Losing Experienced Teachers Is Bad for Schools, Right?

(Photo: www.audio-luci-store.it)

Maybe not. A new working paper (abstract; PDF) by Maria Fitzpatrick and Michael Lovenheim finds that offering early retirement to experienced schoolteachers doesn’t have a negative effect on students’ test scores, and in some cases leads to an improvement. The abstract:

Early retirement incentives (ERIs) are increasingly prevalent in education as districts seek to close budget gaps by replacing expensive experienced teachers with lower-cost newer teachers. Combined with the aging of the teacher workforce, these ERIs are likely to change the composition of teachers dramatically in the coming years.  We use exogenous variation from an ERI program in Illinois in the mid-1990s to provide the first evidence in the literature of the effects of large-scale teacher retirements on student achievement.  We find the program did not reduce test scores; likely, it increased them, with positive effects most pronounced in lower-SES schools.

Here are some of the factors that Fitzpatrick and Lovenheim had to wrestle with:

Ex ante, it is unclear what the effects of large-scale teacher retirements, such as those resulting from an ERI, will be. On the one hand, retiring teachers are highly experienced, and they typically are replaced with much less-experienced teachers or with new teachers. The evidence of the strong relationship between experience and effectiveness in the classroom (Wiswall 2013; Rivkin, Hanushek and Kain 2005; Rockoff 2004) suggests teacher retirements could reduce student achievement. Even among teachers who have the same amount of experience, teacher quality varies substantially (Goldhaber and Hansen 2010). If teachers with better job opportunities outside of Illinois Public Schools (IPS) are the most likely to retire, and if wages outside teaching are positively correlated with teacher quality (Chingos and West 2012), then the offer of an ERI would negatively affect student test scores.

On the other hand, teachers who are near retirement may put forth less effort than younger teachers or may be less well-trained in modern, potentially more effective, pedagogical practices. This may be particularly true for those teachers who desire to retire early. Alternatively, if productivity is negatively correlated with disutility from teaching, the teachers who choose to take up the ERI may be those that are least productive. Family and personal circumstances also influence the labor-leisure decision in ways that lead to ambiguous predictions of the effect of ERIs on achievement. Finally, principals and administrators may respond to large losses of experienced teachers, e.g. by decreasing class sizes, changing the assignment of teachers to students or purchasing additional non-teacher resources.

I cannot imagine many teachers’ unions embracing this finding. But it may be good news for school districts.

One story to think about here is that 1) until the 1960s, schoolteachers represented the best and brightest U.S. women, who didn’t have many job options available; 2) as many bright and well-educated women went elsewhere, the overall quality of teaching fell; but 3) there may be a renaissance in the appeal of teaching among bright women (and men), perhaps nudged along by an economic upheaval in which more traditional high-status jobs (in finance, law, medicine, etc.) have become, for a variety of reasons, less appealing.

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  1. As a teacher in between ‘new’ and ‘experienced’–Im entering my 9th year teaching at age 31–and what I worry most about this study’s use of test scores as the only measure of what is best for students. Most of those tests are multiple choice tests and as I have gone through the system, more and more focus is being placed on test-taking strategies, cram sessions before tests, and even teaching more towards the lower-performing students. Most of the experienced teachers I have seen retire refuse to adopt these practices, but will do whatever it takes to help students learn. Newer teachers are more worried about their jobs as they are under provisional or non-tenure contracts and see test scores as their only measure of performance.

    I have been pressured to remove writing assignments from my curriculum since the only measurement of my social studies class is a 70 question, end-of-the-year multiple choice test. Administrators have asked why I place details on current events when they are not in the curriculum, why I include more information than the students need to know, and why do I focus so much on computer technology if it does not improve test scores.

    I know most of this seems anecdotal and based on one teacher’s observances, but I would like to see more from this about AP test scores, IB accreditation, etc, as I think those are more rigorous and a better (though still flawed) measure of student learning and success as many state tests are easier, and not as adept at testing learning and quality education.

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    • J1 says:

      Ideally, you should always be “teaching the test”, as it is the measure of student knowledge. If the test doesn’t adequately assess that, the problem is with the test. That appears to be the problem here, but too often (nearly always actually) the response from teachers is that they don’t want to teach the test, rather than (as you seem to believe) that students’ knowledge is not adequately measured using current methods. Keep up the fight, and stay in the business; we need more of you.

