On National Teacher Day, NEA Undermines Its Own Agenda

In order to draw attention to National Teacher Day (which is today), the National Education Association last week released a lengthy press statement on "five main trends that have emerged over the past five years." They were that public schoolteachers are the most experienced and educated ever, that the work of teachers is being transformed, that the number of teachers leaving the profession is increasing, that the teaching force is not as diverse as the student body, and that there are fewer male teachers than in the past.

NEA is to be commended for providing citations to the numerous claims it makes in its press release, because the footnotes undermine the union’s analysis and recommendations.

Thirty-one statistics in the press release cite the same source: NEA’s Status of the American Public School Teacher, which has a load of information, but was released in August 2003, describing the status of the American public school teacher in 2000-01. Comprehensive education statistics do have a significant lag in reaching the public, but five-year-old information tells us little about where we are now, and even less about where we’re going.

Even worse, NEA cites a 1998 study on teacher shortages, and a 1996 study on teacher retention.

Fortunately, there is newer information on at least some of the topics NEA addresses, in the form of Characteristics of Schools, Districts, Teachers, Principals, and School Libraries in the United States: 2003-04 Schools and Staffing Survey, released on March 23, 2006 by the National Center for Education Statistics. Here a few updates of the NEA stats:

* Today’s teachers are on average 43 years old (42.5 actually) as NEA states, but the NCES study reveals that charter school teachers are on average 38 years old.

* NEA states that "more than half (57%) hold at least a master’s degree." But the newer data show that number is reduced to 48.1 percent in 2003-04. A majority of teachers hold only a bachelor’s degree.

* NEA states that 90 percent of the teaching profession is white. The newer NCES numbers show that number has been reduced to 83.1 percent, helped along considerably by charter schools. While 16.7 percent of teachers in traditional public schools in 2003-04 were members of racial/ethnic minorities, in charter schools that percentage was 29.8 percent. There is also a larger percentage of males teaching in charter schools than in regular public schools (27% vs. 25%).

* NCES is evidently still working on its teacher retention survey, which hasn’t been updated in many years, but does provide a tantalizing statistic. The average number of teachers dismissed or non-renewed in American public school districts in 2003-04 was 3.1. That’s not a percentage, that’s the average number of teachers. Since there were 14,218 school districts in operation that year, it comes to a national total of 44,076 non-renewed teachers. That’s out of 3,250,600 teachers, or 1.36 percent.

Four of NEA’s main trends are in fact one trend: an aging population. The average age and experience of teachers coincides with that of the American population. Consequently, they have more advanced degrees and experience than in the past, will retire in greater numbers, requiring replacements from a smaller pool of eligible candidates.

But the demographics problem contains the seed of its own solution. As older teachers retire and new ones are hired, the average age, experience, and presence of advanced degrees will drop. The teaching profession will necessarily reflect the racial/ethnic make-up of a more diverse population — those who are currently students will become the new teachers.

Enrollment will slow, perhaps even drop, meaning not all of those retiring teachers will need to be replaced. And guess what? The growth in the average teacher salary will naturally slow, as high-paid veterans are increasingly replaced by low-paid newcomers.

And while I have no statistics to back this up, it seems to me that teacher retention, as currently defined, will worsen with the new generation. Getting a job right out of school and holding it for 30 years (whatever the field) is not valued by the younger generation to the degree it was in the past. More and more people will teach "for awhile" and move on, perhaps returning to it later. Still others will use alternative avenues to teaching, after a career in a different field.

All this will require some forward thinking. Reliance on last decade’s numbers will, in the best case, only lead to answers for last decade’s problems.