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Utah’s teacher problem: What can be done to keep educators in the profession?

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SALT LAKE CITY — Andrew Platt was no stranger to the teaching profession.

Education was "always in the family," he said. His mother was a teacher for several decades, and many of his siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins are educators.

Platt had worked in restaurants, call centers and warehouses, but pursued an education to be an educator. He knew he wouldn't make a fortune as a teacher in Utah, and he was OK with that. So he finished a history degree in anticipation of teaching the subject in high school.

But when he finally entered the classroom, it jarred his lifelong expectations of what it meant to be a teacher. And it left him feeling bitter.

"Out of all the jobs I've done, by far, teaching has the most responsibilities, the most duties, the things that you're held accountable for. I was overwhelmed," Platt said. "I don't have children, but I thought to myself, 'If I was a dad and had a family of my own, there's no way I would have time for this.' It's just not feasible."

The "big shock and disappointment" came when four years into the profession, he went into forbearance on his student loans, his furnace had been broken for two winters, and he maxed out his credit cards just to make ends meet.

"With student loans, teaching did not really pay the bills," he said. "I came to the realization that I just couldn't afford to do it anymore."

Platt resigned from teaching last week.

In Utah, 42 percent of new teachers quit within five years of starting, and more than one-third of those who leave the profession do so at the end of their first year, according to the Utah State Office of Education.

Their reasons for leaving are almost as diverse as the students they serve, stemming from a combination of burnout, insufficient pay, negative outside perceptions about teachers and other circumstances.

When Platt started, he was all in, often working 50- to 60-hour weeks — getting paid for 40 hours — to help with student government, debate, dances and other activities at East High School. He also attended advanced placement history teaching workshops during summer breaks.

That was in addition to his normal duties in the classroom, teaching some 200 students over the course of six periods every day. Assigning an essay meant 10 or more hours of grading, even if he spent only two to five minutes per student. And it bothered him knowing he couldn't give each student the time they needed.

The trend toward teacher dropout is continuing and is coupled with declines in the number of prospective teachers graduating from Utah's colleges and universities. And it's occurring at a time when Utah's student population is growing by more than 10,000 pupils every year.

That's raising the level of concern for education leaders and state lawmakers trying to figure out how to reverse the trend and minimize its impact on students.

"At this point, we are just trying to gather information about it to find out as much as we can about the shortage," said David Crandall, chairman of the Utah State Board of Education. "The urgency is going to be associated with the data that we have provided to us. The more acute that it is, especially in specific subject areas, the more risk that that creates."

Members of the State School Board are expected to delve into teacher retention and shortage data Friday and will join a discussion with state lawmakers next week on testing, accountability and Utah's teacher shortage.

Teacher retention

In 2010, 2,417 new teachers began their careers in Utah schools. Almost 400 of them didn't come back the next year. By 2014, only 58 percent of the group remained, with more than 1,000 teachers having left the profession, according to the Utah State Office of Education.

Since 2011, Utah’s five-year retention rates for new teachers have fluctuated between 61 percent and, most recently, 58 percent. District schools last year had a five-year retention rate of 60 percent, while charter schools, which have more variation in teacher contracts, retained 52 percent of teachers.

Retention takes the biggest hit in the first year of a new teacher's career. Almost 17 percent of Utah educators who started their career in 2007 didn't return in 2008, compared with 10 percent nationally, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

"Historically, it seems like there always has been an issue of teacher attrition," said Rich Nye, deputy superintendent at the state education office. "What we're seeing, though, now is a greater sense of urgency as student populations increase."

Schools in the state gained almost 12,000 new students last year, and the total student population reached 633,896 students. That's almost 110,000 students more than in 2006, yet the total number of traditionally licensed teachers increased by only 3,370 people during that time.

"(That increase) isn't keeping up with the needs of the districts to fill those positions given student population increases," Nye said.

The number of prospective teachers graduating from Utah's colleges and universities grew parallel to spikes in college enrollment during the Great Recession. But as economic conditions improve, education majors have declined from a peak in 2012 at 2,586 graduates to 2,364 graduates last year.

College students that specialize in early childhood education — kindergarten through third grade — have steadily declined from 320 graduates in 2010 to 117 graduates in 2014. Meanwhile, students focusing on elementary education generally — kindergarten through sixth grade — have increased from 123 graduates in 2010 to 792 graduates in 2014, according to the state education office.

It's unclear what's driving the shift and what it means in the context of a teacher shortage, Nye said.

"This is really the first step in a number of data sets that we're going to be looking at given the complex nature of teacher retention and recruitment," he said. "While it begins to paint a picture, at the moment, it's an incomplete picture."

High school math and science teachers, especially those teaching advanced-level courses, are in short supply. Finding qualified computer science teachers at any level is also a frustration for schools when technology jobs are opening up across the state, offering starting salaries at double or triple that of a teacher.

