DENVER –Public school teachers are in high demand in Colorado, but efforts to increase their numbers have so far fallen short by about 1,000 a year.
And the overall decline in salaries, when adjusted for inflation, over the past decade isn’t helping.
The teacher shortage is becoming critical as a third of Colorado’s more than 53,000 teachers will be eligible to retire in the next five years, and fewer students are enrolling in and graduating from teacher education programs to replace them.
A comprehensive review of education in Colorado and proposed remedies for the brewing crisis is underway, and legislation is pending that would assure it gets done and that new strategies are implemented.
In December, the Colorado Department of Education released a report on the state of teacher preparation programs that found in the 2015-16 academic year, the number of graduates of these programs had dropped 2.2 percent.
Not a big deal until you put it in context: It’s the sixth consecutive year that the completion rates have dropped.
The education department reported in 2010 that 3,274 students earned teaching credentials through traditional programs, but by 2016, the number dropped to 2,472, a decrease of more than 24 percent. This was supplemented by 796 educators who earned licenses through alternative programs for a total of 3,268 – barely enough to cover entry-level job openings.
Enrollment in the traditional programs has dropped by more than 3,000 in the six-year period.
The decrease in students seeking teaching credentials is apparent at Fort Lewis College, where enrollment in the teacher education department reached a high during the 2004-05 academic year at 239 full time equivalent students. It dropped to as low as 114 in 2012-13, according to documents on its website.
As of the 2014-15 academic year, the numbers had started to trend up but were still below 130 students in the education program.
The immediate impact is that it has become progressively harder for schools to find qualified teachers, said Robert Mitchell, director of Educator Preparation for the Colorado Department of Higher Education.
There are fewer applicants for the larger school districts along the Interstate 25 corridor, but hardest hit are rural communities, Mitchell said. “It’s really hard to find qualified and licensed teachers to go and work in some of those districts.”
Of Colorado’s 178 school districts, 120 are classified as rural.
Other specialty areas that are disproportionately affected include special education, science and math, said Richard Fulton, director of Teacher Education at FLC.
State Rep. Barbara McLachlan, D-Durango and a former English teacher at Durango High School, said the lack of educators compounded with shortfalls in state funding can lead to the consolidation of schools.
That, in turn, can lead to extended busing times and the students might not get the quality of education that they should, McLachlan said. “That really diminishes the community that the school provides.”
Fulton seconded that sentiment.
“If your rural communities don’t have good schools and good teachers – that’s the baseline for a positive community,” he said.
But the lack of new teachers is only part one of the problem, Fulton said. “Part two is, it’s one thing to recruit those teachers to these rural areas, but how do you keep them there?”
The retention issue includes the many baby boomers who are nearing retirement, Mitchell said.
“A third of our current teaching staff across the state are retirement eligible in the next five years,” he said. “So not only are we not producing more teachers, but now we’re going to lose a bunch to retirement.”
While the number of prospective teachers drops the quality has remained high level, he said. But quantity is its own quality.
“I think new teachers today are doing some great things and it’s really very inspirational to see, but we’re just going to lose the numbers game and that’s the scary part,” he said.
Why a shortage
There is no single answer for the decreased interest in teaching.
Fulton said the increased demands on teachers from various stakeholders – parents, administration and local, state and federal governments – is a contributing factor.
“The working conditions could seem, and quite honestly are, fairly overwhelming,” he said.
But salaries play a huge factor.
“Our lowest paying district in the state pays a full-time teacher about $24,500 a year and that’s just not viable,” Mitchell said.
Low salaries make it hard for educators to pay off student loans from college, and push many students into more lucrative fields, he said.
According to a study conducted by the National Education Association, salaries for teachers in Colorado have fallen by 7.7 percent, when adjusted for inflation, in the past decade.
“I don’t think anybody goes into teaching thinking they’re going to make a million dollars or that they’re going to be fully appreciated for what they do, you kinda do it because you love it,” McLachlan said.
Another factor is the accelerated timeline placed on young people to decide their career trajectory, Mitchell said. “You are really making some career decision now in middle school and high school.”
Fixing the problem
While things look grim, it’s not all doom and gloom.
Fulton said the teacher shortage has increased interaction between teacher education programs and nearby school districts.
That has led to increased alternative licensing programs, which account for 25 percent of the credentials given out last year, as well as student teacher placement in rural districts, he said.
One such program in Southwest Colorado is the Boettcher Teacher Residency program. The program recruits professionals or those with a bachelor’s degree and gives them yearlong in-the-classroom training and support through the next four years. Ninety-three percent of Boettcher-trained teachers are in the classroom after eight years.
But such programs and partnerships are not a silver bullet – even the successful one at FLC, which Mitchell praised.
“It’s probably one of the stronger teacher education programs in the state. They (FLC) do an amazing job, but the fact is, they don’t have the numbers they need to supply teachers to all the district in Southwest Colorado,” Mitchell said.
A comprehensive evaluation of education in Colorado and the factors leading to decreased interest in the field is underway, he said.
Enter McLachlan’s first bill as a state legislator, House Bill 1003, which requires the departments of education and higher education to examine the state’s teacher shortage and formulate a plan to correct the course.
McLachlan said HB 1003, which is scheduled for hearing by committee later this month after being pushed back on multiple occasions, would emphasize the importance of completing the study.
“We’re just saying ‘here’s a deadline for it’ because we need to know this, we can’t have them take a 10-year process to do this,” she said. “It’s an emergency situation in Colorado, especially rural Colorado.”
McLachlan’s experience as a teacher has been a valuable asset in this ongoing process, said Mitchell, who has worked on the bill and is heading the study for the higher education department. “She really gets it, she really gets education so she understands what we can do.”
Mitchell said the study is in the early stages and by May his department expects to send staff around the state to gather input from school districts and community stakeholders.
A big part of the study will be a financial impact statement.
“I think it’s an important first step to say, ‘Hey look, this is what it’s going to take for us to really make Colorado the desired place where everyone in the nation wants to teach’ and that’s really what we’re looking for,” he said.
While there are no specifics yet, he said it would take a “decent chunk of money” to bring teacher salaries in the state to a competitive level with national ones.
Julie Popp, public information officer for Durango School District 9-R, said the district hasn’t experienced much fallout from the teacher shortage, but nearby districts including in Ignacio, Mancos and Cortez have felt more of a hit.
In part, Durango’s standing as a destination location makes it easier to attract and retain educators, Popp said.
Popp added that 9-R is working on its salary schedule so that it pay raises are more evenly spread out over a teacher’s career to increase the attractiveness of 9-R as an employer.
How all the fixes come together is unclear, but the need for a systemic change in the philosophy and marketing of the field is evident, Mitchell said.
“If we keep going this way, I have absolutely no idea who’s going to be teaching our kids tomorrow.”