Column: Throngs of teachers retiring, and that’s not such a bad thing

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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You remember Miss Crabtree, don’t you?

She was your third-grade teacher, and even back then she seemed impossibly old.

She thought music had gone nowhere but downhill since Scott Joplin. Her reindeer sweater – the one she pulled out every December – was knit during the Rutherford Hayes administration.

Her wrinkles had wrinkles.

Well, I don’t want to say that she’s the face of American education today. (She’s probably had some work done, anyway.) But it is clear that our teachers are getting old.

Last week, education researchers released an interesting survey of more than 1,000 public-school teachers. It found that 42 percent are 50 or older. And almost one in four – 22 percent – are planning to retire in the next five years.

Both those numbers are way up from when this survey was given in 1996. Then, only 24 percent of teachers were older than 50. And only 14 percent were planning to invest in Sansabelt slacks and cultivate an interest in early-bird specials.

It’ll be perhaps the single biggest burst of teacher turnover Texas has ever seen. And it’s already begun.

In 2000, about 12,000 Texas public school employees retired. By 2003, it was close to 20,000. Last year – aided by the imminent closing of a loophole that boosted retirees’ Social Security benefits – more than 28,000 school workers retired.

“I think the challenges are really going to be significant,” says Emily Feistritzer, who heads the National Center for Education Information and wrote the study. (She’s in her 60s and says she’s thinking about retirement herself. Wants to write a novel.)

All those folks heading out the door will need to be replaced. And most colleges of education aren’t pumping out 22-year-olds in large enough quantities to take their places. Some folks think that it’s a crisis and that raising teacher salaries and improving benefits are the only ways to attract enough people to fill those jobs.

So is it time to panic?

I say no, and here are four reasons why.

*The much-hyped “teacher shortage” doesn’t exist. Sure, it’s tough to get people in four specific areas – math, science, bilingual education and special education. But in every other subject, there are plenty of people who want to be teachers and just can’t find jobs.

That’s particularly true in the Dallas area, where starting salaries for teachers with zero experience are almost always in the high $30,000s. For a standard-issue teaching job – say, a third-grade classroom in a mid-market suburb – it’s not unusual for a school to have more than a dozen qualified candidates for a spot.

*Alternative certification programs are working, by and large. Those are the programs designed to train folks to teach after starting out in another career. Last year, more new Texas teachers came out of alternative programs than out of the traditional route, colleges of education.

Do alternative programs prepare teachers as well as the old-school method? Maybe, maybe not. But they draw in people who would never consider going back to school for four years because they want to teach second-graders.

*Mass retirements mean schools can hire more teachers. Veteran teachers have a lot to offer kids – but they also cost more money. A school district can afford to hire about four young teachers for every three who retire.

They might not admit it publicly, but I can promise you there are quite a few superintendents who will be more than happy to see a $60,000 salary walk out the door and a $38,000 salary walk in. In case you haven’t been following the news out of Austin, there’s not a lot of money to go around these days. Every bit helps.

*Veteran teachers aren’t always the best teachers.

A number of studies have found that teachers don’t become substantially more effective after they get past their initial rookie mistakes. In other words, an eight-year veteran is, on average, no better or worse at her job than a teacher with 15 or 20 years’ experience.

And there’s even some statistical evidence that teachers tend to decline in effectiveness in their last few years on the job. Some get stuck in old ways and stop revising those lesson plans they wrote in 1989. Some lose their passion.

Of course, there are countless exceptions to that general rule – teachers who keep getting better. But teachers, like people in most professions, generally peak before their last days on the job.

Texas schools have a lot of work ahead of themselves in the next few years. They’ll have to get more aggressive about recruiting and training new teachers. But Miss Crabtree’s retirement is something we’ll all no doubt survive.

Failing schools to pay tutors; Help set for low-income students at 11 DISD sites with poor federal ratings

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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For tens of thousands of students across Texas, the letters A-Y-P now spell “free tutoring.”

Students in 60 schools are now eligible for free after-school help from for-profit companies, state officials announced Thursday. That’s because their schools failed to make “adequate yearly progress” – AYP for short – on their test scores for three straight years.

That includes 11 schools in DISD – 10 high schools and one middle school – more than any other district in the state.

“We are not pleased with these rankings and will be focusing special resources this year to make improvements,” Dallas Superintendent Michael Hinojosa said in a prepared statement.

Adequate yearly progress is the centerpiece of the federal school rating system created under President Bush’s No Child Left Behind law. AYP has traditionally been a sidelight in Texas, where principals and parents tend to focus on the more familiar ratings from the state – exemplary, recognized, acceptable and unacceptable.

