Race to the Bottom

Colorado teachers can claim an unwelcome distinction: most underpaid in the nation (or close to it)

Teachers rally at the state capitol in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma on April 4, 2018. (J PAT CARTER/AFP/Getty Images)

Teachers from West Virginia to Oklahoma and Kentucky have staged protests or walked off the job in recent weeks to agitate for better pay and more money for their schools.

But the teachers who are the most underpaid in the nation – at least when compared to their peers with similar education levels – are in Colorado.

A recent study from the Education Law Center, a group that advocates for more school funding, ranked Colorado dead last in the competitiveness of its teacher salaries. The typical 25-year-old teacher at the beginning of her career in Colorado makes just 69 percent of what her peers with similar education levels who work similar hours earn.

In Facebook comments, in speeches on the floor of Colorado General Assembly, in asides made during interviews, teachers and policy makers have started to connect low pay here and labor unrest elsewhere. Earlier this year, the Denver teachers union threatened to call a strike vote, something teachers here haven’t done since the 1990s, when negotiations broke down over raising base pay.

Teacher pay also was highlighted in a report from the Colorado Department of Higher Education on the state’s teacher shortage, which is particularly acute in rural areas where salaries are even lower. An early draft of that report recommended that lawmakers establish a minimum salary for teachers, but the final draft backed off from that recommendation, marking the idea with $$$$ for “high cost.”

One reason teachers are further behind here is that Colorado is a relatively high-earning state, ranking eighth for median household income.

Colorado teachers also earn below the national average. The National Education Association’s annual ranking of the states put Colorado in 30th place for teacher pay in 2016, with an average annual salary of $51,204. In contrast, teachers in Wyoming, which ranks 16th for teacher pay, earned an average annual salary of $58,140, a hair below the national average and roughly equivalent to the salaries earned by other college-educated professionals there.

At the same time, the cost of living in urban districts is going up. A recent study found that starting teachers in three of the state’s largest districts, including Denver, could not afford to rent a one-bedroom apartment. Meanwhile, in Colorado’s rural districts, superintendents often share stories of teachers who leave for other states – or for jobs at big box stores that pay more.

Colorado consistently ranks in the bottom tier of states for school funding, with implications for teacher salaries, though conservatives will also point to the cost of pension benefits as a reason districts don’t raise wages. Since the Great Recession, lawmakers have held back billions of dollars that, under the state constitution, should have gone to schools.

There are some challenges to solving this problem. Any statewide tax increase to bring Colorado schools closer to the national average would require voter approval, and they’ve declined to do so twice in recent years. In recognition of this reality, the Denver teachers union extended negotiations until after November, when voters might see yet another tax increase for education on the ballot.

Unlike many states, Colorado has no statewide teacher salary schedule. State lawmakers have said they could send more money to schools, but they couldn’t make those districts raise teacher pay. However, many superintendents say they would raise pay if they could, in order to stay competitive.

This problem has been a long time in the making. An Economic Policy Institute report from 2016 found that teacher wages had fallen significantly behind over the preceding 20 years. Nationwide, teachers earned just 1.8 percent less than comparable workers in 1994, but by 2015, they earned 17 percent less. Even when the value of more generous public sector benefits were included, they earned 11 percent less than comparable workers. And as the report’s authors note, benefits can’t be used to make rent, buy groceries, or pay down student loans.

The Economic Policy Institute, a union-backed progressive think tank, ranked Colorado 50th, ahead only of Arizona, in how teacher pay compares to that of other college-educated workers. (Both reports include the District of Columbia, so 51st is last place.) The Economic Policy Institute looked at wages for all workers aged 18-64 who hold either a bachelor’s or a master’s degree, not just starting salaries. Their study also found that more experienced teachers with a decade or two in the profession have fallen further behind their peers in other professions than young teachers just starting their careers.

What does this mean for students? Research on the connection between teacher pay and student performance is limited, but some studies have found that even modest pay increases reduce turnover and students do better when more teachers stick around longer.

Update: This article has been corrected to reflect that Colorado ranked 30th for teacher pay in 2016, not 46th as was previously reported by the National Education Association, which relied on data from the Colorado Department of Education. For more on how this mistake happened and its implications for the school funding debate, go here.

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. About half 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.

IPS referendum

Ferebee, pleading for more money for schools, says teacher raises, security upgrades are on the ballot

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Nathan Harris, who graduated from Arsenal Technical High School, thinks the schools need more funding to serve students from low-income families.

At a quiet meeting held Wednesday in a near northside church, Superintendent Lewis Ferebee made his case: Indianapolis Public Schools needs more money from local taxpayers.

At stake when voters go to the polls in November: The ability of the state’s largest district to foot the cost of raises for teachers and school security improvements, among other expenditures officials deem necessary. There are two property tax hikes on the ballot this year to increase school funding.

Ferebee told the few dozen people who came to the meeting — parents, alumni, district staffers, among them — that, with adequate funding, he envisioned offering the best teacher pay in the state and attracting some of the most talented educators.

“I think every parent in this room would appreciate that,” he said. “We have to be competitive with teachers’ … compensation.”

The superintendent presented a broad outline of the district’s financial woes, but there was not much new information. He devoted most of the meeting to answering questions from those in attendance, who were alternately supportive and skeptical of the referendums.

Reggie Jones, a member of the Indianapolis NAACP education committee, said that while he supports the ballot initiatives, he also wants to know more about how the money will be spent.

Janise Hamiter, a district bus attendant, expressed concern that some of the money raised will be used to make improvements at buildings that are occupied by charter schools in the district innovation network.

“Private money is going to be used for charter schools. Public money is going to be used for charter schools,” she said. “They are getting both ends of the stick if you ask me.”

She said she hasn’t yet decided which way she’ll vote.

One of the proposed referendums would raise about $52 million to pay for improvements to school buildings, particularly safety features such as new lights, classroom locks, and fire sprinklers. The board voted earlier this month to add that request to the ballot.

The second measure, which is likely to generate significantly more funds, would pay for operating expenses such as teacher pay. Details of that proposal are expected in the coming weeks. The board will hold a July 17 hearing on the measure.

The community meeting was notable because this is the district’s second time this year campaigning for more money from taxpayers, and the success of the referendums could hinge on whether Ferebee makes a strong case to voters. Last year, the district announced plans to seek nearly $1 billion in two referendums that were to be on the ballot in May. But community groups, notably the MIBOR Realtor Association, balked at the size of the request and criticized the district for not providing enough details.

Eventually, the school board chose to delay the vote and work with the Indy Chamber to craft a less costly version. The latest proposal for building improvements comes in at about one-quarter of the district’s initial request.

Nathan Harris, who graduated from Arsenal Technical High School but no longer lives in the district, said he supports increasing school funding because he’s familiar with the needs of Indianapolis schools. When so many students come from low-income families, Harris said, “more resources are required.”