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Area Educators Scrambling to Cope With Teacher Shortage 

New legislation, new UCCS program and recruiting wars on the way

click to enlarge UCCS Dean of Education David Nelson
  • UCCS Dean of Education David Nelson

Responding to an anticipated shortage of 1,000 K-12 teachers in Colorado Springs next fall, local superintendents and principals are gearing up for a major recruiting war.

The impending shortage is a consequence of the explosive population increase of recent years, a push for smaller class sizes, an aging workforce (up to a third of Colorado Springs' teachers verge on retirement), notoriously low pay and a sharp decline in the number of college students going into teaching.

The national picture is near-identical. A U.S. Department of Education study projects that between half and two-thirds of the nation's 3 million teacher workforce will retire or leave the profession over the next five years, and that 2.2 million new teachers are needed this decade. And this comes at a time when demands for higher student achievement are greater than ever.

According to UCCS Dean of Education David Nelson, the impending shortage, which figures to escalate dramatically in the next few years, has local superintendents and principals "scared to death."

Educators, in consequence, are according enthusiastic thumbs-up to a new UCCS program that will allow math, science, history, English and Spanish majors to graduate in four years with teaching licenses.

Previously, aspiring teachers had to complete the traditional four-year B.A. and then take an additional 12 to 18 months of education courses to get licensed.

"This is a program better aligned with the real world," said Sylvia Nolte, Director of Student Education at UCCS. "It's increasingly unrealistic to ask students to do five to five-and-a-half years of course work for a job that, in Colorado, pays an average starting salary of $24,000 -- significantly less than a living wage and a good $10,000 to $15,000 less than what they could begin at in other professions."

"This is a badly needed and long-overdue program," Nelson agreed. "Local schools are hiring 100 percent of our education graduates, but we're providing only 15 percent of the teachers they need. It's absolutely crucial that we get more teachers into the classrooms. This program will license 150 teachers yearly. That won't eliminate the shortage by any means, but it's a big step in the right direction."


Number one enhancer

The program will allow undergraduates in selected majors to use their elective hours -- typically 30 to 36 hours -- for education courses that formerly couldn't be taken until post-graduation licensure programs.

The program is eliciting further kudos from area educators because it requires the students to spend their senior year student teaching in K-12 classrooms under the mentoring eye of UCCS School of Education professors.

"That year of hands-on experience in the trenches is enormously important," Nelson explained. "The research shows that experience is the No. 1 enhancer of teacher performance, and that teachers improve dramatically their first two or three years on the job."

In one such study, Linda Darling-Hammond of Stanford University demonstrated a direct correlation between teacher competency (in terms of training and experience) and the level of student achievement in national assessments in reading and mathematics -- the two areas emphasized in Colorado schools via CSAP testing.

According to Darling-Hammond, "The quality of the teaching force has a stronger effect on student achievement than class sizes and student background factors such as poverty, language background, and minority status."

This is a significant finding for area and national schools alike. A number of studies have shown that one in five teachers leave the field within three to five years on the job, and that the teachers most likely to quit are those who scored highest on professional competency tests.

One of the chief factors on both the entry-level and attrition end of this problem is low pay.

The average starting teacher salary in Colorado is presently $24,867, an income significantly below what state economists cite as necessary to afford the average rent in Colorado. By comparison, the average starting salary for college graduates in general is $41,136.

The average annual salary for Colorado teachers overall is approximately $39,000, but teachers earning that amount have an average of 16 years experience and a master's degree.

Figures cited in Education Week show that teachers aged 44 to 50 with a master's degree earn an average of $43,313 nationally, while non-teachers in the same age and education range earn an average of $75,824. A little over 39 percent of the nation's teachers report working at second jobs to make ends meet.

As UCCS's Nolte points out, "Teachers take income hits both starting out and in what they can ultimately make in the private sector. This is making it harder and harder to recruit the best and brightest college students, and to retain experienced and competent teachers."


Addressing the crisis

The crisis is prompting local school districts to alter their recruiting strategies and hiring policies.

"The competition for the better candidates is getting hairy," said Gene Cosby, superintendent of Widefield District 3. "For the first time ever, we had to really struggle last year to fill our openings, and we're anticipating an even tougher time of it this year. More and more of our attention and resources are going into recruiting and hiring."

Other superintendents concur.

"It's getting intense," said D-11 superintendent Norm Ridder. "We have a lot of retirements coming up in District 11, we're seeing a significant bump in the student population, and there's a push underway for smaller class sizes and all-day kindergarten. That means more teachers, plain and simple, and we're all in competition for them at the same time that the pool is shrinking."

The crisis prompted District 11 to push up the start of its recruitment and hiring process to November, instead of the traditional late spring and early summer.

"We're recruiting early, aggressively and nationally," Ridder said. "In past years, we typically invited candidates to apply for openings, after which they may or may not be asked to interview later that summer. That's changed. We now go into recruiting ready to make on-the-spot contract offers to qualified candidates."

Superintendent Ken Vedra reports the same for District 20.

"We're already recruiting, and we've removed the hiring process of as many hoops, hurdles and barriers as we can, including on-the-spot contract offers to qualified candidates."

These changes are happening on the national level, too, as schools have to compete for talent in ways they never have in the past. As noted by Education Week editor Lynn Olson, "Policymakers are coming to terms with a critical choice: Either take steps now to ensure a qualified teaching force for years to come, or scramble to fill classrooms with mere warm bodies and be stuck with the results for decades."

State lawmakers appear to be hearing the message. A spate of bills have been introduced in recent weeks that, if passed, will help to attract and retain teachers.

State Sen. Ron Tupa (D-Boulder) introduced a bill (SB-163) that would exempt student teachers from up to $2,500 in college tuition during their student teaching semester, provided they teach in the Colorado public school system within three years following.

Representatives Nancy Spence (R-Aurora) and Penfield Tate (D-Denver) are co-sponsoring a bill (HB-1142) that would forgive student loans for teachers in the fields of math, science, special education an bilingual education, provided they go on to teach those subjects in Colorado public schools for four years or more.

Rep. Lynn Hefley (R-Colorado Springs) has introduced a bill (HB-1324) that would give $1,000 bonuses to teachers in hard-to-fill subjects like math and science who agree to teach in schools that score lowest in yearly CSAP testing.

These bills, combined with the new teacher-education program at UCCS, are music to the ears of area educators. As noted by superintendent Cosby, "We welcome anything that puts good teachers in front of our kids."

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