Pay Day! May Day!

Jeffco teacher contract talks to focus on merit pay and competitive salaries

PHOTO: Gabriel Christus/Evergreen Newspapers
Wheat Ridge High School history teacher Stephanie Rossi, left, and lawyer for Jeffco Public Schools Jim Branum discussed the county's teacher contract in 2015.

Contract talks between Jeffco Public Schools and its teachers union begin this week with a drastically different tone than in the previous two years.

While the negotiations likely will be less contentious — thanks to a new school board elected with teachers union backing — there is still plenty for the two sides to butt heads on.

How much to pay teachers — especially specialists and those who work in Jeffco’s most at-risk schools — will be among the most difficult questions the two sides tackle this spring.

“We’ve always had vigorous conversations at the bargaining table,” Amy Weber, Jeffco’s chief human resource officer, told the school board last week. “That has not changed.”

Salaries in Jeffco, especially for teachers early in their careers, have been historically low compared to other Front Range school districts. Jeffco fell further behind its competitors due to budget cuts during the Great Recession. Despite two years of across-the-board raises, many veteran teachers are paid thousands of dollars less compared to peers in nearby districts.

The disparity between pay in Jeffco and other districts is even greater for teachers and staff in specialist positions that are considered “hard-to-fill,” such as nurses and speech pathologists.

“We have great concerns about what we’re paying teachers to come to Jeffco,” Weber said. “We can’t be so far out of the running that people don’t even consider us.”

Union leaders don’t disagree that specialists should be paid more. However, they want a firm definition of “hard-to-fill” positions rather than a list that changes each year.

It’s less clear if compromise is possible on whether teachers at Jeffco’s most at-risk schools on the Denver border should be paid more than those at more affluent schools in farther-out suburbs.

That’s something Weber appeared keen on when she addressed the school board last week.

“I believe the work is different and we have to address that and ask if compensation is a part of that,” she told the school board.

But more money won’t solve the higher-than-average churn of teachers at those schools, union officials said.

“Giving someone a few more thousand dollars isn’t going to get them there,” said Lisa Elliott, executive director of the Jefferson County Education Association. “If it does, it won’t keep them there.”

Instead, the union suggests the district should focus on building strong teams of teachers and administrators in those schools and providing them resources and training.

University of Colorado professor Derek Briggs said research generally shows paying teachers more money doesn’t impact student achievement. But research is less clear on whether more money leads to better retention.

“It’s an age-old debate,” he said, adding, that a sensible mix of more money and resources might be a path Jeffco should pursue.

While the district and union are left to figure out those questions and others, there appears to be broad agreement on a once touchy subject.

In an about-face, the teachers union appears prepared to link pay raises to annual evaluations in some way.

One of the previous board’s most contentious decisions was linking teacher pay to annual evaluations. Teachers who were rated highly effective received the largest raises, followed by those who were rated effective. Teachers who were rated partly effective or ineffective were not given raises.

Reacting to that 2014 vote, teachers staged protests that shut down four Jefferson County high schools for a day.

The role of teacher evaluations and merit pay were also issues on the campaign trail leading up to the successful recall of school board members Ken Witt, Julie Williams and John Newkirk — all three supported merit pay.

The candidates elected to board had mixed feelings on the use of evaluations. Most called for a review or better training for teachers and principals. None outright dismissed the system.

The union told the school board last week that teachers should be given raises if they are rated effective or higher. But teachers rated highly effective would not get any more money than those who are just effective.

That sort of system would guarantee most teachers an annual raise. For the last two years, more than 95 percent of teachers have been rated effective or higher.

Last year, 48.5 percent of teachers were rated highly-effective while 49.2 percent were rated effective.

That could change this year when student data is included in evaluations.

Board member Brad Ruppert, echoing most of the board, agreed that pay should be linked to evaluations.

“In the real world, compensation is always tied to performance,” he said. “I don’t think you’re going to get very far getting away from that.”

Town Hall

Hopson promises more flexibility as Memphis school leaders clear the air with teachers on new curriculum

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson answers questions from Memphis teachers at a town hall hosted by United Education Association of Shelby County on Monday.

The Shelby County Schools superintendent told passionate teachers at a union town hall Monday that they can expect more flexibility in how they teach the district’s newest curriculums.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said the teachers who score highest on their evaluations should not feel like they need to read from a script to meet district requirements, although he didn’t have an immediate answer to how that would work.

Teacher frustrations were reaching a boiling point on district curriculums introduced this school year. Although the state requirements have changed several times over the last eight years, this change was particularly bothersome to teachers because they feel they are teaching to a “script.”

“Teachers have to be given the autonomy,” Hopson said. Although he cited the need for the district to have some control as teachers are learning, “at the end of the day, if you’re a level 4 or level 5 teacher, and you know your students, there needs to be some flexibility.”

Vocal teachers at the meeting cited check-ins from central office staff as evidence of the overreach.

“I keep hearing people say it’s supplemental but we have people ducking into my room making sure we’re following it to a T,” said Amy Dixon a teacher at Snowden School. “We’re expected to follow it …like a script.”

The 90-minute meeting sponsored by the United Education Association of Shelby County drew a crowd of about 100 people to talk about curriculum and what Hopson called “a culture of fear” throughout the district of making a mistake.

Hopson said his team is still working on how to strike the right balance between creativity and continuity across nearly 150 district-run schools because so many students move during the school year.

He reassured despondent teachers he would come up with a plan to meet the needs of teachers and keep curriculums consistent. He said some continuity is needed across schools because many students move a lot during the school year.

“We know we got to make sure that I’m coming from Binghampton and going over to Whitehaven it’s got to be at least somewhat aligned,” he said. “I wish we were a stable, middle-class, not the poorest city in the country, then we wouldn’t have a lot of these issues.”

