Christopherson: Utah Must Implement a Statewide Training Program to End a Teacher Shortage Crisis


(Courtesy of Feliphe Schiarolli and Unsplash)

By Nain Christopherson, Assistant Opinion Editor

Utah’s teacher shortage has garnered increasing public attention over the last year, thanks in large part to a few organizations and government agencies who’ve made addressing the problem a top priority.  And for good reason — high teacher turnover and declining enrollment in teacher training programs have far-reaching implications for students and for Utah’s economy.

Groups like Envision Utah, the Governor’s Education Excellence Commission and the Utah State Board of Education — as well as Utah’s 41 public school districts – are hard at work planning and implementing solutions. Among these is a well-publicized push to raise teacher salaries led by a handful of districts Salt Lake and Davis Counties, but many of Utah’s education leaders see pay increases as just one piece of a much larger puzzle. Career pathways and strengthened induction for new teachers are often next on the experts’ list of strategies for addressing the teacher shortage. Thankfully, Salt Lake City School District’s Peer Assistance & Review (PAR) program is already making a difference in each of those areas.

Teaching is probably the only profession – or one of very few – with absolutely no built-in opportunity for career advancement. In order for teachers to take on different responsibilities or to earn more money, they typically have to leave the classroom and move into administrative positions. It’s fair to assume that this might be a significant factor in teacher attrition — 42 percent of Utah teachers quit within their first five years – as well as a deterrent for college students considering teaching careers. Thirty years is – or would be – a long time to do exactly the same job.

Many states already understand this struggle and have created systems to address it. New York City’s Teacher Leadership Program, for example, includes three different “teacher leader” positions, each with greater responsibilities and higher pay than other teaching jobs. These teacher leaders open their classrooms for new teachers to observe, serve as teacher coaches and mentors, gather and produce course materials and develop curriculum, among other tasks. While Utah teachers also do this same work, they are generally not recognized or compensated for it due to a lack of career advancement infrastructure.

At the same time, many new teachers in Utah are thrown into their first school year without adequate mentorship or support. They often have to teach the same course load and have as many students – including difficult ones – as much more experienced educators. This contributes heavily to early burnout and attrition. The strain compounds with the lack of opportunities for career growth in teaching — new teacher coaching is the most obvious potential role for teacher leaders.

The PAR program, though relatively young, has already been successful at reducing teacher turnover in Salt Lake City School District by creating a full-time teacher coaching position. Each of the district’s five “consulting teachers,” as they’re called, work one-on-one with 10 to 12 first-year teachers over the course of the school year, spending roughly a half-day a week with each one and providing professional and emotional support. They observe their new teachers and offer suggestions, support them in lesson planning and classroom setup, accompany them as they observe other classrooms. By doing so, they are able to point out the subtler aspects of strong pedagogy and help shoulder some of the work of guiding difficult or troubled students.

Consulting teachers also serve on a PAR board with school principals and members of the Salt Lake Education Association. This panel of six people makes recommendations about how best to support new and struggling teachers and whether first-year teachers’ employment contracts should be renewed — hence the “and Review” in “PAR.”

The result of this system is a 77 percent five-year teacher retention rate in SLCSD, where the state average is a mere 58 percent. In any educational climate — but particularly in the midst of a major teacher shortage — any success of this kind warrants the attention of the public, the legislature and every local education agency in Utah. Clearly, the PAR program has the potential to stop the bleeding in the teaching profession in large measure — that is, if it could be scaled statewide.

The problem is that not even SLCSD receives state money for the program. In spite of its effectiveness, lawmakers cut funding for PAR in early 2017, after granting the district $400,000 per year for three years to pilot the program. Since then, SLCSD has made spending cuts elsewhere in order to maintain what Salt Lake’s late school board president, Heather Bennett, called their “top priority.”

The obvious counter to this proposal — to implement the PAR program in every school district in Utah — is that districts’ needs vary widely by locale, and therefore require localized systems of teacher induction and career advancement. While that’s true, there is plenty of room within the basic tenets of the program – which SLCSD did not develop – to modify it to meet a district’s specific demands. In fact, PAR has been used to increase teacher efficacy and provide opportunities for career growth in school districts across the country.

The catch, of course, is that programs like this require funding which not every Utah district has the resources to supply — so any kind of mandate to spread PAR to the rest of the state must be accompanied by millions of dollars in legislative funding. With leaders in the House and Senate anxious to cut taxes in the wake of last year’s billion-dollar surplus, the political will to increase K-12 education is undoubtedly sparse among legislators. But the long-term economic consequences of the teacher shortage — not to mention the implications for issues like intergenerational poverty — will one day far outweigh the benefits of a small tax cut. Second only to higher teacher salaries, statewide implementation of the Peer Assistance & Review program would be a highly effective way to spend that money.

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