Opinion
Teacher Preparation Commentary

New Teachers Are the New Majority

By Celine Coggins & Heather Peske — January 18, 2011 5 min read

We’ve reached a pivotal moment in the American teaching profession. For more than 40 years, baby boomers have made up the majority of the teaching force—many serving full, distinguished careers from the 1960s through today. National data from the Schools and Staffing Survey now reveal that the new millennium has ushered in a new majority. Teachers with 10 or fewer years’ experience now constitute over 52 percent of our teaching force. This incoming group has the potential to shape how we educate children for the next several decades. Yet it remains to be seen whether this demographic tipping point will revolutionize what teaching is or go virtually unnoticed.

In a strictly democratic sense, as a group ascends into the majority one would expect that it would wield greater influence. There is good reason to believe that this will not happen in the teaching field.

Schools are seniority-driven cultures. The rules—who should be dismissed first in a layoff, who should be first in line for leadership opportunities, who should get to teach the most-desirable classes—are set up to benefit those with the greatest career longevity. The message to younger teachers continues to be: Wait your turn; accept the system as it is; and, in time, it will work for you. In other words: Assimilate or leave. The net effect over the past couple of decades has been the loss of thousands of teachers who took their sense of urgency and impatience for change and left the classroom. We, the authors, count ourselves among this group.

Why does this population shift matter? We know that, in recent history, the average duration of a teaching career has dwindled, especially for those teaching in urban schools. We know that new teachers expect to switch jobs frequently over the course of a career, and that they want to be recognized for their accomplishments with increasing levels of leadership and authority. If the work of teaching cannot be transformed to accommodate these expectations and to allow career growth for those still teaching students, it is likely that temporary teachers will become the permanent state in urban schools.

We believe what is at stake is the very proposition that teaching is professional work. We believe the voice of the incoming generation is needed in order to chart a course to the future.

Teachers with 10 or fewer years' experience now constitute over 52 percent of our teaching force. This incoming group has the potential to shape how we educate children for the next several decades.

At Teach Plus, we are working with teachers in cities across the country to amplify the voice of a new generation. And we believe we have reason to be optimistic. Our model engages traditional district public and public charter school teachers (primarily in years three through 10 in their careers) at two levels—through our intensive Teaching Policy Fellowship and through our broader T+ Network, which connects thousands of teachers directly with policymakers.

The Teaching Policy Fellowship is a highly selective leadership opportunity for current teachers who seek to have an impact on the state- and district-level policy decisions that affect their classrooms. They meet monthly in a city-based cohort of 20 to 25 teachers, interact directly with top education leaders at each session, and advocate for policies that better serve students and the future of the teaching profession.We’ve found that when a group of early-career teachers articulates a compelling idea, education leaders are receptive.

In Boston, we saw teachers in the policy fellowship challenge the assumption that strong, experienced teachers will not teach in low-performing schools. They proposed an innovative, team-based staffing strategy—T3: Turnaround Teacher Teams—that now operates in three turnaround schools. In Indianapolis, our teachers catalyzed a joint labor-management committee on “last in, first out” dismissal practices and succeeded in getting performance measures included into a layoff process that had previously been quality-blind.

How do we build on these examples to ensure that greater numbers of incoming teachers find a reason to build a second stage of their careers from within the classroom? Both policymakers and teachers must take action.

For Policymakers

Early-career teachers report in greater numbers than a decade ago that they want to stay in the classroom for more than just a few years, yet most do not stay. Policymakers must rise to the challenge of creating the conditions and incentives that appeal to those who have a positive impact on students.

The federal government recently launched the multi-million-dollar Teach Campaign to attract new entrants into teaching. What if a fraction of those funds were dedicated to retaining top performers, rather than filling the slots they’ll likely vacate after just a few years? What if a fraction went to craft a vision for a second stage of the career that appealed to effective teachers, rewarding them for their results? There could be no better marketing tool for the profession than a visible cohort of highly effective teacher-leaders who stay.

Finally, in the spirit of competition that the Obama administration has embraced, we, at Teach Plus, have called for holding a contest among the nation’s 100 largest urban districts. Who can keep the highest percentage of effective teachers through year five? Through year 10? Participation would first require defining effective teaching in valid, transparent ways, and districts would have to adopt a strategy that competes for teacher talent and keeps the best. Teach Plus is ready with teachers around the country willing to help define the incentives and leadership roles that would encourage a new teacher entering the second stage of his or her career to stay in the profession.

For New Teachers

Young teachers across the nation have a responsibility to be the change they seek. Perhaps knowing that they are part of the majority will embolden them. For young teachers to have an impact, their first and most important audience is their union. Early-career teachers often wrestle with the question of whether the union reflects their point of view. They must ensure their voice is heard. In many districts, retired teachers remain voting members of their unions. There is a risk that as the new majority of classroom teachers becomes those with fewer than 10 years’ experience, the new majority of union voters could become retirees. Current teachers—those who have daily student interactions—must take on leadership roles in unions.

Perhaps the most significant difference between this new generation and the retiring generation of educators is that the new generation grew up in the era of standards and accountability. They have only known a teaching career that includes regular student assessment and data analysis. As states and districts move to define teacher effectiveness and reform teacher evaluation to incorporate evidence of student learning, it is critical that the perspective of this group of teachers be well represented. The new majority must help define teacher effectiveness and build a profession that will keep them. The new majority must become teacher-leaders, rather than teacher leavers. And we hope to be a part of that movement.

A version of this article appeared in the January 19, 2011 edition of Education Week as New Teachers Are the New Majority

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