Michigan’s teacher shortage: What’s causing it, how serious is it, and what can be done?

A teacher talks with three high school students who are sitting at their desks.
Teacher turnover is high, morale is low, and retirements are up. Michigan schools are struggling to recruit and retain teachers. (Allison Shelley / The Verbatim Agency for EDUimages)

At a state school board meeting earlier this year, a Muskegon teacher told a story that underscored why education leaders, lawmakers, and the governor are pushing hard to address Michigan’s teacher shortage problem.

Danielle Groendyk, an English language arts teacher at Oakridge High School who is in her third year of teaching, told members of the Michigan Board of Education that when she graduated from a teacher prep program just a few years ago, she was part of a cohort of 10 people.

Today, only three of them are teaching.

Others left, “to pursue careers in other fields where they’re better compensated for positions that have a better work-life balance,” Groendyk told board members in March.

There are many more stories like this across Michigan. 

Beginning long before the pandemic started, school administrators have struggled to hire and retain teachers, for a vast number of reasons. The number of people entering teacher preparation programs, which was slightly up over the last two years for which data is available, is still well below levels from a decade ago. Teacher turnover is high. Morale is low. And retirements are up. 

There’s a lot at stake for Michigan schools, and there are signs the shortage could get even worse. Shortages used to be largely focused on areas such as math and science, but state officials say they’re now seeing shortages in areas that used to be flush with applicants, such as elementary school and social studies. Meanwhile, the bulk of Michigan’s teaching workforce is over the age of 40, meaning retirements could drive up job openings. 

The pandemic, which has upended education since 2020, has worsened years of poor academic outcomes for Michigan students, and brought renewed attention to the social and emotional needs of students that have made learning more difficult and increased the demands on teachers. 

“The challenges of being an educator these days are different than they were 10 or 15 years ago,” Michael Behrmann, superintendent of the Harbor Springs Public Schools district, said in an interview. “Students bring more complexities to the school and more issues than ever before.”

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and lawmakers are searching for solutions. State Superintendent Michael Rice has urged the state to invest as much as $500 million in strategies to address shortages. And the state board of education has taken a particular interest in the issue, discussing it at nearly every meeting in the last six months. 

How bad is Michigan’s teacher shortage?

The number of public K-12 teachers has grown by 2% over the last decade while the student population has shrunk 9%, state data shows.

But those numbers don’t tell the whole story about the difficulties districts are having filling teaching positions.

The statistics are more nuanced than they appear, said Leah Breen, director of the Michigan Department of Education’s Office of Educator Excellence. 

For example, the numbers don’t differentiate between certified educators and uncertified substitutes working under full-year temporary permits, and they don’t account for difficulties in hiring for specific positions such as special education, or in remote districts that have more trouble attracting candidates. 

Just ask superintendents like Alan Tulppo of Gogebic-Ontonagon Intermediate School District in the westernmost part of the Upper Peninsula. It’s been harder than ever to hire there, he told the state Board of Education during a November meeting. Principals have had to rely on their last-resort solution, hiring uncertified educators who have temporary waivers, he said.

Even districts that used to get a lot of applications are having trouble finding teachers now.

“Fifteen years ago we’d get hundreds of applications for an elementary position,” Behrmann said. “Now we’re lucky if we get three or four.”

Administrators often find themselves hiring from neighboring districts, creating new problems in other places. That’s what Superintendent Chuck North did when a few openings cropped up in the middle of this school year in Reading Community Schools just north of the Ohio border. 

“There are no new teacher candidates out there,” North said. “School districts basically have to try to steal from each other.”

Craig Thiel, director of the Citizens Research Council of Michigan, a public affairs research group, said he doesn’t perceive a statewide crisis the way Rice and other state officials do. But he acknowledged that shortages represent a pressing problem for many communities.

“Any time a student is sitting in front of a teacher that doesn’t have the credential to teach the class, that’s concerning,” Thiel said. “And if that’s happening more often, it is a growing concern that requires public attention.”

Nationwide, there were 386,000 teacher vacancies in February 2022, according to the latest data available from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. A decade earlier there were 108,000 openings.

