Friday, May 8, 2009

NOW They Notice

Report Foresees Mass Teacher Retirements. No kidding. Back in the 1980's, the government noticed that baby boomers would start retiring in 2008, increased the percentage of social security withholding, and created the social security trust fund to hold the money. The point is not the current political debates about social security; the point is the foresight displayed. Our schools, as the educators of the nation's future, should be experts in foresight and preparation, but no.

As recently as 2003, according to a National Commission on Teaching and America's Future (NCTAF) report, retirement was not considered a factor. In fact, one chapter of the report is entitled, “It's Not About Retirement.”

The skeptical often ask: But don’t high retirement rates contribute to the high rate of
teacher attrition? Not as much as we might think. More people are leaving teaching for non-retirement reasons (see figure 6) and available new entrants could easily offset the number of retirees if teacher turnover and attrition were not so high.

It is true that a large number of teachers currently in the classroom were hired in the late 1960s and the 1970s and that they are now approaching retirement. It is also true that retirement rates have been increasing each year. But the number of retiring teachers is far below the total number of teachers hired into our schools from all sources (see Table 2). Over the next 10 years, about 700,000 teachers are projected to retire, accounting for about 28 percent of hiring needs during that period.8 Teachers leaving the profession for reasons other than retirement (e.g., low pay, lack of professional support, poor school leadership) outnumber those retiring by almost 3-to-1. These reasons also drive some experienced teachers into early retirement.

In the end, the combined number of new entrants and re-entrants greatly exceeds the retirement rate. Even without drawing on potential re-entrants from the reserve pool of former teachers and those with teaching degrees who never entered teaching, our teacher preparation system could easily accommodate the current retirement rate. It is the high attrition rate among those who are not retiring that is fueling the teacher shortage.

For at least the last twenty-five years, schools have been rejecting mid-career expert teachers who move from one district to another. If, and that's a big if, a district hires an out-of-district teacher, the most credit for experience the teacher will get on the salary scale is a mere five years, if that.

So the expert essentially takes a big pay cut in proportion to experience. The more experience, the bigger the pay cut. Even so, districts have been routinely rejecting the expert teacher in order to save the extra few thousand that paying for a mere 5 years would cost.

So why the alarm now?

...a third of experienced teachers could retire. The problem is most dire in 18 states where half of all public school teachers are over age 50....To complicate matters, the report says, attrition rates among new teachers are as high as ever, with over a third of teachers leaving the profession within their first five years.

And what is the result? The old teachers are leaving, the new teachers are quitting, and the mid-career teachers are missing, working as insurance agents, receptionists, or tax preparers or whatever. What few mid-career teachers are left in the schools will be overwhelmed. Teachers with experience will be at a premium.

What should be done?

The first answer is usually to recruit more. But the problem is not so much recruiting as retention.

Districts are able to hire an adequate number of teachers, it says, but many turn over within three to five years, leaving schools with massive gaps to fill each fall. According to Carroll, attrition rates among career changers and alternative-pathway recruits are often the highest.

The report cited earlier agrees.

But in fact, we dramatically increased the supply of teachers during the late 1990s (see Table 2). The problem is that the teacher attrition rate has been increasing even faster. We are losing teachers faster than we can replace them. Teacher retention has become a national crisis.

How about emphasizing retention?

With the supply of new teachers “collapsing at both ends,” as the report describes, schools need to make a new effort toward retention.

To help solve the problem, the report suggests restructuring district staffing practices, by hiring retirees for flexible, part-time positions within schools and by replacing one-classroom-one-teacher models with cross-generational collaborative-learning teams. Such teams, NCAFT believes, could serve as an internal support network for new teachers, keep experienced teachers on staff to share their expertise, and provide a diverse set of experiences for students to learn from.

“We need to break out of the idea of classrooms altogether,” Carroll said. “It’s not one teacher per classroom, but a team that works with 150 or 200 students.” In NCTAF’s conception, learning teams would be led by National Board-certified or otherwise highly accomplished teachers and would incorporate community members, including adjunct content experts, and representatives from neighborhood agencies.

However, out-of-district teachers have become invisible. Many of these teachers were highly successful, went on to get their Master's degrees, love to teach, only to become virtually unemployable. No Child Left Behind may mandate highly qualified teachers, but these teachers have three strikes against them: education, experience, and possibly no certification in a new state.

These teachers are not asking for “alternative certification.” They just want recognition for what they have already accomplished. These highly qualified, but uncertified teachers, may be found in private schools all over the country. Sometimes a charter school will pick them up, but as more and more charter and private schools accept the conventional wisdom that somehow a teaching credential is an indication of quality, these teachers are nowhere. They want to teach, but society has thrown them away as just so much garbage.

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