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The state wants well-trained teachers for its most at-risk kids — here’s a look at the plan

Mrachek Middle School math teacher Diardra Gascon helps students solve a math problem.
Mrachek Middle School math teacher Diardra Gascon helps students solve a math problem.
Nicholas Garcia

Thousands of Colorado’s most at-risk students attend schools that lack an experienced and stable teaching staff, according to the Colorado Department of Education.

State officials want to change that by 2018.

At the request of the U.S. Department of Education, which asked all 50 states to examine their workforce, state officials have created an aggressive timeline to pump up the supply of teachers, better train principals and reduce teacher turnover at the state’s most at-risk schools.

The strategies are not revolutionary. Many are in motion now. But other strategies are still in the works, including redesigning training programs for new teachers and increasing the number of teachers rated highly effective in front of the state’s growing English language learning population.

The state’s plan puts everything in sharper focus, and all in one place.

“They are lofty goals for an awfully short timeline,” said Jennifer Simons, who coordinates putting federal laws on hiring and training teachers into practice for the state. “But we wanted to hold ourselves accountable.”

Among the state’s loftiest goals: Reversing the state’s steadily increasing teacher turnover rate, which is currently at 17 percent, to 12 percent by 2018.

Here are a few key takeaways from the plan:

Most Colorado schools, including those that serve mostly poor students of color, have “highly qualified” teachers in the classroom …

But (yes, there is a but …) the legal definition of a “highly qualified” teacher is pretty lax. To be considered highly qualified, a teacher must hold a bachelor’s degree, be licensed and prove they’re competent in the subject they teach.

To prove they’re competent in their subject, teachers can among other options take a test, earn credits hours toward a master’s degree in the relevant subject, or be Nationally Board Certified.

The state’s teacher evaluation law has nothing to do with determining whether a teacher is qualified. And that isn’t going to change.

Knowing this, state officials decided to look at two other measurements when examining the state’s teacher workforce: turnover and novice teachers.

Students at the state’s most at-risk schools are getting the short end of the stick. And you’re more likely to find a novice teacher in a rural classroom.

Students at 149 schools don’t have equitable access to a well-trained or stable teaching staff, the state found. In some cases, this is leading to students not improving enough.
About two-thirds of those schools that have poverty rates higher than 40 percent had teacher turnover rates higher than 30 percent — and nearly a quarter of staff members were new to the profession.

The state did not release the names of these schools.

But according to a report produced by the U.S. Department of Education, rural school districts such as Fort Morgan were more likely to employ new teachers than urban or suburban schools. While about 4 percent of the state’s teachers were new to the profession during the 2011-12 school year, 10 percent of rural teachers were during the same time.

Untrained principals are part of the problem, too.

Using information from the state’s biennial teacher survey, officials found that teachers who believe their principals are effective and receive quality feedback are more likely to stay in their jobs. The opposite is also true. Teachers who believe their principals are not effective and don’t provide feedback are more likely to leave.

Sounds obvious, right? It’s more complicated, though. As the role of the principal shifts from manager to instructional leader, the state believes some are struggling to adjust.

CDE hopes continued training for principals, especially on the state’s teacher evaluation system, will helps keep teachers happy and in the classroom. The plan also highlighted CDE’s existing Turnaround Network, which provides training for principals in struggling schools, as a strategy to improve the quality of principals for at-risk schools.

Principals who have not received the aforementioned training and whose staff has either high turnover or a sizeable portion of novice teachers will be offered more support, according to the state’s plan.

CDE is developing a new program to support novice teachers that school districts will need to follow.

According to some research, students do better in math and reading when taught by new teachers who get comprehensive support. So by 2017, CDE wants school districts to rethink how new teachers are trained and supported to run an effective classroom during their first two years.

Details are scarce. But CDE plans to “articulate a statewide vision for teacher induction” based on current research. Districts will need to update their own induction programs to meet the new guidelines.

The new guidelines will focus on how to connect new teachers with veterans, assessments and classroom management training, and the evaluation process.

The state wants more educators trained to teach English language learners.

The first step, however, is to identify which English language development programs are working and why.

CDE has developed a new rubric for school district administrators to use to evaluate their programs.

Another data program was created for districts to use longitudinal data to pinpoint areas of success in their programs. Thirty-three school districts will receive a grant to support one-on-one training to learn how to use this new tool.

The state has also created a support group for school administrators meant to help school districts understand what resources are available to improve instruction for English language learners.

It’s unclear what shifts — if any — the state will make based on findings from evaluations based on the new rubric or data tool. But the state plans to continue regular training programs and monthly webinars around the subject of teaching English as a second language. Previous topics included how to use strong vocabulary with English learners and how to build relationships with families.

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