By MADDY O’CALLAGHAN
Capital News Service
LANSING — The K-12 educator shortage in Michigan is a crisis that must be addressed, say education groups pushing for better teacher retention and recruitment programs.
“Too many classrooms are staffed with long-term subs — many not credentialed — because districts cannot find enough certified teachers to fill their vacancies,” said David Crim, a Michigan Education Association (MEA) communications consultant.
A study of 120 Michigan educators by Public Policy Associates in partnership with the American Federation of Teachers and the Middle Cities Education Association, recommended solutions to the shortage.
The MEA and the AFT are the state’s two largest unions of school personnel. Middle Cities is a consortium of urban school districts in Michigan.
MEA President Paula Herbart said it’s important to hear directly from teachers to address the issues.
A survey by Launch Michigan, a coalition of business, labor and education groups, found 75% of teachers said they wouldn’t recommend that anyone enter their profession.
Herbart said that changing the dialogue about educators is an important first step.
“What we need to do is stop talking about education as though it’s less than a profession,” Herbart said.
“We’re always going to have children. We’re always going to need teachers. And then it’s also about making sure our message to legislators, business and philanthropic groups across the state is that we are admirable human beings who work for the betterment of our society as a whole,” she said.
The study addressed conditions that deter current teachers from staying in the field.
Educators who participated in the study highlighted the need for increased pay, reduced class sizes and high-quality preschools as ways to improve working conditions.
Teacher shortages are a more severe problem in high-poverty areas with lower pay, according to the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C.
Traci Burton, the family and community engagement director for Benton Harbor Schools, said her district has difficulties recruiting teachers because pay is much lower than in neighboring districts.
The district has had problems with long-term subbing and high staff turnover rates.
“I couldn’t imagine what it’s like not to have the same teacher throughout the whole school year,” Burton said. “That lack of stability is devastating for a child. Teachers are some of the most influential people in our lives.”
To address the issue, the Benton Harbor district recently implemented a Teacher in Training program to make it easier for substitute teachers to get their official certification.
The program works with local colleges to help the substitutes get certified.
Burton, who started off as a permanent substitute herself, said the effects have been amazing.
The MEA said the Legislature should adopt Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s proposed education budget to address the need to address teachers.
Whitmer called for the highest state funding increase for schools in two decades. MEA’s Crim said districts could use the extra aid to raise starting salaries to at least $40,000 a year.
It’s “a reasonable measure when you consider the importance of their work and the magnitude of the crisis,” Crim said.
MEA is pushing legislators to roll back a portion of the $2 billion corporate tax cut implemented a decade ago and use some of those dollars to help early career teachers repay their student loan debt.
“Those two measures would have a real impact on Michigan’s teacher shortage crisis,” Crim said.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Michael Rice also supports Whitmer’s proposed budget and reiterated the Michigan Department of Education’s responsibility to teachers.
“We are committed to working with all interested parties to rebuild a profession that continues to be among the most honorable in our society, but which has been badly undermined and denigrated over the last half decade,” Rice said.
In addition to retention, education advocates say the state needs to address teacher recruitment and improve the quality of educator preparation.
The Center for American Progress, a nonpartisan policy institute based in Washington, D.C., found that Michigan had the second-largest declining rate of enrollment for teacher preparation programs in the country.
Michigan also ranked last in the proportion of students who completed their teacher-preparation programs from 2010 to 2018, according to the U.S Department of Education.
Herbart said, “It starts with our educators ourselves, and continuing to encourage our best and brightest students to want to be educators, to stop discouraging it.
“When a young person says to me ‘Mrs. Herbart, I want to go into education,’ I tell them I am so excited about that,” she said. “We’re trying to bridge the gap between our new educators and our aspiring educators so that they see the connection.”
Meanwhile, the Michigan Association of State Universities says it will make sure teacher preparation and professional development is a top policy issue. It represents the state’s 15 public universities.
The association promotes collaboration between education college deans and the state Education Department, said policy specialist Robert Murphy.
“There always needs to be a dialogue taking place so college leadership is being listened to here in Lansing,” Murphy said.
The association also meets with legislators on teacher education program bills to call attention to the impact they would have on state university programs.
Education advocates are also pushing to improve mentoring programs for early-career educators and paid internships for aspiring educators to improve teacher preparation programs.
Education advocates also want schools to address a lack of diversity among teachers. A 2017 study by Johns Hopkins University found that low-income African-American elementary school students who had at least one teacher of the same race were more likely to graduate high school.
Herbart said, “Nothing makes a difference more in the life of a child of color than seeing someone that looks like them in their classroom.”
Whitmer recently formed an Educator Advisory Council that will address diversity.
Herbart said her union will lead focus groups where educators of color can identify areas of needed support.
“Nothing will singularly impact the success of a student or lack of success of a student than having a quality public educator standing with them,” Herbart said. “It’s admirable work and it deserves quality pay and respect.”