Special education is another hiring pressure point for school administrators.

"Those are the areas where we see the shortage is most acute, where they start to show up first," Crandall said.

Reasons for leaving

Platt's not a computer science major, but finding a well-paying job outside the classroom didn't take long. He started training in a new job this week to train health care workers how to use new electronic medical record systems required under the Affordable Care Act.

It's a new field for him and he's already almost doubled his previous salary. He's also getting paid for job training, where most of the professional development he sought as a teacher was on his own time and dime.

But his financial situation as a teacher wasn't unique. On average, district school teachers have a starting salary of $35,768, in addition to benefits. Statewide, district school teachers earn an average of $46,689. For school administrators, the average salary jumps to $81,379, according to the state education office.

Within the state, average starting salaries range from $15,704 at the Millard School District to $46,753 at the Park City School District. Compared nationally, Utah ranked 36th in 2012 for its starting salary of $33,081, $3,000 less than the national average, according to the National Education Association.

It's a hard sell considering most teachers are required to earn a bachelor's degree or higher, as well as a teaching certificate, to be fully licensed.

"It is a clear picture of what's contributing to folks leaving," said Sharon Gallagher-Fishbaugh, outgoing president of the Utah Education Association. "You have to go to school four to five years, which is really critical, to come into a profession where the starting pay is $34,000."

That's not the only disincentive.

Early on in his teaching career, Platt noticed that the anger and bitterness he felt from the pressure of getting all 200 of his students to succeed was undermining his ability to teach and their ability to learn.

He was faced with the uncomfortable decision of saving his students — ceeding unpaid hours to his "perfectionist" side as a teacher and "working yourself to the bone" — or letting himself "pull back" to save his sanity and try to enjoy his job, while maintaining as much academic rigor as he could for his classroom.

Eventually, he chose the latter. He started leaving work at 5 p.m. no matter how much work was left to do. And it worked for a while.

"Nobody learns from a miserable, angry, bitter teacher," he said.

Trade-offs invariably emerged, and he felt like he was falling short of what he'd committed to do as a teacher, that there wasn't time to "truly prepare kids for college."

That's partially why he feels a growing emphasis is being placed on testing and accountability in Utah schools through the student assessment of growth and excellence, known as SAGE, and school grading. Both measures are mandates from the Utah Legislature intended to provide parents and educators with useful data on student performance to guide instruction.

But it puts a greater burden on teachers to prove that they're doing their job, adding to a negative rhetoric about teachers and their efforts, Platt said.

"Teachers, with the sheer amount of work placed on them, they ultimately learn how to cut corners to try to survive in the job. So then legislators see teachers cutting corners and they make the assumption that teachers are lazy," he said. "So they add on this extra level of accountability, which really all it does is take more time away from students."

Changing policy

Several initiatives have emerged as direct and indirect attempts to improve teacher recruitment, retention and morale. This week, the State School Board is considering changes to administrative rule that they hope will give greater flexibility to local school boards in hiring new teachers.

That could allow schools to hire individuals with professional experience in various fields but who may not have experience in the classroom.

Some education leaders, however, worry the rigor required of new educators will decline because of the demand for teachers.

"With this shortage, the biggest fear we have is they will lower the standard and the qualifications to get into teaching," Gallagher-Fishbaugh said. "That is not going to solve the problem. It's going to become more resource-intensive. It's going to cost more money."

Others hope it would remove excessive barriers that hold back qualified and promising new teachers.

"We definitely want to make sure that there is a process in place when we are licensing teachers that bring some confidence in the ability (of) those teachers," Crandall said.

Lawmakers are considering possible solutions at the state level. This year, the Legislature prohibited SAGE testing from being considered in teacher evaluations, largely because the test can't be used on a student's grade and some students don't feel inclined to give it their full effort.

Legislators have also provided salary supplement funding to encourage teachers of science, math and other high-demand subjects to stay in the classroom. But bringing salaries up for all teachers to a meaningful extent becomes more difficult as proposals to increase income and property taxes enter the conversation.

"If we're going to affect teacher compensation, we're probably going to have to do it with both," said Hurricane Republican Brad Last, House chairman of the Education Interim Committee. "Can we do it? Sure. But we have to be realistic in Utah."

Some of the needed changes go beyond policy in addressing a disconnect between business-oriented policymakers and what goes on in the classroom, where business principles may not apply, Last said.

"There's absolutely a disconnect," he said. "We do have to deal with the environment for teachers. We have to change the rhetoric in the Legislature. We can't be beating up on our teachers. I believe that we should be praising our teachers for the fact that we have arguably above-average outcomes even though we're spending less than any other state."


Public meeting

The State School Board will take up the issue of teacher retention Friday, 8 a.m., at the state office of education, 250 E 500 S, Salt Lake City.

Email: mjacobsen@deseretnews.com

Twitter: MorganEJacobsen