We Invest In That We Value

The recently released ASU Morrison Institute report titled “Finding & Keeping Educators for Arizona’s Classrooms”, offers a myriad of interesting insights into Arizona’s teacher shortage. Like the fact that 22% of new teachers hired in AZ between 2013 and 2015 left after their first year on the job and of the new teachers hired in 2013, 42% were not in the AZ Department of Education (ADE) database by 2016.

We know teacher attrition rates – about 8% over the past decade in the U.S. versus 3–4% in high-achieving nations like Finland and Singapore – are a problem. Our national price tag for teacher turnover is in fact, estimated to be $8 billion per year. With the rate ranging from under 9% in Utah to the high of 24% in Arizona, it is clear our state owns a higher than average share of this cost. But, cost isn’t the only factor as “High teacher turnover rates have been found to negatively affect the achievement of all students in a school, not just students in a new teacher’s classroom.”

A 50th ranking for elementary teacher salaries obviously has much to do with this. And although wages for all occupations across the nation actually rose by 2% between 2001 and 2016, teacher salaries have remained flat. In Arizona, elementary school teachers are actually now paid 11% less and high school teachers 10% less than in 2001. This dearth isn’t helped by our state’s low cost of living either. Although we are “only” 49th in secondary teacher pay, when compared to Oklahoma’s lower cost of living, Arizona drops to 50th.

It should have been no surprise to anyone then, that one month into the 2016–17 school year, our state had over 2,000 classrooms without a teacher and another 2,000 with an uncertified one. This despite the fact districts recruit from other states and even other countries to attract qualified candidates. According to the Morrison Report, many graduates from Midwestern colleges come to Arizona to gain two or three years of experience so they can return to their home state and get a teaching job. It appears that increasingly, “Rural Arizona districts may be importing inexperienced teachers and then exporting high-value veteran teachers back to the Midwest.” States surrounding Arizona have also been busy addressing their own teacher shortages by luring away ours. The median salary for California teachers is $30,000 more than in Arizona (even adjusted for the higher costs of living in California) and $10,000 to $15,000 higher in Nevada and New Mexico, making it enticing for AZ teachers to either move to those states or just work across the borders.

Of course, the competition has only become more fierce in light of dropping teacher education enrollments across the country. Between 2009 and 2014, institutions saw a 35% reduction in these enrollments. And, although Arizona prepares almost double the number of teachers as compared to its total teacher workforce of other states, it still isn’t enough. In 2015, there were 1,601 bachelor’s of education degrees granted by the three state universities, yet 8,358 teachers left the ADE teacher database that year. The shortfall is only exacerbated by an increase of district school enrollment of 53,000 over the last five years. In addition, a full 24% of Arizona’s current teachers are eligible to retire by June 2018, so this problem isn’t going away.

What is really sad, is that we know what needs to be done, we just don’t have the political will to do it. The truth is, that in America, we invest in that which we value. If we aren’t paying teachers what they are worth, we are telling them they aren’t worth much. That’s just the bottom line. But it isn’t just about money as teachers also report that working conditions like class sizes, competent and supportive leadership, a school’s testing and accountability environment, and teacher autonomy are also important factors. In the Morrison Report, one rural elementary teacher said, “While an increase in pay would help, I feel a lighter workload and more respect from the community, students, and political leaders would be more beneficial.” I ask you, is that REALLY too much to ask?

Throughout history, K–12 teachers have probably rarely entered the profession for the money, and ironically, that has likely worked against them. Willing to work for less — because of their commitment to their students — has made some value them less. And yet, these are the very people responsible for our precious children a large portion of each day. How’s that for irony?

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