SALT LAKE CITY — An education research center at the University of Utah will survey past and current public schoolteachers statewide this fall to develop a comprehensive understanding of why Utah teachers leave the profession, and conversely, why they stay.
Andrea Rorrer, director of the U.'s Utah Education Policy Center, said initial survey results should be available by January and will include statewide and district-level data.
"We're moving from the rhetoric of teachers are staying or leaving to better understanding empirically why they are staying or leaving," said Rorrer, addressing the state Legislature's Education Interim Committee on Wednesday.
The data is intended to help policymakers develop "scalable solutions that are both efficient and effective," she said.
Researchers will be asking teachers about factors that influenced their decisions to stay or leave, and whether they were voluntary or involuntary.
The research will explore a wide variety of reasons behind turnover, retention or leaving the teaching profession altogether such as compensation, working conditions, personal decisions such as caring for children or aging parents, work assignments, working conditions, student performance, moving because of a spouse's employment or education, and others.
Utah Education Association President Heidi Matthews said she welcomes data to help guide policymaking, but she asked lawmakers, as they prepare for their next general session, to keep in mind what can be done "to support that teacher pipeline, ensuring that every student has a qualified caring teacher in every classroom.
"Unfortunately or fortunately, it really does come down to adequately funding our schools so that all of those things can occur," Matthews said.
Human resources directors from three Wasatch Front school districts who addressed the legislative committee said compensation is a key factor in teacher recruitment and retention.
Steve Dimond, human resources director for Canyons School District, said he and his colleagues traveled across the country to fill teacher vacancies.
"This year we have 72 teachers we hired from out of state, from one side of the country to the other," Dimond said, nearly a third of the 248 new educators hired this fall. Improved salaries help Canyons compete for new hires nationally, he said.
"I wish I could say I have a traditional teacher in every classroom, but I don’t have that," Dimond said, referring to teachers hired under the state's Alternative Route to Licensure provision.
Donnette McNeill-Waters, Granite School District's human resources director, said raising teacher salaries resulted in retaining more veteran teachers and recruiting new hires, which enabled the district to "staff early."
Experienced teachers were particularly grateful with some telling McNeill-Waters, "Thank you for paying a high enough wage (so) I can quit my second job," she said.
Granite District offered teachers across the board an 11 percent pay raise, which was achieved through the 4 percent increase in the value of the weighted pupil unit appropriated by state lawmakers and by raising local property taxes.
Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, said some districts are able to offer pay well beyond state funding for salaries because they're able to generate a significant amount of revenue from local property tax assessments. But that's not the case in many smaller, rural districts, he said.
The Legislature needs to develop some means to help level the playing field through an equalization measure, Stephenson said.
"The Legislature has created this disparity, and the Legislature should fix it," he said.
Another impediment to filling teaching positions are the rules of the state retirement system that requires retiring teachers to sit out a year before they can return to the classroom, human resources directors said.
Sen. Ann Millner, R-Ogden, asked whether there was any appetite to change the structure of public schoolteachers' retirement systems from a benefit system to the contribution system used by higher education in Utah.
"It’s one that’s been in place and seems to work well for higher education," said Millner, former president of Weber State University.
Stephenson questioned the sense of paying starting teachers such low salaries that some qualify for public assistance and free and reduced-priced school lunches depending on their household sizes, yet the state offers them "rich" retirement benefits that allow them to retire at 55 after 30 years of teaching.
"We pay for it one way or the other. It looks like we're really cheap on the front end and maybe we are. But on the back end, it's really a rich program, and we ought not complain about it because they earned it," Stephenson said.
Financial issues aside, Dimond said school districts must also find ways to address other factors teachers say contribute to their decision to leave the profession, such as workload expectations and feeling valued as professionals.
"We need trust. We need trust in terms of policies … that recognize we are in this profession because we went to school, we trained, we studied, we have expertise," she said.
When education policies are applied differently or they're "heaped on one after another," it affects teachers' morale and whether they feel appreciated, Matthews said.
Dramatic increases in class sizes are a factor, too, she said.
"Imagine having a classroom of students who come in. You want to be welcoming and all, 'Come on in. We're going to learn all these things together.' You want to be inspiring, and yet there's not enough desks for all the people who are in this classroom right now," Matthews said.
"How can I get to know a child one on one and really find out what their passions are or where their interests lie and how to spark their motivation with these large class sizes?"
Moreover, today's classrooms are full of students who face intense issues such as drug abuse and homelessness, she said. And youth suicide rates in Utah are climbing, Matthews said.
"They're coming to school, and they can't learn until all of those things are addressed. That falls on the teacher in the absence of other things to address it," she said.
When Matthews was elected president of the UEA, someone joked with her that the organization's constant mantra is "more money and class sizes," she said.
"It really is. It kind of comes down to this. It is more money and it is class sizes," Matthews said.