SALT LAKE CITY — If Utahns want to ease the burden on teachers, they will have to take a hard look at how much they really value them, according to Andrea Rorrer, director of the Utah Education Policy Center.
In an election brief authored in partnership with the University of Utah's Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute and Hinckley Institute of Politics, researchers called on lawmakers to address low teacher pay but also to invest in professional development and teacher recognition.
"It's not as simple as just paying more," Rorrer said. "It's acknowledging the significance of the work that educators are doing that's important to them. It's recognizing the demand that they have (and) the expertise that's necessary to do the job they do and do it well."
The brief is part of Informed Decisions 2016, a series of political events and research papers meant to help voters make informed decisions this election year.
Education has consistently been rated a top priority by voters in Utah, which faces a growing gap between the number of students and available teachers.
Utah's 27,000 teachers face the second-largest student-to-teacher ratio in the U.S., with 23 pupils per teacher on average, and the number of graduates recommended for licensure from state teacher preparation programs has decreased four years in a row, according to the Utah State Board of Education.
School districts say they feel the pool of qualified teacher candidates is shrinking and report high turnover rates, according to researchers.
About 15 percent of new Utah teachers quit after the first year. After five years, about 42 percent leave.
That is higher than in other states, according to Allison Nicholson, a researcher with the Utah Education Policy Center.
"That can tell us something about needing support right off the bat," Nicholson said.
But experts say there is insufficient evidence to pinpoint exactly what is causing the teacher shortage in Utah.
Research from other states indicates that teachers share similar frustrations: insufficient pay, rapidly changing and growing demands, and lack of support and mentorship.
But because teacher hiring in Utah is decentralized, Rorrer said researchers are unable to say whether the shortage is concentrated in certain areas, districts or disciplines.
She said the Utah Education Policy Center is working with the State School Board to survey teachers on why they are staying, leaving or switching schools.
Over the past five years, the highest shortages in Utah were in chemistry, physics, math and foreign language, according to the report, which may indicate that teachers are leaving to pursue better-paid opportunities in other fields.
Rorrer said teachers in Utah are paid about 70 cents on the dollar compared with the average bachelor's degree recipient in Utah, according to the report.
Nationwide, the average bachelor’s degree graduate earns $50,650 starting salary compared with $37,241 for those who graduate with a bachelor’s in education.
But Rorrer and Nicholson said in talking to teachers, it's clear that it's not always about their salary. Other issues include lack of professional development, lack of career advancement and lack of respect for the profession from the public.
"The question still looms whether we can address an issue if we're not willing to question how we have created the issue," Rorrer said.
"Policymakers and leaders in the state, we believe they do have the ability to help guide that conversation," Nicholson added. "If they start to change the conversation, we hope that can start to solve that problem."