      Other items re Steven’s remarks:

      1. Public sector unions shouldn’t be permitted. Employees whose employer can legally require customers to buy its product, at whatever price they demand whether the customer wants it or not, have no incentive to moderate demands in contract negotiations.

      2. Schools (and all other government entities that do so) need to stop automatically paying employees more simply because they have a postgrad degree, and stop making that degree a requirement for promotion (implicit or explicit).

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      • Enter your name... says:

        Schools in particular should not pay more for teachers getting graduate degrees in education, because those degrees have been demonstrated to have no positive effect on student achievement.

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      • Michael Peters says:

        Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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      • Kevin Johnson says:

        When I hear “teach to the test” as a concept, it means so much more to a teacher than to a non-teacher. I am not trying to put down the concept. I totally agree that teaching to a good, fair, and challenging test would be an adequate measure of student learning. However, specifically with multiple-choice tests, they are more about efficiency of administration and data than about an accurate measure of what a student knows or learned.

        When I see “teach to the test” here are practices I have seen being utilized either in my school or have heard directly from other teachers elsewhere (most, however, I have seen).
        –I have had teachers tell students to just put the answer in the calculator and work backwards to get to the answer, rather than doing the math calculations behind it–that was employed in lower-level math classes to get students to pass
        –We have 2-3 hour cram sessions on content in all the end of the year tests for the students who failed the first time just before they retake the test, even while offering Saturday and afterschool remediation.
        –Teachers have been given lists of what Adequate Yearly Progress subgroups are most in need of improvement. In one meeting, I was told, “we want you to help all students, but help these students even more, if they need it.”

        One more thing to all of this is another trend I notice in education–most of the experienced teachers get the choicest classes. Of the current 4 core subjects in our school, only one department chair teaches a classes with end of the year state tests when all 4 subjects have them. So, in a sense, the experienced and most-often loved teachers leaving do not even teach those tests.

        Doing a quick recall of the ten courses that have end of the year state tests, I think there are two or three teachers (about 2-3 teachers per test subject) above the age of 50. I am not saying this part is true all over and will not support this as an argument against the paper, but there might be some truth in other schools, I simply do not know one way or another.

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      • J1 says:

        “How are you required to “buy” public education?”

        By getting a bill for about $4000 every year. $9000 the last place I lived.

        “Or are you arguing that by paying taxes you’re being forced to “buy” public education regardless of the benefits to society?”

        Yes, that’s exactly what I’m arguing.

        “I find that pretty ridiculous since you aren’t being forced to consume anything”

        You seem to have some difficulty with the difference between “buying”, i.e. paying for, and “consuming”. I don’t like having to buy things I don’t or can’t consume. I suspect you don’t either.

        “Teachers have been given lists of what Adequate Yearly Progress subgroups are most in need of improvement”

        The trouble there is that we’ve gotten away from separating kids by ability. When I was in school, there was a smart class, average class, below average class, and loony room. Teaching methods could be adapted to all of the kids in the class, and nobody had to be ignored.

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    • Enter your name... says:

      I don’t understand why they would “pressure” you to do less work? I can see them saying that it’s not required, but that’s not the same as trying to make you stop it.

      At any rate, your response could be that writing is tested for the English classes, and you are helping the English teachers this way. That gives them a choice between saying that they oppose teamwork or that they think you’re a very noble and helpful person.

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      • Kevin Johnson says:

        What I meant about being pressured is that I had made some computer-based, higher-order thinking assignments that were properly scaffolded and took an extra class or two. My administrator (disclaimer coming) tried to suggest the time could be used better for review or remediation, so that students would know the material better. I created this and several other assignments from direction in my M.Ed. classes that greatly improved my personal practice, but I do see quite a majority not use those higher degrees for nothing more than a pay increase. After a few years of suggestions, I found other assignments I liked more–ones involving me learning basic Adobe Flash to make a Choose-Your-Own Adventure activity about current events in the Arab World. Though, teaching about the Arab Spring (in my geography class) is not on the standardized test yet, and probably will not be until the standards are revised in 4-6 years.

        Disclaimers regarding administration– I know the people above me care and work hard to, and even though the ones that are above me currently have little to no teaching experience, they are under increasing pressure to make our statistical numbers go up. I understand and respect the tight rope they walk and their push for higher scores at all costs.

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      • Joe J says:

        I wouldn’t assume they were asking for less work, but less tangents.

