Statistics

Colorado was never ranked 46th for teacher pay. Does this change the debate?

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar/Chalkbeat
Colorado teachers rally at the Capitol for more education funding. (Melanie Asmar/Chalkbeat)

As a rallying cry, “We’re 30th in the nation for teacher pay!” doesn’t quite inspire outrage.

But that is, in fact, where Colorado ranked in 2016, despite reports to the contrary.

A series of unfortunate events led to an inaccurate statistic being spread far and wide — that Colorado ranked 46th in the U.S. in teacher pay.

The eye-popping number in a state with a booming economy found its way onto social media posts and signs at last week’s massive teacher rallies in Colorado, as well as into stories in Chalkbeat and many, many other media outlets. But it was wrong.

Here’s how the mistake happened — and how groups with different agendas have seized on the snafu to score points:

The Colorado Department of Education changed its data collection system during the 2014-15 school year and built a new data query system from scratch, officials said. Some teachers were left out of the system, resulting in artificially lower average salaries for the 2014-15 and 2015-16 school years.

When the nation’s largest teachers union was preparing its 2017 state rankings, it used the 2016 average teacher salary provided by the Colorado Department of Education. That was $46,155.

Officials in Colorado later realized the actual average salary for the year in question was $51,204. They informed the National Education Association in May 2017, but the report had already been published. The union didn’t update the number until it released its 2018 state rankings, which came out shortly before thousands of teachers rallied at the Colorado State Capitol.

The revised figure meant Colorado ranked 30th in 2016, not 46th, and 31st in 2017.

The average annual salary for last year was $51,810, according to the state education department, and the average annual salary for this year is $52,728. Colorado teacher salaries were 15 percent below the national average of $59,660 in 2017.

As always, that statewide average obscures a wide range of teacher salaries in different districts. The Cherry Creek and Boulder Valley districts have average salaries above $70,000, while many rural districts have averages that hover near $30,000.

Some districts use pay-for-performance and incentive systems that also complicate the picture. The state education department reports base salaries that don’t include those incentives. For example, Denver Public Schools estimates its average salary at $57,753 with incentives included. That’s $7,000 more than the base pay listed on state education department’s website. However, some teachers dislike the uncertainty that this system introduces into their paychecks. The union has negotiated higher base pay and is still asking for changes to the incentive system.

The change in the ranking, which was reported by other media outlets, doesn’t answer the question of how much teachers should be paid or the best way to raise their pay. Nonetheless, the ranking has become a key feature of the debate in Colorado, and it’s unlikely to disappear from signs at protests or the public narrative anytime soon.

In comments on Chalkbeat Colorado’s Facebook page, teachers have continued to cite the incorrect “46th in the nation” figure, while on Twitter, some critics called the stat “fake news” and said teachers shouldn’t complain about pay when they have summers off.

The conservative blog Colorado Peak Politics seized on the new ranking to dismiss the teacher rallies.

“So, if we’re in the middle of the pack for pay, why exactly are teachers rallying today and tomorrow?” said a blog post titled “LIAR LIAR.” “Why are teachers costing the state $11.5 million? Why are teachers forcing families to scramble for childcare? This entire rally is based on nothing. Nothing.”

Colorado Education Association President Kerrie Dallman said the change in ranking shouldn’t distract from the problems Colorado faces attracting or keeping teachers.

“We’re still below the national average,” she said. “We’re not in the top 25. If you took out Cherry Creek and Boulder, which are significantly higher than other districts in the state, that average would drop pretty quickly. … For us, it’s not so much about that ranking but do the salaries match where folks are living?”

A report on teacher shortages found that 95 percent of rural districts paid average salaries below the cost of living in those communities. At the same time, the cost of living in the Denver metro area has increased rapidly in recent years. Even as teacher pay has increased, it has not kept pace with inflation in many districts.

A recent report that cites American Community Survey data, not the Colorado Department of Education, placed Colorado last for the competitiveness of its teacher salaries – that is, how teacher pay compares to the pay of other people with similar education levels.

out of pocket

Pencils, shelving, wiggly chairs: What Colorado teachers bought for their classrooms — and why

PHOTO: Laura Henry
Aurora kindergarten teacher Laura Henry provided the pencil totes, floor dots, balls and wiggle seats, and everything you see on the shelves out of her own pocket.

The rugs and bean bag chairs, the workboxes full of hands-on learning games, the file folders that help her track student progress — all came out of special education teacher Laura Keathley’s own pocket.

