How Serious is the Teacher Shortage?

Kim Burningham 01Recently, I was meeting with a member of the Utah Legislature. The question was asked, “Are members of the Utah Legislature convinced of the pending teacher shortage’s severity?”   

His answer: “Some, yes. But a number of legislators are less certain. Some think it is just an alarmist cry from the Utah Education Association.” That reply sent me on an investigation.  
To address the issue, I will examine three questions:
  • Is there a teacher shortage and if so what is the shortage’s extent in Utah?
  • What are the reasons for the shortage?
  • What solutions can be used for reducing the shortage?
1. The extent of the teacher shortage in Utah
Numerous articles nationwide describe the shortage. I am specifically interested, however, in the State of Utah.  
Sharon Gallagher-Fishbaugh, recently retired president of the Utah Education Association speaks of the shortage. She said, “This is more than real. We are experiencing probably the most significant teacher shortage in Utah in my 37 years.” UEA predicts a statewide deficit of 800 to 900 teachers. (“Teacher shortage causing big problems for 2016-2017 school year,” ABC 4 Utah, May 25, 2016) 
Robert Johnson, Kane County School District superintendent, said, “The shortage is across the board and pretty serious.” (“Making sense of Utah’s teacher shortage,”, May 4, 2016)
The concern has been emerging during the last decade. David Sperry, then dean of the College of Education at the University of Utah, predicted that Utah would face “a severe teacher shortage crisis unlike anything it has ever experienced within just a year or two.” (“Utah Facing teacher shortage,” The Utah Statesman, January 22, 2007)
Greatest teacher shortage challenges are found in areas outside the Wasatch Front, like Nebo, Uintah, Morgan, and Cache.  (“Making Sense…”)
Recently I spent time discussing the issue with Superintendent Bryan Bowles of my own district, Davis. He noted an “increased teacher shortage in all areas.” To emphasize the challenge, he explained that formerly the district would send six interviewers to places like Weber State University to interview potential candidates. Now they only send two in their place. “They can’t fill the schedule with applicants for positions.”  (Interview, May 27, 2016)
In Davis, the district must hire about 300 new teachers each year. As of the date of the interview when much of the applying and hiring has been completed, over 50 positions are still unfilled (18 secondary positions, 30 elementary positions, and 8 special education positions). “They will be hard to find,” said Bowles.
Naturally the greatest evidence of shortage is found in specific areas. A national report (Teacher Shortage Areas Nationwide Listing 1990-1991 through 2015-2016, U. S. Department of Education, March 2015) indicates the shortage for Utah exists primarily in the areas of Foreign Language (Chinese and Dual Immersion), Mathematics, Physics, Special Education (Severe Disabilities, and Speech Language Pathology). (p. 146)
Bowles indicated that areas of greatest concern in his district are for special education, math, science, home economics, elementary education (particularly early childhood) and even athletic coaching.
I am interested in the discussion and action of the USBE on Friday, June 10, 2016 where the problem was acknowledged. (Morgan Jacobsen, “Rule change: Utah schools can tap experts to fill teaching void,” June 10, 2016.)
I also understand that the Utah Legislature’s Education Interim Committee will be receiving an “introductory” report on the matter Tuesday, June 14 in a joint meeting of the State Board of Education and the Interim Committee. (The agenda item is scheduled for the end of the meeting at 1:15 p.m. and the meeting is to be held at the south campus of the Salt Lake Community College on State Street in Salt Lake City.)
I conclude the teacher shortage is real, and, of course, confronted with a vacant position, one wonders what the quality of the replacement will be.
2. Causes behind the shortage
My reading and investigation convinces me of five major causes of the shortage:
  • Fewer students going into education training
  • Low retention of new teachers
  • The increasing number of retiring teachers
  • Lack of financial incentives for going into the job and for “sticking with it” once there
  • The declining morale of those in the profession
Fewer education students. Maria Franquiz, dean of the University of Utah’s College of Education worries, “I can’t produce enough teachers for the need.” The education department at the U of U identifies 336 undergraduate students in education. This number is a third of the students it had in 2006 when the total was 914. Similar statistics can be cited at other schools that train our future teachers. (Annie Knox, “Utah needs teachers, but college students don’t want to major in education,” Salt Lake Tribune, February 16, 2016)
Low retention rate. A national study insists the key is to change the question from “how can we find and prepare more teachers?” to “how can we get the good teachers we have recruited, trained, and hired to stay in their jobs?” This analysis explains, “Only 60 percent of those trained to be teachers move directly into teaching jobs, and of those who do, only 50 to 60 percent will be teaching five years after entering the profession.” (American Association of State Colleges and Universities, May 2005) A 2015 federal study concluded, “About 20 percent of teachers don’t return after five years.” (U.S. Office of Education,, May 4, 2016) The Deseret News reports, “Of those who do become educators only 58 percent stay with the profession after five years. In 2010, 2,417 new teachers entered Utah classrooms, but by 2014, more than 1,000 of them had left. Many of them lasted only one year.” (Morgan Jacobsen, “Rule change: Utah schools can tap experts to fill teaching void,” June 10, 2016.)
