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Ken Winter

Ken Winter

No Mystery Behind Detroit and Michigan’s Teacher Shortage

April 27, 2018

I just received notification from the Michigan Department of Education that my provisional teaching license, first issued in 2006, will expire in June.  This, after  spending thousands of dollars and hours,  having never stepped foot in a middle or high school except to substitute for $75 a day.

How could that happen and why am I letting my teaching license lapse? Easy: While I have the passion, try applying for a teaching job as a 56 year old male with white hair despite a newly-minted Master of Education (MEd) in Curriculum and Instruction with a secondary certification with high distinction, after an award-winning 34-year journalism career.

I am one of the Baby Boomers beween 54 and 74-years-old (76 million in U.S.) who wanted to try a second career, beyond just volunteering. While many friends headed south and west to enjoy the winter sun, walking the beaches, boating and playing golf, I stayed planted in Pure Michigan. I like the change of seasons, except for the unseasonably long winters.

Some 12 years ago, I also decided to start start a career after 36 years working at the  Petoskey News-Review and earlier the Lansing State Journal.  I’ve wanted to teach since the early 70s, but could never afford the low wages.  I now teach college, part-time, for mostly minimum wage (once one adds the hours required to prepare and teach), but also fulfilling my goal of giving back to my community and state.

The 12-year journey goes far deeper than the space here allows for me to write about. Just know that with a broken Michigan Department of Education, U.S. Department of Higher Education and meddling Michigan Legislature, I doubt most will choose this career path. The journey to become a Michigan educator is very complex, political and subject to a constantly changing landscape that makes it nearly impossible for older workers, and too expensive for younger ones to even consider.

Few have the money that it now requires to become a teacher, let alone two master’s degrees (the second in Political Science for college teaching) to qualify.  My investments were well over $60,000, not including the hours in the classroom, study, lodging and travel eating Subway sandwiches while on the road to classes after work. 

Know that I am grateful for—and cherish—these opportunities. The emotional reward from working with students is high, but the expense—and the politics—can be brutal. Teaching a 3-credit course at a community college level course commands $2,289;  $5,800 at a four-year university.  But, there are no benefits and no hope of becoming full-time without a PhD.  The decision to pursue a PhD after getting your master’s degree is a difficult one. A PhD is a huge undertaking emotionally, mentally and financially. It takes 3-4 years to complete during which time you are on a pretty basic stipend.

Teaching full-time at most colleges and universities requires a minimum research-based doctoral, costing $36,600, at in-state tuition rates. Professional doctoral degrees average $48,900. Online psychology doctorates, one of the most popular programs, average around $15,000. An online PhD in Education tends to be the most expensive of doctoral programs. The average price is over $21,000. 

Do the math and you have a quick answer to why public education isn’t the career of choice.  You also understand why Michigan secondary school districts, particularly Detroit and other urban areas, face such a challenge attracting good and well qualified teachers.

The reward to become a Michigan secondary teacher, excepting special education and career/technical training, averaged $62,050 in 2012, according to National Education Association data. Teaching salaries, of course, vary considerably depending upon a teacher’s education and years of experience. Michigan public school teachers with a bachelor’s degree and full-time teaching experience of two years or less earned an average salary of $36,620 in 2011, the latest data available from the National Center for Education Statistics, part of the U.S. Department of Education.

For many that might sound like a lot of dough, until you start looking at what that salary is expected to cover: The $68,140 required to live in Ann Arbor (one of the state’s most expensive places), with rural Michigan costing less.

That’s for a two-parent family with two kids working just to make ends meet, according to the Michigan League for Public Policy (MLPP). The report states that “making ends meet” means just covering the bare necessities like housing, food, healthcare, clothing, child care, transportation and taxes. 

That’s just one living situation the MLPP report looks at. It also breaks down the amount you would need to earn each year to “make ends meet” if you were:

  • Single – $21,570
  • A single parent with two kids – $44,164
  • A two-parent family with two kids and you are both working – $26,720
  • A two-parent family with two kids and only one parent is working – $52,330

According to their numbers, a Michigan family would need to earn between $62,000 and $69,000 to “get by,” which they define as a “secure yet modest living standard.” Perhaps the key to their numbers is to look for that “modest” standard of living, whereas the MLPP is looking at numbers for just “getting by.”

This doesn’t even consider huge education loans, required continuing education expenses to maintain teaching certification, entertainment or any other living expenses. Add up those figures and you don’t have much.

Who would want to sign up to be a public school teacher in Michigan knowing salaries declined 8% between the 1999-2000 and 2012-2013 school years? Nationwide, teacher salaries declined by about 1%, to $56,383, with 27 states reporting that average salaries fell during the same period.

With few exceptions, like Michigan State University’s College of Education that requires five years to complete, teacher education programs don’t come cheap when you add an unpaid semester student teaching experience.

Compare a teacher’s pay to the mean salary for other Michigan private job sectors requiring only a Bachelor of Science and you can see why they often draw the top students in their graduating classes:

Bachelor of Science (BS / BSc)

9277 profiles

Bachelor of Arts (BA)

4966 profiles

Bachelor of Business Administration (BBA)

4319 profiles



Most Michigan college teacher education programs require only a bachelor’s degree, including an unpaid semester of supervised student classroom teaching experience—supervised by an unpaid volunteer licensed teacher.  Afterwards, the student teacher is required to take a battery of state required tests to measure subject competency before getting their first state-issue provisional license, which  requires further college courses and hoops to renew—to be paid by the student teacher—to keep a certificate (license) current.

