Education experts concerned about teacher retention in Utah

A panel of legislative and education experts addressed a Legislative Town Hall event on Thursday, Sept. 22, 2016 at Ridgeline High School. From left to right, participants on the panel included Ben Leishman (Legislative Fiscal Analyst), Dr. Ben Lignugaris-Kraft (Interim Head of the School of Teacher Education and Leadership at Utah State University), Terryl Warner (State School Board, District 1), Tami Pyfer (Education Advisor to Governor Gary Herbert), Frank Schofield (Superintendent of the Logan City School District), Dr. Steve Norton (Superintendent of the Cache County School District), and Lyle Hillyard (State Senator-District 25).

Education funding was the focus of a recent Legislative Town Hall meeting at Ridgeline High School. Among the various topics discussed was how the state is doing in attracting and retaining its teachers. Tami Pyfer, Governor Gary Herbert’s advisor on education, said that incoming teacher education candidates have much higher ACT scores than average Utah State University students, but after five years of entering the profession, 42% of teachers leave.

“So when we talk about attracting the best and the brightest, just know we have the attracting part,” Pyfer exclaimed. “We have been doing that. I worry that we are going to lose that because of the narrative we have on public education, which is a false narrative. It’s not how do we attract them in Utah, it’s how do we keep them here.”

Legislative Fiscal Analyst Ben Leishman said with approximately 25,000 teachers in Utah, the average wage for teachers is only $46,700, excluding benefits. Part of the challenge with the teaching industry, Leishman said, is improving teacher salaries but not all of that funding comes from the state.

Dr. Ben Lignaguris-Kraft, interim head of the School of Teacher Education and Leadership at USU, said teachers not only need a better salary, but they also need better support.

“I think it’s a national dialogue. I think it’s the demands that are being put on teachers in the classroom,” Lignaguris-Kraft said. “Yes, salary is very, very important. But another key issue if we want to retain teachers, is to provide support in the classroom for those teachers, so they can handle those large class sizes that we have, so they can get to individual kids.”

Lignaguris-Kraft said as recently as five years ago USU was turning away applicants, but over the last two semesters USU’s education program has had open spots.

Leishman said the cost to limit classrooms to 15 students per class would cost the state $370 million, and that would not include any building costs.

“We have a profession here that has an issue with not only how they are treated in the public sector and how they are treated with the amount of salary that we pay them,” said Cache School District Superintendent Dr. Steve Norton. “They could go to a whole lot of other states and receive that salary, but Cache and Logan districts will be the last in the nation to have a shortage because we have a beautiful valley to live in.”

Norton claimed that the districts do a pretty good job of letting teachers know they are appreciated, getting support from parents, and having a student body that is eager to learn. Norton said there are many other places throughout the state that are not as ideal places to live and they are struggling. When they struggle, he said, then those districts rely more on substitute teachers than they should.

Frank Schofield, Superintendent of the Logan City School District, said there has been a consistent, negative narrative about teachers and schools throughout the country and even in the state of Utah. He said, unfortunately, too many times a single, anecdotal experience is shared to illustrate all of teaching. Even reports about education come with a negative tone, he said.

“Even this most recent report by the state legislators: No Time to Lose. Really?” asked Schofield frustratingly. “Let’s talk about education with a tone and climate of fear because our schools are failing, our schools are terrible and our students are suffering. Why would you choose to enter a profession where that is the narrative?”

Schofield said finances is one reason why some teachers are not staying with the profession, but a negative narrative is another. He said we need to start changing how we talk about education.

To listen to the Legislative Town Hall on Education Funding in its entirety, <a href=”″ target=”_blank”>click here</a>.

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