The power of sharing ideas for education reform

Innovation – and sparking a fire within local leaders for more of it – is how Utah will find solutions in education, not simply through heaps of money or top-down initiatives.

In fact, the teacher shortage may simply be an idea shortage. Last week a panel about innovations for addressing the teacher shortage showed that many of the best ideas for fixing this problem have struggled to spread across the state. 

Michelle McVicker, executive principal of an inner-city school in Nashville, Tenn., and a panelist at last week’s innovations event, explained how Opportunity Culture is addressing her school’s teacher shortage by providing more classroom career ladders and significant boosts in teacher pay.

Opportunity Culture – an initiative of Public Impact – allows “multi-classroom leaders” to mentor struggling teachers for stipends of up to $18,000 in some states on top of their normal salary. The program gives greater support to teachers having difficulties, extends the best teaching expertise to more students, and offers excelling teachers additional pay and career options. Importantly, Opportunity Culture rethinks a school’s current budget and doesn’t require additional money.

The program has helped attract and retain teachers at McVicker’s “priority” school, where every child qualifies for free lunch. Opportunity Culture has not yet found its way into Utah classrooms, but hopefully its success can prompt more creative structures for teacher opportunities and pay in Utah.

Keith Rittel, superintendent of Provo City School District and an event panelist, spoke about Careers in Education, a high school curriculum that teaches students about careers within the education profession. The curriculum – which he said he stole “lock, stock, and barrel” from Washington state – is really an effort to attract the right individuals to the profession from the start: those who see themselves working in it after getting a taste of the profession prior to college.

Sparking the interest of high schoolers in education careers is a slow-growing movement in Utah. Last year, the Utah State Board of Education worked to make more education-related career and technical courses available. Rittel said few districts have made inquiries into his curriculum. A diminishing number of college students are choosing education-related degrees, so helping younger students catch the vision of the education profession can help Utah cultivate the best teachers for its classrooms.

Logan Hall from the Salt Lake City School District talked with the panel about Peer Assistance Review (PAR), which started as a pilot and grant program in 2013-14. The union-backed PAR program gives new or struggling career teachers support, and it also provides a way to compassionately help teachers leave who are not suited for the demanding profession. Salt Lake City School District’s PAR results have been remarkable – it boasts a 77 percent retention rate, while the state average retention rate is 56 percent. PAR started over 25 years ago in Ohio and has since spread to other states, but in Utah, it only exists in Salt Lake City School District. Its impressive results merit conversation about how this program can reach more districts.

Jason Hoopes, vice president for Teachers of Tomorrow, told the audience about a business model that placed 7,000 teachers last year alone and has a 68 percent retention rate after five years. Teacher candidates get personal support as they walk through a state’s requirements for alternative routes to licensure and have access to teacher preparation materials. Besides an application fee, candidates pay tuition for these services only if they secure a teaching job. Impending changes to Utah’s licensure structure won’t keep Teachers of Tomorrow services from gaining a foothold in the state: Services are about navigating whatever licensure requirements exist in a state, not about creating new ones.

The teacher shortage is complex. It stems from insufficient compensation (think recent district salary arms race), low teacher morale, family choices, lack of respect, little classroom autonomy, and a feeling that the passion is being legislated out of the noblest profession. Utah was recently listed as one of the best states for teachers, but that success is purely relative when the entire nation is struggling with this issue. Utah district leaders are feeling the on-the-ground struggle of attracting and retaining the best educators.

Addressing the problem holistically will require spreading the best innovative ideas. That’s the purpose of Sutherland Institute’s innovation panels – to uncover or discover ideas that can help address real issues in Utah education.

Upcoming education panels will share innovations for reaching at-risk student populations (November 2017), growing education choices (January 2018), and finding the right education for students with special needs (March 2018).

For more information on our events, details about innovative ideas, and opportunities to get involved, visit our website at

Christine Cooke, J.D., a former public school teacher, is education policy director at Sutherland Institute.