EDITORIAL: The Quest for Adequate Public Education, Part Five
A couple of weeks ago, I sat down at the bar in a local brewpub to order a burger and an IPA, and realized that I had met the bartender previously — at one of our local public schools.
“Have you quit teaching?” I asked.
“No, this is my second job,” she replied. She explained that, given her salary at the school, she needed some extra income to make ends meet here in Pagosa Springs.
A true story, concerning a short chat with one particular public school employee. But that was the extent of the conversation; we didn’t go any further into the details of her situation. After all, she was working.
We could, if we wanted, expand that brief conversation into illustrative evidence that the main problem with public education in America is low teacher salaries, and that — if only Colorado as a whole, and Pagosa Springs in particular, would increase teacher salaries — our students would perform better, for example, on the international reading and math tests conducted every three years by the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). The 2015 tests showed U.S. students — on average — scoring lower than 22 other nations in reading skills, lower than 24 other nations in science knowledge, and lower than 38 other nations in math skills.
We could, if we wanted, suggest that low salaries are mainly responsible for the declining enrollment at U.S. colleges and universities, in teacher preparation programs. A 2017 report by the Colorado Department of Higher Education (CDHE) in conjunction with the Colorado Department of Education (CDE) — which you can download here — showed that enrollment in college-based teacher preparation programs in Colorado dropped from 11,227 in 2012-2013 to 9,789 in 2017.
Says the report:
This year marks the fifth consecutive year that the number of males enrolled in education programs at Colorado [colleges and universities] have declined: a 15% drop since 2013.
Female enrollment had also dropped. Again. Meanwhile, between 2012 and 2016, the number of children enrolled in Colorado public schools increased by about 4 percent, from 863,561 to 905,018.
Taking the 30,000-foot view, we have a system that seems headed into some kind of crisis. The children who spend 13 or more years in our public schools are less and less likely to see teaching as an attractive career option. We could in fact frame the problem in exactly that kind of language:
High school seniors are less and less likely to see their teachers’ work as a road to personal fulfillment.
My friend Mark Weiler often speaks out at public government hearings and work sessions, and is fond of reminding our community leaders that “there’s no Romance without Finance.” I take this oft-repeated phrase to represent one aspect of Mr. Weiler’s philosophy about promoting progress in the community — that money makes the world go round, so to speak.
I happen to have a different opinion, however, on the subject of progress in a rural mountain town in 21st century America. The fact that a young teacher takes a job in Pagosa Springs suggests that — unless she was completely blind-sided — she is less interested in a generous salary and more interested in what life is like in a small town in the Colorado Rockies.
We shared the following research in the Daily Post back in 2015, but I think it bears on the subject at hand, which is “an adequate public school education” and how dollar amounts might play into that equation.
Ten years ago, in 2006, the Colorado Department of Education (CDE) published a survey of the state’s school districts, listing the number of teachers, the student/teacher ratios, and the average district salaries. They listed the average state salary as $46,831 and the average student/teacher ratio as 16.9 — about 17 students per classroom teacher.
That report listed the average classroom teacher salary in Archuleta County as $41,585 and the student/teacher ratio as 16.1. Both numbers were below the state average.
Then the economy crashed, and America stumbled into the darkness of a nationwide recession. Millions of people lost their jobs. States and local governments slashed their budgets. More that 12 million families were affected by foreclosure, according to a report from the University of North Carolina. One 2010 survey found 48 percent of Americans reporting a decline in the value of their home.
In 2011, the CDE published another survey report, showing the average Colorado salary as $49,046 and the student/teacher as 17.8. The average salary in Archuleta County was reported as $44,831; the student/teacher ration was 16.7.
During the worst economic crisis in 80 years, the average teacher salary in Colorado increased by about 5 percent. Here in Archuleta County, the average salary increased by about 8 percent.
When we compared those CDE’s salary rates with the 2014 teacher turnover rates, we learned that the rate at which teachers leave a district seems to have very little relationship to how much that district pays in salaries. (You can read that comparison here.)
It could appear from that analysis that higher starting salaries, by themselves, are not effective in holding down the teacher turnover rate. Our starting salary in 2014, here in Pagosa Springs, was 11 percent higher than the average for the six Colorado districts with the lowest turnover rates. Yet, our turnover rate that year was higher than the state average. Nevertheless, the Archuleta School Board school board felt it advisable to give across-the-board raises to Pagosa teachers in 2015-2016.
Could the district have chosen to spend that money more wisely? That is to say, is there something more important than a larger paycheck, that can help produce lower turnover rates and higher enrollment in teacher preparation programs?
Or to put it still differently, what do the best teachers value most?