Strengthening teacher quality and increasing teacher retention are key to reducing Colorado achievement gaps, according to a new study by the Alliance for Quality Teaching.

The report noted that the achievement gap is a particular problem in Colorado, and “Overall there are few examples of significant improvement.”

The study, “Shining the Light II,” was released last week and follows up on a 2006 study of the state of teaching in Colorado.

The major conclusion of that earlier study was that “the greater the proportion of minority students or students eligible for the Free and Reduced Lunch Program (FRL) within a school or district, the lower the experience, education level and salary of the teachers and the greater the attrition rate. … The existence of this gap is particularly troublesome because these teacher characteristics are fundamental indicators of teacher quality and are positively correlated with student achievement.”

The new study delved more deeply into the problem of attrition and concluded “the attrition rate in low performing schools is much greater than in their high performing counterparts.  In fact, the attrition rate in schools with an ‘unsatisfactory’ school accountability rating (SAR) was more than double that of  ‘average’ schools.”

School districts had to spend $70 million to replace the 7,224 teachers who left their jobs in 2005. From 1998 to 2004 the attrition rate varied between 14.4 percent and 16.5 percent a year.

Other study findings include:

  • The connection between teacher quality is complex and affected by many factors.
  • Colorado’s systems for developing and extending teacher professional skills and knowledge vary widely.
  • A teacher’s experience affects student achievement, but that varies with different grade levels.
  • Districts with lower than average salaries have higher attrition than those with higher than average salaries.
  • The proportion of Latino students in Colorado is growing five times faster than the proportion of Latino teachers.

The report recommends:

  • Increasing the retention of highly effective teachers, especially in underperforming schools, by focusing state and local resources on the problem.
  • Increasing the ethnic diversity and cultural/linguistic competence of the state’s teacher work force.
  • Creation of structured communication systems between school districts and teacher preparation programs.
  • Establishing a unique identifying number for every teacher in Colorado, to assist in data collection.
  • Conducting a statewide survey of teachers to assess the working conditions that support
  • teacher quality and the retention of highly effective teachers.

Looking at attrition, the report concluded that these factors affect teacher retention:

  • Availability of employment opportunities outside of education
  • Life events such as marriage, pregnancy or a spouse’s career
  • Where teachers are in their careers – attrition is higher at the beginning and end of careers
  • Salary levels
  • School characteristics, including ethnic demographics, enrollment size, teacher
  • experience levels, school performance, and working conditions such as teaching assignments, quality of induction and mentoring, quality of professional development, aligned curriculum, adequate facilities and resources and principal leadership

“It is clear from our data that teacher attrition in Colorado is associated with many of these factors. For example, Colorado districts with lower salary schedules generally have higher attrition rates. In addition, small schools (less than 100 students) tend to have higher rates of attrition as do schools with more novice teachers and teachers over 55. Schools with higher minority enrollment also have higher attrition rates.”

On the subject of teacher quality, the report found these characteristics affect a teacher’s performance:

  • Academic or intellectual ability
  • Subject matter preparation
  • Knowledge about how to teach
  • Teaching experience
  • Cultural competence

“Of the characteristics on this list, we believe that experience, knowledge about how to teach, cultural awareness and knowledge of culturally relevant practices are the most important factors. Policy makers and school districts need to give careful consideration to these factors in the hiring, induction, and ongoing professional development of teachers, as well as to the policy and practice around preparing, supporting and retaining effective teachers in schools.”

The report also noted, “As indicated in the review of literature on teacher quality in this report, a teacher’s ethnic/racial background is positively associated with the achievement of students with a similar background. This has major implications for Colorado given the large discrepancy between the rate of diversification of the student population and the teacher workforce.”

Other Colorado-specific findings in the report include:

  • In Denver, Colorado Springs District 11 and Grand Junction school districts about 1 in 6 teachers are 55 years old or older, pointing to likely high attrition in the future because of retirements.
  • The Aurora and Denver districts have relatively large numbers of both younger and older teachers, both groups that are vulnerable to attrition.
  • Mapleton had the largest increase in minority students and one of the largest increases in proportion of minority teachers in the state.
  • But other districts, such as Adams 14 in Commerce City, have had significant growth in minority students but declines in minority teachers.

While the report’s conclusions may not seem surprising to some observers, the study merits a close look by educators because of the carefully developed detail on both teacher quality and attrition.

The section on teacher quality, by Jennifer A. Whitcomb and Tanya Rose of University of Colorado at Boulder, does a good job of laying out the nuances and difficulties of measuring teacher quality and effectiveness and of tying those characteristics to student performance.

The section on attrition, by Robert Reichardt of the Center for Education Policy Analysis at the University of Colorado at Denver, provides a wealth of detail about attrition and retention in the state’s schools, and about teacher ethnicity. The 78-page report deserves careful reading by educators, particularly superintendents, principals, teacher mentors and others who train and supervise teachers.

The study also deserves a look from policymakers, given that teacher quality was not one of highest profile education issues of the 2008 legislative session.

Here’s a rundown of measures lawmakers passed that have some bearing (mostly indirect or incremental) on the issues of quality and retention.

  • Senate Bill 08-130, the Innovation School Act could have a major impact on hiring and working conditions at some schools, but only those that successfully apply for waivers.
  • Senate Bill 08-133 provides scholarships for education students who plan to teach math, science, special ed, English-language learns and world languages.
  • House Bill 08-1025 made possible the state’s new system of tracking student progress year to year, which should help make more sense of CSAP scores and could be of use in the future correlation of student achievement to teachers’ work.
  • House Bill 08-1223 requires the Department of Education to provide more training to teachers in handling literacy problems, specifically including dyslexia.
  • House Bill 08-1255 broadens the program of loan forgiveness for education grads who teach in rural areas – but it doesn’t provide any new funding.
  • House Bill 08-1384 is designed to create some incentives for teacher retention, including a statewide survey of working conditions and financial incentives for some teachers who hold national certifications. (This ties directly to one of the Alliance’s recommendations.)
  • House Bill 08-1388, the school finance bill, does contain $1 million in grants that districts can use to develop alternative pay systems.

The Quality Teacher Commission, created a year ago by Senate Bill 07-140, supports and is actively working on the issue of teacher identifiers, another of the Alliance’s recommendations.

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