Human Resources

A minimum salary for Colorado teachers? State officials may ask lawmakers to consider it.

A teacher reads to her students at the Cole Arts and Science Academy in Denver. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

As part of a broad plan to increase the volume of high-quality teachers in Colorado, state officials are considering asking lawmakers to take the bold step of establishing a minimum teacher salary requirement tied to the cost of living.

Officials from the state departments of education and higher education are finalizing a list of recommendations to address challenges to Colorado’s teacher workforce. Pressing for the legislation on teacher salaries is one of dozens of recommendations included in a draft report.

The report, assembled at the request of the legislature, also proposes a marketing campaign and scholarships to attract new teachers to rural areas.

Representatives from the Colorado Department of Education said they would not discuss the recommendations until they’re final. However, the department earlier this month briefed the State Board of Education on their proposed recommendations in advance of the Dec. 1 deadline for it to be finalized.

The impending report — based on thousands of responses from educators, students and other Colorado residents in online surveys and town halls across the state — is a sort of first step for the state legislature to tackle a problem years in the making. Since 2010, Colorado has seen a 24 percent drop in the number of college students graduating from the state’s traditional teacher colleges. There’s also been a 23 percent drop in enrollment in those programs.

Residency programs, which place graduate students in a classroom for a full year with an experienced teacher, and other alternative licensure programs have seen a 40 percent increase in enrollment. But those programs produce far fewer teachers and can’t keep up with demand.

Colorado faces a shortage of teachers in certain subjects, regions and schools, and circumstances vary. Math and science teachers are in short supply: Only 192 college students in 2016 graduated with credentials to teach those subjects. The same year, 751 students left with a degree to teach elementary school.

And rural schools have had an especially hard time finding and keeping teachers.

Here’s a look at what the state departments are considering recommending, based on the presentation from education department officials to the state board:

Provide more and better training to new — and veteran — teachers.

Colorado schools are already required to offer some sort of induction program for new teachers. This training, which lasts between two and three years, is supposed to supplement what they learned during college.

For the last two years, the state education department has been pushing school districts to update their programs. The recommendations in the report could kick things up a notch.

The education departments are asking for updated induction requirements to be written into statute and more money to be provided to districts to pay for the training.

The draft report also calls for more more sustained training for veteran teachers, including competitive grant programs.

An additional suggestion is to create a program to train teachers expressly to teach in rural classrooms.

Increase teacher compensation and benefits.

This will be a hard pill to swallow. According to the presentation to the state board, the education departments want to call on lawmakers to set a minimum salary for teachers based on the school district’s cost of living.

The presentation to the board lacked specifics on how lawmakers and school districts could accomplish this. One board member, Colorado Springs Republican Steve Durham, called it a “mistake” to include such a recommendation.

Keeping up with the rising cost of living is a challenge. A new report shows new teachers in the state’s three largest school districts couldn’t afford to rent a one-bedroom apartment.

“We hope the report itself is going to talk a lot the cost of living — that’s what we heard from our stakeholders across the field,” Colleen O’Neil, the education department’s executive director of educator talent told the state board. “They literally were not able to meet the cost of living because their salaries did not compensate them fairly enough to find housing.”

Other suggestions the report might highlight to improve teacher compensation include loan forgiveness, housing incentives and creating a differentiated pay scale for teachers — something teachers unions staunchly oppose.

Help schools better plan for hiring and send teachers where they’re needed.

One short-term solution the state is considering recommending is allocating more resources to help schools plan for teacher turnover. This includes providing incentives for teachers to notify school leaders about their plans to leave the classroom earlier.

The education departments are also suggesting the state increase the number of programs that can help teachers get licensed in more than one subject at a time. Other ideas include offering scholarships to potential teachers to complete licensing requirements for content areas that are lacking viable candidates — likely math and science — and providing transportation and technology stipends for rural teachers.

Make the teaching profession more attractive.

Teachers “feel they’re not treated like professionals,” O’Neil told the board. So the education departments want the legislature to allow them to partner with private entities to launch a marketing campaign to lift the profile of teaching as a career in the state.

The education departments also hope the legislature considers creating more opportunities for middle and high school students to consider teaching as a viable career path. This could include reinvigorating the state’s Educators Rising program, a program for high school students interested in teaching.

superintendent forum

‘Low pay and low prestige’: How Colorado superintendents want to lift the teaching profession

Thursday's panel (photo by Eric Gorski, Chalkbeat)

The teaching profession, says Bree Lessar, has become “low-pay and low-prestige.”