But schools that fail to make AYP for several consecutive years face real sanctions.

Miss AYP twice and a school has to give its students the chance to transfer to any other school in the district.

Miss AYP three times straight and a school must pay for after-school tutoring for its low-income students.

That could otherwise cost parents thousands of dollars.

“That’s just a blessing,” said Sharon Jones, who recently moved her two children from Dallas’ Spruce High to Pinkston – both schools that made the tutoring list.

She said she used to send her children to an after-school tutoring service, but the cost – more than $2,000 a year – proved too high.

“I could see it was helping, but I just couldn’t afford it,” she said.

For Dallas, that tutoring comes at a cost. District spokesman Donald Claxton said Dallas will spend about $1,570 per student on tutoring, a number set by a federal formula.

The district’s total costs will depend on how many students choose to take advantage of the tutoring. Only low-income students will be eligible.

If every student eligible wants tutoring, the cost to Dallas could top $9 million. That’s not pocket change to a district that recently passed a budget without pay raises for employees.

The No Child Left Behind law requires districts to pay for the tutoring out of the federal funds they receive to educate poor children. That money is often used for other educational purposes, such as hiring teaching aides and running dropout-prevention programs.

The Dallas Independent School District’s budget sets aside about $3 million for the tutoring, but program cuts could be necessary if too many students want the tutoring services.

“We’ve been planning for this for some time,” said Louisa Ryan, executive director for grants, acquisitions and management.

State vs. federal

The federal and state ratings measure the same factors – Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills scores and graduation rates – but in slightly different ways.

To meet AYP, schools had to have at least a 53 percent passing rate in reading and a 42 percent passing rate in math. The passing rate also had to be met by each racial and economic subgroup at the school.

Schools could get around the requirements if their poor scores improved by a significant amount over the previous year’s.

Those standards are slightly higher than the requirements for “acceptable” status in the state’s ratings system.

But the state system also judges school on their science and social studies scores, something AYP doesn’t.

The differences sometimes lead to confusing results. Coppell High School, for instance, was rated academically unacceptable in the state system because of poor special-education scores. But it made AYP.

In contrast, six of the 11 Dallas schools that have missed AYP three straight times were rated acceptable by the state.

This is the first year that a significant number of Texas schools will have to pay for tutoring. That’s because this is the third year that AYP performance is based on the TAKS test, which replaced the easier TAAS test in 2002.

The tutoring requirements kick in only after three years of low scores, so the strong scores held over from the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills gave schools an artificial boost. Many other states have provided tutoring services in large numbers since 2001.

Tutors hit pay dirt

The No Child Left Behind law has been a boon to the tutoring industry nationwide.

Forty-eight companies have received state approval to supply the tutoring here – including such industry veterans as Kaplan and Huntington and smaller companies with names like Headsprout, Brainfuse and Mathnasium.

“We’re the new kids on the block,” said Dwight Cooley, who heads Mathnasium in Pantego. “For years the Sylvans and the Kumons have dominated. But we think there’s room for us.”

Parents will soon receive notification of their eligibility for tutoring, including a listing of the companies available. Parents will have the right to choose a company.

“We think that a company with an established track record that uses certified instructors can be very beneficial,” said Lev Kaye, executive director of Kaplan K12 Learning Services.

Mr. Kaye said the AYP-based tutoring is “definitely a growing piece of our business” but declined to detail how big a revenue source it is.

On the other end of the spectrum is Marshall White, a San Antonio man whose military commitment ended just last week. He started a company called Math on Demand with hopes of getting some of the business created by No Child Left Behind.

So far he has five students.

“It’s been something I’ve done on the side, but I’m going to take it to a new level,” he said, promising personal attention to his clients.

DISD trails in state

Dallas, with 11 schools on the tutoring list, fared worse than other Texas districts. Austin had the second most, with five schools. El Paso had four, Houston and Fort Worth each had three, and San Antonio had two.

“We’ll be looking at the results closely,” Mr. Claxton said. He noted that Dr. Hinojosa recently announced the formation of school improvement teams to tackle underachieving campuses.

It remains to be seen how many students will take advantage of the tutoring opportunity. Tens of thousands of students statewide were eligible for transfers under No Child Left Behind last year. But only about 800 actually moved to another school, state officials said.

There are only three schools statewide that have missed AYP for four years and progressed to the next stage of the federal accountability system.

That stage requires schools to make a significant change to the way they do business – such as firing the principal, bringing in a new curriculum or switching to a year-round calendar.

All three were charter schools, including Dallas’ I Am That I Am Academy. No one was answering the phones there Thursday.