Stopping the Brain Drain of Skilled Veteran Teachers: Retaining and Valuing their Hard-Won Experience
reviewed by Patricia H. Hinchey - September 05, 2014
Title: Stopping the Brain Drain of Skilled Veteran Teachers: Retaining and Valuing their Hard-Won Experience
Author(s): William L. Fibkins
Publisher: R&L Education,
ISBN: 1610483375, Pages: 138, Year: 2011
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The title and subtitle together lay out the argument that author William Fibkins makes in this text: rather than pushing experienced (and relatively expensive) classroom veterans out the school door with superficially attractive early retirement incentive packages, school leaders ought to rethink the value of highly experienced, expert faculty and find new ways to use their talents. Fibkins suggestion for new roles for older teachers is to capitalize on their experience by making them mentors to their younger, less experienced colleagues.
In Chapter One, the author notes that currently it is common strategy for employers across sectors to offer early retirement incentives to long-term, experienced workers so that they can be replaced by younger workers at significantly less cost. Fibkins finds this strategy increasingly evident in schools, where a contributing factor is the frequent cultural assumption that older teachers are past their prime, unable to keep up with contemporary youth. The author argues that the strategy is a foolish one that drains the school and its community of valuable members who contribute stability and the irreplaceable wisdom of long experience to the school environment.
In Chapter Two Fibkins names current initiatives that aim to replace one experienced teacher with two or three novicesthe three-for-one packageand he reiterates that it erodes school culture and effectiveness. He bolsters his argument by noting the negative impact on teachers being pushed out, who are essentially told they have no value to the system, and on the school environment, where the strategy often generates hostility between senior teachers and younger teachers who fear being laid off in difficult economic times. Administrators, the author says, may well understand the folly of jettisoning experienced teaching staff but may have no ability to effectively oppose policies determined by school boards who aggressively promote retirements as a cost-cutting measure. The author repeatedly asserts that the policy is foolish, akin to a baseball team that must trade its best players to wealthier teams each year, or to a mental asylum in which management has been turned over to the patients. Fibkins says that teachers, students, parents, and administrators all pay a harsh price as a result of the brain drain resulting from the push out of experienced teachers.
Chapter Three expands the picture of recent school strategy as just one element of a national trend, citing several sources detailing the extent of push-out policies in other sectors and the negative effects associated with them. In business, negatives include absenteeism among resentful older workers and poor performance by low paid or temporary workers filling the gaps left by retirees. The author then cites economic research supporting his view that experienced teachers should be retained in new mentoring roles for their younger colleagues, so that schools continue to benefit from their skills and wisdom.
The author makes the important point that concurrent developments in education reform reinforce the push out strategy. Alternative certification programs that frequently contract with districts to provide a certain number of teachers, who often have little training before entering the classroom, often find little mentoring and support once they arrive thereTeach for America and the federal governments Troops-To-Teachers program are good examples. Since there is evidence that some districts have laid off experienced teachers to make room for contracted novices, a hostile environment can develop between the experienced teaching staff and the contracted teachers. Lacking adequate support and mentoring in extremely challenging classrooms, contracted teachers leave the profession in droves after fairly brief stints.
The author then expands on the experience of specific educators to demonstrate how the retention of older, experienced teachers as mentors can provide the support that inexperienced teachers coming from alternative certification programs sorely need to survive and remain in schools.
On the whole, the author makes some compelling arguments in this text, but also ignores or downplays considerations that might have helped strengthen his case. One characteristic of the text that strengthens the authors credibility is that even as he argues that experienced teachers are extremely valuable resources, he is frank about the need to remove ineffective teachers and about the herd mentality schools often have that can make the implementation of positive change difficult. His argument is not a defensive, blanket defense of seniority, but rather an argument for not throwing out the baby with the bath water. In addition, he makes clear that administrators charged with promoting retirement are often themselves wise enough to understand the strategys folly, but they are often simply powerless to effectively oppose those issuing the orders. Such discussions make it clear that the author himself has extensive experience in issues of school culture and that what he proposes is a thoughtful response rather than a simple knee-jerk defensive strategy.
