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.