        Remembering back to HS had 2 teachers who aways went off on tangents.
        One our AP Spanish, went off constantly, can’t say we learned much Spanish from him, but learned a lot about life. Things we learned from him, fancy place settings, and resteraunt manners, how mortgages and credit cards worked, civics, art, relationships, life. Almost anything was discussed, and all of it has been useful in life.

        A second one, a math teacher, from her we learned how the little green men, sometimes they were grey, sometimes capitolists, were tying to control our lives and that only by learning about her religion: Wicca, would we something or other, never could follow some of her rants. She had more experience teaching than most everyone else in the school combined, and was decent on some days ( possibly medication).

        I’m not the biggest fan of following scripts, but with a captive audience, sometimes there is a point to it.

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    • Enter your name... says:

      You seem to oppose what you call “teaching more towards the lower-performing students”. This is IMO—speaking as a ‘high genius’ with the sort of ‘impressive’ academic record that isn’t unusual at Freakonomics—a major virtue of the testing situation.

      It’s annoying for the small number of truly high-potential students to be neglected, but it’s even worse for the large number of lower-performing students. A neglected high-performer will likely be bored for a couple of years. A neglected low-performer is a future school dropout, welfare recipient, gang member, etc. If these tests make you teach at least the basics to *all* of your students, instead of just teaching the appealing ones, then they’re working.

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      • Kevin Johnson says:

        When I mean “teaching more towards the lower-performing students” as a negative, I mean that by aiming our standards low, which is what happens when you make a cut-off score to a test (by saying, this is minimum competency and acceptable), you tend to have more students want to beat the requirement and stop. At first, I did not think that a student would not just aim for bare minimum but saw it more clearly when our county went from an “F” of a 63 and lower to a 59% and lower. More students I found strove to just get above 60 and stop, rather than aim higher.

        Also, in one of the replies I wrote above, teaching to the lower level students often utilizes short cuts to beat the test, rather than learn the material. Teaching students to plug in the answers first and do the math in the calculator to find the answer is one such strategy. Having teachers get substitutes for their own classes to help first-time failures cram for three hours then take the test hurts any further learning for the 60-80% of the class that passed the test (I have found some interesting activities that are self-sufficient, but they are not easy to make or come up with).

        I do not advocate neglecting such students, in fact, I think I have some of the most meaningful relationships both during their high school years and after of students that fit into the bottom two quintiles (if we want to put some basis of organization to who I mean). This part here does not include special education students, for the record, as that will start an even greater discussion.

        Also, multiple choice tests do not adequately test student knowledge, they only teach best-of-4 or 5 responses. Also, those students that are in those low categories are often behind by years by the time they arrive in high school. If the concern is not having the student drop out or hurt their self-esteem, fail them early so they do not enter ninth grade not knowing how to read the instructions on my assignments. Otherwise, I would have to teach them both reading and geography.

        Lastly, I like teaching the lower groups of students, but there is a difference between teaching them and teaching down to them. I am not looking for them to pass with a 55% on the state test, I want them to get the best score possible. I’ve advocated for teaching my geography class to only students who are predominantly Spanish-speaking so I could help them using my intermediate Spanish to help them learn some of the material. The use of the term ‘neglected’ here is not a fair way to describe those that are not directly addressed. The majority of my students do not need daily care, constant help, or discipline, but I would not say they are neglected. Also, implying students are appealing based on performance is also something I do not like, as there are plenty of students who do well that do not need my attention to succeed. I would love to have classes of them to teach them extended lessons on various topics, that does not mean they are the only ones I like teaching. For me, the reward most recently that I can highlight is a student who had no parent involvement, was under a guardianship and by the end of the year brought her grades only to a C/D level, but I made a spreadsheet of what she needed to do to get better than me in high school (a 3.3) and she told me she’s up the challenge.

        Im in this job because I love making a difference in children’s lives. I’m not going back to high school to be back in high school, I want to help students develop their minds and be better people. Yep, still the ideological teacher, that will not leave me, but that does not mean that I feel I am meant to stay in teaching. Many of my personal and common-held values with other teachers are always being challenged, especially when it comes to assessing how much students have learned. We teachers often disagree on how to assess students.

        No students are neglected in my school (that might be different in others, but I have not seen evidence of neglect anywhere I have been, though I have not seen inner-city schools) and sometimes students need to learn they did not do enough to succeed. There are some students that have failed my class and went on to working harder to improve, others have given up–is it my fault their low results are from them not working much to improve? I will do whatever a student needs, but they need to have some ownership of their learning.

