Michigan K-12 staffing challenges: More vacancies, fewer applicants

October 9, 2023
School of Education interns. Image credit: Marsal Family School of Education
School of Education interns. Image credit: Marsal Family School of Education

Vacancies of K-12 staff are nearly double, applicants are half, and hiring is now a year-long effort across the state of Michigan compared to before the pandemic, according to a new report from the University of Michigan and partners.

The study analyzed state-level and local administrative personnel data. It included surveys and interviews with district administrators, principals, teachers and substitute teachers across Michigan to understand the state’s education workforce and its challenges with K-12 staffing.

“In the last couple of years, schools across the state have experienced increased vacancies, more intense competition for staff, and a steep decline in applicants for all kinds of positions,” said Chris Torres, one of the report’s principal investigators and associate professor at the U-M Marsal Family School of Education.

“It’s not just teachers, but substitutes, paraprofessionals and other roles. It’s a particular problem for low-income and rural districts and has a negative impact on communities, families and educators alike.”

U-M researchers collaborated with the Michigan Alliance for Student Opportunity—a group of member school districts serving students with the greatest educational needs—along with Public Policy Associates and scholars from Michigan State University to examine K-12 staffing shortages.

“We took a holistic approach to understanding staffing shortages,” Torres said. “We did not just look at the number of vacancies and turnover. We wanted to understand how different categories of staffing demand were impacting schools as organizations.”

Both state administrative data and reporting from district administrators and school leaders found that adequately staffing schools has become more challenging in recent years. There has been an increase in vacancies compared to 2019 and earlier, and a decline in the number and quality of applicants for open positions.

Shortages are particularly severe for special education and STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) teachers, substitute teachers, paraprofessionals and bus drivers. Economically disadvantaged districts have fared the worst.

Chris Torres
Chris Torres

“In response to these problems, we found that most district leaders report efforts at poaching staff from each other to fill vacancies,” Torres said. “Pay was a key driver of poaching and staff mobility. As a result, wealthier districts tend to be ‘winners’ because they can offer higher compensation, potentially exacerbating socioeconomic and racial inequality.”

Consistent with many other studies, the report found that most staffing problems are worse in low-income rural and urban districts. Pay was a big driver of mobility and being able to compete for teachers and other staff. Yet, some leaders talked about being unable to do anything about their staff being poached because surrounding districts offered higher salaries.

“We need to consider making pay more competitive overall, lowering the costs of entry into teaching and providing more weighted funding to low-income districts that allow them to close the pay and benefits gap so that the staff they work to recruit and develop have stronger incentives to stay,” Torres said.

Teacher vacancies and absences substantially impact student learning, school operations, climate and culture. Severe staffing challenges can also contribute to a negative feedback loop, in which overstressed teachers need more time off or begin considering other jobs, Torres said.

What is next?

  • Based on the findings, the researchers say that school districts should:
  • Stabilize and enhance resources post-COVID
  • Expand efforts to provide resources for hard-to-staff subject areas and school districts, and strengthen the teacher pipeline
  • Account for poaching and absences in addition to vacancies and other problem areas in the formulation of policy
  • Improve working conditions and professional status of instructional staff

“We look forward to continuing to work with our partners across the state and in Lansing on addressing the challenges identified in this report,” said Peter Spadafore, executive director of the Michigan Alliance for Student Opportunity.

“The success of our schools relies on the strength of our educator workforce, and we must ensure that students are served in an equitable manner. Michigan has significantly invested in the educator workforce, but we can’t let up. Further investment is needed to provide high-quality education to all Michigan children.”