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A recent article by Bryan McVicar focused on the 50 public school districts in Michigan with the smallest percentage of third- through eighth-grader’s with combined advanced or proficient reading scores on the 2017 M Step test. Most of the school districts listed were urban districts with a high percentage of children living in poverty.

That is not surprising, as it is well documented that children being raised in impoverished neighborhoods typically do not perform as well on state standardized tests as children raised in more stable middle-class areas. What may be surprising to some is that 19 of the 50 public school districts with the lowest reading scores are small, poor rural school districts.

Poverty in urban and rural areas has many differences, but also some similarities. One of the similarities is that Michigan’s system of public education does not seem to be working well for many children raised in poverty, as evidenced by the latest reading scores. Kids raised in poverty are more likely to experience the stress that poverty can bring into the life of a child. That stress can take many forms such as not knowing where they will sleep that night, where the next meal is coming from, having to eat food of poor nutritional value, lacking sleep, lacking a good quiet place to read and do homework, more conflict in the home, less attention due to parents working long hours in low pay jobs, extremely sad and complicated issues related to substance abuse, etc.

While Michigan’s rise in poverty the last 15 years has hit urban and rural areas very hard causing the decrease in reading scores, the best way to mitigate the adverse impact of poverty on children is to provide children with the educational, social, and emotional supports they need to have an equal opportunity to succeed in school and life. Highly trained and experienced teachers are the key to providing this support if those districts are, first, lucky enough to be able to recruit them and, second, keep them.

The problem: Michigan has a teacher shortage, particularly in urban and rural school districts. While it is true that Michigan has more certified teachers than we need, the following is also true:

Most school districts receive very few applicants for teaching positions in special education, math, science, world languages, career/technical education, as well as counselors.

Suburban districts typically receive many applicants from urban and rural teachers seeking better pay and work cultures that often results from a higher percentage of students coming to school with healthy social-emotional supports.

Teachers in small schools often need to prepare for four to six different courses per day, which is a substantial increase in workload and a reason some teachers leave rural schools for suburban school or other job opportunities.

Though there may be more elementary, social studies, and physical education teachers than our state needs, many of these teachers do not want to teach in urban or rural areas, so where a teacher glut may occur in some areas, a shortage may exist in other areas.

Many teachers receive excellent training in urban districts but then leave for suburban districts as opportunities arise.

The number of young college students studying to be teachers is about half the number in the state five years ago while baby boomers continue to retire in large numbers.

About half of new teachers leave the profession in their first five years.

Michigan is in crisis because the teaching profession is in crisis. Hundreds of thousands of children are in schools without properly trained and resourced teachers, counselors and principals, especially in rural and urban areas. Michigan’s system of public education was not designed for this century or this global economy our children are entering.

The Governor’s 21st Century Education Commission developed a blueprint based on what is working for children in top performing states and nations that the legislature and next Governor should embrace to ensure that all children in our state are surrounded by highly engaged professionals committed to their success. Michigan needs to focus on developing a system that will recruit and retain over 100,000 outstanding educators to meet the needs of Michigan’s 1.5 million children.

Dave Campbell is superintendent of Kalamazoo Regional Educational Service Agency. He served on the 21st Century Education Commission.

An ongoing series

This is part of a series of editorials, columns and commentaries that will appear throughout the school year exploring ideas for improving our state’s schools. Follow along at detroitnews.com/opinion.

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