Increasing number of retirements. Few teachers coming in and staying in the profession is at one end; at the other end, experienced teachers may be leaving at a higher rate. One analysis forecast “half of Utah’s teachers will be eligible for retirement” by 2017. (Knox) Since 2010 the Utah Retirement Systems has seen an increase in the number of educators retiring. (“Making Sense…”) D. Ray Reutzel, Emma Eccles Jones Center for Early Childhood Education, USU) said that the number of new teachers, the number of new children, combined with the approaching retirements is a “recipe for disaster.” (“Utah facing teacher shortage,”)
Poor financial incentives. Asst. Superintendent Craig Poll of the Davis District summarized the challenge by explaining teaching is “too difficult for the amount of money compensated.” Supt. Robert Johnson (Kane County School District) said, “I think there’s as many people out there that have a desire to be teaching than ever, but when they look at the pay and see the standard of living that they would have to accept…they choose to go a different path.” (, op. cit.) An article summarizing the belief of various educators concluded “inadequate pay is the root of the problem.” (“Utah facing teacher shortage”)
Low morale.  An editorial in The Salt Lake Tribune speaking of long hours, low pay and a lack of appreciation for teachers claimed, “In Utah…the climate is often downright poisonous.” (February 20, 2016)
It is not difficult to connect the dots:  low pay, low morale, declining number of teacher applicants, poor retention, increased retirements. Each problem exacerbates and increases the other.
3. Solutions to the shortage
Educators and policymakers are currently moving to find solutions to the teacher shortage. My observation convinces me numerous short-term approaches are being tried. In fact, I am impressed by the innovation and energy that local educators are putting into this effort. My reaction to long-term solutions, sadly, is different.
Short-term solutions. In my interview with Superintendents Bowles and Poll, I noted numerous avenues utilized to meet the need in Davis District: 
  • Using monies currently available because of the change in the equalization formula in Utah, Davis District adjusted their pay schedule so teacher pay (particularly for those with few years experience) received better salaries.  (This impressive effort was possible this year, but it is unclear what the future will bring.)
  • They aggressively encouraged potential educators (teacher aids, for instance) urging them to obtain teaching licenses.
  • At the conclusion of the first semester, they immediately offered contracts to all qualified student teachers.
  • For the first time, they sent recruiters as far away as New York to seek potential applicants.
  • They have initiated a program within the district, “Teachers ofTomorrow,” encouraging high school students to pursue a career in education.
  • They have encouraged teachers who have come from foreign countries to teach in their language immersion program to qualify themselves and stay in the country to teach.
Other districts are pursuing various approaches. Granite School District addressed the need by offering $500 bonuses to new hires.  (Knox)
One potential solution would require legislative action. Current retirement law discourages former teachers to return after retirement. The law was implemented to discourage double-dipping, but Supt. Bowles believes the problem can be solved by allowing those teachers to return without losing retirement, while prohibiting an increase in credit for purposes of retirement computation.
On June 10, 2016, the Utah State Board of Education adopted a rule that allows schools to hire individuals with professional experience in a content area, but who may not have teaching experience. Apparently, the rule insists that such teachers receive “supervision and mentoring from a ‘master teacher.” (Jacobsen) The concept is worthy of observation; it is ironic, however, that cuts in education funding have forced reduction in mentoring programs upon which this approach is dependent.
Such efforts acknowledge the problem and provide possible avenues towards partially meeting the need. I believe, however, these impressive efforts will not solve the problem in the long term.
Long-term solutions.
Solutions with long life will, I believe, be more difficult, and demand a strong effort by policymakers as well as educators. These solutions focus on the need for improved morale in the profession. Not surprisingly impact on morale often relates to financial incentives.
The conversation with Supt. Bowles was pointed. “The profession has been devalued,” he said. “Education gets so beat up in the press and in the Legislature.”
My personal observation applies. Over sixty years ago when I was a teenager, I set my heart upon becoming a teacher. I looked to my own teachers like Zelma Duffin and Dorothy Streeper, my eyes filled with admiration. I wanted to teach! And I did—for nearly forty years. I loved the experiences: failing sometimes, succeeding other times, but always feeling what I was doing was worthwhile. To my own children, I recommended the profession.
Today, I hear so often a different response when I talk to teachers. So often I have heard, “I don’t recommend to my children they go into teaching. It is too hard. There is too much criticism and opposition. And the pay hardly makes up for that.”
Four noted educators from Utah’s universities responded to the question, “What is causing fewer students to become teachers? And why are they leaving the profession? Sperry, Reutzel, Dorward and Wilcox each say there are many reasons, but inadequate pay is the root of the problem.” (“Utah facing teacher shortage”)
Lynette Riggs, principal of Lincoln Elementary School in Hyrum served on a recruiting committee for the Logan School District. She reports, “We were offering peanuts, while all around us there were people from out-of-state districts, like Clark County, Nevada, that were offering huge signing bonuses, huge paychecks, down payments on houses. There’s no financial motivation to stay in our area.” (Ibid)
D. Ray Reutzel, director and endowed chair of USU’s Emma Eccles Jones Center for Early Childhood Education was vivid: “If a foreigner or someone from outer space came and saw the way it is here, what must they think of our values system? We pay people more per hour to shear our dogs and cats down at PetSmart than we pay our teachers to teach our children. They might think we have a pretty perverted set of values.” (Ibid)
Teacher shortage problems may vacillate as temporary solutions and valiant efforts address the issue. A genuine solution will not be found, however, until Utah addresses the more critical issues of morale, and morale cannot be independently addressed without also attending to financial questions!