Without a second job or the support of a spouse’s income, Mountain View Elementary Principal Kenneth Limb said Thursday, many public school teachers would make so little in salary that their children would qualify for free or reduced-priced lunches.
The economics of education, Limb said, convince him that the school system is “sexist from its inception,” with insufficient support for hardworking professionals.
“We know that teachers don’t go in for the pay,” Limb said. “But after awhile, sometimes they leave because of the pay.”
Limb was speaking as part of a panel on teacher turnover, sponsored by the advocacy group Voices for Utah Children. In Utah, and around the nation, school administrators report struggling with a personnel shortage as teachers leave the profession in large numbers and fewer individuals pursue careers in education.
Teachers who remain in the classroom, Limb said, do so “in spite of a steady barrage of challenges and disrespect.”
He said his west Salt Lake City school of 650 students relies on a single, part-time counselor. And teachers experience “compassion fatigue” working with children from diverse backgrounds under the pressures of school grading and strict year-end testing requirements.
“Many teachers would be better able to swallow that bitter pill of salary,” Limb said, “if they felt that funding would cover more supplies, would cover more special education teachers, would cover counselors and nurses and those ways we could be supportive.”
Among the Utah teachers who began their careers during the 2007-2008 school year, 56 percent had left the profession by 2014, according to recent research from the University of Utah. Those numbers are in line with national trends that suggest roughly half the teachers leave the classroom within their first five years.
In addition to retention, the ability of administrators to replace teachers who quit is diminishing, according to an analysis of Utah Board of Education data, conducted by the nonprofit planning group Envision Utah.
Between the 2013-2014 and 2015-2016 school years, the number of new teachers produced by Utah’s college and university education programs has made up for roughly half the number of exiting teachers, Envision Utah found.
The remaining vacancies — as high as 1,672 positions last fall — are increasingly filled by out-of-state recruits, departed teachers lured back to classrooms, or those without education training who are licensed through alternative programs.
And while schools are finding ways to staff their schools, Envision Utah chief operating officer Ari Bruening said, the dearth of candidates makes it is less likely that ineffective teachers will be replaced by higher-performing educators.
“We’ve heard anecdotally from schools that they are now hiring candidates that they wouldn't have hired five, six, seven, eight years ago,” Bruening said. “Even people who weren’t recommended by their [colleges] for licensure are getting hired.”
The gap between teachers who quit and traditionally trained candidates is also growing, according to Envision Utah’s analysis. Eventually, Envision Utah spokesman Jason Brown said, Utah could simply run out of people who want to work in public school classrooms.
“That is the threshold question that these numbers point to,” Brown said. “Is it sustainable five, 10 years out to only be producing half of our teacher need every year through traditional routes?”
Beyond the administrative pressures, teacher turnover has an academic impact on students, according to panelist and Stanford University professor Susanna Loeb.
New teachers are less effective, on average, than more experienced teachers, Loeb said, including when an educator moves to a new school.
She said her research has found that when half the grade-level teachers at a school were replaced, the performance of students in that grade dropped by the equivalent of missing more than a month of school.
“If two out of four of your teachers leave,” Loeb said, “it’s a pretty big hit to learning.”
Loeb said the rate of turnover among teachers is slightly higher, but comparable to other career paths that require a bachelor’s degree. Averages, though, can muddle the fact that students who need the most support attend schools where the highest levels of turnover occur.
“It just happens to be much higher in certain schools and in certain areas,” Loeb said. “If you see a lot of turnover in your schools, the students may be hurt not only by the turnover but by whatever is causing it.”