Older Teachers

So I’m the opposite of “blocked”, lately. Lots of ideas and a laptop that’s annoying me. I had two, gave one away and the one I kept hangs so often (memory problems) that I get distracted waiting and watching Broadchurch (not too happy with who the murderer is obviously going to end up being on that one) or not watching Breaking Bad (me and four other people, apparently). Then I fall asleep because hey, it’s the first month of school and that’s how it rolls. So now I have four different ideas, plus two or three straightforward teaching writeups to do, and that’s not good because then I feel overwhelmed and start watching TV shows I’ve already seen 50 times (hello to the mother ship, L&O). I don’t know how actual bloggers do this. Fortunately, I’m just an essayist.

Then a friend who relocated for her job mentions that her husband, a 42 year old teacher, hasn’t yet found a job. I remember telling her when she first got the job to assume that he wouldn’t get hired (she makes enough for that not to be a problem), and she said that I wasn’t the only one to warn her. He has a lot of experience and two master’s, but in most inter-district (much less state) transfers, teachers lose next to all their seniority, so it’s not just about money. It’s a lot about money, but not all.

So I thought I’d talk about older teachers. This is purely an opinion piece; I’m not even sure how much of it I’ll think in a year.

If you know any successful 40-something idealists who dream of “giving back to the community” by becoming teachers, ask if they have jobs lined up. If they don’t, ask them if they are spending a lot of money on their teaching credentials. If they are, tell them to go to a state school. It’s well documented that ed school selectivity is irrelevant in hiring decisions, and they’re going to have enough trouble finding jobs without worrying about loan forgiveness. I can’t really say I’m sorry I went to an elite ed school, but I never fail to consider it an example of luxury spending, as opposed to an educational investment.

Research on this subject is thin, but I did find one study on CPS principal hire/fire decisions on new teachers:

(Note: I suspect the bias against male teachers is at the elementary school level. At the high school level, I see a huge preference for male teachers that I’ve mentioned time and again.)

Anything else I say would be anecdotal. Check any teacher training cohort and see who’s last to sign with a school—assuming they have any candidates over 40, they’ll be the last hired, if they are so lucky. Read any story about “firing ineffective teachers” with deep skepticism. And giving administrators full hire/fire over all teachers would lead to a lot of forty-plus teachers losing their jobs. I saw three teachers, two of them in math, targeted and forced into retirement because the principal wanted “new blood” (the principal said as much, often, to anyone who would listen). All teachers have stories like that. All teachers know that the reason job applications ask about education credits is to weed out older applicants. And some teachers think it’s a great idea.

Lately, there’s been a push to reform pensions, push more money to teachers up front. After all, the thinking goes, it will be fairer to teachers who leave the profession:

First, districts should jettison their current approach to retirement benefits, in which teachers accrue relatively meager benefits through much of their careers, and then abruptly become eligible for much more as they near retirement age. In its place, districts should adopt retirement systems where benefits accrue smoothly, year after year, without sudden, arbitrary jumps late in a teacher’s working life. This would allow talented people to teach for part of their career, or teach in more than one district, without harming their retirement security. It would also end an unfair practice that places the majority of teachers on an insecure retirement savings path in order to support more generous pensions for the minority who work a full career in one system.

So we’ll make it easier for teachers to quit and get a little bit of money, and not have to pay as much in pensions. Saves money, right? Fine. Stop talking about fairness to new teachers, then, and focus on cost-savings.

Education reformers are profoundly clueless about what really drives teacher benefits and, I think, genuinely clueless about what really drives administrators. Paul Bruno has an interesting idea that teacher tenure is a perk. Bruno cites Mathew DiCarlo, who reviews the same study I linked in above from a different perspective (although he agrees that the discrimination against men and older teachers is troubling):

…there is little support for the idea that principals are just dying to fire at will – or that, once dismissed, teachers can easily be replaced by “better” alternatives – despite sometimes being taken for granted in our education debates. Although they are far from conclusive, and pertain only to probationary teachers, the descriptive results discussed above tentatively suggest that the supply of appropriate replacements may not always be quite as robust as is often assumed – and/or that there may be some other reasons for low dismissal rates that are not entirely a function of the difficulty of doing so.

