A survey of former Utah teachers to find out why so many have chosen to leave the profession is not likely to reveal any big surprises. Financial compensation may be at the top of the list, as Gov. Gary Herbert predicted in a recent news conference, saying teacher pay needs to increase.
It’s good that leaders are talking about proper compensation for educators and that surveys are in the field to assess the concerns of former teachers, but the problem of retaining qualified educators won’t be solved until key players lay out a real education strategy for Utah. Treating symptoms of lagging achievement will never be as effective as leading with a vision for what Utah’s education can become.
Average teacher salaries in Utah, according to most surveys, continue to rank among the lowest in the country, though there is recent data suggesting progress toward more competitive pay. The median annual salary of a Utah teacher last year was about $54,000, which ranked 29th in the nation. Starting pay for teachers in Utah in the 2016-17 school year was $35,722, according to the National Education Association, about 7 percent lower than the national average.
Some school districts have sharply raised pay in recent years in order to attract enough teachers to staff classrooms. Those districts have worked on their own to muster funds to effect salary increases.
Now voters will face a November ballot question to support a 10-cent-per-gallon hike in the state gasoline tax to free up money for education spending. The Legislature, however, would have to follow up with specific appropriations earmarked for teacher pay, something it has previously been reluctant to do. While lawmakers have steadily put more money toward schools, those funds have not always translated into the actions necessary to reverse a trend in which nearly half of all teachers quit the profession within five or six years.
What’s been missing is a concerted effort at the state level to prepare a vision for the future of Utah’s schools. Solely focusing on wages misses opportunities to tackle other factors affecting overall performance: administrative bloat, an incentive program based on tenure rather than teacher performance, little autonomy over curricula and a perceived lack of career support.
In fact, some evidence suggests scant pay plays second fiddle to overall working conditions as a reason for a teacher leaving after only a few years. Many teachers likely enter the profession with a good understanding of the pay that awaits but without a full knowledge of the long hours and constant dictation from administrators and federal regulators. Burnout ensues.25 comments on this story
This is where the governor and the Legislature can intervene by outlining a vision that elevates the state’s education, with clear expectations for teachers, parents and students. This vision should address work environment and professional support. What incentives can be provided for good teachers to stay beyond five years?
This doesn’t necessarily mean emulating Finland’s friendly approach or Singapore’s “drill and kill” methods. It does mean bringing key voices together to solve the problem.
The governor’s call is a start. Now is the time for action.