Wednesday, July 30, 2014

A Wave of Teacher Retirements on the Horizon

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By Mary Ellen Flannery

In Wisconsin, the number of state employees who have applied to retire this year is already 73 percent over last year – and public schools are bracing for a full-on stampede before contracts end in June.

Educators simply can’t afford to stay on. With Gov. Scott Walker’s success in gutting collective bargaining and the rights of the working class, they’re afraid that, if they don’t retire now, they’ll lose their pensions and potential health benefits. Plus, with Walker and his right-wing allies poised to slash public school budgets, educators across the state will be struggling to teach enormous numbers of students in each classroom next year.

“I felt like it was almost like a gun to our heads,” said Thomas Bindl to an Education Week reporter. Bindl, a 57-year-old fourth-grade teacher in Sun Prairie’s Royal Oaks Elementary, has been teaching for 34 years.

And it’s not just Wisconsin. It’s also Idaho, where State Superintendent Tom Luna’s partisan plans are also being signed into law. Amid uncertainty about pay-for-test-score schemes and Luna’s intent to replace actual classroom teachers with online courses, teachers are slowly, reluctantly saying good-bye.

“Everyone is so discouraged,” said Debbie Dehoney, a second-grade teacher in Kimberly, Idaho. Dehoney, who works two other jobs to pay her bills, has decided reluctantly to retire early at 55 so that she can lock-in her benefits – and get out before public education hits rock bottom.

This is a life-changing move for these teachers. They never had planned on leaving their students so soon. But the consequences for those students will also be huge.

Education research has shown, quite consistently, that experienced teachers are far more effective in the classroom than new ones. It is the single best predictor of classroom efficacy. Consequently, mass retirements create a “brain drain” that can’t help but harm the overall effectiveness of a system.

“The quality of education is going to go down,” said Richard Vought, a school district administrator in North Lakeland, Wisconsin, where one-fifth of the teaching staff plans to retire.

“Hopefully it won’t make the community a less attractive place to live,”  Donald Viegut, superintendent in Oshkosh, Wisconsin told the Wall Street Journal. But it almost certainly makes education a less attractive career for incoming teachers.

Who is going to replace these outgoing teachers and support professionals? Somebody who doesn’t mind the constant teacher-bashing  and anti-public education mentality of many lawmakers? Somebody who doesn’t care to have a voice in his or her profession? Somebody who sees 40 students in a classroom as a welcome challenge?

“What we are doing to education as a profession isn’t the right direction,” said Buhl School District Superintendent Byron Stutzman. “Students are going to look at teaching and go the other way. We are leaving teachers very vulnerable right now.”

At one school board meeting in Wisconsin last week, teachers, administrators and parents cried as their superintendent read aloud nine letters of retirement – about five times as many as usual, said James Ellis, superintendent of the Minocqua-Hazelhurst-Lake Tomahawk (MHLT) district. After reading them, Ellis recommended “with very, very deep regret that the board of education accept these nine recommendations.

“I would also say that the hundreds of years they’ve collectively taught will not be easily replaced.”

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Read NEA President Dennis Van Roekel’s column in the Washington Post on the costs of replacing experienced educators.

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