help wanted

Number of Colorado teaching graduates dips again, but pool getting more diverse

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Freshmen at DSST Cole High School in Dexter Korto's morning advisory class look to the back of the class where English standards are posted.

From bad to worse.

That’s the top-level finding of a new report on the declining number of Coloradans completing traditional teacher preparation programs at the state’s colleges and universities.

For the sixth year in a row, fewer students are graduating with an education degree and heading into the classroom, according to a report issued jointly by the state departments of education and higher education.

Just 2,472 students graduated this spring with a degree in education. That’s down slightly from 2,529 the previous year. And unlike in years before where there were slight upticks in the number of students completing nontraditional teacher prep programs, that number was flat this year.

The decline in the number of Colorado college students leaving with a teaching certificate is not unique to Colorado. Across the nation, schools are grappling with teacher shortages, especially at the middle and high school level and with subjects such as math and science.

Rural schools here and across the nation are at an even greater disadvantage, according to multiple reports.

There is one glimmer of hope in the report for those advocating for greater diversity in front of the classroom. The makeup of individuals enrolled last year in traditional teacher prep programs was the most diverse since 2011. In total, 2,088 students of color were enrolled at a traditional teacher prep program last year. That’s about 21 percent of all students in such programs.

In an effort to increase the number of available teachers, colleges and school districts alike are creating new programs to attract incoming freshman and non-traditional candidates.

Beginning in 2017, freshmen entering the University of Colorado Boulder will have two new degree options — a bachelor’s degree in elementary education and a bachelor’s degree in leadership and community engagement. The latter was designed to attract students who believe teaching can make an impact in and out of the classroom, officials said.

The University of Northern Colorado, which continues to graduate the largest number of students with teaching degrees, is developing a new program to recruit and train students and current educators to teach in the state’s rural schools.

Denver Public Schools is also expanding a program that takes current teacher aides and puts them in front of the classroom after they’ve completed courses from Western Governors University, a nonprofit online university.

Fewer new teachers is just one of two major factors contributing to the teacher shortage. The other is the number of current teachers retiring or leaving the field. Some of the state’s most high-profile superintendents recently discussed that matter at an annual forum.

They said the public, lawmakers and their peers must restore respect to the profession, among other strategies, to keep current teachers in the field.

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.