What I take away from all this is complicated, but I think relevant. First, coupling the study with my own anecdata and that of many years in the workforce: principals, like all management, exercise their biases. Given the peculiar nature of teaching and its employment structure, I can build a good case that principals be prevented from doing this more than managers in the private sector. Managers pay a price in productivity if they fire good people purely because of their biases. Principals don’t, in the main. Productivity in schools is a complicated issue.

At the same time, most principals don’t fire teachers often because it’s incredibly hard to find new ones. Better the teacher who shows up on time and gets the job done than too many unknown quantities in any given year.

So a principal who is allowed to exercise biases could always defer to his or her particular preferences on a one-off basis, firing probationary or even tenured teachers for age, gender, race, or teaching philosophy, while in the main keeping teachers when in doubt because of the pain of hiring new teachers. Even more unnerving, that principal could keep genuinely weak teachers while firing/dumping good teachers that just happen to activate a bias. For example, keeping an ineffective new young teacher completely intimidated by her students, while dumping or threatening to dump a new older teacher who does a good job. (Not anything I’d have any experience with, nope.)

But wait, say reformers. Principals are constrained by productivity just as private sector management is! Yeah, this is me laughing at them: ha, ha. Of course, private sector management can exercise bias around the edges, and do. But in the case of older teachers, there’s that pesky money problem, too. Older workers in the private sector can adjust their salary if need be, if their value to the company isn’t as great as it once was. Teachers can’t. So take an existing bias against older teachers and toss in the added expense they usually represent, and the whole situation gets worse.

Ah, says the eduformers. That’s why we should revamp teaching entirely! Change the salary structure, don’t reward older teachers as much, and there’ll be less of a bias against them. Let teachers change districts! Let them move to different states! Let districts shift teachers around where they are most needed! (Hey, one of these things is not like the others.)

To which I say, again, eduformers, you aren’t reading the tea leaves. Finding teachers is the holy grail, not firing them. Most people don’t really have a clue about the enormous scale required to maintain millions of people in a job that has quite a few constraints on it—from regimented potty breaks to fingerprint checks to college degrees and competency tests.

So suppose we create the freedom to hire and fire at will, and we give teachers the same ability.

Let’s imagine some possibilities: A teacher can contract with three different districts to teach a popular AP US History course. Or maybe he’s just really good teaching math to low ability kids, and works three classes at two schools. Still other 50 year old teachers kick back and decide they have enough money. They want to teach three classes and then consult as a master coach in another district. Still others teach a couple classes and then go work in ed schools.

Not just 50-somethings, either. A lot of 5-year veterans decide they want to take off and raise their kids for a while, but are happy to put in a few classes here or there.

Meanwhile, very few teachers with any seniority or any talent are ever found at low income schools. No reason. Nothing to keep them there. In fact, any teachers with any talent have realized they have an easier life contracting out a couple classes a year part-time to a suburban district than teaching full-time in a low income district. Once districts are allowed to actually compete on salary, paying by negotiation instead of salary schedules, rich districts will compete heavily for desirable new teachers. Schools with undesirable kids, not matter how much money they have, will be forced to rely on teachers who view the work as a calling, not being able to count on seniority-bound teachers who probably would have switched elsewhere if they weren’t financially precluded from doing so.

In other words, if teachers are allowed to compete on skill and salary, the results might not exactly be what eduformers imagine. They appear to envision a world in which teachers are still committed to a district, with just a few more options on each side. I very much doubt that’s what will happen.

I do know that if districts and administrators were asked to consider a world in which everyone had more freedoms, they would almost certainly reject it out of hand. Charter schools operate on a very small level. That's part of the problem.

All of this goes back to older teachers. They’re a straw that almost everyone—principals, districts, reformers, well-meaning liberals who think they understand education, even a lot of genuine progressives—would like to remove, or redirect to some other area. But I'm not sure that one straw leaves without a bunch of others coming along. And very few people seem to understand what that could mean.

