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Laura Seitz, Deseret News
Darren Stirland works with his sixth-grade students at South Jordan Elementary School on Wednesday, June 8, 2016.

SALT LAKE CITY — Education leaders are beginning to explore why the size of Utah's teaching force isn't keeping up with the growth in student populations across the state and took action Friday to battle the problem.

The Deseret News reported this week that 42 percent of new teachers quit within five years of starting, citing low pay and teacher burnout, among other reasons, for quitting.

The Utah State Board of Education began a discussion Friday in advance of meetings with lawmakers next week on what data is available and how it can inform policy decisions to reverse the teacher shortage.

The board also unanimously adopted a rule Friday that allows schools to hire individuals with professional experience in a content area, such as computer science or the trades, but who may not have teaching experience.

"We have some immediate needs," said board member Stan Lockhart. "We have fewer kids in the colleges of education in our institutions around the state. We are graduating fewer and fewer and fewer kids into the profession."

The number of prospective teachers produced by Utah's colleges and universities has been declining since 2012. That year, 2,586 candidates graduated, 222 more than last year, according to the Utah State Office of Education.

Currently, the national teaching population is growing at 2.5 times the rate of growth in student numbers, but for Utah, growth in the two populations are "about even," according to Travis Rawlings, licensing coordinator at the state education office.

But the decline in prospective teachers isn't over.

"I don't think we've hit the bottom yet," Rawlings said. "It's going to keep going down for at least two or three more years based on the enrollment numbers I've seen."

Of those who do become educators, only 58 percent stay with the profession after five years. In 2010, 2,417 new teachers entered Utah classrooms, but by 2014, more than 1,000 of them had left. Many of them lasted only one year.

Rawlings said Utah's five-year retention rate is "comparable" with that of the nation, "but first-year retention is significantly worse, and I couldn't tell you why that is."

Education leaders have designated various methods outside the traditional path for people to become educators, but they hope a new alternative route to licensure will help meet critical needs for schools in math, science and other areas.

Seeking change

The board adopted its new teaching rule Friday that tries to tap the professional experience of Utah's workforce and create another path into teaching.

To qualify, applicants must have a bachelor's degree or higher, submit college transcripts to education administrators, pass the Utah test required for teacher certification, complete an educator ethics review and pass a background check.

Once they enter a school, the prospective instructor must gain at least three years of supervision and mentoring from a "master teacher" designated by the school before they receive the level of licensure held by most teachers.

"It's like going to law school; I had lots of classes. It really didn't teach me how to practice law," said State School Board Vice Chairman Dave Thomas. "The purpose of having the interaction with the master teacher over a period of three years is to help teach the (new) teacher that kind of pedagogy, teaching methodology, all those kinds of things, to have someone with them and help them through the process."

But some education advocates said the process overlooks other needed qualifications for instructors, such as knowledge of the Utah Core academic standards, content-specific teaching abilities and being able to work with diverse student needs.

"Strong content knowledge absolutely is necessary and is important. But it's not the only thing that's necessary," said Sara Jones, director of education excellence and government relations for the Utah Education Association. "You can have a very, very brilliant mathematician who cannot just automatically communicate that information to a class of 40, 13-year-olds."

Jones said the association isn't opposed to alternative paths to licensure, but she worries standards for educators may be lowered in an effort to address the teacher shortage. Instead, more attention should be given to the root causes of shortages and attrition among teachers, she said.

"This certainly can address concerns with the teacher shortage. That is an important conversation," she said. "This will certainly fill jobs very quickly. (Schools) don't have to hire these candidates. But if we're not addressing fundamental structural problems about the teacher shortage, then we're not necessarily creating a pool of highly qualified candidates from which to choose."

Tapping talent

Board members, however, see it as an improvement from existing alternative routes to the classroom by bringing in people with significant content experience, ensuring extensive mentoring and giving greater autonomy to schools in making hiring decisions.

"My worry and my concern as a State School Board member is who's going to be at the head of these classrooms?" said board member Leslie Castle. "If we don't break down some of these obstacles to good students out there who want to become teachers, and if we don't find a reasonable path for them, we will have substitutes in the classroom."

Lockhart said he supports the new option for prospective educators but hopes that state and education leaders will look more broadly as they seek solutions to an escalating scarcity of classroom instructors.

"We need to find a way to elevate the stature of teachers throughout our society," he said. "It's a larger discussion than passing yet one more additional route to licensure."

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