For far too long Michigan has accepted that countless classrooms won’t have a full-time teacher when they start school. Instead, students in these classes will be subject to a rotating cast of substitutes and other teachers filling in. If the students are lucky, they’ll finally have a licensed teacher a few weeks into the school year. However, far too many of these schools will keep sending in substitutes or staff the position with someone who is unqualified.
Which school districts struggle to fill teacher vacancies? It’s districts like those in Detroit, Muskegon, and other high-poverty, high minority, areas which face the biggest teacher attrition and shortage challenges. This is no surprise. If given the choice of teaching in a shiny new school or with high-performing students, would you choose to instead teach at a school with a leaking roof or with lower-performing students? Unsurprisingly, most teachers pick the former. Moreover, even when they start in challenging schools, many of the most effective teachers end up leaving within a few years. Together, these factors cause schools to be staffed with underprepared and inexperienced teachers who are less effective and 2-3 times more likely to leave the profession than a qualified or experienced teacher, feeding the never ending cycle of shortages.
Is it any wonder that students drop out and test scores show little to no growth at these schools? Ask the students about this revolving door of teachers and you’ll hear the following themes repeated: “Why should I care about school if no one cares about teaching me?”; “We were learning geometry, but then the new teacher came and now we’re doing algebra. We did that last year, but I don’t think she knows.”
How did we get here? While the debate about the exact extent of the teacher shortage is ongoing, there should be no question that it exists and that our children are suffering. Unfortunately, that is not the case. In fact, just the opposite was true in 2015 when the MDE, operating off of just one statistic (42% of teachers recommended for certification in 2012‐13 were reported as employed in Michigan in 2014), suggested that the State Board of Education should continue attempting to limit the supply of teachers in Michigan.
What Michigan is doing…and still needs to do
Fortunately, since this time, Michigan has begun to recognize the extent of the teacher shortage. They have now completed the necessary first step: identifying the shortage as a problem. And the state has settled on an initial strategy of improving the educator workforce, which, so far, has led to research on the trends in teacher certification and turnover in hopes of identifying causes of the shortage. While this is a necessary first step, this research is inadequate by itself and there are a multitude of gaps that need to be filled. For instance, Michigan has not identified the locations and specializations that experience shortages. Without understanding this, how can they craft effective policy responses? To address this, Michigan should collect information from schools across the state to understand the extent of shortages and what those schools need to fill their vacancies with high quality educators.
Moreover, while more research is always good, there are proven policy responses that Michigan can put in place now without waiting for more research and allowing our children to continue suffering. Below I outline four policies that have proven successful in other states. Moreover, they could be embraced with little effort and low cost. While second, third, and fourth policies are district level decisions, Michigan could provide information on the effectiveness of these programs and guidelines and support if districts choose to implement. For a full explanation of how these work I suggest reading the Education Commission of the States reports.
- Alternative Certification – Michigan should embrace the idea of providing alternative routes to teacher certification for mid-career professionals looking to enter teaching. Research shows that teachers from alternative certification programs are just as effective as those from traditional programs and can be more easily directed to high-needs schools and subjects.
- Teacher leadership – Providing leadership opportunities to highly effective teachers helps them feel valued, meaning they’re more likely to stay.
- Induction and mentorship – Pairing new teachers with teacher leaders (or instructional coaches, fellow teachers, etc.) has been shown to increase new teacher retention and quality.
- Evaluation and feedback – Providing teachers with ongoing feedback and targeted professional development following evaluations (rather than simply basing feedback on test scores) improves both teacher retention and quality.
Finally, there are currently no set goals for addressing the teacher shortage. Without specific goals, addressing the teacher shortage will continue to be a vague concept with no way to measure success or failure. This will lead to many of our most needy children continuing to lack qualified teachers. The Michigan Department of Education must continue their current work to take this challenge head-on and act now with a goal of providing every student access to a qualified teacher. Every day they wait our neediest students are receiving an inadequate and inequitable education. Through a combination of smart policies and continued research we can build a better system with more effective teachers and give our students the education they deserve.
Strategic plan: top 10 in 10 years. (2016, February). In Michigan Department of Education. Retrieved from http://www.michigan.gov/documents/mde/10_in_10_Action_Plan_543856_7.pdf
Robinson, J., & Lloyd, B. (September, 2017). Teacher Turnover in Michigan: A Look at Teacher Mobility and Attrition Rates (Michigan, Department of Education, Educator Talent).
Aragon, Stephanie (May, 2016). Teacher shortages: What we know (Education Commision of the States). http://www.michigan.gov/documents/mde/Teacher_Mobility_Brief_Final_2017.09.18_v2_ada_601772_7.pdf
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Aragon, Stephanie (May, 2016). Teacher shortages: What we know
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Strategic Plan: top 10 in 10 years
Robinson, J., & Lloyd, B. Teacher Turnover in Michigan:
Aragon, Stephanie (May, 2016). Teacher shortages: What we know
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