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    • Kristian Leitzen says:

      Throughout his various responses to this, Mr. Johnson highlights the various major problems with test-based education assessment. Tests should be only one part of evaluating a student’s education. Unfortunately, we’ve made it the be-all, end-all. We all know there are some people who just don’t do well on tests. Others may do exceptionally well. Neither would be an accurate representation.
      And these tests can’t take into account all of the outside factors affecting the student. Only an involved and caring educator can do that and properly evaluate the student’s performance. Forcing a teacher to teach strictly to the test and spend less time exploring “tangents” or whatever you’d like to call them will keep a teacher from really getting to know their students. It can actually punish a teacher for taking that time, if the test scores drop, despite the teacher’s best efforts to improve the lives and minds of the students.
      This world is not that simple. Bare numbers don’t cut it. You have to involve the human element. And right now we are failing miserably at including that in our education system.

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    • meanonsunday says:

      I agree with most of your points. The biggest problem with the testing system is that it focuses on the average when any predictive value it has for future academic or career performance exists only for the higher scoring students. Changes of a few points in the average typically come from small improvement in the lowest scores. This will not have any effect on a student’s ability to attend college or to successfully complete a degree. The school and the state may be happy to fool themselves that small improvements in the scores of 20 D-students is progress, but a teacher will have achieved far more if they can get even one of those students to become a B-student.

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      • Enter your name... says:

        Changing the lowest-performing students’ achievement is not going to send them to college, but it might result in them being able to hold a job as a cashier at a grocery store or order food for a restaurant. It might also help them figure out whether a shirt that is regularly $30 and 20% off costs more than one that is regularly $40 and 33% off.

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  2. Isidro Fernández says:

    From my own point of view, experience is not make the same thing along many years, but is do many different things.

    Here is Spain education is public, and managed by the government (local, for our CCAA, similar to states). So teachers are public servants, they pass a test once and then according to their results get a destiny or they must wait till a vacancy appears.

    So we can find several cases, for example a teacher that started to work in 1985, 30 years ago in a small town, and never moved, and didn’t attend to many courses to recycle its methods or practices, what is the real experience of this person?

    On the other side, a young teacher, working less than 5 years, no vacancies in that time, so his main experience is working as a substitute teacher. when another one gets sick, in those 5 years this teacher has worked in maybe 10 different schools, of different towns, with different social background and different problems. What is the experience of this teacher?

    On the other way, how can we evaluate the effectiveness of a teacher? Comparing the results of a class group this year, with teacher A, with the results of the same one last year, with teacher B?

    Well to be accurate maybe we might compare several years, 3 and 3 or 5 and 5 years, then we are studying a period of 5 to 10 years, so we might add to the equation some other variables like the evolution of the students (sometimes results of students in different subjects increase or decrease along years), and we might add the different educative plans (in this country every new government changes the contents of the plans of previous governments to adapt those to their criteria), it is said that in the last 10 years none of the students in Spain began going to school following an educative plan and ended in the same line.

    So my conclusion is that will be really difficult to determine what is an experienced teacher and how that reflects to the students, maybe the best we could do is give it a more marketing view: “are the students happy with that teacher? are the results good enough?”

    (Excuse my english, that subject is not one of the most important in our schools).

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  3. Heather says:

    This debate could go on for days and days; however, there are some other points made here that are misleading also. The line: “One story to think about here is that 1) until the 1960s, schoolteachers represented the best and brightest U.S. women, who didn’t have many job options available; 2) as many bright and well-educated women went elsewhere, the overall quality of teaching fell…” is inherently misleading.

    I attended a school with a wonderful teacher preparation program, one of the best, and very selective. There were many very smart and bright women (and men) who were foregoing other, more lucrative fields because they believed in what they were doing. Unfortunately, after a few years of being beat down by state testing, administration who only care about test scores and are not fulfilling their leadership roles due to it, uncooperative parents, children with lessening attention spans and awful boxed curriculum, many of these smart and bright individuals leave for greener pastures. Also, being one of the only professions in which we require professionals to take advice from higher-ups who have no training in their subject matter or pedagogy, pass laws about their right to work, and treat them like monsters, is it any wonder that some veteran teachers feel defeated and may not be at the top of their game? Sure, you can eliminate older teachers and bring in young ones who can raise test scores for a short period, become burnt out and then quit and then bring in a whole new round of young idealists, but is this really sustainable for the profession?

