A Conversation with Colorado’s Commissioner of Education


By Samuel ‘Jasper’ Cliff, Creative Writing & Literature student

“The ‘Big Picture’ of the current state of Education in Colorado” – A Conversation with Colorado’s Commissioner of Education

Last year, Naropa University announced that it would be offering a BA in Elementary Education beginning Fall 2018. Last week, I had the honor of speaking with Colorado’s Commissioner of Education, Katy Anthes.

Dr. Anthes, who was named commissioner of education in December 2016, is Colorado’s first female commissioner in 65 years, preceded only by the state’s inaugural commissioner Nettie S. Freed (1950-51). According to the CDE’s website, she has worked with the Department of Education since 2011, serving as interim Commissioner, Chief of Staff, interim Commissioner for Achievement and Strategy, and Executive Director of Educator Effectiveness. In that role, she led CDE’s efforts to evaluate, support, and retain highly effective educators in Colorado.

Dr. Anthes is credited with rolling out the state’s educator evaluation and development system. As a partner with the Third Mile Group, she led and researched major education initiatives for state, district, and national organizations on a variety of education issues and projects and has served as an evaluator for several district education programs across Colorado.

My intention with this interview was to gain a better understanding of the ‘Big Picture’ of education in Colorado in order to start a conversation about the demand and value of qualified, well resourced elementary teachers.

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Jasper Cliff: “The Pilot Light” attracts about 14,000 readers. What do you want our readers to know about the current state of education in Colorado?

Katy Anthes: I want them to know that it’s probably the most impactful profession and field that you can get into because you’re quite literally shaping and teaching the leaders of our future. So, I can’t think of a more impactful career choice—you basically touch every single career choice because you’re educating and encouraging and creating that lifelong sense of learning in students as they progress into their own career choices over time.

JC: And what do you expect five years, 10 years down the road? I don’t think anybody is more well-equipped with a long-term vision of what education will look like in Colorado [than you]. What’s on the horizon for education, specifically K-12 in Colorado?

KA: Well, that’s a big question. I think that what we’re seeing across every industry, is a lot of change, a lot of evolution, a lot of disruption in how we do business as usual. We’re entering into a time in life where there are self-driving cars, and there are robots, and there’s artificial intelligence, and we’re not bound by our place because we can learn in so many different ways. So, what I see in the exciting future of education is about blurring all those lines.

School is one place where you get your education, and teachers are critical leaders and facilitators in that they can use so much more of the world’s experiences. Teachers use what’s going on around us to educate students to make sure they’re prepared for work that we don’t frankly even know what will look like—because things evolve so quickly. I think it’s going to be dynamic and ever-changing, teacher as facilitator as well as a guide for knowledge development and creation. I just see a lot more ways that can probably happen in the future.

We’re thinking a lot more about personalized learning. We’re thinking a lot more about blended learning. We’re thinking a lot more about flipped classrooms—when you’re in the classroom, you’re doing more teamwork and project-based learning; and you do more of your knowledge generation on your own because there are so many resources out there. So, there are a lot of different innovations that are going on across the education industry.

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JC: The Denver Post reported that teacher pay has declined almost 8% in Colorado over the past decade and as many as 3,000 new teachers are needed to fill existing slots in Colorado classrooms. At the same time, there are less and less graduates from teacher preparation programs. So considering all that, what would you say to those who are wary about the future of public education in Colorado?

KA: I would say that the only way to change those figures is to get involved and to join the profession. And while [your statement] does give us a picture, there’s a lot of variation in that picture across the state. There’s actually a lot of legislators and others who are working to change that picture right now. And I think that dynamic is going to evolve.

There are elements of those data points that have important context. So, actually, even though traditional educator preparation programs are declining in numbers, our alternate preparation providers are gaining numbers. Now, it’s not enough to bridge the complete gap yet, but there are some different pathways and different innovations that are being looked at to get really high-quality teachers in front of students. So, that’s exciting. And then the other thing is thinking about those 3,000 [needed teachers], they tend to be certain subject areas. We do have a shortage of special education teachers and math teachers and science teachers. We know that we can target those areas and really get some energy behind those, so that we can recruit more people in those places.