This is my fifth year of teaching, a job I love with a passion that surprises me. Yet I'm relieved that I qualify for both a pension and a lot of loan forgiveness at the end of this year because it's entirely possible I won't ever get tenure. I love my current school; it's the only one of my three that I say that about. I think they like me, but I'm expensive. I'm also old, and this district can keep teachers as temporary or probationary for a very, very long time (some teachers here have been temporary for seven years; in elementary school it's worse). Since I'm in math, it should move more quickly for me. But I'd be a liar and a fool if I didn't fear the possibility that right around the time I should be qualifying for tenure, the administration team will find some fault with my teaching, after x years of thinking I'm just fine, and blammo, I'm gone. I would never voluntarily leave this school, even if I didn't love it, because finding another job has routinely been a crapshoot that goes until less than a month before school starts. My usual line is "I've gotten this far because I look young for my age, but around the time I'm fifty-five I'm going to look forty-five and then it's game over."

And what, specifically, led to this maundering post, Ed? It's eval time, baby. And the principal who reviewed me last year took a new job. Keep your fingers crossed.

About educationrealist

37 responses to “Older Teachers

  • anonymousskimmer

    “right around the time I should be qualifying for tenure, the administration team will find some fault with my teaching, after x years of thinking I’m just fine, and blammo, I’m gone.”

    I’m sorry Ed, but we found this old blog and….

  • educationrealist

    Ha. Stop it, you’re scaring me.

  • Roger Sweeny

    “Given the widespread belief that same-race role models are crucial for low-income students, it would not be surprising if principals took into account the composition of their student body when making dismissal decisions. Indeed, insofar as prior research has demonstrated that, all else equal, students learn more when taught by a teacher of the same race, this might be a legitimate determination on the part of the principal.”

    Except that it is very specifically prohibited by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964:

    “(a) It shall be an unlawful employment practice for an employer –

    (1) to fail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individual, or otherwise to discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin;” (section 703, 42 U.S.C. 2002e-2)

    There is nothing in the statute saying, “unless you a good guy doing it for a good reason.”

    • Sage Basil (@peppermint6789)

      > There is nothing in the statute saying, “unless you a good guy doing it for a good reason.”


      How about the part of that law where it says that racial quotas aren’t allowed?

      • Roger Sweeny

        Actually, there is nothing in the law that specifically bans racial quotas, though there was language in the legislative history that said that.

        On the other hand, Congress has passed legislation since making it easier for employers to establish (or be forced to establish) affirmative action programs, so it has sort of repudiated that language.

    • James B. Shearer

      But there is something in the statute (703 e1) that says:

      Notwithstanding any other provision of this subchapter,

      (1) it shall not be an unlawful employment practice for an employer to hire and employ employees, for an employment agency to classify, or refer for employment any individual, for a labor organization to classify its membership or to classify or refer for employment any individual, or for an employer, labor organization, or joint labor-management committee controlling apprenticeship or other training or retraining programs to admit or employ any individual in any such program, on the basis of his religion, sex, or national origin in those certain instances where religion, sex, or national origin is a bona fide occupational qualification reasonably necessary to the normal operation of that particular business or enterprise, and

      • James B. Shearer

        Oops, I belatedly noticed race isn’t listed as one of those characteristics that can be a bona fide occupational qualification so this clause doesn’t help. On the other hand I thought you were allowed for example to specify black actors for black parts. Is that wrong?

      • Roger Sweeny

        Yes, you can specify black actors for black parts. Making a movie or putting on a play is considered to be speech for purposes of the First Amendment and the writer/producer/director is free to cast whoever he or she wishes.

        The BFOQ exception has been interpreted narrowly. An early case rejected an airline’s argument that they should be able to hire only female stewardesses because many people were afraid of and/or stressed by flying and females uniquely made them less afraid and less stressed (the airline had produced research actually saying that). On the other hand, a Playboy Club can require that its bunnies be female.

        A school which exists to teach a particular religion can require that its teachers be members of that religion. However, it cannot require that of secretaries or janitors.

  • Jim

    Ed, what is the actual evidence for the effect of racial concordance between teacher and pupil?

  • Mark Roulo

    “…I’m expensive. I’m also old…”

    How does this work? I thought that pay was a function of seniority and you clearly don’t have a lot of that (five years teaching). Is it that your benefits are more expensive because you are older?

