Some days, Kyla Ward finds being a teacher overwhelming.
Like the time when she was taking graduate courses to boost her salary, paying for her own certification to teach gifted students and buying school supplies for her students, all while caring for her own family.
One of her colleagues at Central High School in St. Joseph, a single mother of two, can’t afford to pay for graduate classes to move herself along the teacher pay scale. As a professional with a degree, she struggles, said Ward, 39.
“And she still buys supplies and brings them into school so that her kids in her classroom will have notebooks to write in and little snacks to keep them engaged or to feed them when they don’t have food at home,” Ward said.
Missouri ranks 41st in the U.S. last year for average teacher salaries, according to the National Education Association. Missouri teachers make $10,000 less than the national average, and Missouri schools can struggle to retain teachers.
The Star’s readers identified teacher pay and the effect it has on retention as their No. 1 concern about Missouri’s education system. In turn, The Missouri Influencers, the Star’s panel of dozens of leaders from across the state, addressed the question.
“If money talks, Missouri’s message to the dedicated educators in our children’s classrooms is loud and clear,” said Dianne Lynch, an Influencer and president of Stephens College.
Influencer Phil Snowden, a member of the University of Missouri Board of Curators and a former state lawmaker, said teacher salaries are the most important education issue facing Missouri.
“Teachers and professors at all levels are responsible for molding our children at all ages,” said Snowden, a Missouri Influencer. “Without decent wages, we will end up with substandard teaching for the most part.”
To get there, Snowden said, schools need more money from the state, local districts or donations.
The average Missouri teachers makes $48,618, compared to $59,600 nationally, according to the NEA. Six of the eight states that border Missouri rank higher in the NEA’s list. Kansas just passed Missouri to rank 40th. Arkansas ranks 42nd, and Oklahoma ranks 50th. Mississippi ranks 51st on the list, which includes the District of Columbia.
With many new teachers leaving the profession within five years, some wonder whether higher pay could boost retention. But keeping teachers in the classroom is often more complex than that.
Influencer Crosby Kemper III, director of the Kansas City Public Library and co-founder of the Show-Me Institute, said Missouri teacher salaries are already competitive. He advocated “better teacher training institutions and much better professional help within schools, mentoring and master teaching.”
Schools, Kemper said, should eliminate the “idiotic, rote” master’s degree requirement for advancement and opt instead for “value-added measurements and master teacher categories.”
The Missouri Influencer Series creates a conversation between readers and high-profile Missourians about the biggest issues confronting the state. The Star will be asking its readers and the panel of 51 Influencers to weigh in on an array of issues confronting the state ahead of this fall’s midterm elections. Readers can ask questions and vote on topics they want the Influencers to address to help drive coverage.
All 43 Influencers who weighed in on education issues thought increasing pay and retaining teachers was important. About 65 percent rated it “very important.” Every Influencer rated boosting vocational education somewhat or very important, and nearly all felt the same way about closing racial achievement gaps, which was “very important” to 65 percent of Influencers.
“The problem of teacher retention is a basic economic math problem that could easily be solved by providing a salary and benefits that allow people to raise a family,” said Influencer Duke Dujakovich, president of the greater Kansas City AFL-CIO.
Why are teachers leaving?
Given the stresses in Missouri classrooms, it can be tough to retain teachers.
Paul Katnik, assistant commissioner of the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, said Missouri’s annual attrition rate is slightly higher than the average 8 percent nationally.
According to a 2014 study by the U.S. Department of Education, schools across the nation lost 16 percent of their teachers between the 2011-2012 and 2012-2013 school years. Half went to different schools, and half left the profession.
National estimates say 17 to 30 percent of first-year teachers leave the profession within five years.
Charlie Shields, president of the Missouri State Board of Education, said it’s hard to tell precisely how many first-time Missouri teachers leave the profession and how many just change schools within the first few years. Rural and urban schools often lose teachers to large suburban districts, he said.
“They leave for more money or a perception that it’s just easier to be a teacher in the large suburban districts, so you lose some that way,” Shields said. “You lose a chunk that just leave the profession totally. Frankly, the economics of it — there are just easier ways to make a living.”
