'Keeping The Brightest,' How Utah’s Leaders, Specialists Are Attempting To Solve Teacher Shortage

Aug 31, 2017

Credit Dennis Stock

Facing a shortage of qualified teachers, Cache Valley lawmakers and state education specialists held a town hall in Logan on Wednesday about teacher retention.

Last year, Utah’s 8th graders tested first in science nationally.

“In fact, we rank very well nationally on our NAEP scores, our National Assessment of Educational Progress,” said Tami Pyfer, education advisor to Governor Herbert, said she’s tired of the negativity aimed at Utah. 

Utah’s students are performing well in a state among the lowest in education spending; currently faced with a teacher shortage.

“So, the myths in my mind that need to be dispelled are that our education system is failing, that we never innovate -- which is absolutely not true,” Pyfer said. “Those are things that we hear day in and day out often from people who haven’t set foot in a classroom.”

Over half of new teachers in 2008 left their careers by 2015. Pyfer said general negativity, among teachers and the public, over education is a factor in the teacher decline. In response, the state education board is launching a program to spread word about Utah’s student achievement.  

Other factors include teacher compensation and support. While 2017 saw a multitude of Utah School Districts raising salaries by the thousands, many districts remain behind in wages.

Terry Shoemaker with the Utah School Boards Association said pay is only one part of the equation.

“The relationship they have with their principle, the relationship they have with the other teachers, the working conditions that they’re operating under,” Shoemaker said. “Those are just several that come to mind. Salary is one of those things, they do make a difference but so do the other things too.”

Along with continued pay increases, Terryl Warner said sustained funding would go a long way to help ease the burden placed on teachers.

“Imagine you’re an elementary school teacher and you need a class set of books that you want your kids to read, you’re looking at hundreds of dollars and yet you have $ 175,” Warner said. “So, we worked with the legislature to make that above-the-line spending so that that’s ongoing spending but what we need to do is improve that and increase that amount so teachers aren’t spending so much out of their pockets.”

To keep up with inflation, Legislature must spend more every year just to keep up. The Legislature’s decision this year to boost the WPU, which is basically per-student spending, by 4% outpaces inflation and is a welcome change for educators.

However, the panel made several requests for legislators to reduce their bill flow relating to education. Last year there were over 190 bill files relating to education. The frequent rule changes can be difficult to follow

There’s a constitutional right for legislators to file all the bill requests they want and that’s the challenge we have,” said Sen. Lyle Hillyard.

Hillyard stated the purpose of Wednesday’s meeting was to spread positivity about the state of Utah education. He called on more involvement from the community.

“There’s a feeling that they’re not really appreciated and I think we in the general public need to understand and address that,” he said. “We need to be involved in our school and parents need to come, they need to support the teachers and help the teachers. They need to have their children come prepared to learn.”