Arizona is tackling teacher retention and qualifications

Schools across Arizona are grappling with how to keep the most qualified teachers in the classroom.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, approximately one out of every six public school teachers across the country leaves the classroom during their first five years.

“It really is about this whole notion of working conditions: there are two pieces of it. One is salary and the other is the organizational structure,” said Carole Basile, Arizona State University Dean and Professor of the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College. “The fundamental organizational structure of school has to change to allow teachers opportunities for professional growth and specialization.”

In its research on teacher talent pipelines, the Arizona Chamber Foundation reported that replacement costs for teachers have been found to be about $18,000 per teacher, adding up to a national price tag of more than $7 billion a year.

Reyes Maria Leadership Academy Principal Adam Sharp and Basile agreed that part of the solution is increasing teacher pay, and another part is reimagining the profession.

Earlier this year, lawmakers approved a 20 percent pay raise for teachers by 2020. Teachers with students passing Arizona Board of Regents-approved exams get a $450 per-student bonus if they teach in a low-income school.

As students return to school, districts and charter schools are seeing impacts those funding boosts and teacher certification policy changes are having on hiring and retaining qualified teachers.

In South Phoenix, Sharp’s school hired only three new teachers this year. He said it’s been a culture shift since he took the helm of the school eight years ago.

“I’m a big data junkie. When I first started, I dug into why our scores were so low. What I found for example, is that one grade level teacher would have great math scores and low language arts scores, while another teacher in the same grade level would have the opposite scores,” said Sharp. “The next year, we tested departmentalizing classes, putting subject area teachers in grades 4-6 and our scores dramatically improved. Now we departmentalize as low as second grade. The data doesn’t lie if you compare our scores to other inner-city schools with a Title I population of 96 percent or higher.”

While the data supported his decision to change his organizational structure, hiring teachers that met Arizona’s certification requirements and were subject-area experts made it hard to fill open positions.

Leaders like Sharp spoke out about that issue, and lawmakers listened. Arizona changed its certification requirements and now Sharp can hire candidates with college degrees in a subject area like mathematics or literature, instead of education.

Basile said the research supports Sharp’s organizational transition, and ASU is training teachers to become subject area experts.

“We need to stop expecting teachers to collectively know everything. You have a generation of learners who are demanding to know more,” she said. “Educators have to have specialization and have to be part of teams. Teams of experts can really help propel kids forward.”

Megan Gilbertson

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