The American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education recently released a troubling report on the state of teacher preparation. Between the 2008-09 and the 2018-19 school years, the number of people completing a teacher education program plummeted by almost a third. The analysis also found that the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded in education dropped by 22 percent between 2005-06 and 2018-19, even though the total number of bachelor’s degrees in all fields rose by 29 percent.
Making matters worse, the nation already was dealing with a teacher shortage, and school districts say the pandemic has exacerbated the problem. A national EdWeek Research Center survey found that nearly half of district leaders and principals said they had struggled to hire a sufficient number of full-time teachers this school year. At the same time, 52 percent of the K-12 workforce say they are stressed and burnt out, while more than one-third (37 percent) say they are considering a job change.
The causes of the shrinking education workforce are many – from salary concerns to teachers not feeling respected. There’s not going to be an easy or fast fix. As policymakers across the nation grapple with this growing problem, one factor that should not be ignored is the value of benefits, particularly pension benefits, for attracting and retaining teachers.
Pension benefits are important for providing retirement security to teachers, but their value goes beyond that. Teacher pay often is lower when compared to others with similar educational credentials, and solid benefits can help close that compensation gap. Additionally, pensions act as magnets for keeping career teachers in the classroom. Pension benefits are accumulated over the course of a worker’s career, with benefits paid out at the end of a career and delivered as reliable monthly income that won’t run out. In contrast, 401(k)-style retirement plans lack that retention effect because there’s not an incentive to stay and earn that dependable monthly check in retirement.
In fact, an analysis by the National Institute on Retirement Security and the U.C. Berkeley Labor Center examined teacher retirement benefits in six states — Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Kentucky, Missouri and Texas. The study analyzed teacher turnover patterns and projected the final tenure for the current teaching workforce using retirement system actuarial assumptions. Then, the study compared benefits for current teachers under the existing pension plan and a hypothetical 401(k) account with the same contribution rate as the pension.
The report found that not only do teachers have better retirement outcomes with a pension plan, but pensions are a critical workforce retention tool. This is a key consideration as public schools in many communities grapple with teacher shortages.
Interestingly, the public understands how important benefits are for recruiting and retaining the K-12 workforce. A new national survey found that the overwhelming majority of Americans say that teacher benefits are magnets for attracting and retaining school personnel and these benefits should be funded and protected. More specifically, ninety-two percent of Americans indicated healthcare benefits are a good tool to attract and retain teachers and school personnel, while 91 percent agree pensions also help.
That same survey found that across party lines, Americans are deeply worried about teachers and education. Eighty-three percent expressed concerns about public school staff shortages, while 81 percent are worried about K-12 workforce burnout. And 81 percent are concerned that fewer people are going into education.
As with so many issues, the pandemic shined a bright light on fundamental challenges confronting our schools. Perhaps the silver lining will be an increased awareness of the value of the benefits that are provided to teachers to keep them in the classroom and draw more younger workers into the profession. While benefits are just one piece of a complex puzzle, there’s no doubt that pensions are an essential K-12 workforce management tool.