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SALT LAKE CITY — Utah’s state and local policymakers “should be alarmed at the high numbers of teachers leaving the state teaching core, particularly in the first few years,” recent public policy reports caution.
More than half — 56 percent — of the public school educators who started teaching in 2008 left the profession by 2015, according to a recent report by the Utah Education Policy Center at the University of Utah.
"Compared to the national average, beginning teacher turnover rates are very high in Utah," the report says.
The report “Beginning Teacher Turnover in Utah Between 2008-09 and 2014-15,” followed nearly 2,700 teachers over eight years.
The analysis showed stark differences in the percentage of teachers who leave according to their age.
Among teachers ages 25 and younger, 73 percent left the profession over the eight years.
"We really have more questions than answers after doing these reports," said Andrea Rorrer, director of the public policy center.
She said leaders in public education and at university-level teacher preparation programs are attempting to better understand the factors behind teacher retention and attrition.
Policy and practice need to be guided by good data, she said.
For educators ages 26-30, 54 percent left over the same period, followed by teachers ages 40 and above at 48 percent. The age group with the lowest percentage of educators leaving the profession were teachers ages 31-39.
The Utah Education Policy Center analysis also examined percentages of teachers who transferred to other assignments, those who took breaks from teaching and returned and teachers who stayed in the schools where they started.
About one-quarter stayed in the schools where they started and 19 percent had moved schools at least once but remained in teaching.
“The numbers of movers in one year is not necessarily larger than the previous year because some of the movers eventually became leavers,” the report said.
Compared to general education teachers, special education teachers were more likely to transfer. Forty-four percent of special education teachers transferred at least once in eight years compared to 31 percent for elementary school teachers and 28 percent of secondary teachers.
The report found male teachers were more likely to transfer schools than female teachers.
Among secondary teachers, science teachers were more likely to transfer than math teachers and teachers in all other subjects, the report said.
Among special educators who transferred schools, 72 percent were within the same school district or local education agency.
School characteristics may also play a role, according to the center's analysis.
Another report, “Teacher Turnover in Utah Between 2013-14 and 2014-15,” showed turnover rates are higher at Title 1 schools in Utah than non-Title 1 Schools, while turnover at charter schools was 31 percent compared to 18 percent at traditional public schools.
The U.S. Department of Education provides supplemental funding to local school districts to meet the needs of at-risk and low-income students, particularly in reading and math instruction.
While the data may suggest trend lines, Utah lacks hard data why teachers are leaving the profession, Rorrer said.
"We need to begin collecting and analyzing data about why people stay and leave, not just leave," Rorrer said.
To that end, the center is working with the Utah State Board of Education to create a survey instrument for use by school districts and charter schools to determine not only why teachers leave, but when, she said.
"Some districts and schools say they collect this information but no one systemically reports it," Rorrer said.
The National Center for Educational Statistics survey for the 2012-13 school year found no single reason why Utah teachers decided to leave the profession. Teachers cited their personal lives, career decisions, school characteristics and salary and benefits as factors. The survey had a small sample size, Rorrer said.
The survey also revealed that teachers left charter schools at a higher percentage than traditional schools. Suburban traditional schools had the smallest percentage of “leavers,” according to the survey.
Teachers with the least amount of experience – one to three years — had the highest rates of leaving, the survey said.
During the recent legislative session, Utah lawmakers agreed to fully fund enrollment growth in public schools, increase the value of the weighted pupil unit by 4 percent and fund initiatives that target children who experience intergenerational poverty.
HB168, sponsored by Rep. Lowry Snow, R-Santa Clara, will provide nearly $3 million in grants to schools that want to offer kindergarten enrichment programs. The program is optional for parents but is intended to provide additional instruction to struggling early learners to help bring them up to grade level with their peers.
Two other pieces of legislation would provide incentives to encourage teachers to work on Indian reservations and in other schools that serve high-poverty areas. Both initiatives were billed as a means to attract and retain effective teachers.
Lawmakers also agreed to move teacher supply funding to an ongoing state appropriation. The state will also pay for teacher license fees and background checks, expenses teachers have paid out of their own pockets.
Will these efforts encourage teachers to stay in the profession or entice them to become teachers?
Not in and of themselves, said Heidi Matthews, president of the Utah Education Association.
"It's a piece of the puzzle. It certainly wouldn't be the tipping point for a teacher deciding to enter the classroom or not, but they all add up," she said in an earlier interview.
Moving forward, "it's simply not enough resources to do what we need to be doing with our education system. We look forward to working with Our Schools Nows to really address education funding for the long term," Matthews said.
Our Schools Now is a citizen initiative that seeks to raise personal income tax by 7/8ths of 1 percent to increase investment in public schools by $750 million a year, backers say.