The next generation of American students might be in for a rude awakening over the next decade. More than half of today's veteran teachers—1.7 million—could be gone because of retirement, taking with them a mountain of teaching expertise developed over many years of hands-on instruction. What's equally troubling is that schools might not be able to rely on new teachers to fill the gap: The percentage of new teachers who leave the profession within five years continues to climb. At least that's the gloomy forecast given by the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future, a Washington-based education advocacy organization.
According to a report recently issued by the nonprofit group, which advocates for innovation and improvement in teaching, the nation is facing the largest teacher retirement wave in history, with more than 50 percent of teachers and principals being baby boomers.
The bulk of the NCTAF statistical analysis is based on data from the U.S. Education Department's National Center for Education Statistics, which shows that in the 2003-2004 academic year (the most recent year for which the data are available), about 48 percent of the K-12 public school force, or roughly 1.55 million teachers, was age 45 or over. Given that the average age of retirement is 59, and assuming many of those teachers will remain in teaching, by the 2017-2018 year—less than 10 years from now—all of those teachers will be eligible for retirement. Combine that figure with the number of teachers who leave the profession for reasons other than retirement and the one third of new teachers estimated to leave the profession within three years of starting, and the number of departing teachers is even higher.
Every state could be affected, NCTAF researchers say, but 18 states and the District of Columbia already are near the tipping point. The situation is most severe in West Virginia, where almost 70 percent of the teaching force is estimated to be 50 or older.
But the problem isn't simply that more teachers are retiring. It's also the schools' failures to harness and institutionalize the teaching expertise of experienced educators so that new teachers don't have to start from scratch. "We're going to lose experienced veteran teachers who could act as mentors to the younger teachers," says Elizabeth Foster, NCTAF's director of strategic initiatives. "These are people who have tried-and-true methods of classroom management. . . . Right now, we have no way of capturing that knowledge and passing it down to the new teachers."
The report asserts that "wholesale replacement of accomplished veterans with inexperienced beginners is a bad bet" because of the massive amount of money and effort wasted in the constant process of hiring and replacing beginning teachers.
The consequences of teacher turnover are particularly dire for high-poverty schools that are struggling to close the achievement gap minority and disadvantaged students face, the report says. When teachers resign or retire there, they leave behind a host of problems for the teachers who take their place, it says.
Many education experts and professional organizations agree that the NCTAF report shines a critical light on the issue, but some say the group is overstating the problem.
"The NCTAF claim that in less than 10 years more than half of our current teaching force could be gone is overestimated," says Katherine Merseth, director of the teacher education program at Harvard's Graduate School of Education. "We've heard these clarion calls in the past," she adds, referring to the teacher shortage that occurred in the 1960s, which was followed by a surplus the following decade, and then the campaign in the 1980s to recruit and hire 2 million teachers. "It waxes and it wanes," she says.
James Cibulka, president of the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education, says that looking at the situation purely from a "We must fill these positions" viewpoint misses the bigger picture.
"The problem might go away if our goal is only to put a live body in the classroom," he says. "Many of the school districts in the 1960s created full-time substitutes that didn't have the qualifications to teach. I don't think that that is how we can afford to staff the nation's schools in a global economy. It's absolutely critical that K-12 students receive the best possible learning opportunities."
NCTAF nevertheless states that this is a once-in-a-century opportunity to reinvent education.