The bureau doesn’t report vacancies by state, and Michigan doesn’t track them in real time. Breen said the department follows state law, which requires it to collect personnel data from school districts twice a year. 

Researchers at the Michigan State University’s Education Policy Innovation Collaborative, known as EPIC, say that’s too infrequent to capture rapidly changing conditions within districts. They also say the data isn’t detailed enough to be useful. They recommend a new law requiring more frequent reporting of data that captures new hires, terminations, reassignments, job openings, and start and end dates of each vacancy. 

Other researchers find the data lacking, too. 

“We did a report to try to suss this out in 2019,” Thiel said, and the main finding was that in Michigan, “we’re doing a very bad job of trying to get our arms around the nature of this problem. If there’s a problem, what are the nuances of it?” 

What is causing Michigan’s teacher shortage problems?

For many Michigan districts, a teacher shortage crisis has been brewing for years, beginning with the Great Recession of 2008-09, which left many schools reeling financially and caused widespread job uncertainty for staff. It continued as lawmakers enacted laws unpopular with educators that made it easier for school districts to fire teachers, weakened teacher tenure laws, and made test scores an important part of teacher evaluations. 

Meanwhile, fewer people were choosing the profession to begin with. Suddenly Michigan, which used to be a state that overproduced teachers, was seeing big holes in its pipeline. In 2014-15, there were 14,749 people enrolled in teacher preparation programs. In 2018-19, the latest year the data is available, the number was 10,168. 

Although average teacher salaries in Michigan are around $64,000 a year, the pay for new teachers is low. Beginning teachers average $37,320 annually, according to the Michigan Education Association. It can take years for a new teacher to reach the top of the pay scale, and those who have in-demand skills in areas such as math and science can command much higher salaries in the private sector. 

Factor in an aging workforce — 62% of teachers in Michigan are over age 40 — and the challenges become more clear.

The pandemic has only exacerbated this problem. Teachers are working longer hours, often filling in for colleagues who’ve become ill with COVID. Online teaching has been difficult, as have the challenges of dealing with learning loss, mental health concerns, and inconsistent modes of learning over the years. Some teachers have had enough and are considering leaving the profession. 

“Teachers are exhausted,” Leah Porter, a Holt teacher who was named Michigan’s Teacher of the Year in 2021, said during a recent meeting of the Michigan Board of Education. “The stakes have never been higher on teachers, and they feel that pressure. They are just burned out beyond belief.”

The pandemic has often put teachers on the front lines of conflicts over whether schools should be in person or remote. A raging debate about curriculum, including how topics such as Black history and racism are taught, hasn’t helped. 

The MEA, the state’s largest teacher’s union with affiliates across Michigan, earlier this year released the results of a survey that show 1 in 5 Michigan teachers who responded expect to change careers in the next two to three years, while 14% said they plan to retire. That doesn’t mean they’ll all leave, and national data show that similar survey responses haven’t resulted in a huge exodus, but it is concerning for local and state education officials.

Where is the shortage worst?

It’s difficult for researchers to say which districts are struggling the most to hire teachers. The answer isn’t captured clearly in the data the state collects, said Katharine Strunk, director of the Education Policy Innovation Collaborative at Michigan State University.

Districts in the sparsely populated Upper Peninsula, for example, have the highest ratio of teachers to students. Yet teachers in those districts are the least likely to have permanent certificates in the grade or subject they are teaching. 

Turnover is highest in urban districts with the highest poverty and the most Black students, according to EPIC. That means some of the state’s most disadvantaged students have the least experienced teachers. A Chalkbeat analysis last year shed light on the disproportionate effect of teacher turnover on students of color and students from low-income families. 

“This kind of teacher churn can have substantial deleterious effects on students, and on schools’ and districts’ abilities to operate effectively and efficiently,” EPIC researchers said in a 2021 report.

How have the shortage areas changed?

Michigan, like many other states, has long had trouble finding enough teachers certified to teach special education, math, world languages, the sciences, English as a second language, and career and technical education courses. 

Recently, hiring difficulties reached elementary schools, where principals at one time had their pick of hundreds of applicants for each open position. In 2018, elementary teachers appeared on the U.S. Department of Education’s critical shortage area list for Michigan. 

