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In our opinion: A growing challenge in education: recruiting and retaining teachers

FILE: When it comes to future teacher employment, the writing is on the blackboard. Without an emphasis on policies that will attract and retain an adequate number of teachers, the system cannot move forward.
FILE: When it comes to future teacher employment, the writing is on the blackboard. Without an emphasis on policies that will attract and retain an adequate number of teachers, the system cannot move forward.
Deseret News

A high rate of attrition among teachers and a lower rate of admissions in college teaching programs are putting Utah’s education system in an untenable place. While state leaders are talking about solutions, talk must soon turn into definitive action, and that must include increasing teacher compensation in a way that can avert a trend that will otherwise certainly and quickly escalate into a crisis.

Better support for teachers emerged as a critical priority in a series of focus groups convened as part of an effort by the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Institute and the Hinckley Institute of Politics, in partnership with the Deseret News and KSL Broadcasting, to identify key issues related to education in preparation for the upcoming elections. Feedback from the “Informed Decisions 2016” focus groups clearly points to the need to create a better environment for teachers, which would include more public and institutional support, as well as better pay.

The State Board of Education recently moved to commission research on why teacher attrition has grown to extraordinary levels. There is little mystery in what research will show. The rate of pay is simply too low to attract and retain enough teachers and teachers with enough qualification. Currently, 42 percent of public school educators leave the job within five years. A third of those leave at the end of their first year. And while the student population grows — by 12,000 new pupils last year — the number of people graduating from college in Utah with teaching degrees is declining, down 8 percent since 2012. It doesn’t require a degree in math to deduce where this is headed.

Insufficient pay isn’t the only reason why people are leaving the profession, but it is clearly the main reason. Utah’s starting salary of $33,081 is 10 percent below the national average. The state ranks 36th in average teacher pay, but we have a growing economy, especially in the tech sector where entry-level pay can be double the starting salary for a public school teacher. If the state wants to reverse the current trend, it is going to have to come up with the money to do so, regardless of the many budgetary and political constraints on finding or raising new revenue.

The education board deserves credit for tackling the issue and elevating it to a high priority status. The board recently decided to allow people without teaching licenses but with relevant professional credentials to teach in Utah districts, which isn’t a bad idea, but certainly not a panacea. Bringing in adjunct help won’t solve the problem of staffing classrooms in the long term with properly trained professional educators.

Utah spends less per pupil but more per capita on education than virtually every other state. Our demographic makeup renders it difficult to fund the education system we would idealize. Given what we have to work with, the state has done well to maintain a functional system that excels in many areas. But we are approaching a crossroads, as the participants in the Informed Decisions project have identified. When it comes to future teacher employment, the writing is on the blackboard. Without an emphasis on policies that will attract and retain an adequate number of teachers, the system cannot move forward and, sad to say, falling backward becomes part of the equation.