Ever since Tennessee’s largest district began phasing in parts of an English curriculum called Expeditionary Learning, teachers have complained of being micromanaged, instead of being able to tailor content for their students. The same goes for the new math curriculum Eureka Math.

The district’s changes are meant to line it up with the state. Tennessee’s new language arts and math standards replaced the Common Core curriculum, but in fact, did not deviate much when the final version was released last fall. This is the third change in eight years to state education requirements.

Still, Shelby County Schools cannot fully switch to the new curriculums until they are approved by the Tennessee State Board of Education. District leaders hope both curriculums, which received high marks from a national group that measures curriculum alignment to Common Core, will be added when textbooks are vetted for the 2019-20 school year.

Some urged educators to not think of the new curriculums as “scripts,” and admitted to poorly communicating the changes to teachers.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Pam Harris-Giles

“It’s not an expectation that we stand in front of our children and read off a piece of paper,” said Pam Harris-Giles, one of the district’s instructional support directors, who helps coordinate curriculum training and professional development.

Fredricka Vaughn, a teacher at Kirby High School, said that won’t be easy without clear communication of what flexibility will look like for high-performing teachers.

“If you don’t want us to use the word script, then bring back the autonomy,” she said.

Hopson stressed that the state’s largest school district could be a model for public education if everyone can work together to make the new curriculums work.

“It’s going to take work, hard work, everyone aligned from the top, everyone rowing in the same direction.”

Price of entry

Becoming a Colorado teacher could soon require fewer transcripts, more training on English learners

Stephanie Wujek teaches science at Wiggins Middle School , on April 5, 2017 in Wiggins, Colorado. Rural areas are having a hard time finding teachers in areas like math and science. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)

The rules for becoming a teacher in Colorado are about to change — and officials hope the moves will help attract more math teachers and better prepare educators to work with students learning English.

The changes, which the Colorado Department of Education proposed this week, would also cut down on the paperwork needed to enter the profession and make it easier for teachers licensed in other states to re-enter the classroom after they move to Colorado.

The package of changes also includes a slimmed-down teacher evaluation rubric, the first major revision to the rules under Colorado’s 2010 teacher effectiveness law.

Among the proposed changes:

  • Less paperwork for new teachers. Applicants for a teaching license would no longer have to provide transcripts for every school they attended, only the transcripts for the school that granted them their highest degree. (Many colleges hold transcripts hostage for unpaid debt, even minor ones like unpaid parking tickets.
  • Less paperwork for teachers coming from other states. Experienced, licensed teachers from outside Colorado would no longer need to provide transcripts or prove that their teacher preparation program met Colorado standards.
  • More flexibility about previous teaching experience. Licensed teachers from other states would no longer need to have previously worked under a full-time contract to qualify for a Colorado license.
  • A new credential limited to middle-school math. Right now, Colorado only has a secondary math endorsement, which requires competency in trigonometry and calculus. That’s a barrier for teachers moving from other states with a math endorsement limited to middle school, and some see it as a roadblock for those who feel comfortable with algebra but not higher-level math.
  • Additional pathways for counselors and nurses to get licensed to work in schools.

Two bills making their way through the Colorado General Assembly this session would remove another barrier for out-of-state teachers. To qualify for a Colorado license today, teachers must have had three years of continuous teaching experience. If those bills are signed into law, applicants would only need three years of experience in the previous seven years.

Together, the proposals indicate how Colorado officials are working to make it a little easier to become a teacher in the state, which is facing a shortage in math teachers, counselors, and school nurses, among other specialties, as well as a shortage in many rural districts.

Colleen O’Neil, executive director of educator talent for the Colorado Department of Education, said many of the proposed changes came out of listening sessions focused on the state’s teacher shortage held around the state.  

The changes still don’t mean that if you’re a teacher anywhere in the country, you can easily become a teacher in Colorado. Just six states have full reciprocity, meaning anyone with a license from another state can teach with no additional requirements, according to the Education Commission of the States. Teachers whose licenses and endorsements don’t have a direct equivalent in Colorado would still need to apply for an interim license and then work to meet the standards of the appropriate Colorado license or endorsement.

The rule changes also add some requirements. Among those changes:

  • Prospective teachers will need more training on how to work with students learning English. Most significantly, all educator preparation programs would have to include six semester hours or 90 clock hours of training.
  • So will teachers renewing their licenses. They will need 45 clock hours, though the requirement wouldn’t kick in until the first full five-year cycle after the teacher’s most recent renewal. A teacher who just got her license renewed this year would have nine years to complete that additional training, as the requirement wouldn’t apply until the next renewal cycle. Superintendents in districts where less than 2 percent of the students are English language learners could apply for a waiver.

Colorado’s educator preparation rules already call for specialized training for teaching English language learners, but the rule change makes the requirements more explicit.

“We’re the sixth-largest state for English language learners,” O’Neil said. “We want to make sure our educators are equipped to teach all our learners.”

The rule changes would also “streamline,” in O’Neil’s words, the teacher evaluation process. Here’s what would change:

  • The five teacher quality standards would become four. “Reflection” and “leadership” are combined into “professionalism.”
  • The underlying elements of those standards would be reduced, too. Twenty-seven elements would become 17.

Fifty school districts and one charter collaborative have been testing the new evaluation system this year in a pilot program. O’Neil said most of the feedback has been positive, and the rest of the feedback has been to urge officials to winnow down the standards even further. That’s not a change she would support, O’Neil said.

“The reality is that teaching actually is rocket science,” she said. “There are a lot of practices and elements that go into good teaching.”

The state is accepting additional public comment on the rules until April 20, and a public hearing will be held in May. The new rules are expected to be adopted this summer.

Submit written feedback online or send an email to the State Board of Education at