That’s startling in a state that once produced so many teachers that the State Board of Education in 2005 stopped authorizing new college and university teacher preparation programs. 

There are currently 26 disciplines on Michigan’s critical shortage list, twice as many as a decade ago. Recently added disciplines include physical education, art, music, elementary education, language arts, psychology, and social studies. 

How does the struggle to hire qualified teachers affect students?

Students are in larger classes and are sometimes being taught by uncertified long-term substitutes or educators teaching outside the grade levels and subject areas they trained for. Other students are being taught by educators who are stressed from the burden of covering for absent colleagues because of a troubling shortage of substitute teachers, Breen said.

Despite staffing challenges, most Michigan schools are finding ways to still offer electives and advanced courses, Breen said. Doing that sometimes requires assigning teachers who don’t feel prepared to teach in those content areas or who haven’t taught those courses in 12 or more years, Breen said. 

Will there be money in next year’s state school aid budget to help?

The governor, House and Senate agree there’s a problem, but they have vastly different ideas for how to address it and how much to spend on it. They have until July 1 — when school districts’ fiscal years begin — to hammer out the differences in their disparate spending plans.

Whitmer’s plan is the most expensive, most complicated, and most controversial.

Her proposed budget calls for $1.5 billion to cover bonuses for teachers who remain in their districts or transfer to high-poverty schools. The bonuses would gradually increase from $2,000 to $4,000 over four school years.

Teachers unions support the plan, but government watchdogs like Thiel say the bonuses should be more targeted. 

“Rather than sprinkle the infield, maybe we should provide greater retention bonuses to those who are in special education classrooms or middle school science classrooms,” Thiel said. “If these are the classrooms where we’re having a problem with retention, where we’re seeing teachers leaving, let’s tailor the retention bonuses to those classrooms and those districts.”

Whitmer also wants to invest $150 million in scholarships, tuition reimbursement, and mentorship programs for new teachers.

Teacher recruitment and retention are a much lower priority for Michigan senators who budgeted just $25 million for it in the spending plan they passed last week. That money would be used to provide scholarships to student teachers.

House lawmakers want to invest much more. They budgeted $529 million for recruitment and retention efforts including scholarships, compensation for student teachers, and support for programs that offer pathways for school support staff and high school students to become educators.

That’s in line with what Rice, the state superintendent, has said it will cost to alleviate the state’s teacher hiring problem. He has been calling for a variety of changes including raising teacher pay, forgiving teachers’ student loans, paying child care costs for parents enrolled in education programs, and providing stipends to defray student teachers’ living costs. 

Won’t federal COVID relief money help?

Michigan schools received a $6 billion windfall as part of the federal government’s COVID relief package. Districts are using it for tutoring programs, summer school, computers, ventilation systems, and much more

Superintendents are reluctant to use it to hire staff because they would have to maintain the salaries for new hires after the three years of federal COVID money runs out. 

What is the Michigan Department of Education doing to mitigate the problem?

Last summer, the MDE launched the Welcome Back Proud Michigan Educators Campaign to help former teachers with lapsed credentials return to the profession. The program also provides the necessary professional development to open pathways to Michigan education majors who completed their programs but never became teachers.

Last year, Rice approved new alternative-route teacher certification programs created by New Paradigm for Education, a charter school network, and the Detroit Public Schools Community District. Alternative-route programs are an important part of the solution but not a replacement for college and university programs, Breen said. Alternative-route candidates need to already have bachelor’s degrees before they enroll, she said. Much of the recent growth in enrollment in teacher preparation programs was fueled by alternative programs.

Rice is also using his bully pulpit to encourage local school districts to boost teacher salaries, and to press the Legislature to fund recruitment strategies and — especially — retention efforts such as Whitmer’s proposed bonuses.

Tracie Mauriello covers state education policy for Chalkbeat Detroit and Bridge Michigan. Reach her at tmauriello@chalkbeat.org.

Lori Higgins is the bureau chief for Chalkbeat Detroit. Reach her at lhiggins@chalkbeat.org.

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