High school graduation rates in the United States are at 81 percent. It’s an admirable statistic to be sure, but another number that should be higher is lagging: Only about 70 percent of new teachers stick with their profession for at least five years.
This is an issue anywhere schools can be found, but it’s particularly problematic in Utah, where the most commonly held degree is elementary education. What is it that keeps new teachers from continuing their one-time profession of choice? Is it even a major concern?
The answer to the latter question is yes. Retention of quality teachers should be a priority because, as Brown University’s John Papay and Matthew Kraft seek to prove in a new study, teachers improve with age. The study connected some 200,000 test scores with about 3,500 urban school district teachers. They found that test scores went up as teachers gained more experience. Teachers made the most progress before hitting the five-year mark, but improvements continued well beyond a teacher’s 30th year of teaching.
But not all teachers make it to 30 years. Many of them quit after just the first few. Just leaving attrition rates alone isn’t an option. NPR reports a high cost in teacher turnover — over $2 billion each year, mostly in human resources spending.
Gov. Gary Herbert’s office reported in November 2014 that, in anticipation of major population growth by 2050, the state needs to make short- and long-term plans to get education on track toward serious improvement. More people in the state means a growing need for quality educators. Now is a good time to focus on what it takes to reduce teacher attrition in Utah.
Reducing class sizes is one suggestion from a 2007 Utah Foundation report; however, mentoring novice and mature teachers alike seems like the option with better long-term results. Higher salaries are not necessarily a cure-all either — authors Frank Adamson and Linda Darling-Hammond find that compensation schemes often fall flat. Instead of merely increasing salaries, teachers want to work at the best schools where more resources are available to help teachers and students succeed.
In order to get more resources to more schools, it’s necessary to develop funding efforts with the best resources in mind. However, throwing money at a concern is not a silver bullet — increased funding needs to be tied to accountability, innovation and the acknowledging and rewarding of improved education.
Funding for public schools comes from a combination of Utah’s income and property taxes as well as federal funds. Dips in teacher resources are directly tied to property tax cuts since 1995, sales tax cuts in 2007 and splitting funding between Utah’s higher education and public schools. Raising taxes is rarely a popular option, but Utah is one of 48 states not yet spending as much on education as it did before the 2008 recession.
Searching for a way to get funding back in schools can help attract the best teachers. It may create a little financial discomfort for the present, but it can pay dividends for the future.