If you want to retain great teachers, remove the bad ones

I attended an advisory panel meeting today for a study looking at how to retain talented Gen Y teachers in the classroom. I was rather skeptical from the beginning, as I doubt that it's possible to keep talented young people in any job for more than a few years. The nature of most young high-achievers is that they want a variety of challenges and experiences.

Still, two profound insights surfaced today, both of which were new to me. First, one participant (a former teacher turned district official) argued that one of the most powerful levers for keeping great people in the classroom is to let go of ineffective teachers. Survey data from Education Sector's recent report on teachers, Waiting to be Won Over , backs this up. Great teachers are endlessly frustrated by watching colleagues who are burned out, putting in minimal hours, and doing harm to children. And if they don't see leaders address these underperformers, the high performers are going to go someplace else. (I think that's true in any workplace, by the way.)

So that leads us to a conversation about tenure reform, right? No, not necessarily. The other big insight, from another former teacher-turned-district-official, is that our current pension system is the real stumbling block. Here's why: Lots of burned out, ineffective teachers would gladly go find another job, were it not for the million-dollar pensions they'd be foregoing. Many would even leave voluntarily. But trying to terminate a teacher who is five or ten years from his or her retirement payday becomes World War III, because there's so much at stake. (My colleague better be careful with that kind of talk, lest Leo Casey likens him to Father Coughlin.)

Imagine if we were able to transition to a 401(k) style system for new teachers. (Which is easier said than done, since the current defined-benefits pension system only works if young teachers pay into it.) Picture a world 10 or 15 years from now, when mid-career teachers start to burn out. Even if they have tenure, they probably could be pushed out the door if they get to take their 401(k) with them, and don't have a huge incentive to stay put and wait for retirement.

So bottom line: if we want to get serious about high quality teachers, we gotta get serious about low quality ones, too. And that means tackling the true third rail of education policy: teacher pensions.

Photograph of gym teacher, 1960, from Library of Virginia

More By Author