Labor Voices: Respect is real cure for educator shortage

The solution to the severe shortage of educators in Michigan is as familiar as Aretha Franklin’s anthem: R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

Educators deserve not only words of respect for the job they do, but actions to prove that respect is real.

Through our Michigan Educator Project, MEA has asked teachers and other school employees what is driving decisions to leave the profession.  Consistently they point to struggles with low pay, high student loan debt, overreliance on standardized tests, and lack of input in decisions about how to best educate students.

Recently, State House Democrats listened and introduced an 18-bill package of legislation that takes action on these pressing issues.

The “Respecting Educators” legislation is aimed at recruiting, retaining and respecting professional educators.  Bills in the package would change misguided policies that have frustrated teachers and support staff, in some cases driving them from the profession.

One bill would remove student standardized test scores from evaluations.  Already a poor measurement of student achievement, these tests take critical time from student learning.  Simply put, more testing means less teaching – so reducing the high stakes put on these tests is a good first step.

Another policy change would give teachers more discretion about whether a third-grade student who is reading below grade level should be retained.  Decisions about how to help students succeed should be made by professional educators, not policymakers outside the classroom.

The House Democrats’ bills also offer real solutions to the severe financial burdens educators are facing.  Encouraging fair pay, comparing educator salaries to averages for similar educated professionals in their area, lowering the growing out-of-pocket costs for health care, and paying for teacher certification and classroom supplies – these bills put more money in the wallets of educators to help keep them on the job working with Michigan students.

As Anthony Barnes, a special education teacher from Kalamazoo Public Schools, asked at the press conference unveiling the Respecting Educators legislation:  “Without teachers, there wouldn’t be other professions – so why is it that those other professions with similar advanced degree requirements pay significantly more than teaching?”

From declining teacher preparation enrollment to big turnover among educators in their first five years, the impacts of the educator shortage are happening now: too many long-term substitutes in classrooms and a revolving door of educators that creates a chaotic and difficult learning environment for our students.

A major aim of the “Respecting Educators” legislation is to help those early career educators.  One bill, sponsored by Rep. Darren Camilleri (D-Trenton), would create a student loan forgiveness program for current teachers, providing up to $300 per month in college debt relief.  Michigan ranks 41st in the nation in starting salaries for teachers and this financial assistance is critical for newer teachers struggling to pay their bills and stay in the profession.  This assistance would also entice more college students to consider teaching as a way to control skyrocketing student loan debt.

From those early in their career to veteran educators nearing retirement, respect for the education profession is essential to keeping dedicated individuals in our classrooms. Policymakers, school administrators and parents play an important role in retaining educators  by supporting and respecting their professional knowledge of how best to reach and teach all students.

Qualified professional educators are the single most important factor in a student’s academic success.  Current and future educators desperately need help – and the House Democrats’ “Respecting Educators” bills take steps to ensure Michigan students have quality, dedicated individuals to provide a great public education.

Recruit, retain, respect – educators are clearly saying these are the keys to solving the educator shortage, and this package of bills shows some policymakers are listening.

Paula Herbart is president of the Michigan Education Association.

Labor Voices

Labor Voices columns are written on a rotating basis by United Auto Workers President Rory Gamble, Teamsters President James Hoffa and Michigan Education Association President Paula Herbart.


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