Fibkins makes several efforts to place the current push for teacher retirement in a national context, and he calls attention to the ways in which it, like many other current reform efforts, is ill advised. I am not sure, however, how many readers will be willing to take him at his word that the strategy is ill-advised. Unfortunately, it seems impossible for many policymakers and others who have never worked in a classroom to understand how much effective teachers actually know about curriculum, classroom management, conflict resolution, motivation, cultural and linguistic variance, and so on. While the author repeatedly warns against undervaluing experience, he actually does little to educate readers about where that value lies and why it is critical. The author never clearly answers the question What is it exactly that an experienced teacher is likely to be able to do, or do better, than an inexperienced teacher? Why is that so important?
In failing to offer a compelling portrait of what master teachers know, the author has missed an opportunity to educate readers about why classroom experience is so valuable. He repeatedly asserts that it is, as if the idea is so commonsensical that it needs little explication or elaborationbut if that were the case, there would be no need for his argument in the first place. The common perception of teachers as highly paid babysitters helps explain why so many policymakers, and sometimes even parents, buy in to the idea that younger teachers can be hired at far less cost with little, if any, loss of value. I believe that because of this omission, the book is more likely to preach to the choir of educators who understand the issue than to change the minds of policymakers and others the author likely most wants to reach.
Moreover, despite the authors strong efforts to connect this issue to others in a national context, he neglects to consider the still larger big picture of educational reform. For some years now, educational researchers have been pointing to an agenda supported by business and government both promoting the privatization of American education. Standardized curriculum and testing, a reliance on student and teacher evaluation based on student test scores, teacher proof scripted materials, aggressive promotion of online education, mass firings of teachers, and assaults on unions and tenure all serve to undermine confidence in Americas public schools while promoting the idea that the time has come for new and more efficient approaches to education. Much has also been written about the way these efforts channel money from taxpayers pockets into the coffers of for-profit organizations whose performance has yet to be proven equal to (let alone better than) that of traditional public schools.
Pushing out experienced teachers certainly advances the interests of privatization advocates. For-profit providers, extensively engaged in lobbying for some years now, need to find ways to pay less for the operation of schools in order to return a profit. Because the largest share of a schools budget is typically devoted to professional salaries, vendors must find ways to deliver education with far less reliance on a professional teaching staff. This can only be accomplished by: (a) undermining the teaching profession and its unions, and (b) replacing teaching professionals with lesser-paid, non-unionized workers while concurrently shifting instruction primarily to online programming. Indeed, though few people realize it, the U.S. has a National Education Technology Plan which makes clear how widely supported is the idea that technologyas well as parents and aidesare expected to assume many of the responsibilities now held by the experienced, well-educated professionals currently in classrooms. The Plans Executive Summary makes this goal explicit: Technology should be leveraged to provide access to more learning resources than are available in classrooms and connections to a wider set of "educators," including teachers, parents, experts, and mentors outside the classroom (U.S. Department of Education, 2010). Indeed, even new configurations for teaching staff that spread genuine classroom expertise so thin that experienced educators find them nothing short of bizarre are now receiving attention (Public Impact, 2012-2014, for example), despite the fact that no objective evidence exists to support their feasibility (Hinchey, 2013). As the responsibilities of teachers are shifted to electronic instruction and overseen more and more by aides, parents and other nonprofessional mentors, fewer and fewer teachers will be employed, at less and less cost.
A more detailed examination of the link between privatization efforts and reforms and strategies that affect the current professional teaching force is beyond the scope of this reviewbut it would have done a great deal to strengthen the authors argument that the move to replace highly experienced teachers with novices will result in a wide range of negative consequences if allowed to continue unchecked. Teachers themselves, students, families, administrators, communities and even the fabric of American public educationshould it survive in any configurationwill undoubtedly suffer because of the brain drain now being realized. While I might wish the author had made a stronger case for his argument, his point is critical and that his warning deserves serious attention.
Hinchey, P. H. (2013). Review of an opportunity culture for all. Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center. Retrieved from http://nepc.colorado.edu/files/nepc-ttr-oppculture-3_1.pdf
Public Impact.(2012-2014). Opportunity Culture. Retrieved from http://opportunityculture.org .
U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Technology. (2010). Executive Summary. National Education Technology Plan. Retrieved from http://www.ed.gov/technology/netp-2010/executive-summary.