Professionals in other fields — like architecture, law and medicine — get plenty of support starting off, said Lessar, superintendent of southern Colorado’s LaVeta school district. New teachers “get the most difficult classrooms and kids, and not a lot of resources,” she said.

Lessar needs more than mountain views to attract educators to the 220-student district nearly three hours from Denver. So the district offers what incentives it can: First-year teachers get two planning periods, to better prepare. One-third of the district’s teachers are retired, and there’s talk of exploring ways for the experienced hands to mentor the newcomers.

And yet …

“Superintendents out in the field in Colorado are exercising creativity already,” Lessar said Thursday at the Denver-based Public Education and Business Coalition’s annual Superintendent Forum. “There needs to be a comprehensive funding solution throughout the state. To build the political will and public will for that, we need to think beyond education alone and think about the economic prosperity we want to see throughout Colorado.”

Lessar was part of a panel of a half-dozen superintendents from rural, suburban and urban areas who joined the heads of the two state education departments to discuss a pressing, timely topic: How to address teacher shortage challenges in Colorado.

Just last week, the Colorado Department of Education and Department of Higher Education released a strategic plan, mandated by lawmakers, to come up with possible solutions.

Here are three big themes that emerged from Thursday’s forum:

Takeaway No 1.: The numbers don’t lie … Colorado, we have a problem

Over the past five years, Colorado has seen a nearly 23 percent dip in the number of students completing education preparation programs in Colorado colleges and universities. Growth in non-traditional paths — such as teacher residencies — hasn’t made up the difference.

Education Commissioner Katy Anthes cited a number of factors for the decline — stress, salaries, baby boomers starting to retire, and support and working conditions for teachers starting out.

Transparency about test scores and district performance also is playing a role in perceptions of the profession, said Kermit Snyder, superintendent of the Rocky Ford School District.

“I think that transparency is necessary, but along with it has come a lot of criticisms,” Snyder said. “So teachers really get a beating sometimes … Then the message to students is, ‘It’s a tough profession, you don’t want to be a teacher.’”

Aurora Superintendent Rico Munn said some believe teaching “is a job that anyone can do,” and that filters down to decisions about funding and public policy.

Not every corner of the state faces a shortage. The Adams 12 district had a less than 1 percent vacancy in its teaching corps this year, Superintendent Chris Gdowski said. He credited a bonus system for hard-to-fill positions and a new salary schedule for psychologists, speech and language pathologists and similar positions to better compete with the private sector.

Takeaway No. 2: There is no silver bullet — but better pay is on a lot of people’s minds

Pressed to come up with one thing that would make the biggest difference to ease the teacher shortage, the heads of the state’s two education agencies passed, for good reason.

The strategic plan released last week detailed more than 30 strategies ranging from student loan forgiveness and housing incentives to extra pay to attract teachers to rural areas.

“We do know there is no silver bullet,” said Kim Hunter Reed, executive director of the higher education department. However, Hunter Reed identified one step as the hardest: “To get our teachers to the cost-of-living wage. It’s critical.” The issue is especially pronounced in Colorado’s rural areas, where 95 percent of teachers salaries are below the cost of living, according to the state.

The strategic plan calls for the state to explore setting a minimum salary for educators pegged to the cost of living in their districts. Snyder, of Rocky Ford, questioned how well that would work, and others wondered how that would prevent better-off districts from cherry-picking strong candidates.

After the forum, Chalkbeat caught up with state lawmakers in attendance to gauge their interest in minimum teacher salaries — something the legislature would need to take up.

“I’m not sure,” said state Sen. Nancy Todd, an Aurora Democrat and a former social studies teacher who sits on the Senate Education Committee. “The salary piece is important. But talking about the respect, and the opportunities for professional development for teachers is key, and supporting the hard work our teachers are doing every day — making clear this is a noble profession. We need to bring that out at a higher level. It’s not just about the dollar.”

State Sen. Owen Hill, a Colorado Springs Republican and chair of the Education Committee, said he thinks the idea is viable and worthy of discussion.

Noting one superintendent’s remark about younger teachers not being as focused on retirement benefits, Hill connected the proposal to another discussion about reforms to the state’s troubled public pension system, the Public Employees’ Retirement Association, or PERA.

