In the next 10 years, over half of the nation’s teachers could leave the profession, in what a report prepared by the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future calls a potential “retirement tsunami.”
Within four years alone, the NCTAF’s report says, 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. “Younger teachers are telling us they feel as if they’re thrown in to sink or swim,” president of NCTAF and the report’s author, Tom Carroll, said in a phone interview. “They try hard, they work hard, and they burn out.” 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.
The report states that by, adjusting payrolls for part-time employees, many of whom will have existing pension benefits, it is possible to bring more people on staff for the same amount of money. Districts will also save funds on recruitment and teacher trainings if attrition among novice teachers declines.
Bigger Issue Than Recruitment
Though the recent proliferation of teacher-preparation programs, especially alternative-certification programs for recent college graduates and career changers, might seem to help offset the impending retirements, the report contends that recruitment per se is not the problem. 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.
Teacher residency programs, modeled after medical residencies, have more successful retention rates, said Carroll, because they offer a built-in support system and train teachers to work together much like they would in learning teams. Though growing slowly because of high start-up costs, residency programs are currently running in Boston, Chicago, and Denver.
A 2003 NCTAF report, called “No Dream Denied: A Pledge to America’s Children,” also warned of impending teacher shortages. That report also indicated that new teacher attrition, not a lack in supply of new teachers, was the “leak in the bucket,” though at that time, retirement was not considered a significant factor. Now, the Baby Boomers are heading into their retirement years, and new teacher attrition rates remain unchanged, NCTAF warns.
High Hopes in Stimulus
The current economic crisis has also prompted some teachers (up to 36 percent of those approaching retirement) to stay in the profession longer, but Carroll cautioned that this will only delay the inevitable teacher exodus by a year or two. With studies suggesting that student enrollment is higher than ever and on the rise, the report notes that it’s crucial for schools to begin looking at new staffing structures. Federal stimulus money could help get these reforms underway, Carroll pointed out. “We have a unique opportunity here, we can use stimulus money to re-invent our schools,” he said. “This doesn’t have to be a crisis—this can be a time for opportunity.”