If we want that world-class education in Utah, we need world-class teachers. A student’s teacher has a bigger impact on his or her learning than anything else in a school, and this won’t change even as technologies, methods and curricula evolve.
But there’s one major barrier to creating this workforce of world-class teachers: teacher pay. If we start teachers at around $60,000 and they retire at about $110,000, teaching will become a sought-after degree program. Our brightest and most innovative students will be competing for a teaching degree and for a job. Principals and districts will be able to help underperforming teachers out the door because there will be an eager, well-trained teacher waiting for a spot. Not to mention the impact pay can have on current teachers who are already asked to perform an enormously important job for a salary that’s less than a living wage in most districts.
Our current system of teacher pay doesn’t bring enough people into the profession. Because we have very high turnover in our teacher workforce — with almost half leaving the profession within their first five years — and because our student population is growing, we need more than 3,000 new teachers each year. Only half that many graduate from our college and university training programs.
This shortage means there is typically little or no competition either for entrance to teaching programs or for jobs. Competition improves quality. Competition means a principal has more freedom to replace underperforming teachers, and it means universities and schools can select the best and brightest to begin with.
An Envision Utah survey of 4,000 college students confirms what you probably already knew: teacher pay deters many young people from pursuing the teaching profession. And another survey shows it’s the biggest thing we could change to help former teachers come back.
With better pay, highly skilled veteran teachers will be able to remain in the classroom instead of jumping to administration or another career. What’s more, they’ll be able to do the kind of job they want to do because they won’t carry the burdens that low wages bring.
And think of what it will mean to Utah students to be part of a school system with the best teachers in the world. Their own enthusiasm and engagement will grow. They’ll be prepared for life. They’ll have the skills for the jobs of the future and the knowledge to help create those jobs. And they’ll make every one of our communities better.
Higher pay is not my answer alone, and it’s not merely speculation. Faced with a teacher shortage and a mountain of data suggesting that better pay would fix that shortage and more, Envision Utah gathered a group of government, business and education leaders to figure out what teacher compensation should look like in today’s market conditions. After several months, the group reached agreement that starting salary should be somewhere around $60,000 and that teachers at the end of their careers should be making something like $110,000, while leaving room for variation based on local needs or hard-to-fill positions. This salary scale will put teachers on par with similar professions that require a bachelor’s degree and almost eliminate compensation as a barrier to attracting people.
By modernizing teacher retirement benefits, we can cut the cost of this increase from $1.2 billion to less than $600 million. At the same time, we should improve teacher induction, offer more scholarships for teachers, and provide the option for teachers to work more days for more pay.
A few of our school districts are pushing pay upward, but not to these levels, and it’s not enough for a few districts to do it. We need to elevate pay across the board if we want to attract people into the profession instead of simply pulling them from one district to another.
We know Utahns already want to make these kinds of changes. Our latest survey found that 90% of Utahns think we should give more support to teachers, and 71% want to spend more money on education. That’s because they know education is the key to Utah’s future, and teachers are the key to a quality education.
Ari Bruening is the CEO of Envision Utah.