Contrary to what many people think, teachers don’t just work nine months.  They have to attend evening, weekend and summer classes for additional education to keep licenses current.  Fellow Dome columnist Jack Lessenberry and head of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University, reported on Michigan Public Radio:

“The Michigan Department of Education reported that we are now facing a teacher shortage. There are more than 5,000 fewer certified teachers in Michigan than there were in 2004, and the number of newly certified ones last year was barely a third of what it once was.”

David Crim, a spokesman for the Michigan Education Association, told him that, “many destructive things have led to our teacher shortage, beginning with Governor Snyder and the Legislature cutting a billion dollars from the elementary and secondary education budget seven years ago to give businesses a massive tax cut.”

Lessenberry said that the passage of a law five years ago that allows districtes to NOT move teachers up on the salary schedule every year by Michigan lawmakers like State Senator Marty Knollenberg of Troy and his fellow Republican colleagues is partially to blame. Traditionally, beginning teachers weren’t paid very much, but knew that if they performed well, they’d get a little more annually until they reached something like a middle-class lifestyle.

So, it came as no surprise when last week the Detroit Community Public Schools announced that more than 2,000 Detroit teachers at the top of the pay scale would receive a one-time bonus of $1,374 (after taxes, that’s not a lot of cash). Teachers seeking jobs in the district would get credit for all of their years of experience, while current teachers would also move up the pay scale based on how many years they’ve taught.

It’s a commendable attempt by a problem-riddled Detroit school district to compensate teachers for the time when the district was controlled by a then state-appointed emergency manager, who cut pay by 10% in 2011. Before the cut,  teachers at the top of the salary schedule with a master’s degree made $72,516. That was reduced to $65,265 after the pay cut and now stands at $67,233.

As a certified teacher, whose roots go back partially to Detroit, I never received the call telling me that they could use me. Given the cost of living and the school district’s condition, I’m not sure I would have made the move back.

Looking back, I also wonder why the Michigan Department of Education doesn’t assist school districts—especially those like Detroit—by notifying currently licensed teachers about districts in need of qualified teachers. They appear to know when teacher licenses expire, so why not alert teachers in need of a job when and where teachers are needed?  That would be better than the current cobbled up system of notification which ranges from word-of-mouth, to social media or postings on college bulletin boards.

Ken Winter, former editor and publisher of the Petoskey News-Review and member of the Michigan Journalism Hall of Fame, teaches political science and journalism at Northern Central Michigan College in Petoskey and Michigan State University.

April 26, 2018 · Filed under Winter

2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 SuzyB // Apr 27, 2018 at 8:16 am

    Also, teachers who leave a district for an opportunity to teach in a different one start at the bottom of the salary rung, usually below 40,000. Once you start, you’re stuck. That’s why 50% of teachers leave the profession in the first five years. Teachers must be married to someone who makes twice as much money as they do, or they are stuck living with parents or in a cheap apartment while they pay off school loans and just survive a job with little voice and increasing paperwork and evaluation demands. Recommendation: find a job where you are free to use the restroom when you choose and your weekends are not spent preparing lessons and checking papers.

  • 2 Heidi Marshall // Apr 27, 2018 at 11:59 am

    Bravo, Ken Winter, for taking on this extremely important issue.

    I taught at a community college for ten years as an adjunct professor. This was after a very successful career in advertising as a Creative Director for several major international ad agencies.

    I was in good company— another adjunct was a former writer for HBO. There was a former BP Vice President, a popular published author, and the list goes on. They were all first-rate teachers. You can always tell who they are—-students follow them down the hall like puppies.

    Sadly, all those talented adjuncts have left the college.

    Even they needed a living wage.

    What a loss to those students.

    All had dreams of giving back to students and igniting a passion.
    These adjuncts without exception held at least one MA, MFA, PhD. No slouches here.

    Ask how many of these incredibly gifted people were promoted to a more permanent status by this particular northern Michigan community college. Not one.

    Why? I can only wonder. I witnessed some deans in higher positions really wanted to make changes, but their hands were tied.

    In addition to abysmal pay, the leadership (college president) did not know most of the adjuncts by name. They were invisible.

    New leadership is on the horizon—I hope whoever is chosen is more personable. Every little thing matters. And knowing your faculty is no little thing.

    And here’s the kicker—- adjuncts made and still make up about 80 percent of the faculty.

    The fact is, they are the bread and butter of most community colleges. And yet, they are treated with such low regard.

    The plight of adjuncts is a dirty little secret outside of the academic world. I call them, the new working poor. In addition to extremely low wages, their classes are limited to avoid the need to pay benefits.

    Many adjuncts I know drive miles from community college to community college in a desperate effort to cobble together a decent wage that allows them to continue their passion —- giving real-life wisdom and guidance to students who really need it.

    What to do?

    To those of you on college boards, consider this notion.
    All the new buildings and computers that find their way to institutions of higher learning mean nothing if not accompanied by a body of teachers who go beyond method and teach their subject with true experience and passion.

    Such teachers deserve the utmost respect and a decent wage. This needs to happen, because once understood it really can change the lackluster complexion of higher community education in our country today.

    For everyone else, stand up for these educators by asking questions of colleges and board members— in the same way you might ask about fair trade or child labor.

    It’s just the right thing to do.

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