“Can we set aside a bucket of this money that could make teachers whole on their salary but that doesn’t incur new PERA obligations as well?” he said. “It’s really shifting our conversation from, ‘What did the economy, and what did hiring and employment look like 20 or 30 years ago, to what does it look like in the 21st century?’”

Takeaway No. 3: It always comes back to money …

So about that “comprehensive funding situation” Lessar, the LaVeta superintendent, yearns for … As you would expect, she was not alone in expressing that wish.

Time and again, superintendents brought up Colorado’s failure to adequately or equitably fund schools. The state consistently ranks near the bottom nationally in funding K-12 education.

“Nobody says we just want to be average,” said Cherry Creek Superintendent Harry Bull. “Yet in the context of funding, our aspirational goal as superintendents would be to just get to the national average. That would make a substantial difference.”

Multiple efforts to stave off a financial crisis for Colorado schools are underway, including a group of superintendents that has been working on a proposed solution for school funding. A state task force, meanwhile, is charged with reimagining the state’s public school system, with asking voters to approve more money for schools being one possible outcome.

In Colorado, school districts that are able to convince local taxpayers to raise taxes to support schools have a considerable advantage — including in recruiting and keeping teachers.

“We’ve got to move way from this system that allows local (districts) to super-size their funding so much that their next door neighbors cannot compete adequately for staff,” said Gdowski, of Adams 12.

Struggling Detroit schools

A Detroit district plan would allow ‘master teachers’ to coach less experienced colleagues and reduce class sizes

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti talks with students at Durfee Elementary/Middle School. Vitti said he expects that master teachers will co-teach a classroom of kids, with one teacher working with that classroom on math and science while the other teacher is elsewhere in the building.

Some of the best teachers in Detroit will likely soon have a chance to become “master teachers,” taking a dual role in which they teach children half the time and coach teachers the other half.

Detroit schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti says the model would give teachers who don’t want to become administrators another way to advance their careers and potentially make more money. It would also help alleviate the district’s severe teacher shortage because master teachers would spend part of their day in the classrooms.

That’s compared to the “instructional specialists” who currently support teachers in some Detroit schools. They spend all of their time instructing other teachers and have no classroom responsibilities.

“Master teachers would model lessons for beginning and struggling teachers, facilitate grade level and common planning, mentor new teachers or resident teachers, and student teachers,” Vitti said in an email. “Their classrooms would also serve as model or observation classrooms for other teachers.”

In discussing the model last week, Vitti said he expects that master teachers will co-teach a classroom of kids, with one teacher working with that classroom on math and science while the other teacher is elsewhere in the building, coaching educators who need help teaching English and social studies. Then, the two teachers will switch.

The shift to master teachers will help alleviate overcrowded classrooms, Vitti said.

“The district’s current model exacerbates the district’s teacher shortage because instructional specialists are fully released from the classroom right now,” he said.

“It reduces vacancies and creates greater credibility with teachers because [master teachers] are still tied to the classroom. That’s not to say that instructional specialists aren’t doing good work and aren’t respected, but I think this will create better buy-in,” he added.

Currently, instructional specialists in the Detroit district are paid roughly between $53,000 and $68,000.

Master teachers “will be paid their regular salary plus be given a stipend,” Vitti said. “Say $5,000 depending on how we negotiate that with the Detroit Federation of Teachers.”

To get into the program, teachers would need a letter of recommendation from a master teacher or an administrator and demonstrated success in helping children raise test scores, he said.

Once they’ve been identified as master teachers, principals in need would be able to hire them.

The program will also enable schools to have model classrooms where less experienced teachers can go to watch master teachers work.

Vitti is planning to use the master teacher program to better train teachers in common core standards, which defines what students should know at the end of each grade K-12. Vitti said  instruction on the standards is one of the district’s major failings.

“One of our major definicines as a district, is when the state, and really the country, moved to common core standards, as a district we did not adequately train our teachers in that shift in literacy and mathematics,” he said. “Our vision in the fall is to work with DFT on this and every teacher will have a master teacher in literacy and a master teacher in mathematics.”

Vitti announced at a recent meeting of a school board academic committee that 50 teachers will be able to apply to attend common core training in Los Angeles, potentially as part of the master teacher training, using federal funds earmarked for professional development.