Lawmakers, experts discuss ways to reduce high turnover rate among Utah teachers

SALT LAKE CITY -- Utah teachers are quitting their jobs, with most of them leaving after seven years into their careers—according to a University of Utah study.

At a panel Thursday in the Utah Senate building, the main question experts had was: how do we get them to stay?

“Bottom line, we want our kids to learn and the only way they’re going to learn and achieve is through having great teaching and learning happening in every classroom, so that’s what we want," said Sandra Dahl-Houlihan, Canyons School District Administrator of Evaluations.

The panel consisted of professors from University of Utah and Stanford and Brown Universities, as well as a principal from Mountain View Elementary School in Salt Lake City and Representative V. Lowry Snow.

The experts agreed that people do not become teachers for the pay; in the Utah Education Policy Center's (UEPC) Educator Career and Pathway Survey (ECAPS), teachers said they become teachers to make a difference in the lives of children and young adults.

Often times, however, the low pay is a factor in why teachers quit or move.

“Those who begin a career often qualify for programs like WIC and for their children to receive a reduced lunch. Don’t worry though, after a couple years they’ll make just enough to not qualify for those things, but not enough to really make ends meet," said Kenneth Limb, Principal at Mountain View Elementary School.

Canyons School District increased teacher salary last year (starting at $40,500) as part of an effort to be competitive and retain good teachers.

“Teachers wherever they are—year one, year 20, day one, last day of the school year—they’re gonna get the support they need to be successful so that our kids can achieve," Dahl-Houlihan said.

Professor Susanna Loeb from Stanford University said their research showed the turnover is disruptive and can have a negative impact on students. Occasionally, turnover can be good, but usually only if the new teacher coming in has more experience than the previous.

Still, the new teacher has to learn to work with a new team of teachers and administrators, which Dahl-Houlihan said can take some time.

“Even if the teacher isn’t new to teaching, we know also that teachers when they’re new to a grade or they’re new to a school are also less effective," Loeb said.

A Brown University study found this turnover often happens in schools that serve low-performing students, minority students, and low-income students. Teachers report they do not leave because of the students they serve, rather the working conditions in these schools.

Administrators are looking to Utah lawmakers for help, but finding the appropriate funding is difficult.

“How do we figure out a way to better allocate the funds that are available for our young people and for education? And it’s a challenge every single year," said Rep. Snow.

He listed a major problem being the fact Utah is unlike other states with ample private land to tax and create school funding. He said lawmakers are working toward a solution, though it is not simple.