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.

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 coming 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