Commentary: Hope and experience

Default Lines from eSchool News, first published in print on Sept. 1, 2009 — Sometime this week (before the end of the day, if you can), I urge you to read a watershed report from the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future (NCTAF). It’s titled “Learning Teams: Creating What’s Next.”

(You can find the report here.)
What’s behind this policy brief and the other outstanding resources at is a question outlined in our recent story by Senior Editor Laura Devaney: Can retiring ‘Boomers’ transform schools?
The terse answer is "Yes." But the true answer is "Yes, but . . . it will be much easier said than done." Nonetheless, what we have here is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity–literally.
A short-hand label for this unique last chance is "Learning Teams." NCTAF is spearheading the effort to make the concept a reality, and that organization is being ably led by Thomas G. Carroll, Ph.D., the long-time education advocate and national leader who was instrumental in creating the Challenge Grant program at the U.S. Department of Education.

In the policy brief written by Carroll and NCTAF’s director of strategic initiatives, Elizabeth Foster, the authors describe a perfect storm–a full-fledged tsunami–barreling down on America’s schools right now.

You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows, and you don’t really need NCTAF to tell you the education workforce is aging. Just look around you. In fact, if yours is like mine, just look in the mirror. Yikes!

Carroll and Foster explain the scope of the trend: "Over 50 percent of the nation’s teachers and principals are Baby Boomers. During the next four years, we could lose a third of our most accomplished educators to retirement. The wave of departures will peak during the 2010-11 school year, when over one hundred thousand veteran teachers could leave. In less than a decade, more than half of today’s teachers–1.7 million–could be gone."

This, in itself, is hardly a startling revelation. We’ve known for years what was coming. Yet, the idea that we’ll hit the high-water mark next year (that’s the year after this one)–well, that news has a way of concentrating the mind.

And that’s not all. The supply of new teachers is far from sufficient. As many as one-third of all new teachers leave the profession after only three years. Stepped-up recruiting won’t do the trick, either.

Carroll and Foster sum it this way: "The traditional teaching career is collapsing at both ends. Beginners are being driven away by antiquated preparation practices, outdated school staffing policies, and inadequate career rewards. At the end of their careers, accomplished veterans who still have much to contribute are being separated from their schools by obsolete retirement systems. In five years, two-thirds of the teachers we entrust our children to in America’s classrooms could be gone."

But the authors aren’t in the hand-wringing business. They don’t just lay out the problem, swoon, and call for more money.

Not for a minute. These authors are all about solutions. And, to my way of thinking, they’re all about feasible solutions.

So here’s the nub of NCTAF’s sensible solution: "The impending retirement of Baby Boom teachers creates a unique opportunity to build a 21st-century workforce of teams that can support both veterans and beginners as they strive toward their next level of performance. By deploying carefully selected veteran educators in extended careers as learning team leaders and teaching coaches, schools can build the strong professional learning communities that have been proven to reduce costly attrition rates among new teacher hires."

"… Encore careerists will work with Millennial Age teachers and Digital Age students to
together deliver the knowledge, skills, and tools to help all students develop the competencies they need to succeed in a complex world. This does not mean that ‘anyone can teach.’ But it does mean that if 21st-century learning teams are led by accomplished, certified educators, a host of experienced individuals from the wider workforce could be deployed within those teams to make effective contributions." 

It’s estimated that half of the Baby Boomers in the workforce today are interested in giving back to their communities by working with youth development or in education. That means, says NCTAF, "we could draw on a deep reservoir of almost 20 million Boomers who have a wide range of knowledge, expertise, and experience to bring to our schools and students."

Significant challenges lie between here and the day when learning teams enrich the nation’s schools. But hey, it’s a brand-new school year, and once again, the halls are alive with hope and possibility.

In this case, NCTAF lays out clear directions on how to get from here to there.

Can we do it? Well, as our Optimist-in-Chief might say, "Yes, we can."

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