Education Officials Avoid Obvious Solutions

Reforms needed before taking teacher shortage claims seriously

A recent column by an intermediate school district official resurrects the specter of a Michigan teacher shortage crisis. While evidence for a widespread shortage is itself in short supply, local and state education officials have the tools to address local challenges.

It’s hard to keep up with the education crisis of the moment. One week, a public school administrator tells us schools can’t get rid of enough teachers to cope with declining student enrollment. The next week, Kalamazoo Regional Educational Services Agency Superintendent David Campbell contends that there aren’t enough qualified teachers to be found – at least in some districts and subject areas. Each competing claim either is used or can be used to make the case for larger school funding increases.

Overall, Campbell’s claim has a stronger basis in reality, but still misses the mark. Among the seven bullet points he used to build his case is the offhand observation that roughly “half of new teachers leave the profession in their first five years.” The best available evidence, though, finds only one in six teachers quit before five years are out. In fact, the “quit rate” for public education employees overall is lower than most industries.

While the number of prospective teachers in state-approved preparation programs has decreased in recent years, the Michigan Department of Education has identified more than 100,000 certified teachers of employment age who are not working in a public school classroom. Some are holding down nonteaching jobs; others teach at private schools. But many are working in other professions or are currently unemployed.

In 2016 the department asked 360 teachers why they chose not to renew their certification. One in three cited relocation, health or family issues, or personal education plans. More said they couldn’t find a teaching job than those who complained about pay and working conditions.

Campbell does correctly identify two kinds of shortages. The first is in certain subject areas, such as science and special education. The second is geographical, affecting certain rural and urban districts that have a harder time attracting teachers. Neither of these challenges is particularly new, though some districts may be facing a challenge for the first time.

Campbell prescribes following the tenets set forth by the Gov. Rick Snyder’s 21st Century Education Commission. While the commission calls for a more rigorous system of teacher preparation, it does not mention one helpful tool neglected by nearly all local districts. That is, rather than treat all teaching job descriptions the same, districts should offer more pay to teachers who can staff hard-to-fill positions. Doing so would change the incentives for young people considering career paths. It would also send a signal to teacher training programs that they’re not preparing enough qualified candidates in certain fields.

The commission also omitted recommending more alternative certification programs, which would remove bureaucratic hurdles for some potential new instructors. The program Teachers of Tomorrow, approved by the department in August, could help fill in gaps in the state’s supply of qualified teachers. The state could also actively request proposals from other alternate providers with positive track records.

State and local education officials may need to enact more drastic and creative changes to help address specific, lingering shortages. But until these policies are pursued, it will remain hard to take seriously any complaints about a “crisis.”