Let retiring ‘Boomers’ transform schools

An innovative and potentially ground-breaking approach to 21st century education is placing baby boomer retirees from STEM fields into “learning teams” with educators in an attempt to give students knowledge from real-life science and math experts.

Spearheaded by the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future (NCTAF), these learning teams pair experienced STEM retirees with classroom teachers to inject compelling real-life lessons into classroom instruction, while at the same time giving teachers valuable support.

“Every day that we give a standalone teacher a standalone curriculum, we’re recreating this [outdated] model–we need to start thinking about transforming these learning organizations into a 21st century learning system,” said Tom Carroll, NCTAF president.

“We’re living in the learning age,” he said. “The standalone teaching model is no longer sustainable, and teachers need a collaborative team environment–it’s not fair to the teachers or the students.”

Carroll compared the outdated system of solo teaching to professions that have evolved to incorporate a team approach, and asked why the nation thinks teachers are the only professionals who should work without teams to assist them.

For instance, he asked, would we visit, and have confidence in, a doctor who worked completely alone with no nurses and no technicians who are well-versed in important specialties? And if we lived in a society without schools, and had to invent them, would we invent the same kind of schools that we have today?


To that effect, Carroll is proposing a new kind of collaborative approach to teaching, in which educators will have support and learn from seasoned STEM professionals who, although retiring, have much knowledge to share and are not ready to stop working.

“There are 78 million baby boomers in the workforce, and they will be the largest, healthiest, most accomplished generation of retirees we’ve ever had,” Carroll said. Many of those baby boomers are not ready to stop working and would like to work with children, as they have years of knowledge and skills to share, but do not have the teaching certifications required to educate.

“It creates a powerful learning environment for students, it gives teachers the support they need, and it’s giving those retirees an outlet,” said Carroll, who founded the Preparing Tomorrow’s Teachers to Use Technology program and created the Technology Innovation Challenge Grants Program at the U.S. Department of Education.

“The rest of the world is already creating 21st century learning environments,” Carroll said. “We need to create true collaborative learning environments–it’s a community responsibility.”

As an example of NCTAF’s vision, NASA scientists and engineers are working with ninth grade earth science teachers in Maryland on project-based learning modules built on NASA education content.

The goal here is to give teachers strong professional development in science content, give students a stronger learning experience, and help NASA employees learn about pedagogy.

One important aspect is that this team approach need not be “just a recruitment effort–it’s creating an effective structure, curriculum, and instruction activities, and that’s essential for its success,” Carroll said.

According to Carroll, three forces are driving change in education: a new learning age, an open learning economy, and a growing number of young educators leaving the teaching profession.

The new learning age requires competencies in core areas, such as creativity and communication, if students are to successfully participate in a globally integrated learning culture.

“For young people to develop these skills, teachers need to have those skills and need to be able to organize a learning environment that mirrors where these young people will live and work in their lives,” Carroll said.

An open learning economy surrounding schools today makes many powerful resources and network learning opportunities available to students and teachers outside of school, therefore schools will no longer be “the” learning place, Carroll said. User-driven and user-created content is happening constantly on Facebook, YouTube, and SecondLife.

“An open learning economy allows for deep personalization, more participation, and new education roles and learning relationships,” Carroll said.

And yet, the nation’s schools are still striving to be closed environments, isolated from change and innovation that can only help U.S. students as they move into careers that are now more globally oriented.

During the first three to five years of employment, young teachers are leaving the education profession at an increasing rate. Many people think teacher retirement is to blame for the loss of teachers, but Carroll said non-retiring teachers leaving the profession outnumber retirees 3 to 1.

When non-retiring teachers leave the profession, Carroll said, they report feeling unprepared for the job; they say they are teaching alone, without much-needed support or help; and they explain they don’t see a career path or room to grow in the profession.

Teachers say if they go outside the education field, they will have continuous growth opportunities, work in teams, and have opportunities to collaborate, according to Carroll.


“Young people have too many choices, and too many opportunities, for us not to transform schools into the same 21st century learning organizations that young people can find anywhere else.”

And with more teachers than ever nearing retirement, young teacher recruits are desperately needed. Fifty-three percent of teachers are baby boomers. In 19 states, more than half of teachers are already older than 50. Depending on the state, average teacher retirement falls between ages 56-59, and early retirement often factors in.

Fifty-four percent of teachers in all of New England and 68 percent of teachers in West Virginia are older than 50.

“Half of our [teacher] workforce in the country is less than 10 years from retirement,” Carroll said.

If the teacher workforce is 3.2 million teachers, Carroll estimates that 1.7 million teachers are close to retirement, leading to a “retirement tsunami” in from 6-8 years, a tidal wave in which the teacher workforce in many communities simply will collapse.

“We’re going to have to move very rapidly to a different model for staffing our schools,” Carroll said.

Although the U.S. is “deeply wedded to the idea of standalone teaching, we’re recognizing that an individual teacher can no longer know and do everything that’s necessary to prepare students for the 21st century,” Carroll said.

And while there is a strong movement toward professional and collaborative learning teams within schools, NCTAF is saying that teachers need to have opportunities to benefit from outside sources as well.

“We’re at a point where we have no choice but to change–we’ve already been losing about one-third of our workforce, and in 19 states, we’re less than 8 years away from losing half of our veteran workforce,” Carroll said.

Carroll said he thinks a change in education could happen within 10 years, due to the dramatically changing teacher workforce, an open learning economy, and the high demand for 21st century skills.

“We’re now in an era in which employers need a 21st century workforce with skills such as collaboration, creativity, and problem solving, and schools need to develop those skills. The only way to do that is to rethink their education mission.”

NCTAF has 27 state partner coalitions and is working to identify a leading-edge group of states that are adopting this 21st century education strategy. Once identified, Carroll hopes NCTAF can mobilize enough leading-edge states so that their effective models will be able to be replicated by other states.

Carroll has held several top positions with education organizations, including serving as deputy director of the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education and as director of National Research Centers and Regional Laboratories at the National Institute of Education.

“We can remake the American education system–we have the people, the technologies, and we’re ready.”


National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future

eSN video interview with Tom Carroll

Tom Carroll’s NECC presentation

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