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Missouri Teachers Say Pay Is Biggest Reason They Quit

Brionna Taylor high-fives one of her second-graders at Bryan Hill Elementary School in St. Louis' College Hill neighborhood.
Ryan Delaney | St. Louis Public Radio
Brionna Taylor high-fives one of her second-graders at Bryan Hill Elementary School in St. Louis. Low pay is the reason most teachers quit, according to a new survey. Their students are the reason most said they stay.

Low pay is the top reason teachers leave the classroom, a new survey of Missouri public school educators found.

The state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education asked 6,000 teachers, principals and administrators what makes them keep teaching and what makes them quit. The results were shared at Tuesday’s State Board of Education meeting.

Salary was top of mind when it came to recruitment and retention of teachers.

“This is pretty powerful data,” said state school board president Charlie Shields. “This cuts across every single group that you surveyed, who said this is the number one issue.”

Pay was followed by a lack of leadership and support for what drives teachers away from the profession. Their students are what keep them coming back, teachers said.

The average salary for all teachers in the state is $48,293, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics.

“There are particular recruitment and retention challenges for very large school systems just as there are for very small school systems,” said Paul Katnik, an assistant education commissioner. “What’s important about the findings is that they’re common across contextual differences related to school size.”

The state can set a minimum teacher salary — currently it’s $25,000 — but only a handful of teachers in very rural districts actually earn that little. Instead, pay is decided by each district, often after negotiating with a teachers’ union. Most teachers start out making between $30,000-$40,000 a year, according to the Missouri State Teachers Association.

The state is also a major source of funding for public education, though districts with high property-tax bases generate most of their own school funding and typically pay their teachers more.

Teachers are paid based on what’s called a “step schedule.” Teachers move up the schedule ladder based on their education level and years of experience in a classroom.

School board member Peter Herschend called the step schedule “awful” because it has no relation to a teacher’s quality.

State school board members discussed teacher pay in January, when they said improving teacher retention is more nuanced than just giving teachers a raise.

“The theme that I seem to hear in there was, ‘I don’t want to be rich, but what’s being asked of me doesn’t equal how I’m being valued,’” Katnik said. “And pay is just a piece of that, but there’s a real erosion of respect.”

Low pay has been a driving factor behind a wave of teacher strikes happening in other states over the past two years. Classroom sizes and lack of student support services have also been issues on the picket lines.

State oversight of Riverview Gardens continues

The Riverview Gardens School District will remain under the state school board’s oversight until at least 2022.

The state board reauthorized the Special Administrative Board it first put in place in 2010 for another three years. The north St. Louis County district was taken over because of poor academic performance.

Riverview Gardens regained provisional accreditation in 2017 and is petitioning the state for full accreditation, which the board will consider at its June meeting.

The state ended 12 years of control of St. Louis Public Schools last month. Normandy’s school district, also in North County, remains under state oversight.

Computer science no longer an elective

Missouri high school students can now take a computer science course in place of a math class. The state school board approved a new K-12 computer science curriculum that allows teens to replace one math requirement with a computer class.

High school students will still have to pass a math end-of-course exam in order to graduate. They’ll also have to sign a waiver acknowledging colleges may not accept the computer class as a replacement for math.

About half of high schools in Missouri currently offer computer science.

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @rpatrickdelaney

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org

Ryan was an education reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.