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. Jim s says:

    The automobiles that roll off of today’s assembly lines are far better than those of thirty years ago. Each generation incorporates the improvements of its fore bearers. So now we have better quality, better mileage for the same cost. We have gotten better at making cars. In education, however, each generation of teacher essentially starts out from scratch. Even though a new teacher may be armed with the latest pedagogy there are still many soft skills that are developed only through practice and experience. Unlike our automobiles, our education system is not getting better with each generation. When a teacher retires all those years learning how to identify learning styles for each individual student is lost. The challenge I see is to figure a way to capture the hundreds of thousands of hours of effective teaching that is done every year and make that information available to new teachers in such a way that does not make more work for them. I dont know what this will look like, but here is a possibility. Consider the advances in big data and machine learning. Although it my sound like big brother, I can imagine a classroom where each student is monitored intimately…how they answer questions, facial expressions, speed of response, who they are friends with for example. From this information a big data system could recommend appropriate pedagogy that has been found to work for this profile. And I am not talking about kids sitting around on computers all day. Our data collection techniques could get quite advanced and subtle(think google searches, voice recognition, and cameras everywhere). The teacher would focus more on relationships, motivation and community building and rely on proven cirriculum. What a waste to have an algebra teacher develop a customized lesson plan every day from year to year when it has already been done by thousands of teachers. Algebra doesnt change and the way kids learn probably falls into 10 effective strategies. Surely we can capture this and apply it appropriately and individually. Bottom line is that we need to shake up our thinking about how to give people the skills and knowledge they need to be effective in this world. Our current paradigm is old and not as effective as it could be.

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  2. Fred says:

    Please don’t start confusing people with measurements or facts. Liberals want to feel good about their work and believe they are producing results. Just like the idea that coddling and learning the history of certain groups will get them educated and pull them out of poverty. Laughable.

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  3. Eric M. Jones says:

    Unfortunately…and I really mean UNFORTUNATELY!, K-12 teachers need great personal energy to communicate to all those little ruffians. Older teacher might be good for college, but for the earlier grades, students are more likely listen to people with high energy…and that usually means younger teachers.

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    • teach now says:

      I am glad that you said usually Eric. But that means schools will need to treat teachers as individuals and that will take a bit of a change of heart. I do have reason to think that alot of teacher energy is lost to all the rules and regulations that they must follow that get in the way of real teaching. and there are styles of teaching so matching student to teacher can be time consuming but definately a worthy endeavor. Showing students that you care, I found, means alot to them and it does not matter who they are, where they come from or what their differences are so clearly one needs not to interrogate such inequities that exist, but ask the right questions of them so as to enhance success at achieving what they are aiming to acommplish whether they know it or not.

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  4. Lainie says:

    It strikes me as odd that Illinois is used as the example in this story. Just check the headlines to find out how well the ERO (Early Retirement Option) is working for the taxpayers, the government, retired teachers, and career teachers like myself who have inherited one HUGE mess.

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  5. Dan1.618 says:

    Early retirement incentives waste valuable resources.
    I worked with several teachers who were forced to retire early (in Oregon, some teachers made more retired than they did working). After retiring, they just moved to another state and resumed teaching. One teacher I worked with just retired from teaching for the third time–that’s three pensions from three different states!

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  6. KB says:

    Yeah… you lost me at ‘improves test scores’. As if that was an unquestionable, proven standard of student learning and success.

    All it is is proof that someone (maybe not the students) filled in correct answers on a test.

    Let’s try replacing the word ‘teacher’ with another profession. ‘Is getting rid of experienced doctors going to negatively affect peoples’ health?’ ‘Is getting rid of experienced detectives going to improve the case closure rate?’ ‘Is getting rid of experienced computer programmers going to lead to faster releases of software?’

    Not all of these scenarios are equivalent, but the level of complete disrespect for the teaching profession evinced by even suggesting that experience — in classroom management, in dealing with dozens of students of varying ability, at enticing kids to learn, in a million other day to day things that I don’t know about because I’m not a teacher — is not important?

    About the only ‘experienced’ group of professionals we could maybe use less of are hedge fund managers.

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  7. Doug Clerk says:

    Please tell me that you don’t believe that students’ test scores are a valid measure of teacher effectiveness – ever heard of teaching to the test? (Of course you have – I read your book!)

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