What to do about Colorado’s teacher shortage

A December 2016 Colorado legislative report on the number of teacher candidates completing programs in Colorado showed a precipitous 24.4 percent drop between 2010 and 2016. This means, according to the Denver Post, the state is falling some 3,000 teachers short of filling existing teaching slots.

The problem is being felt across our state's entire educational system, but particularly so in rural parts of Colorado where positions are sometimes posted for weeks or months without a single applicant.

A bill is moving through the Colorado Legislature (HB 1003) that would create a study committee, which would then craft a plan to attack the root causes of this shortage. Among K-12 education circles, this effort is being met with a strong dose of skepticism.

Now, don't get me wrong — the Legislature's heart is in the right place with this effort. We are facing a system-wide problem that requires a system-wide solution. Taking the time to validate both the problem and to set forth the right solutions is indeed a worthy effort.

However, for those working in schools, the root causes for the teacher shortage and steps necessary to address them seem fairly straightforward and do not warrant a legislative study.

For more than a decade, some politicians and education reform politicos have been assaulting the teaching profession and its practitioners as the primary cause for the United States' lackluster standardized test scores. Teachers have intentionally been portrayed as lazy, self-serving and disengaged in order to drive political reforms, which include the lowering of professional standards for teacher licensure, increased evaluation requirements and the stripping away of job protections for educators. In a classic example of fundamental attribution error, the teachers were blamed when the evidence overwhelmingly points to out-of-school factors as the primary correlates to student achievement on standardized tests.

This push to blame teachers and turn up the heat on them through evaluation and the loss of job security has also come simultaneously with what has become a much more difficult work environment. Around 2010, with the widespread adoption of the Common Core State Standards in English Language Arts and Math, expectations for what students should be able to know and do ratcheted up dramatically, but were not accompanied by commensurate supports in terms of professional learning opportunities and curricular materials.

Simultaneously, the rigor level of standardized tests used across the country ramped up and then states were strong-armed (or willingly acceded, in the case of Colorado) to using these tests to rate their teachers. Basically, teachers were being asked to move kids a lot further in terms of learning gains, yet provided little in the way of supports to get there.

On top of this, the effects of the Great Recession squeezed education budgets all around the country. Colorado, with its complex and dysfunctional mix of conflicting state constitutional amendments, took a big hit, with education budgets falling off nearly 20 percent across the state. This led to massive layoffs, pay freezes and increased workloads for educators as schools and districts struggled to re-size their organizations into this new fiscal reality.

In many cases, action (or inaction) by the legislature is either a direct cause or at least a contributing factor to the educator shortage we face today. So, you can understand the skepticism that emerges when we have a legislative solution come forward which promises to study and fix our problem.

The business practice of international benchmarking can provide some insight to how we might address this critical issue. A review of the best performing education systems in the world reveals that they consider teaching a high status profession that not everyone can or should do.

In the world's best education systems, teaching is respected by the community. Becoming an educator is a tough and intensely selective process. New teachers must prove themselves with deep content knowledge, a strong command of teaching techniques and philosophy (pedagogy) and extensive practical experience working with students under the direction of an experienced educator.

This professional model also means treating teachers with respect and dignity — empowering them to make key instructional decisions for their students and to choose appropriate curricular materials and learning approaches.

Eagle County Schools intentionally chooses to exemplify a professional model of teaching in our schools and it is paying off in terms of raising the quality of our workforce. Where other districts around the country are starved for teaching talent, we've had 715 teaching applicants for 64 jobs this year. That's a significant increase from our 350 certified applicants in 2016. In a time when the number of teacher candidates is going in reverse, we've doubled the number applying for jobs in our schools.

This effectively means that our principals and selection committees have more options at hiring time.

We've also been more effective at hanging on to our teachers. When I became superintendent in 2013, our teacher turnover rate was 21 percent and one of the highest in the state. Compare that to 2016 (the latest available data) where our teacher turnover rate is 12.5 percent, trending below the state average of 16.9 percent.

Here in Eagle County, we've shown that it is possible to recruit and retain quality teachers. Our secret is simple — treat educators like the valuable professionals they are.