And the teacher salary stuff, that is a concern for me because I believe the most important job in the world is teaching. I think we should compensate our teachers for that important job. Even legislators and district leaders, as we think about funding our school system and as that gets back on par, I think we can make a dent in some of the salary concerns over time.

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JC: Speaking of lower pay—it seems that in rural areas, wages tend to be lower and also these rural areas seem to be experiencing the brunt of the shortage. How can future teachers—people considering teaching as a profession, be best prepared to face the challenges involved with teaching in these rural areas?

KA: That’s a great question. Our legislators right now are actually looking at that specifically—what can we do to support and incentivize teachers going to our rural communities or staying in our rural communities. One of the things we hear is that it doesn’t always suit everybody. If you’re used to living in a big city and you go to be a teacher in a rural community, it doesn’t always suit you just in terms of your personality and what you like.

So, we talk a lot about grow-your-own programs in rural communities, so that we can help students who are committed and love the area, and love the community they’re in and have family and friends in those vibrant rural communities. We’re encouraging them to grow up and be teachers there because they know the benefits and the challenges of being in a smaller, rural place. But then, we’re also thinking about residency programs and ways that folks can try things out and see if it’s a good fit for them. There are a lot of ideas around that—supporting our rural teachers maybe with loan forgiveness programs or other incentives to help them because of the sometimes lower wages.

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JC: Naropa is launching a BA in Elementary Education. So, imagine you have the stage right now before the incoming class of students. What would you say to these young people who are considering a degree in elementary education and a career as a teacher?

KA: I would just give a big huge thank you and say I’m so excited that you’ve chosen this career path; and I would say that it’s probably going to be the most exciting, challenging, and rewarding path that you’ve ever chosen. I would impress upon them that they’re going to be the leaders of the future of public education, and that their voice matters, and that they should get involved in, you know, what it means to be the best at your profession and what it means to educate the next generation of leaders across our country. I would really just try to inspire them. They picked the most impactful career they could, and I’m proud of them for that and excited for what they’re going to bring to the table in this constantly evolving world that we’re in.

JC: Naropa’s elementary teacher candidates will be equipped with the traditional School of Education content, but also with contemplative teaching strategies along with the ability to bring mindfulness into the classroom. I’m curious what your opinion of mindfulness is and its place in an elementary school setting.

KA: I personally think it’s pretty important. I think one of the fastest evolving pieces of our world is all the screens that we engage with: our phones and our computers and our—you know, our watches now are screens, everything is a screen. And we’ve actually seen some—I don’t know if I would say research—but some anecdotes and some articles coming out; that even though students are more connected than ever, in some ways they’re more disconnected than ever. The way students are growing up and the way they’re connecting is through screens. I don’t know of a research study that correlates this, but we are seeing more mental health issues in teenagers and young students, and we can’t pinpoint exactly why.

Some anecdotes from students say they feel disconnected; they don’t have empathy because all of their friends are online, and they’re interacting less face to face and as humans. They’re sitting on the bus going to school together, and they’re both on their phones, but they’re not talking to each other. So, there are some implications of that, and we need to be watchful around how we interact as humans. So, the idea of just paying attention to that and thinking about how mindfulness can be connected to helping our students interact together—not just on screens, I think is really important. I think mindfulness also can support some of our challenges with mental health or feeling loneliness or feeling disconnected.

JC: I have one more question for you, it’s sort of a bigger picture question and I understand if there is any hesitation in answering this. I’m curious about your impression of the Department of Education at the federal level. Considering Secretary Devos’ history of advocating for charter schools, do you have any concerns about the American public school system?

KA: Most education laws are at the state level. There are some federal laws, but the majority of the way our school system works is governed based on Colorado state laws. So, we continue to build the Colorado system we want. We actually do have a healthy charter school movement. Here in Colorado, charter schools are public schools. So, that’s an important part of our ecosystem that we work with and support. And we’re going to continue to do what’s best for Colorado and continue to work on those things that are best for Colorado students.

Learn more about Naropa University’s BA in Elementary Education.


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