    • educationrealist

      Pay is a function of seniority AND education. Like most second career teachers, I’m fairly well-educated. I have two master’s degrees, and something like 120 post-BA credits. On any step and column pay scale, I spike all the way over to the right column. So in New York City for example, I’d cost something like $11,000 more per year than the same five year teacher with less education, and $15,000 more than a beginning teacher. As you can see, the real money comes not with seniority, but with education. In my district, I cost $17.5K more than a beginning teacher, and $9K more than a teacher with 5 years of experience and no additional education.

      So that’s the cost factor, which is big. But if I were a 30 year old with that kind of education, it wouldn’t play as badly. Administrators, for a variety of reasons, often lean towards younger teachers, all things held equal. (I haven’t noticed that at my current job at this point.)

      • Mark Roulo

        Thank you.

        I’m going to make the wild assumption that there isn’t a lot of correlation between lots of extra units for the teacher and student achievement. Maybe some, but not a lot?

        And I get the impression that a teacher with 5 years experience gets better outcomes for the students than one with 1 year experience, but that 10 years vs. 5 years is pretty much a wash.

        If this is true, than a large part of the “problem” may well be that you can have two teachers who are equally effective, but one costs 2x the other (using the NY link, ~$50K for five year and a BA vs ~$100K for 22 years plus lots of extra education). This sort of thing tends to be a problem in lots of cases, not just education.

        Is this analysis basically correct (if incomplete)?

        [Also, we have the issue that the principal isn’t as “on the hook” for a drop in student performance as an industry equivalent manager … whee! let’s go open loop!]

      • educationrealist

        Oh, sure. That’s why I’m talking about the expense. Notice I didn’t mention quality. However, the bias against older teachers is pretty huge for a number of reasons, not just expense, for the same reason that there’s a bias against older workers everywhere.

        I also think you’re missing the connection in the second half of the essay. Education reformers would naturally say that the problem is with the pay structure that leads to rewarding time on the job, education, and so on, and instead go to a world in which teachers are rewarded for excellence.

        But if you undo the pay structure, which is the major reason the problem exists, you introduce a whole host of other problems. People who think otherwise don’t understand, as I said, that finding teachers is a bigger issue than firing them. And I outlined the reasons why. The only way to fix that would be to keep the controls at the district side–force teachers to stay with a district, forbid them to work for multiple districts, penalize them for leaving a district—but allow districts to pay anyway they like, fire teachers when they get expensive, and so on. Leaving aside the fairness issue, leaving aside the fact that unions would never allow it, it’d be disastrous because the people who find that job appealing would be very small, far too small to staff a teaching force. We’d have to dramatically increase pay, come up with other concessions, and in every way go back to something just as constraining as what we have now. Why bother?

        So second career teachers like me are mostly screwed. Fine. It’s not fixable. I just think we should mention this more. However, undoing the protections that would lead to administrators firing older teachers would be a very bad plan, for the reasons I described.

      • edlharris

        How about negotiating down the salary?

      • educationrealist

        You can’t. We have no control over it.

      • Mark Roulo

        Ed: “I also think you’re missing the connection in the second half of the essay. Education reformers would naturally say that the problem is with the pay structure that leads to rewarding time on the job, education, and so on, and instead go to a world in which teachers are rewarded for excellence.

        But if you undo the pay structure, which is the major reason the problem exists, you introduce a whole host of other problems.”

        It is more that I’m trying to nail down my understanding of part of the problem. I have no policy recommendations at this time 🙂

        What I *am* starting to notice across several different fields, however, is a disconnect between pay and performance with this disconnect tied to age. Engineers have the same fundamental “problem” … they probably get more productive as engineers as they get more experience, but this doesn’t keep going after a few years (with some exceptions on each end, to be sure). The salary increases *do*, however, keep going. So we get (without tenure!) engineers around age 40 tending to get laid-off more or going into management (or both).

        I can offer suggestions to individual engineers to defend against this, but senior teachers seem to have few opportunities to provide “extra value add” than senior engineers. And they work in a more open-loop feedback system for their management, too.

        So … I’m not suggesting undoing the pay structure for teachers. And I’m not suggesting anything else either. I expect that we’ll just continue as-is until we can’t any longer. Then we, as a society, will do something disruptive and stupid.

