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Making sense of Utah's teacher shortage

By Carrie Rogers-Whitehead, KSL.com Contributor  |  Posted Mar 4th, 2016 @ 8:21am


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SALT LAKE CITY — The story of Kane County School District Superintendent Robert Johnson's is similar to other public educators around the state of Utah: There are teacher openings, but they aren't being filled.

"Last year we had a math opening, we had an individual who graduated from Kanab high school and was teaching in Wyoming and wanted to come back," he said. "But when she saw she was going to have to take a $20,000 pay cut she wasn't going to do it."

Why aren't they being filled? Diana Suddreth, director of teaching and learning at the Utah State Office of Education says, "It's a very complicated issue. It's not just one thing."

Not all subjects and grade levels are lacking in certified teachers, though. The biggest shortages across the state are in elementary education.

According to data with USOE, since 2009, there has been a drop in elementary education and early childhood graduates, with teachers who graduate with a focus on early childhood down significantly, about two-thirds. Other high-need subjects are math, science and special education.

Suddreth said, "a teacher who is in a high-need area, like math, could shop around the districts … that would leave openings elsewhere."

Utah teacher shortages have not been spread out equally through the state. Like Suddreth said, teachers shop around. The districts with the greatest teacher shortage are outside of the Wasatch Front. Some of the public school districts with some of the highest teacher/pupil ratios are Nebo, Uintah, Morgan and Cache.

Johnson from rural Kane County described some of the struggles in teacher recruiting.

"We can't find a certified art teacher in Kane County," he said. "The shortage is across the board and pretty serious."

Click image to expand. (Credit: Utah Department of Education)

At Southern Utah University, teacher graduates aren't just recruited from Utah but other states too.

"We have a lot of people living in St. George, but teach in Clark County, Nevada, because of the pay and benefits," he said.

Since 2011, Utah's teacher graduation rates have decreased every year. This decrease is not unique to Utah. However, while traditional paths to teaching have seen decreases, alternative paths, such as Transition to Teaching at Salt Lake Community College, have seen an increase.

Program manager Maria Griffin has recorded an increase in enrollment since 2013. Suddreth notes that the state office of education was looking to find pathways for people to come in, but as of now these alternative routes account for small percentage of newly hired teachers.

Travis Rawlins, an education license coordinator with the USOE, brings up other issues affecting teacher graduation rates.

"The key issue is a lot of the decrease coincided with general economic issues and the LDS Church changing its policy regarding the age of missionaries," he said. "We can't parse out the reasons, and therefore, can only guess as to the real reasons."

One of the reasons may be retirement. Since 2010 Utah Retirement Systems has seen an increase in the number of educators retiring. Along with educators leaving the profession when they retire, keeping those educators until retirement is a national issue. According to a 2015 federal study by the U.S. Office of Education, about 20 percent of teachers don't return after five years.

Retention rates are affected by a number of issues, and one frequently discussed reason, particularly in Utah, is pay.

"I think there's as many people out there that have a desire to be teaching than ever," Johnson said. "But when they look at the pay and see the standard of living that they would have to accept … they choose to go a different path."

Clark County School District pays more than Utah but had a "staggering shortage" at the beginning of this school year, down almost 1,000 teachers. The Las Vegas-based school district is described as an epicenter and could be an example of things to come.

The whys of the teaching shortage are numerous and complicated.

Suddreth has another question we should ask: "Do we value teachers and do we value education? If we don't value teachers, that's saying we don't value our education."


Carrie Rogers-Whitehead is a senior librarian at Salt Lake County Library Services. In addition, she is a STEM educator, digital advocate and instructor at Salt Lake Community College. Carrie can be reached at rogers-whitehead@hotmail.com

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