EDITORIAL: The Quest for Adequate Public Education, Part Six

Read Part One

“We know that educators make all other professions possible, and attracting top talent to our school districts, especially in rural areas, is a must,” said Dr. Kim Hunter Reed, executive director of the Colorado Department of Higher Education.

— From a December 1, 2017 press release from the CDHE.

On the “Strategic Framework” page on the Archuleta School District (ASD) website (mypagosaschools.com), you can view a YouTube video produced by the Colorado Education Initiative (CEI) at the bottom of the page.

Some of our readers may be aware that the non-profit CEI has been funded to the tune of several million dollars by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation — the same folks who helped bring us the Common Core State Standards. The gist of the video is that most public schools run on an outdated model that fails to meet the needs of many students in the 21st century.

Although I understand where the video producers were coming from — and agree with some of the concepts presented — I don’t particularly recommend watching the video. It consists of some impersonal, repetitive music, as the soundtrack to 6 minutes of animated words and catch phrases — also annoyingly impersonal. No actual human being appears in the video.  Nor do we hear a human voice.

If this is the future of education, God help us.

I mention the video only because, as it appears on the ASD website, the video frame chosen to illustrate the animated lecture looks like this:

Possibly, we’re all able to agree with this statement. New buildings do not necessarily create better educational outcomes. Years of educational research support this statement. Locally, we notice, for example, that the 7th and 8th grade students who study within the Pagosa Springs Middle School — built in 1954 — regularly attain standardized test scores equal to or higher than the Colorado state average. When those same students move on to the Pagosa Springs High School — built in 1997 — the scores begin to decline, and regularly fall below the state’s averages.

It’s not enough to merely build new buildings if your goal is “adequate public education.” Those same years of research have pointed to one particular element of the educational process that consistently affects student achievement: the quality of the classroom teacher.

As the ASD Strategic Framework explains, it’s not enough — today — to merely teach academic subjects. Education in the 21st century must address an uncertain world — a world where technological change, international economies, and political upheavals seem to frame a new future with every passing decade. Children, we are told, need to develop a whole set of entrepreneurial skills that will leave them primed and flexible enough for a fast-changing, technological world.

Where will we find teachers who can help steer this educational revolution?

Apparently, not in Colorado universities. As many as 3,000 new teachers are needed today to fill existing slots — while the number of enrollees in teacher-preparation programs in the state has declined by 24 percent over the past five years — and only about 1/3 of those students actually graduate with teaching credentials.

On top of that, at least a third of the teachers in Colorado are 55 or older, and closing in on retirement.

Meanwhile, many of the new teachers who are now graduating have student debt burdens that were unheard of 20 years ago. Many are finding that they cannot earn enough money as teachers to keep ahead of their loan payments.

Houston, we have a problem…

Last spring, our Colorado representative for House District 58, Democrat Barbara MacLachlan, cooperated in getting the General Assembly to pass HB17-1003, a law which required the Colorado Department of Higher Education to hold “town hall” meetings aimed at discovering all the reasons why Colorado schools — especially, rural schools — were struggling with a teacher shortage crisis. The law required a written report to be published by December 1, 2017.

CDHE released, on schedule, two versions of the report — one being a 49-page overview of the national crisis (which you can download here.)

The other report is a rather simplistic, 20-page,“Powerpoint-ish” Strategic Plan that touches briefly on numerous aspects of the Colorado teacher crisis. (You can download that plan here.)

The cover of that “Strategic Plan” hints, perhaps, at the ‘cartoon’ character of the overall report. We see a hiker, a paper boat, a paper airplane, and a retro rocket ship… illustrating possibly the most serious economic crisis in Colorado?

The plan takes special aim at three specific aspects of the crisis: teacher salaries, teacher preparation, and the cost of certification… things that relate, in other words, to increased taxpayer investments.

Is “lack of investment” the key reason for the current crisis?

Or is it something else?

The larger, 49-page report cited a good deal of national data and research, and did its best to relate that data to Colorado’s crisis. Here, for example, is a list of some of the reasons teachers gave, when asked why they left the teaching profession — as collected by researchers Anne Podolsky, Tara Kini, Joseph Bishop, and Linda Darling-Hammond, and published by the Learning Policy Institute:

1. Personal life circumstances such as pregnancy or childcare (37%)
2. Pursuit of a position other than that of a K-12 teacher (28%)
3. Dissatisfaction with teacher accountability and evaluation measures (25%)
4. Dissatisfaction with support preparing students for assessments (17%)
5. Dissatisfaction with the school leadership (21%)
6. Lack of autonomy over the classroom (13%)
7. Need for a higher salary (13%)

Can we summarize the above data as suggesting that — of the many possible reasons why teachers are leaving the profession — one primary culprit is our current focus on high-stakes, impersonal standardized tests used to rank both students and teachers?  Such would certainly seem to be the case, to judge from the cited research.

The 20-page CDHE “strategic goals” document sketches out 33 possible remedies for Colorado’s teacher shortage. Not much we can do about pregnancy and other “personal life circumstances,” nor about the attraction of other, non-educational careers.

But how about… student and teacher assessments?

I’ve looked through the CDHE document a couple of time, hoping to confirm that at least one of the 33 remedies addresses:

“Dissatisfaction with teacher accountability and evaluation measures…”

… or “Dissatisfaction with support preparing students for assessments…”

… or “Dissatisfaction with the school leadership…”

… or “Lack of autonomy over the classroom…”

I could not find any suggested CDHE solutions that seemed to address those (very important?) reasons why teachers are leaving the profession.

Perhaps theColorado Department of Higher Education didn’t have the political courage to point out what is really wrong with public education.

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Bill Hudson

Bill Hudson founded the Pagosa Daily Post in 2004 in hopes of making a decent living writing about local politics. The hope remains.