Losing teachers early on is a problem, Shields said, because most hit their stride in their third, fourth or fifth year.
“If you have a constant churn in that first five years, then you’re not having as effective an educator at the head of the classroom in front of students,” Shields said.
Rep. Judy Morgan, D-Kansas City, a former teacher and guidance counselor for Kansas City Public Schools, said it’s difficult to build relationships with families when teachers come and go.
“I remember one of the coolest things as a teacher was when I’d teach a kid and then two years later I have their sibling,” Morgan said.
To many, paying teachers more seems like an obvious solution. Morgan said it’s fairly common for teachers to get second jobs to make ends meet.
Influencer Mike Talboy, a former state legislator and director of government affairs for Burns & McDonnell, said “there is no better product” in the U.S. than “an educated populace and workforce.” He said teachers’ importance has been minimized in recent decades, which he called “ludicrous.”
“There is nothing more important than the job of developing our kids and young people,” Talboy said. “To make teaching simply a labor of love where you struggle to make ends meet is absolutely counterproductive to the outcome we need.”
Others thought compensating teachers based on their performance would be more effective.
Woody Cozad, an Influencer and former chairman of the Missouri GOP, said schools should “pay for performance, not for years on the job.”
“Raising teacher pay for really good teachers is extremely important,” Cozad said. “Equally important is getting rid of poor teachers.”
Can districts pay more?
Boosting teachers’ salaries isn’t a simple proposition.
Brent Ghan, deputy executive director of the Missouri School Boards Association, said personnel salaries amount to 80 percent of the average school district’s budget.
“It’s not that school boards don’t want to increase teacher pay, but it takes considerable resources to provide for significant raises for teachers,” Ghan said.
Missouri schools get funds from the state and local property taxes, so increasing the budget would require action by legislators or a local property tax increase, but Lynch said it’s up to voters to insist that political leaders defend children’s right to attend public schools.
“When our neighbors balk at the cost, let’s collectively remind them of the alternative in our communities,” Lynch said. “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.”
Influencer Luis Cordoba, chief student support and intervention officer for Kansas City Public Schools, said that to keep teaching salaries competitive, Missourians should encourage politicians to support bigger budgets for teacher salaries.
“We hold teachers accountable for ensuring student success in the classrooms but do little to support highly competitive teacher salaries,” Cordoba said.
Influencer Leland Shurin, an attorney and chairman of the Kansas City Police Board, said teachers should have higher pay and better working conditions. And they need to have the ability to teach their subject matter, not just prepare kids for standardized tests, he said.
“And wouldn’t we as a state be much better off (than) we are now, long term, if we paid teachers starting salaries of $100,000 so we attract the best teachers from throughout the country and then left them alone in the classroom to teach?” Shurin said.
How can schools keep teachers?
Katnik said supporting teachers in their first few years would go a long way toward increasing retention.
“If you think, ‘Well, we prepped them. They should be OK,’ we learned a long time ago the use of good mentors, the use of a support system around new teachers is really important,” Katnik said.
The state education department, he said, works to coach principals on better supporting teachers. Losing teachers and having to hire more is a drain on resources. He compared it to trying to fill a bucket that’s full of holes.
“No matter how high you turn the water or how big a hose you get, you’re just going to keep filling and filling and filling,” Katnik said.
Chris Maples, an Influencer and interim chancellor at the Missouri University of Science and Technology, suggested providing student-loan payoff opportunities to attract teachers to shortage areas in rural Missouri and in certain subjects, including math and science.
“Not only would this help keep teachers in our school systems, it would allow them and their families to purchase a house, which is harder to do with student loans, and invest in the communities in which they live.”
Influencer Gwen Grant, president and CEO of the Urban League of Greater Kansas City, suggested that districts invest more in professional development, career advancement opportunities, coaching and creating better work environments.
“To ensure that school systems have the capacity to invest in the aforementioned job satisfaction strategies, state level policy makers should adequately fund public education so that administrators have the resources needed to recruit, develop, and retain high quality teachers,” Grant said.
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