Robyn Premo, a high school science teacher, buys styrofoam and cans, glass rods and balloons, patches of fur and s’mores ingredients — just about all the materials except beakers that her students need to do hands-on experiments.

Marcea Copeland-Rodden, a middle school social studies teacher, bought an air-conditioning unit for her classroom because it was so hot students were getting bloody noses.

And everyone buys loads and loads of pencils.

“I don’t think that not having a pencil is a reason a kid should not learn today,” Premo said.

There’s nothing new about teachers spending money on their classrooms, but as rising housing prices and stagnant wages put more pressure on working families and as academic expectations rise even in kindergarten, teachers have to dig deep to meet their students’ basic needs and outfit their school rooms.

A national survey by the U.S. Department of Education found that 94 percent of teachers spend their own money for their students, with the average teacher spending $479 in the 2015-16 school year, the most recent data available.

When the Colorado Education Association surveyed more than 2,000 members in 2017, they reported spending an average of $656 out of their own pocket on classroom supplies.

The usual caveat applies: These numbers are self-reported.

To better understand what this looks like in Colorado classrooms, Chalkbeat reached out to teachers around the state to ask how much they spent out of pocket, what they bought, and why.

The teachers who responded to Chalkbeat’s survey work in districts large and small, urban and rural, and spent anywhere from $75 to $2,000. Most respondents spent several hundred dollars, and the majority said they do not get a stipend for school supplies.

Their spending covers the most basic of classroom supplies — pens, pencils, glue sticks, crayons, paper, folders, notebooks — but also the things that make classrooms feel inviting, that make learning engaging, that help a kid get through the day. Teachers bought snacks and spare clothes, earbuds for students to listen to audio books as part of reading lessons, wiggly chairs and yoga balls for fidgety learners, classroom decorations, tissues and wipes, prizes for good work and good behavior, fish for the fish tank, storage bins and shelving and fabric for makeshift blinds.

Premo teaches chemistry and physics at Westminster High School. Her department gets a $3,000 supply budget for the high school’s 2,400 kids. She emphasizes that she thinks her school is doing everything it can, but if she didn’t reach into her own pocket, her students would mostly experience science in online simulations.

“That is not, in my opinion, sufficient for rigorous, authentic science instruction, so I make the personal contributions to give my kids those learning opportunities,” she said.

Premo spent $2,000 getting ready for the school year, the most of any teacher who responded to Chalkbeat’s survey. She said she’s able to contribute more than many teachers, so she does.

“There are some fantastic online simulations, but kids learn better when they get to put their hands on things,” she said.

Fur patches help demonstrate static electricity, and s’mores help illustrate principles of chemical reactions. All these materials add up, and many of them are consumed in the process of lab work.

If Premo didn’t spend her own money, “we would run out of pencils very quickly. And we would run out of lab materials, and they would not be able to do anything hands-on. And we would lose our ability to be creative. We would work very bare-bones. It would be a lot of listening, a lot of videos.”

Laura Henry teaches kindergarten in Aurora Public Schools. It’s her 29th year in the classroom, and as kindergarten has moved away from play and more toward academics, she’s spent more and more of her own money on curriculum supplies.

Her school provides $500 a semester to each grade level, which has to be shared among three teachers, and the money goes fast. Teachers also get $10 a month for copying, which she burns through quickly, so she bought her own printer just for school use.

Because most of the students come from low-income families, the school tries to keep the school supply list modest, closer to $25, but only about three-quarters of the students bring in supplies.

PHOTO: Laura Henry
Aurora kindergarten teacher Laura Henry’s classroom after it has been cleaned during the summer. With the exception of the red shelf, a few alternative seating items, and the pencil coat rack, these items are school purchased.

She spent about $500 of her own money getting ready for the school year, on everything from folders to hold student poems to snacks and wipes to materials for dramatic play, building toys, puppet theater, books, and more.

“Kindergarten is supply-heavy because we use construction paper and glue like there is no tomorrow,” she said.

Many of our survey respondents said they don’t use online fundraisers like Donors Choose because the only people who donate are friends and family, and teachers feel bad hitting them up over and over again. Henry encounters the same dilemma, but she did turn to it this year for $550 in science and engineering supplies: gears, a light table, animal X-rays, a microscope and more.

Another advantage of Donors Choose: The money she puts into it herself is tax deductible, unlike the rest of what she spends on her classroom.

