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.

fight another day

In union defeat, lawmakers end session without revamping teacher evaluation law

After a hard-fought battle by the state teachers union, New York lawmakers went home for the summer without overhauling a controversial teacher evaluation law that ties state test scores to educator ratings.

The bill pushed by the unions would have left decisions about whether to use state test scores in teacher evaluations up to local union negotiations. While the bill cleared the Assembly, it was bottled up by the Senate’s leadership, which demanded charter school concessions in return that Assembly Democrats wouldn’t agree to.

The effort to decouple test scores from teacher evaluations was one of several that fizzled out at the end of a lackluster session characterized by lawmaker gridlock.

“Sen. Flanagan, his caucus and five Democrats chose to betray the state’s teachers,”  said New York State United Teachers President Andy Pallotta in a statement. “Make no mistake, New York teachers, parents and public school students will remember which senators voted against their public schools when we head to the polls this September and again in November.”

There is some possibility that lawmakers could return to finish a few unresolved issues this summer, but Pallotta told Chalkbeat he is not holding out hope for that outcome.

The lack of action is a defeat for the state teachers union, which fought hard for the bill since the beginning of the session. Union officials have staged musical rallies, bought balloons, rented a truck with a message urging lawmakers to pass the bill, and capped off the last day of session handing out ice cream for the cause.

However, the legislative loss gives the union something to rally around during this fall’s elections. Also, other education advocacy organizations are content to engage in a longer process to revamp evaluations.

“Inaction isn’t always the worst outcome,” said Julie Marlette, Director of Governmental Relations for the New York State School Boards Association.“Now we can continue to work with both legislative and regulatory figures to hopefully craft an update to evaluations that is thoughtful and comprehensive and includes all the stakeholders.”  

The news also means that New York’s teacher evaluation saga which has been raging for eight years will spill over into at least next year. Policymakers have been battling about state teacher evaluations since 2010, when New York adopted a system that started using state test scores to rate teachers in order to win federal “Race to the Top” money.

Teacher evaluations were altered again in 2015 when Gov. Andrew Cuomo called for a more stringent evaluation system, saying evaluations as they existed were “baloney.” The new system was met with resistance from the teachers unions and parents across the state. Nearly one in five families boycotted state tests in response to evaluation changes and a handful of other education policies.

The state’s Board of Regents acted quickly, passing a moratorium on the use of grades three to eight math and English tests in teacher evaluations. But the original 2015 law remains on the books. It was a central plank in that law which could require as much as half of an educator’s evaluation to be based on test scores that the unions targeted during this session.

With the moratorium set to expire in 2019, the fight over teacher evaluations will likely become more pressing next year. It may also allow the state education department to play a greater role in shaping the final product. State education department officials had begun to lay out a longer roadmap for redesigning teacher evaluations that involved surveys and workgroups, but the legislative battle threatened to short-circuit their process.

Now officials at the state education department say they will restart their work and pointed out that they could extend the moratorium to provide extra time if needed.

“We will resume the work we started earlier this year to engage teachers, principals and others as we seek input in moving toward developing a new educator evaluation system,” said state education department spokeswoman Emily DeSantis.

For some education advocates, slowing down the process sounds like a good idea.

“Our reaction on the NYSUT Assembly teacher evaluation bill is that you could do worse but that you could also do better and that we should take time to try,” said Bob Lowry, deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents.

What seems to be a setback for the union now may be a galvanizing force during elections this fall. Republican lawmakers will likely struggle to keep control of the state Senate, and NYSUT is promising to use this inaction against them. That could be particularly consequential in Long Island, which is a hotbed of the testing opt-out movement.

It’s unclear whether the failure to act will also prove problematic for Cuomo, who is also seeking re-election. Cuomo, who pushed for the 2015 law the unions despise, is facing competition from the left in gubernatorial challenger Cynthia Nixon.

But at least so far, it seems like the union is reserving the blame for Senate Republicans and not for the governor.

Cuomo is “making it clear that he has heard the outcry,” said Pallotta. “I blame Senator Flanagan, I blame his conference and I blame 5 [Senate] Democrats.”

a high-stakes evaluation

The Gates Foundation bet big on teacher evaluation. The report it commissioned explains how those efforts fell short.

PHOTO: Brandon Dill/The Commercial Appeal
Sixth-grade teacher James Johnson leads his students in a gameshow-style lesson on energy at Chickasaw Middle School in 2014 in Shelby County. The district was one of three that received a grant from the Gates Foundation to overhaul teacher evaluation.

Barack Obama’s 2012 State of the Union address reflected the heady moment in education. “We know a good teacher can increase the lifetime income of a classroom by over $250,000,” he said. “A great teacher can offer an escape from poverty to the child who dreams beyond his circumstance.”

Bad teachers were the problem; good teachers were the solution. It was a simplified binary, but the idea and the research it drew on had spurred policy changes across the country, including a spate of laws establishing new evaluation systems designed to reward top teachers and help weed out low performers.

Behind that effort was the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which backed research and advocacy that ultimately shaped these changes.

It also funded the efforts themselves, specifically in several large school districts and charter networks open to changing how teachers were hired, trained, evaluated, and paid. Now, new research commissioned by the Gates Foundation finds scant evidence that those changes accomplished what they were meant to: improve teacher quality or boost student learning.  

The 500-plus page report by the Rand Corporation, released Thursday, details the political and technical challenges of putting complex new systems in place and the steep cost — $575 million — of doing so.

The post-mortem will likely serve as validation to the foundation’s critics, who have long complained about Gates’ heavy influence on education policy and what they call its top-down approach.

The report also comes as the foundation has shifted its priorities away from teacher evaluation and toward other issues, including improving curriculum.

