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A headshot of Katharine Strunk, an education policy professor at Michigan State University.
A headshot of Katharine Strunk, an education policy professor at Michigan State University.
Photograph by Quyen Tran / Courtesy of Katharine Strunk

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Q&A with MSU’s Katharine Strunk: Teacher retention starts with compensation, school leadership

Michigan needs a teacher retention strategy that focuses on boosting compensation in underserved urban and rural areas, places a stronger emphasis on school building leadership and gets the teacher education pipeline closure to the areas most in need of talented educators.

Those are some of the conclusions Katharine Strunk has drawn from years of researching the teacher labor market in Michigan.

Strunk is an education policy professor at Michigan State University and runs the university’s solutions-oriented research center, the Education Policy Innovation Collaborative.

She talked to Crain’s Detroit Business about how schools in the Michigan Department of Education’s Partnership Districts have struggled to turn around because of high rates of teacher turnover — and what can be done to rectify the problem.

This partial transcript has been edited for clarity.

Crain’s Detroit Business: We’re looking deep at the issue of teacher turnover this month in Crain’s Forum, really focused on what’s happening in the industry and the job profession of teaching, where teachers are going and how fast they’re turning over, particularly in urban areas like Detroit and rural areas of the state as well. You’ve done some research and tracked this. Tell us what’s broadly going on from your perspective.

Strunk: There are teacher shortages across the country right now — this is before the pandemic, especially in areas of high need. STEM teachers, secondary teachers in ... rural areas as well as urban areas. These are the districts we call “harder to staff” because teachers often don’t want to be there for some reason or another — or are not able to be there. In a rural district, there may not be a teacher prep program near by. ... There may not be teachers who stay in a rural area because there’s not other jobs available for their family. And so those districts have a very hard time attracting teachers. In Michigan, there are shortages in rural areas, urban areas, as well as districts that are very low performing or have high portions of minority students.

Crain’s: This isn’t a new issue. But is it being exacerbated by the pandemic or by the conditions in schools. What’s going on currently on the ground?

Strunk: That’s a great question and we don’t really have a lot of evidence about the way the pandemic may or may not have exacerbated the problem at this point. Stay tuned. We are starting a study to look at that. But anecdotally, we do know that teachers have felt very burnt out this year. ... This is not how teachers were trained to teach, this is not what they love to do, teaching remotely and teaching in the middle of a pandemic. ... There’s been some reports that there’s going to be a greater amount of turnover at the end of this year.

Crain’s: You did some research on the partnership schools in Michigan that were at one point slated for closure during the Snyder administration and then they worked out this big deal to give them one more shot to try to make a turnaround in these schools. Tell us what you found, what’s going on in these schools and as it relates to the staff and retaining staff right now.

Strunk: It’s an interesting turnaround reform in Michigan. They looked at the lowest performing schools and they’ve also said, ‘Well, schools don’t perform like this themselves. They’re in districts that have systemic problems. So we’re trying to treat both the school level and the district level in Michigan. ... What we find is staff turnover is particularly high in partnership schools. They’re also high in the district schools that are not designated as partnership schools — much higher than the average rates across the state or higher than other high-performing districts and schools across the state. ... So you think about these districts and they’re trying to reform their curriculum, they’re trying to do a lot of professional development in their schools so that the kids can perform (academically) better. And they’re not able to do that if they’ve put a lot of money into a professional development (PD) and the next year they have to train 20 percent new teachers on that some PD. So it’s not particularly effective or efficient when you do that kind of thing.

Another piece of data that we found that we thought was really interesting and really upsetting is when these districts are trying to put in place high quality curricula and these are the things we would like our kids to learn... But when you see teachers cycling through to the extent they have been in the partnership schools, you can’t really put into place that kind of teacher-driven curriculum because you have to have a new teacher in several times a year. So they say, well, we need to put in place a scripted curriculum, which we don’t really want for our kids or our teachers.

Crain’s: There’s a whole host of issues there. What are some areas where you think that from a public policy standpoint, we as a state could be doing to address these most high-risk high-need districts?

Strunk: I don’t think I can overstate the importance of teacher stability in these districts — and keeping the same teachers. The thing we need to think about is what is causing these teachers to leave. Why don’t they stay? And that will help us understand what policies to put in place to keep them. A big one is compensation. We had teachers telling us, ‘Look, I can get paid $10,000, $15,000 more at a district 20 minutes away. So I can’t justify staying here when I need to feed my family. I’m going to go to that district.’ We have principals telling us, ‘I try to put in a compensation bonus, try to give them a retention bonus, but it’s just a one-shot deal.’ It’s only a couple thousand dollars — it just doesn’t make enough of a difference. Even though these districts are really trying, they don’t have enough money to pay their teachers sufficiently to compete with surrounding districts.

A second really important piece was principal leadership. A lot of (the partnership school) teachers told us, ‘You know, I really love the principal and even though I’m getting paid a little less, this principal really is trying to reform this school. This principal’s really got my best interests at heart, so I’m going to stay and give this principal a try. So bringing in really effective and good leaders is important — and that has some of the same problems as bringing in a really good and effective teacher.

A third piece that I think is critically important that we don’t think about enough is the teacher preparation pipeline. We know from the literature that teachers tend to stay close to home — where they grew up — or where they trained to be a teacher. In rural areas, and in some of the urban centers, we don’t have enough of a teacher prep pipeline to bring teachers in to stay in those districts. And so trying to think through the pipeline process elements of this — how can we get more teacher interns into these districts, help them understand what it looks like to teach here, get them committed to the district and the school and then help them to stay — that’s all a pipeline issue that I know districts in the state are working on. But that needs to be sort of beefed up.

Crain’s: On the compensation side, this always comes down to money and how we fund our schools in Michigan. Is there an area you can point to legislators and say, ‘Hey, this is a way you can go about doing this?’ or freeing up more money for their compensation.

Strunk: I know everyone is tired of the refrain that we need more money, but any way you look at it, Michigan underfunds its schools — and underfunds its most traditionally underserved districts the most. There’s not a question in my mind that if we were able to provide increased compensation to teachers in Michigan it would really help. And if we could target the increased compensation especially to those districts like the partnership schools — Benton Harbor, Detroit, Flint — that they would be able to use that and keep teachers and recruit them and retain them.

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