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Opinion: Teacher shortage requires immediate action, investments

I was recently talking with a school leader in Detroit who explained that their school of 400 students was still looking for five teachers. With some detectable panic in my voice, I relayed this story to a friend who serves on a board of another Detroit school. “Add my 10 vacancies to that,” she said, overwhelmed.

There has been a teacher shortage crisis quietly brewing in schools across our state for the last decade.

Our teachers are leaving the profession sooner than ever and at a rate higher than the national average — 3-in-10 Michigan teachers wouldn't recommend education as a career field according to the most recent Launch Michigan survey.

As a result, fewer college students are pursuing the profession: Enrollment in teacher preparation programs has declined more than 65% since 2009. While these statistics are starker in places like Detroit and Flint, this problem is present in nearly every school district.

Like so many other things, COVID has exacerbated this problem. Teachers are leaving the profession at even greater rates to avoid another rocky year of remote learning and concern for their safety.

We need our lawmakers to join us in recognizing this crisis and commit to addressing it.

Schools, districts, higher education, state lawmakers, and education funders are positioned to collectively create an environment that makes teaching a highly desired, competitive profession. Sadly, that has not happened in recent history. Now, a global pandemic has exposed our inattention. We must act.

As a cross-section of district and civic leaders from across the state, we are urging our state lawmakers, the Michigan Department of Education and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to set in motion a set of policies and investments that will get Michigan’s teacher workforce back on track. They include:

► Build teacher pipelines. Identify opportunities to recruit people to be teachers, including significant investments in proven alternative certification programs so they can scale. Invest in innovative “grow-your-own” programs — especially ones that are tailored to support more educators of color — that have already been approved by the Michigan Department of Education but are not yet fully funded.

► Eliminate barriers to entry. The Michigan Test for Teacher Certification licensure test is an anachronism preventing hundreds of teachers, even those who are currently in classrooms and highly evaluated by their principals, from becoming certified. Licensure guidelines require too many (and sometimes costly) “hoops” for out-of-state teachers to jump through, making Michigan an unattractive place to relocate.

Michigan can radically decrease the licensure red tape and allow teachers to who are highly evaluated to bypass the MTTC test. For short term needs, eliminate the financial penalty that prevents retired teachers from coming back to the classroom.

► Incentivize longevity. Invest in and pilot innovative compensation plans that increase base salary, alleviate early compensation challenges and incentive continuous learning and performance. Make a long-term teaching career as financially competitive as other white collar jobs. Consider creative approaches to supplementing compensation like state and local tax breaks and housing stipends.

► Create retention programs. Build pathways to leadership through support for nationally accredited certification, enhance learning supports and create formal and informal networks between veteran teachers and new ones.

► Reward performance and success. Provide pay opportunities for performance that include but are not limited to state test scores.

► Provide viable retirement paths. Ensure all teaching positions offer attractive retirement options — 401(k)s, matching, even pensions — that teachers can reliably contribute to because they’re not living paycheck to paycheck.

► Invest in principals. Good principals retain good teachers, and if school leaders are not equipped with the right management tools and supports, they cannot create school environments where teachers can thrive. By investing in the best national programs and high-quality principal training, Michigan can be the standard bearer for leadership development.

These solutions do require focused investment, patience and a reckoning: If we want our children to succeed as adults, we need to commit the resources to meet the expectation.

If we don’t invest now, there may come a day in the not-too-distant future when the phrase “school day” no longer means Monday through Friday, but every other day or every other week.

No parent wants to hear this. We want more for our children, and we won’t get there without teachers.

Jack J. Elsey Jr. is partner and CEO of the Detroit Children’s Fund.