Like elsewhere across the nation, Colorado is facing a severe teacher shortage. With fewer college students completing teacher preparation programs, teachers leaving the profession after only a few years, and experienced teachers retiring, Colorado does not have the supply of teachers needed to fill classrooms. For the last few years, Colorado has turned to other states to recruit and license over 50% of each year’s new teachers. Still, many of the 3000 teaching positions that need to be filled annually are staffed inadequately. Over a hundred of those positions are left empty while some of the positions are filled with unqualified teachers, long-term substitutes, or retired teachers called back to the classroom. Shortages are particularly serious for early childhood education, science, math, world languages, special education, and art/music/drama. Surprisingly in rural areas, there is a shortage of English and social studies teachers.
Colorado legislators took notice and passed a bill called “Concerning a Strategic Action Plan.” In response, Katy Anthes, Commissioner of Education, and Dr. Kim Hunter Reed, Executive Director of Colorado Department of Higher Education, set out to analyze the situation and from that analysis develop a strategic plan. They conducted town meetings across the state; surveyed educators, parents, community members, business leaders, legislators, along with others; and studied the research on teacher attrition and retention.
From an analysis of the data, they developed strategies to address five categories:
- Perceptions of teaching and education
- Compensation and salary
- Educator preparation
- Educator retention
- Working conditions
Perceptions of teaching and education seem to be at an all-time low. In several town hall meetings, Anthes and Reed heard teachers talk about low moral coupled with low prestige. This problem seems to be aggravated by measures of accountability.
To no one’s surprise, compensation continues to be a serious issue. In comparison to other states, Colorado ranks “second to last in terms of providing teachers a competitive wage.” The beginning salaries of teachers vary dramatically across the state. For instance, Boulder Valley School district pays the state’s highest salary of $63,000 while the average salary in rural schools is $14,000 less. In 95% of the rural areas, a beginning teacher’s salary is below the standard of living. As Chris Gdowski, superintendent of Adams Five Star District, stated quite dramatically, “You shouldn’t have to take a vow of poverty to be a teacher.”
Perhaps because of the low perceptions of the teaching profession and salary, enrollment in teacher preparation programs continues to drop. Since 2010-2011, enrollment has shrunk by 24.4 percent.
According to Colorado Department of Education, the four-year attrition rate of Colorado teachers is 16.4%. However, novice teachers who receive strong induction support and effective professional development tend to stay in the profession longer than new teachers without such support. Unfortunately, underfunded and understaffed districts often lack the resources to provide the kind of support novice teachers need. This is a particularly robust problem for teachers who work with students of poverty and in schools with a high minority population.
In the town meetings, Anthes and Reed heard teachers worry about working conditions. Those conditions included class size, leadership, collegiality, teacher effectiveness measures, resources, class size, and workload.
Strategies for addressing these categories are outlined in Colorado Teacher Shortages: Attracting and Retaining Teachers. Some of the strategies include creating funding for districts to support professional development and recognition of teachers, supporting and recognizing teachers who complete National Board Certification, developing mentorship programs, increasing paraprofessional support, reducing the teaching load for novice teachers, offering loan forgiveness and housing incentives, providing scholarships for content teacher shortages areas, and exploring compensation options.