5 barriers blocking teacher retention in the Midwest

Leaders estimated a $10,000 salary gap in their districts’ ability to attract the teachers they want most
By: | May 20, 2021
Persistent teacher turnover also hinders student achievement in math and English language arts in both rural and urban districts, research shows. (AdobeStock)Persistent teacher turnover also hinders student achievement in math and English language arts in both rural and urban districts, research shows. (AdobeStock)

School funding inequities intensify the challenge of retaining and attracting top-notch teachers in underserved Michigan districts, says new research into a national problem.

This, in turn, makes it harder for educators to raise student achievement, says the survey of district leaders, “Talent Matters: Building Educator Talent to Support an Equitable Future in COVID-19 and Beyond” by The Education Trust-Midwest.

Urban, suburban and rural district leaders also cited salary inequities and freezes, legacy debt payments, and lack of retirement security as significant barriers to teacher retention.

“Educator talent has long been a challenge in Michigan’s high poverty districts and districts serving high percentages of Black and Brown students,” said Tabitha Bentley, director of policy and research at The Education Trust-Midwest.


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“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,” Bentley said.

The leaders interviewed represented Detroit Public Schools Community District, Grand Rapids, Battle Creek, Fenville Public Schools, Godfrey-Lee Public Schools and others. Here are some of their key concerns:

  • Many of the leaders surveyed estimated a $10,000 salary gap in their districts’ ability to attract the teachers they want most.
  • School funding inequities present the greatest barrier to offering higher salaries and retaining teacher talent. Salary freezes, debt payments, lack of compensation for additional responsibilities, and lack of retirement security exacerbate retention challenges in under-resourced districts.
  • Salary boosts for new teachers do not solve the problem of retaining experienced teachers within underserved districts, which makes it more costly for districts to remain competitive.
  • While some leaders have found ways to increase teacher salary or provide enticing compensation packages through external funding, these strategies are not sustainable.
  • Even when teacher pay is competitive with other local districts, many leasers did not believe those salaries compensated teachers enough given job expectations. These leaders also said teacher salaries were not competitive in larger job markets.

Persistent teacher turnover also hinders student achievement in math and English language arts in both rural and urban districts, Bentley said.

“Along with inequities that have been made worse by the pandemic, these challenges are a deep dilemma in Michigan,” she 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.”

In the near term, districts can use federal stimulus funds to close teacher salary gaps. Beyond the next two years, The Education Trust-Midwest called on state leaders to continue incentives for statewide teacher retention and significantly expanding salary incentives for both new and veteran teachers.