Michigan State University education students claim inequities in internship program

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By CHLOE TROFATTER 
Capital News Service

LANSING —Are teacher preparation programs driving prospective educators away from the field? 

Teacher certification in the state fell 24% between 2013-2017, according to a 2020 survey for the Michigan Education Association.

The study also found that more than one in 10 elementary and secondary educators plan to change careers in the next three years.

Lack of respect, inadequate salaries and overly demanding workloads were cited as a few of the top forces driving them out of the field. 

Michigan State University students mirrored similar sentiments in a 2020 survey about the College of Education’s fifth-year internship program. Interns are placed in school districts to gain student teaching experience and earn their certification.

The need for the survey was sparked by a financial aid meeting for seniors enrolling in the program for the 2021-22 school year. 

In it, Olivia Gundrum, a senior secondary education major, was told for the first time the cost of the program: a one-year, unpaid internship — familiarly known as student teaching — alongside a 24-credit course-load. 

“Suddenly, I realized how expensive the next year of my life is going to be,” Gundrum said. 

“Right now, how the program is designed, for a year of your life you’re going to be a full-time student but you’re not going to get a degree, and you’re going to work full time but you’re not going to get paid,” she said.

She expressed disappointment in the cost of the program during the meeting, and administrators told her that they receive the same concerns every year, according to Gundrum. 

“This told me that the faculty and administration is well aware that this program is inequitable” 

Michigan Education Association President Paula Herbart said, “One of the roadblocks that keep people from entering education is the high cost of going into education.” The MEA is the state’s largest union of teachers and other school personnel.

Following the meeting, Gundrum and Julia Alvarez, a fifth-year intern, surveyed MSU College of Education students on how they feel about the program and what they’d like to see from the college.

One student said, “This year has made me rethink my decision to become an educator. This is not worth the stress, financial struggle, mental health issues and exhaustion.” 

Gundrum said, “What I am hoping is that, through our empowering Spartan educators, we have made it unavoidable to address.”

The survey inspired monthly virtual town halls to give students a chance to speak, said Gail Richmond, who became director of the MSU teacher preparation program in July.

“I appreciate the students for taking the initiative to communicate their concerns,” Richmond said. “Obviously this is all new to me.” 

Richmond said she has focused on relieving the financial strain of the program.

“Can we shorten the program without sacrificing quality? Can we offer more opportunities for advanced degrees?” she said.

Most student teaching internships across the state — like those at Central Michigan University, Hope College and Calvin University — are one semester long during their final undergraduate semester. 

The University of Michigan’s program, similarly to Michigan State’s, lasts an additional year after graduation, but students also finish with a master’s degree. 

Brittany Perreault, the president of Aspiring Educators of Michigan, the student arm of the MEA, said, “The problems we see at MSU’s program are problems every college and university faces.”

MSU is piloting a number of programs next fall in the Detroit Public School Community District and several other districts to ease financial stress. They are partnering to find low-cost housing for interns, allow them to work as paid substitutes and provide opportunities to potentially work in the district post-internship. 

Alvarez said, “As the No.1 program in the nation, Michigan State has the opportunity to be real pioneers and change the way we think about education. Unpaid internships in general are just not acceptable because they’re not accessible.”

And Perreault said, “At a time when our state is facing a severe teacher shortage crisis, made only worse by the global pandemic, changes must be made to remove obstacles that prevent many students from considering a career in the classroom.

“What we’re doing at Michigan State is only the beginning,” she said.

Editors: This story was updated on March 31, 2021, to show that several school districts in addition to Detroit’s are participating in MSU pilot programs to ease financial pressures on student teachers.