When Kim Amen had a chance to tell state lawmakers what it’s like to be a Wyoming teacher these days, she didn’t hold back.
“We feel so overwhelmed that the joy has been sucked out of our day on a pretty regular basis, and our physical and mental health is suffering,” said Amen, a Cheyenne third-grade teacher and vice president of the Wyoming Education Association.
What’s making conditions so dire in Wyoming’s K-12 system, and creating serious problems recruiting and retaining teachers in many school districts? Amen, who’s been teaching since 2006, said it’s a combination of increased workloads and static or shrinking time and resources, driven by the Legislature’s decisions.
“They just give us more mandates,” she said, listing new language curriculum, safe schools training, and statewide technology standards as a sample of time-consuming, recently added duties.
The Legislature passed a law requiring teachers to integrate contributions of Native American tribes to Wyoming in their lessons. Amen said while she wholeheartedly embraces these standards, teachers received no actual training to implement them. The state Department of Education lists some teaching resources, but she said it still takes “an enormous amount of prep time” to use them.
The Joint Education Committee, which met in Casper last week, didn’t have to take Amen’s word alone about how some legislative decisions have negatively impacted teachers. Members heard the same assessment from representatives of a governor’s education task force, the State Board of Education, University of Wyoming professors, a school district superintendent and the Wyoming School Boards Association.
“I think we need to do the math on how much time it takes to get through all of the standards that we have created at that early [education] level and let’s see if it’s actually doable,” said John Masters. He chairs Gov. Mark Gordon’s advisory group, Reimagining and Innovating the Delivery of Education.
Mark Perkins, assistant professor of educational research at the University of Wyoming’s College of Education, said teachers feel they lack community, administrative and government support. A UW-WEA survey earlier this year found nearly two-thirds of Wyoming teachers would quit their jobs if they could, but choose to stay for financial or other reasons.
It was as much of a “Kumbaya” moment as you will find at any legislative meeting where experts gather to dissect a problem and craft solutions. Even members of the committee chimed in, expressing reservations about the pressure they have added to teachers’ lives.
But the panel’s co-chair, Sen. Charles Scott (R-Casper), was having none of it.
“Frankly, I think there’s not enough pressure,” Scott said. “We’ve got to get those kids to learn how to read.”
Scott, who will mark his 40th year in the Legislature in January, is the longest serving lawmaker in the state’s history. He has made valuable contributions to state education, most notably his early advocacy for the Wyoming Hathaway Scholarship Program.
In recent years, though, Scott has worked overtime to reduce funding for K-12, never missing an opportunity to try to cut millions in education funds. As chairman of the Senate Education Committee he’s used his bully pulpit on school issues to constantly clash with the more education-friendly House.
In fact, it is that ever-present tension between the two chambers that is largely responsible for the WEA’s inevitable lawsuit against the state. The union claims the Legislature is not meeting its constitutional mandate to fund a fair, equitable education for all Wyoming students. Laramie County School District No. 1 recently joined the lawsuit.
Last year, Scott led opposition to a House attempt to compromise on school funding, leaving the Legislature to use federal COVID-19 relief funds and state savings to cover education costs. Wyoming lawmakers must find a permanent, non-minerals school funding source.
Tate Mullen, WEA’s government relations director, said teachers are upset at legislative attempts to “target education either through curriculum directives, devastating budget cut proposals [and] the promotion of charter schools.”
Mullen blasted legislative efforts to ban “critical race theory,” the far-right’s school boogeyman for 2022, and target LGBTQ+ students “who are the most at-risk and in need of protective policies, not exclusionary ones.”
Amen said budget cuts have reduced essential staff, and a severe substitute teacher shortage is putting a strain on all faculty. “Teachers feel they can’t take time off for professional development, to go to a conference, for illness, their family or their own mental health,” she said.
The teacher said one state standardized test is required, but many districts opt for more. “I’ve already had to give my third-graders no less than four standardized tests,” the preparations for which limit other learning opportunities, Amen said,.
Scott listened to more than three hours of testimony, then offered his personal, surprisingly simplistic view of the state’s public school woes. “We don’t feel we’re getting our money’s worth out of the education that’s being provided, particularly in early literacy,” he insisted.
Scott cherry-picked third-graders’ scores on the Wyoming Test of Proficiency and Progress to claim “we’re leaving about 45% of kids behind because we’re not doing an adequate job of teaching them how to read.”
Sen. Chris Rothfuss (D-Laramie) told Scott his comments weren’t accurate and don’t recognize “our exceptional teaching corps and incredible professional community.”
“Focus on the good and find ways to do better rather than fabricating misinformation that suggests that we’re failing,” Rothfuss said. “The more we propagate misinformation, the more the public believes it.”
Scott said Rothfuss is entitled to his opinion, but sharply reminded him he belongs to the Legislature’s minority. Yes, the remark was just as snarky and condescending in real time as it is in print.
Rep. Steve Harshman (R-Casper) — a high school football coach and teacher in Capser — said WyTOPP is the fourth state standardized test since federal “No Child Left Behind” standards were introduced in the early 2000s. Harshman said the National Assessment of Educational Progress “is the only test that has any long-term validity to it, and we’re the ‘Best in the West,’ one of the best in the entire world. Our graduation rates are at an all-time high for this state.”
Harshman said after several years of financial hardship for Wyoming’s government, other states have caught up with our once-higher pay scale. “You’ve somehow got to pay people to come to our small communities to teach,” Harshman said.
Wyoming’s current NAEP scores are set to be released Oct. 24, so perhaps it will help settle the question of how the state’s educational system is performing. But don’t count on it, because Amen said COVID-19 had a devastating impact on student learning.
“My class is in third-grade and this is the first ‘normal’ year they’ve had,” she said, noting the pandemic wiped out the end of their kindergarten classes.
“Their first-grade year started six feet apart, masks, hand sanitizers, no group activities at all,” Amen recalled. “Their second-grade year began the same way.”
How would Amen improve teacher recruitment and retention in the Equality State?
“If you ask any educators, they will tell you they just want to be respected and trusted and valued,” she said. “After 2020 we had to rethink every process we used in our classroom to keep our kids safe.
“We were asked to make these changes without adding one extra minute of planning time or compensation for our extra workload,” Amen said. “And yet we did it all because that’s what teachers do, we step up and do what’s best for our students.”
That’s a much better test of how Wyoming’s teachers are helping students learn than any standardized test can measure.