Why does Utah have a teacher shortage? It has to do with freedom

By Christine Cooke

by Christine Cooke, Education Policy Analyst at the Sutherland Institute
by Christine Cooke, Education Policy Analyst at the Sutherland Institute

An educator sitting next to me laughed as officials at a joint Education Interim Committee and State Board of Education meeting last month scoured statistics trying to figure out why teachers leave the profession.

He told me it’s simply because they are so overburdened and still want time for their families.

With this in mind, how can Utah address its teacher shortage crisis? Education leaders of all types are wrestling with this question. Startling statistics show that 42 percent of new Utah teachers quit within the first five years, and over one-third of those leave after only their first year. While many factors play into this troubling trend, people from both sides of the aisle are agreeing that teachers need more freedom.

On July 1, the Utah House Democratic Caucus wrote a letter formally requesting a public hearing with the State Board of Education to discuss its newly adopted policy regarding a new alternate route to licensure called Academic Pathway to Teaching (APT). APT allows individuals with a bachelor’s degree – not necessarily in education – to become teachers if they pass a subject-area test, a background check, ethics training, and work with a mentor for their first three years of teaching.

In short, the caucus doesn’t like the policy. It argues that it “will not create a pool of highly qualified teachers for Utah’s classrooms and will continue to damage current teacher morale.” There are certainly legitimate issues to discuss with regard to this policy. Yet it’s important to note that data show inconclusive results as to whether teachers with traditional or alternative certification have better impacts on student scores.

More importantly, the letter says, “College graduates are voting with their diplomas – saying no thanks to an underpaid job that comes with overbearing regulation and policy-maker scrutiny and criticism.” It’s a good point. Teachers are professionals to whom parents delegate teaching responsibilities for their children. They are dedicated individuals who generally join the profession to facilitate learning in students. They are intelligent and capable.

So it’s interesting that over time, we have circumscribed their autonomy to act; their personal judgment; and ultimately their ability to teach a classroom of children, all of whom have unique learning needs. And while we understand the importance of home life on education, we focus our sights on teachers when performance scores aren’t what we want.

Education policymakers are constantly looking for the newest reform, but that usually amounts to more regulation. Federal initiatives and funds come with strings attached. Reforms that focus too much on efficiency and standardization, like some implementations of standards-based education, can overly prescribe what, when and how a teacher teaches to students.

Teachers are as varied as their students and their reasons for leaving are likely as varied. Certainly salary (and benefits) is an important topic that is highlighted frequently. But it’s also worth considering whether our attempts to make education more efficient or “effective” through rules and regulations have made a hard science out of a profession that’s also an art. Perhaps our attempts to improve education are driving out one of the best assets we have – our local educators.

Let’s look at all sides of the crisis – pay, morale, and whether our policies too often standardize students, dictate teaching, or overburden our teachers. Let freedom ring!

Christine Cooke, J.D., is education policy analyst for Sutherland Institute.

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