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Detroit’s real teacher shortage

Kate Walsh

One month after school opened, Detroit public schools still had nearly 200 unfilled teacher positions. Consequently, too many Detroit children are struggling with overcrowded classes, a revolving door of substitutes, and out-of-field teachers.

Still, Detroit is an exception due to special circumstances. Nationally, and in most of Michigan, talk of a new teacher shortage has been overblown. There have been shortages in certain subjects, such as special education, for decades. These are nothing new.

The problem is more about misalignment. Each year our teacher training institutions produce far more instructors than there are openings, especially in elementary schools. In fact, many graduates of Michigan programs have long had to teach outside the state.

What we really have is a long-standing shortage of effective teachers who match the openings that exist. In pursuing our misdiagnosis of an insufficient supply of teachers, we fail to address this chronic problem.

Since we need more effective teachers, the solution is higher standards, not lowering them to bloat the supply of teacher graduates of dubious quality. Since we need more teachers in specific areas, the solution is to target recruitment and rewards to these fields — including high school math and science — rather than expanding openings overall.

Michigan’s training institutions need to work with districts to project future needs and then recruit and prepare new teachers in these areas. Currently, our colleges enroll too many would-be teachers in elementary education — where applicants outnumber vacancies — instead of guiding them to fields with greater demand like exceptional education. By mixing aid, advising and supports colleges can steer talented students in these subjects into teaching, instead of continuing to refuse responsibility for aligning supply with demand.

Michigan’s colleges also must do more to make sure every new teacher is ready to start work on day one. When my organization, the National Council on Teacher Quality, examined Michigan teacher preparation programs in 2014, we found nearly all left the quality of student teaching experiences to chance.

As of 2014, only one out of 19 teacher training institutions in Michigan (Hope College) had a policy that their student teachers must be placed with a highly effective teacher who will help them master the art of instruction, not just any teacher volunteer. While most new teachers learn a remarkable amount in their first years on the job, their students deserve teachers who are ready on Day One.

Michigan also needs more of its prospective teachers to student teach in high performing programs in urban and high-need schools, where most will be employed. Otherwise, too many newly minted teachers enter classrooms ill-equipped for the many challenges presented by urban schools, and so will fail to experience the amazing rewards of making a transformational difference in a child’s life.

Districts too have a vital role in solving the real teacher shortage. At some point, districts will need to offer higher salaries to those who teach in shortage fields or hard-to-staff schools since college graduates with these skills have many higher-paying options. While teacher unions may object, teaching cannot be the only profession immune from the laws of supply and demand.

A less politically charged solution could be for districts to embrace more part-time positions in science and math. Retirees, graduate students, scientists and engineers may not have the time or interest in teaching a full load, but, with training, could be willing to tackle a class or two.

The mirage of teacher scarcity blinds us to the real needs — more targeted recruitment and pay in areas of true shortage and better preparation for all teachers aimed at the locales with the most openings.

Kate Walsh is president of the National Council on Teacher Quality.