      • Roger Sweeny

        What Mark mentions is a problem in a lot of areas. Not giving raises for a few years is often pretty bad for morale, which leads to lower productivity. But if raises are automatic, before too long older, more senior, workers have pay/productivity ratios higher than younger, less senior workers.

        Bryan Caplan recently posted a summary of Truman Bewley’s “Why Wages Don’t Fall in a Recession” which provides a broader perspective. The post begins:

        “The book is a miracle – easily one of the five best empirical economics books I’ve ever read, and possibly the best of the best. First published in 1999, the book builds on Bewley’s interviews with over 300 employers, labor leaders, unemployment counselors, and business consultants during the mild recession of the early 1990s. Everyone he interviewed had ample first-hand experience with real-world employment and compensation decisions. The purpose of these conversations: To evaluate a wide range of labor economists’ theories in light of practitioners’ testimony.”


  • Thea Nelson

    One problem administration sees with “new” older teachers is health insurance rates. One problem they have with teachers who have taught forever is the rolling of eyes when they are retrained in a “new” method that the school has just bought for oodles of money and will be replaced in five years. Those teachers who have been around for a while have been there and done that – often several times in their careers.

    It would be great if school understood that diversity should include age diversity. Children are separated into classes by ages and then we try to insure they will never see anyone over 40.

    • educationrealist

      I wondered about health insurance, but I though it was a fixed rate on both ends. However, I know a lot of young teachers who opt out because in our district we get the cash. Once that starts happening a lot, adverse selection kicks in in a big way.

      Hell, I’m only five years in and I roll my eyes. But then, I was in corporate America for all their new new things.

      • Thea Nelson

        It is a fixed rate but admin believes the older teachers use for expensive health care which would cause the rates to go up.

      • Anthony

        It may look like a fixed rate to the teachers, but every health coverage provided will look into the age structure of the workforce, as well as prior usage, when setting rates. So keeping a lot of younger teachers around saves the district serious money.

      • Bert Derpski

        In a district of any appreciable size, the premiums paid will reflect the claims made plus admin costs. In a large employer like a school division, the insurance company isn’t doing much more than printing the cards and keeping track of usage.

  • Mountain

    I know all about older workers in the private sector, the good and the bad, being one myself. How bad is the problem with older teachers sick of job and hanging around for the pension knowing they can’t be fired? My experience in public school is that there a lot of mediocre to bad teachers and once my son got one he was stuck for the year. Age didn’t seem to be a factor. One of the best things about my son’s private school was that they fired the bad teachers.

  • Hattie


    This could be a cognitive ability drinking game. I’d be in, but I calculate I’d be dead some time around the middle of the article:


    • Anthony

      Aside from the usual stupidity in the comments, there’s this: “But for others, the problem is exacerbated by lousy K-12 schools. It doesn’t matter how naturally gifted you are at math, you’re going to get the trig problems wrong if no one’s ever told you trig even exists.”

      How often does this really happen anymore? It’s not 1963 anymore. (And did that really happen much even then?) Are there students whose schools don’t have a reasonable college-prep track, as opposed to kids who just can’t, or won’t, learn that material?

      • Anthony

        I’m not sure there *is* a right post. I’m commenting on a comment at the link that Hattie posted. Aside from the usual IQ-denialism and test-denialism, I see people making claims like the one I quoted, a lot. And my bullshit detector goes off. It’s probably worth a whole post, if you have some insight into the issue.

  • Old teacher now waiting to retire and is going to be oissed if I stuck this out only to have the rules changed at the last minute

    I’m an older teacher with lots of years in the same district and lots of education. I have been maxed out on the salary scale for years. The teachers union only goes for more paid insurance for families (which I have never used). So every year the new teachers get 6000-8000 increase in salary and benefits and I’ve gotten a decrease since my insurance rate for singles keeps going up since the families cost so much). Older teachers are treated like crap by an administration who has never been teachers ever… Not to even go in to the racial component. But let’s jus say all those new administrators are the same race as the equally unqualified superintendent.

  • charles w abbott

    Sorry to be commenting so late.

    In terms of firing difficult but good teachers (or scholars), I am reminded of the story of David Grene, translator of Herodotus.

    He had a note in his personnel file at the U. of Chicago from the president (Robert Maynard Hutchins?) saying “This man is not to be fired without my permission.”


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