Analysis

Respected Think Tank Shatters Michigan ‘Teacher Shortage’ Myth

Uncritical media has repeated this false teachers union claim

A well-respected research organization released a report this month refuting the often-stated claim in the media that Michigan has a teacher shortage.

The Citizens Research Council of Michigan published a 66-page report in February with the conclusion that available research does not support claims of a teacher shortage in Michigan’s public schools.

The report should serve as a sharp rebuke to a mainstream media that for at least two years has reported as fact that Michigan’s public schools are suffering from a teacher shortage.

Dozens of media outlets have published news reports repeating an alleged teacher shortage without questioning the narrative. The list includes the Detroit News, the Detroit Free Press, MLive, the Herald-Palladium, the Cadillac News, WDIV-TV, the Daily Mining Gazette, Bridge Magazine, Michigan Radio, Detroit public TV, WDET and the Garden City Telegram, among others.

“The simple fact is that anecdotal and media reporting is not sufficient to establish that a statewide crisis exists,” the Citizen Research Council report states. “To do so requires a broader examination of the teacher pipeline, something that has not garnered as much attention or analysis by stakeholders, either at the local or state level.”

The rationale for promoting a teacher shortage narrative is largely political. When Republicans gained control of the state House, Senate and governorship after 2010, they enacted a number of education reforms that were not popular with teachers unions. Those reforms included expanding public school choice by allowing more charter schools (which are almost exclusively nonunion) and prohibiting schools from using their payroll systems to deduct union dues from employee paychecks. Lawmakers also tried to rein in skyrocketing pension costs that were crippling school budgets.

In response, teachers unions claimed the profession had been so demonized by Republicans that few people wanted to become teachers, leading to a shortage.

An example of the narrative appeared in a June 15, 2017, Detroit News story on Republican efforts to reform the underfunded school pension system. It quoted John Anderson, a teacher at Western Public Schools, in Jackson County. Anderson said young people didn’t want to get into teaching, and the district was lucky if it got three or four applicants for an open teaching position.

Like many similar claims published in mainstream media reports, this one went unchallenged. Michigan Capitol Confidential has been the one consistent exception.

It sent an open records request to the Western school district and found there were seven teaching positions posted at that time (2016-17), for which the district received a total of 208 applications, or 29.7 per position.

As in many other examples, Michigan Capitol Confidential was the only news publication to challenge the assertion that there was a shortage in this state. It did so by obtaining public documents that went to the heart of the teacher shortage claims – the number of individuals who applied for open teaching positions posted by school districts.

If the teaching profession had been demonized, as union officials claimed, and if there were indeed a teaching shortage, this should have resulted in schools getting very few applications for actual teaching positions.

Except school district after school district reported getting large numbers of applications for most open teaching positions. Those districts were asked for the number of applicants for teaching positions in a Freedom of Information Act request.

Now the Citizens Research Council study echoes what Michigan Capitol Confidential reported almost two years earlier: There is no general teacher shortage, though filling a small number of specialty positions has been challenging.

Michigan Capitol Confidential reported in January 2018: “Teacher shortages do exist in some specialized fields. For instance, while Troy schools received, on average, 57 applicants per teaching position, no one applied for a ‘socio-emotional learning specialist’ position. Many school districts have reported seeing low numbers of applicants for jobs in special education and some technical fields.”

The Citizens Research Council stated that its analysis and report were prompted by media coverage on alleged teacher shortages. That is also the case with Michigan Capitol Confidential.

For example, on Nov. 2, 2017, Michigan Radio columnist Jack Lessenberry blamed a teacher shortage on Republican policies. He did this in a story titled, “Sen. Knollenberg shocked by Michigan’s teacher shortage. Let me explain what happened.”

Lessenberry then cited comments from a Michigan Education Association spokesman as more evidence of a teacher shortage.

That prompted Michigan Capitol Confidential to request documents from the Troy School District (the largest in the Senate district represented by Knollenberg) that indicated the number of teacher job applications it had received.

These documents showed that the district had received 2,045 applications for a single K-5 teaching position. The district had an average of 57 applications for each teaching position it advertised in 2017.

Media claims of alleged teacher shortages are nothing new in this state. This was shown by a Michigan Capitol Confidential story from November 2017 that cited such reports from 100 years ago. It reported:

“The Lansing State Journal reported that the Michigan Department of Education declared a teacher shortage, and blamed it on the low pay of educators.”

“‘Many School Boards Will Face Teacher Shortage Because Of Small Pay,’ the story’s headline read.”

“If the news sounds familiar, but you can’t quite place the details, it’s probably because this report was dated Feb. 6, 1920.”