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Reporter Jennifer Guerra takes a deep dive look at how we go about paying teachers in Michigan and what it means for teacher retention and teacher performance in the state.Scroll below to see all four reports.

The average teacher salary in Michigan is $61,978. Here's why that number doesn't mean much.

Jennifer Guerra
Michigan Radio

Michigan's average teacher salary has dropped for the fifth year in a row, and many districts say they have trouble retaining high quality teachers because of low pay.

So we wanted to know: what's going on with teacher pay in the state?

As a starting point, we have the average teacher salary in Michigan. The state Department of Education puts it at $61,978.

OK, so what does that number really tell us?

First, it marks a downward trend for five years in a row. The average teacher salary in 2011-12 was $62,613 and has dropped every year since. But beyond that, because it's not paired with any longevity data, it doesn't tell us a whole lot more.

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See, the salary schedule for teachers in Michigan puts a premium on seniority and educational attainment, so the longer you've been a teacher, the more you make. And if you have master's degree or better, you'll make even more.

So what the state's average teacher salary mostly tells us is we have more veteran teachers in the state than teachers with 10 or fewer years of experience in the classroom. When you parse it out by years of experience, the average salary looks a lot different.

What does the average salary look like for a new teacher?

I asked the Center for Educational Performance and Information (CEPI) if they could parse out average public school salaries by longevity, but they were unable to fulfill the request. The Michigan Department of Education doesn't have that data, either. 

The average starting salary for Michigan teachers is $36,620, according to the most recent data.

So let's look at the data we do have. 

Unfortunately it's not super recent, but it should help round out the picture a bit more. It's data from the 2011-12 school year from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), part of the U.S. Department of Education. Here's what it shows:

  • A Michigan public school teacher with less than two years experience earned on average $36,620, which is less than the national average by about $1,700.
  • A Michigan public school teacher with 3-5 years experience earned on average $38,070, or roughly $2,000 less than the national average.
  • It's not until you hit the 6-10 year average salaries that you start to see Michigan public school teachers outpace the national average.

Credit Photo courtesy of Learning Policy Institute
Photo courtesy of Learning Policy Institute

In other words, Michigan public school teachers are paid fairly wellcompared to other states, but only after they've been in a classroom for more than six years. (To compare teacher salaries to other professions, click here.)

And therein lies the rub.

Many new teachers never make it to six years. They burn out. They get frustrated. They don't get the support they need to do a good job in the classroom.

How many teachers burn out before their sixth year?

Roughly 17% of teachers burn out before their sixth year, according to a longitudinal study by NCES. The national study doesn't include a state-by-state analysis, but it does include details on how teacher pay factors into attrition rates, specifically:

97 percent of beginning teachers who earned $40,000 or more their first year returned to teach the next year; 89 percent of beginning teachers who earned less than $40,000 their first year returned to teach the next year.

The average starting teacher salary in Michigan is $36,620. In Detroit, where there's a huge teacher shortage problem, the starting salary is even lower at $35,683.

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Can you attract the best and brightest with that kind of starting salary?

Take math, for example. Michigan consistently has teacher shortages in math. A first year math teacher with a bachelor's degree will earn on average $36,000, but they can make double or even triplethat in other fields on day one. 

In our next post in this series, we'll look at how teacher pay has changed over the past several years. 

Jennifer is a reporter for Michigan Radio's State of Opportunity project, which looks at kids from low-income families and what it takes to get them ahead. She previously covered arts and culture for the station, and was one of the lead reporters on the award-winning education series Rebuilding Detroit Schools. Prior to working at Michigan Radio, Jennifer lived in New York where she was a producer at WFUV, an NPR station in the Bronx.