PHOTO: Laura Henry
Kindergarten teacher Laura Henry purchased the housekeeping table and chairs, everything on the wall and shelves, the books in the bin, tool bench, and playground buckets for her Aurora classroom.

Henry said she used to sometimes feel resentful about spending her own money, when her friends get reimbursed for their work expenses, but now she “rolls with it” as part of the teaching profession.

But she sees the lack of supplies as one more stumbling block for young teachers.

“I see these new teachers come in, and they’re so ready and eager to make a difference, and they don’t know how they get supplies or how they get copies,” she said. “I don’t know that our school board is even fully aware of how much we’re lacking at the classroom level. I don’t need 8,000 consultants to help me. I need my classroom funded.”

Keathley runs a multi-needs special education room with two paraprofessionals at Avery-Parsons Elementary in the Buena Vista district in the Arkansas Valley. She spent $485 getting the classroom ready this year. A lot of that money went to filing systems that help the teachers keep track of each student’s needs and progress. It also went to bulletin board supplies. These boards serve as the “411 wall” with everything kids need to know for the day, from what their classroom job is to what outside appointments they have.

PHOTO: Laura Keathley
The bulletin board in Laura Keathley’s Buena Vista classroom serves as a 411 wall for her students. She purchases all the supplies for the board herself.

Keathley and her team used their own money to outfit the “crash corner,” where students go when they need to decompress with fidget toys in a giant bean bag chair, and to make workboxes with activities that students can work on independently throughout the day.

Keathley said she hardly asks her parents for any school supplies.

“We know that a lot of times parents of kids with disabilities, we know their money goes other places and they spend so much on special things for their kids, we don’t want to ask them,” she said.

Without her own investment in the classroom, it would be a very different place.

“I could go with what the school provided me and stay within my budget, but my classroom would not be the place I would like it to be,” she said. “We wouldn’t have rugs. We wouldn’t have nearly the supplies to give snacks or do cooking in the classroom. Our desks would be much more utilitarian, and we wouldn’t have much on the walls.”

Copeland-Rodden teaches seventh grade social studies at Pueblo Academy of the Arts in southern Colorado.

She spent $500 this year, more than most, because she dropped $350 on the air conditioning unit. It might seem like an extravagance, but after years of buying more and more fans, for minimal relief, it felt like a necessity.

“It’s just really hot in the classroom,” she said. “We have kids get bloody noses, that’s how bad it is. By sixth and seventh period, everybody is done. They don’t do their work. They fall asleep. They get cranky and angry at each other. It makes it tough on everyone.”

She also bought materials for Civil War shadow puppets and other projects that will make history come alive, but most of her classroom spending is on basic supplies. She doesn’t feel like she can ask parents, most of whom are low-income, to pay for supplies when she only has their child for one period a day. Out of 130 students, one brought in a box of tissues at the start of the school year.

“I spend so much on pencils,” she said. “It’s not just once. I go through a big 50-pack of pencils every month. Every class there’s at least one kid who has lost a pencil. I’ve given up trying to get back the pencils.”

She used to ask kids for something in exchange for the pencil to prompt them to return it, but too many kids had nothing to give.

“One boy said, ‘Here’s a shoe,’ and I said, ‘I don’t want your shoe,’” she said. “I have kids walking from class to class with nothing.”

Teaching has been this way for a long time, and the teachers who talked to Chalkbeat don’t see it changing anytime soon.

“If we all collectively agreed we weren’t going to pay for school supplies, maybe eventually someone would do something,” Premo said. “But I don’t want to risk this year’s kids to make that point.”

Super Search

‘Who we are:’ Denver’s background statement for superintendent candidates, annotated

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Denver Public School Superintendent Tom Boasberg speaks to faculty during a town hall meeting in Denver on Aug. 20, 2013.

For the first time in more than a decade, the Denver school district is searching the nation for its next superintendent. The school board recently hired a big search firm to help find candidates to replace Tom Boasberg, who is stepping down in October.

The board also penned a four-page document introducing the 92,600-student district – and its greatest strengths and weaknesses – to potential future leaders.

“The point of this document is to make a statement to those who would apply and to the community that we understand how important this job is,” board member Happy Haynes explained at a recent meeting where the document was unveiled. “We wanted to make sure people have a holistic view of our district: the good, the bad, and everything in between.”

Chalkbeat has embedded the full document below. We’ve also annotated it with explanations and context about the various initiatives described in it, as well as links to our previous coverage and to other sources. Click on the highlighted yellow passages to read our annotations.