“We have taken these lessons to heart, and they are reflected in the work that we’re doing moving forward,” the Gates Foundation’s Allan Golston said in a statement.

The initiative did not lead to clear gains in student learning.

At the three districts and four California-based charter school networks that took part of the Gates initiative — Pittsburgh; Shelby County (Memphis), Tennessee; Hillsborough County, Florida; and the Alliance-College Ready, Aspire, Green Dot, and Partnerships to Uplift Communities networks — results were spotty. The trends over time didn’t look much better than similar schools in the same state.

Several years into the initiative, there was evidence that it was helping high school reading in Pittsburgh and at the charter networks, but hurting elementary and middle school math in Memphis and among the charters. In most cases there were no clear effects, good or bad. There was also no consistent pattern of results over time.

A complicating factor here is that the comparison schools may also have been changing their teacher evaluations, as the study spanned from 2010 to 2015, when many states passed laws putting in place tougher evaluations and weakening tenure.

There were also lots of other changes going on in the districts and states — like the adoption of Common Core standards, changes in state tests, the expansion of school choice — making it hard to isolate cause and effect. Studies in Chicago, Cincinnati, and Washington D.C. have found that evaluation changes had more positive effects.

Matt Kraft, a professor at Brown who has extensively studied teacher evaluation efforts, said the disappointing results in the latest research couldn’t simply be chalked up to a messy rollout.

These “districts were very well poised to have high-quality implementation,” he said. “That speaks to the actual package of reforms being limited in its potential.”

Principals were generally positive about the changes, but teachers had more complicated views.

From Pittsburgh to Tampa, Florida, the vast majority of principals agreed at least somewhat that “in the long run, students will benefit from the teacher-evaluation system.”

Source: RAND Corporation

Teachers in district schools were far less confident.

When the initiative started, a majority of teachers in all three districts tended to agree with the sentiment. But several years later, support had dipped substantially. This may have reflected dissatisfaction with the previous system — the researchers note that “many veteran [Pittsburgh] teachers we interviewed reported that their principals had never observed them” — and growing disillusionment with the new one.

Majorities of teachers in all locations reported that they had received useful feedback from their classroom observations and changed their habits as a result.

At the same time, teachers in the three districts were highly skeptical that the evaluation system was fair — or that it made sense to attach high-stakes consequences to the results.

The initiative didn’t help ensure that poor students of color had more access to effective teachers.

Part of the impetus for evaluation reform was the idea, backed by some research, that black and Hispanic students from low-income families were more likely to have lower-quality teachers.  

But the initiative didn’t seem to make a difference. In Hillsborough County, inequity expanded. (Surprisingly, before the changes began, the study found that low-income kids of color actually had similar or slightly more effective teachers than other students in Pittsburgh, Hillsborough County, and Shelby County.)

Districts put in place modest bonuses to get top teachers to switch schools, but the evaluation system itself may have been a deterrent.

“Central-office staff in [Hillsborough County] reported that teachers were reluctant to transfer to high-need schools despite the cash incentive and extra support because they believed that obtaining a good VAM score would be difficult at a high-need school,” the report says.

Evaluation was costly — both in terms of time and money.

The total direct cost of all aspects of the program, across several years in the three districts and four charter networks, was $575 million.

That amounts to between 1.5 and 6.5 percent of district or network budgets, or a few hundred dollars per student per year. Over a third of that money came from the Gates Foundation.

The study also quantifies the strain of the new evaluations on school leaders’ and teachers’ time as costing upwards of $200 per student, nearly doubling the the price tag in some districts.

Teachers tended to get high marks on the evaluation system.

Before the new evaluation systems were put in place, the vast majority of teachers got high ratings. That hasn’t changed much, according to this study, which is consistent with national research.

In Pittsburgh, in the initial two years, when evaluations had low stakes, a substantial number of teachers got low marks. That drew objections from the union.

“According to central-office staff, the district adjusted the proposed performance ranges (i.e., lowered the ranges so fewer teachers would be at risk of receiving a low rating) at least once during the negotiations to accommodate union concerns,” the report says.

Morgaen Donaldson, a professor at the University of Connecticut, said the initial buy-in followed by pushback isn’t surprising, pointing to her own research in New Haven.

To some, aspects of the initiative “might be worth endorsing at an abstract level,” she said. “But then when the rubber hit the road … people started to resist.”

More effective teachers weren’t more likely to stay teaching, but less effective teachers were more likely to leave.

The basic theory of action of evaluation changes is to get more effective teachers into the classroom and then stay there, while getting less effective ones out or helping them improve.

The Gates research found that the new initiatives didn’t get top teachers to stick around any longer. But there was some evidence that the changes made lower-rated teachers more likely to leave. Less than 1 percent of teachers were formally dismissed from the places where data was available.

After the grants ran out, districts scrapped some of the changes but kept a few others.

One key test of success for any foundation initiative is whether it is politically and financially sustainable after the external funds run out. Here, the results are mixed.

Both Pittsburgh and Hillsborough have ended high-profile aspects of their program: the merit pay system and bringing in peer evaluators, respectively.

But other aspects of the initiative have been maintained, according to the study, including the use of classroom observation rubrics, evaluations that use multiple metrics, and certain career-ladder opportunities.

Donaldson said she was surprised that the peer evaluators didn’t go over well in Hillsborough. Teachers unions have long promoted peer-based evaluation, but district officials said that a few evaluators who were rude or hostile soured many teachers on the concept.

“It just underscores that any reform relies on people — no matter how well it’s structured, no matter how well it’s designed,” she said.

Correction: A previous version of this story stated that about half of the money for the initiative came from the Gates Foundation; in fact, the foundation’s share was 37 percent or about a third of the total.