Press Release

Interviews with district leaders in underserved districts cite salary gaps, pay freezes and enduring legacy debt payments as major challenges to recruiting and retaining top teachers

May 18, 2021 – Michigan’s deep-rooted school funding inequities are a major barrier to retaining, attracting and supporting teachers in underserved districts in Michigan, a growing crisis exacerbated by COVID-19 pandemic that also compounds educators’ challenges in raising student achievement.

In a new report by the Education Trust-Midwest, Talent Matters: Building Educator Talent to Support an Equitable Future in COVID-19 and Beyond, district leaders in nearly two dozen underserved districts also cite salary inequities, legacy debt payments, salary freezes and lack of retirement security as significant challenges to educator retention. Leaders were interviewed from urban, suburban and rural districts, including Detroit Public Schools Community District, Grand Rapids, Battle Creek, Fenville Public Schools, Godfrey-Lee Public Schools and others.

“Educator talent has long been a challenge in Michigan’s high poverty districts and districts serving high percentages of Black and Brown students,” said Dr. Tabitha Bentley, Director of Policy and Research at The Education Trust-Midwest. “School funding inequities have intensified these talent challenges in underserved districts, making it even harder for them to recruit, retain and compensate highly effective and diverse educators — especially as wealthier nearby districts are able to offer higher teacher salaries.”

To uncover what Michigan must do to attract, support and retain the teachers they want most, The Education Trust-Midwest conducted comprehensive interviews with leaders in school districts serving higher-than-average populations of underserved students.

Key takeaways:

  • Many participating leaders estimate a $10,000 salary gap in their districts’ ability to attract the talent they want most in their schools.
  • District leaders said school funding inequities present the greatest barrier to offering higher salaries and retaining teacher talent. Salary freezes, enduring legacy debt payments, undercompensating for additional responsibilities, and lack of retirement security also contribute to retention challenges in historically under-resourced districts.
  • Salary boosts for new teachers do not address the challenge of retaining experienced teachers within underserved districts, which costs even more for districts to remain competitive.
  • While some districts have found ways to increase teacher salary or provide enticing compensation packages through external funding, these strategies are not sustainable long-term.
  • District leaders with teacher salaries they deemed competitive to other local districts did not believe their district’s salaries compensated teachers enough given their job expectations, nor did they believe teacher salaries were competitive in larger job markets.

The talent crisis in underserved school districts is a significant barrier to raising student achievement. For instance, research shows that persistent talent turnover has a negative effect on student achievement in math and English Language arts. Leaders in both rural and urban districts spoke of similar challenges.

“The district leaders we spoke to recognized that talent turnover disproportionately impacts vulnerable students,” Bentley said. “Along with inequities that have been made worse by the pandemic, these challenges are a deep dilemma in Michigan.”

A McKinsey analysis, for example, suggested that COVID-19 school closures could result in America’s students losing five to nine months of learning, with losses being far greater for historically underserved student groups such as students of color, who could be six to 12 months behind by June 2021. Addressing educator talent is imperative towards supporting Michigan students’ academic recovery, especially for lower-income, Black and Brown students, Bentley said.

“District leaders were clear— Michigan’s inequitable school funding structure constrains their ability to offer higher salaries in high-poverty districts such as the ones they lead,” Bentley said. “Now more than ever, state leaders need to focus Michigan’s educator talent conversation on addressing the inequities and structural challenges.”

In the immediate term, districts facing talent challenges can leverage federal stimulus dollars to temporarily address their salary gaps. For instance, the state should continue incentives for statewide teacher retention that were included in the FY 21 budget. The program included incentives for first-year teachers with higher payments to teachers in districts serving greater percentages of economically disadvantaged students.

Beyond the next two years, the state should make every effort to be part of the solution. Steps should include significantly expanding salary incentives for both new and veteran teachers, especially in underserved districts, and overhauling Michigan’s deeply inequitable funding system to ensure all districts in the state can retain, attract and support top talent.