incentives for teachers to work in understaffed schools, and reforming state law so retirees can substitute teach without receiving diminished retirement benefits. More than 92 percent of respondents supported each of these ideas.

Moje told Bridge a combination of these solutions is likely the most effective route. 

Retirees who re-enter the classroom are a wonderful resource, she said, but many retired for a reason so they make a better stopgap measure than a real solution.

As for promoting the teaching profession to undergraduates, “simply encouraging enrollment is not going to go very far,” she said. “I'm really happy to see people wanting to encourage undergraduate enrollment, but I think that has to be probably married to the idea of financial incentives” that make teaching a more attractive and financially feasible profession.

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