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  4. John says:

    “There is suggestive
    evidence of heterogeneity: in lower SES and lower-performing schools, retirements from the ERI
    program led to larger increases in test scores, particularly for reading. Although the differences
    are not statistically significant, to the extent that there is a difference, we show that some of it is
    driven by how schools were affected by the ERI program.”

    This might be relevant?

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  5. Linc Wolverton says:

    There is another factor at play here. In a large school system with multiple elementary, middle and high schools, the assignment of teachers to facilities is not random, I believe (as a former long-term, school-board member). Poor and mediocre teachers in affluent-neighborhood schools frequently are pressured out. That is, parents go to the principals and school boards with their complaints and their political advantages and pressure the school district to remove such teachers from those schools.

    What is supposed to happen according to many union contracts is that those poor teachers must undergo plans of improvement to correct their problems after they have been so identified (under a bureaucratic process that takes months to years). Mediocre teachers after their probationary periods simply are allowed to remain.

    However, the parent and political problem is relieved by the administration transferring those teachers to other schools in the district until they find a place where the parental and political pressures are at a minimum — in the poorest areas of the district typically. There, they may remain until retirement.

    It is therefore not surprising that the loss of experienced teachers in some schools within a large district do not have a negative impact on teaching performance.

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  6. Joe says:

    Although I’m sure researchers are aware, but this article does not mention the shallow conclusion that higher test standardized test scores are an accurate measure of teacher effectiveness or quality.

    The other major flaw in some studies is that the test scores used to compare did not measure the same subjects with the same group of students from year to year. For example, you can’t compare World History scores for Student A one year with US History scores for that Student A the next year. Subject matter is much too different. Student maturation levels change. Personal circumstances, familial, financial, etc. change and affect outcomes. You also can’t compare World History scores for Student A last year with Student B this year. Researchers are often not controlling their variables well.

    Like a veteran teacher friend of mine said recently, “Too often the discussion is about what public schools are producing, rather than the increase in problems kids are coming into our schools with. We see more and more kids struggling in ways that we did not see 10 or 20 years ago. More and more kids we teach today are less equipped to learn and produce the way their parents were when they attended our schools.”

    Are schools failing kids, or are our schools a reflection of society’s tribulations and their effects upon the next generation?

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    • Kevin Johnson says:

      Well-put and the new problems coming in are things I try to anticipate. I also find it valuable to get to know students that have parents that are teachers, and get to know them closer, so they can fill me in on things that a teacher would not normally think or see–I choose those students because I usually know their parents well and they know me, and that they see me as a normal person, not locked in a box all summer and during weekends.

      I have constantly had to change my practice. My first students would recognize what I do now, aside from the same content. The hardest part is getting rid of things that I worked hard on that I thought would succeed, but did not achieve what I expected.

      Your point I have seen put thus: do students fail school or school fail students? With that in mind, I am trying to change how I teach and how its assessed by using gamification (another major topic for another day) but I do not think many teachers out there are that willing to part with what they have been doing.

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  7. meanonsunday says:

    I live in a state where teacher’s salaries vary widely from school to school. Teacher’s at the school’s with the highest salaries never leave. Promotions are based on years of service not performance. Take a few Master’s level classes in the summer break, and you are guaranteed to max out your salary. The result is that the school is filled with experienced 30+ teachers just coasting their way to retirement. Are they good teachers? Well, yes, the majority are good – because they started out being good. The school’s with the highest salary have very few job openings because, as I said, no one leaves except to retire. As a result they have their pick of the best candidates. Does experience make them better? Maybe for a few years, but the system both fails to motivate improvement and doesn’t punish those who lose interest and just coast for the rest of their career. Knowing that they can have their pick of the brightest new graduates such schools could definitely be improved by getting rid of some of the dead wood.

    How this would work in the low salary schools I can’t guess; are the long term teachers in those schools the dedicated ones who stayed, or did they move on leaving only those who couldnt get a job at a higher paying school.

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  8. Stewart Herring says:

    This sentence

    Alternatively, if productivity is negatively correlated with disutility from teaching, the teachers who choose to take up the ERI may be those that are least productive.

    Shows that there is a need fof a “plain english campaign”

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