- Sandra Reicks is a northeast Iowa writer.
Three sets of statistics are converging to form either a perfect storm or a perfect solution. The outcome is up to us.
And the stakes could not be higher. It’s about the education of our youth and offering them the same opportunity that every generation before them had — a chance to improve their standard of living through a quality education.
The issues in play are: student learning loss from the pandemic, underpaid teachers, and rising early retirements in the general population from individuals with advanced degrees.
According to the Government Accountability Office, about half of teachers had more students start the 2020-21 school year behind compared with a typical school year. Nearly two-thirds of teachers had more students make less academic progress. And 45% of teachers reported that at least half of their students ended the year behind grade level.
COVID-19 was deadly for many, especially the elderly. But our youth suffered, too, through a disruption in learning.
It hasn’t been easy on teachers, either.
The GAO reports that there were fewer public school teachers in 2021 than in 2019, and that many teachers are considering leaving their job earlier than anticipated. It draws upon a National Education Association survey that puts that number as high as 55%.
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Throughout the country, states and schools have struggled to provide salaries to teachers that are adequate. Iowa Code 284.15 sets a minimum public school teacher salary at $33,500. Minimum and what the market bears are two different things. Still, Indeed.com posts that Iowa teachers with one year of experience can expect to make just $38,000 on average.
The spin on these numbers is that the cost of living in Iowa is less than in other parts of the country. That may be true, but the argument isn’t good enough. Teachers are finding other jobs paying more, without moving, and continuing to enjoy a lower cost of living.
Teachers need a pay raise.
And then we step into the completely different world of individuals, with advanced degrees, choosing early retirement.
The Pew Research Center found that retirement among those 55 and older, who have completed at least a bachelor’s degree, rose 3 percentage points during the pandemic.
The uncertainty that COVID brought prompted many to end their professional careers earlier than anticipated. They didn’t know, though, that their 401(k)s would soon suffer losses and that inflation would make it tougher to stretch their retirement dollars. Some will likely come out of retirement and rejoin the workforce.
And they could become the perfect solution to the challenges in education.
There’s something we know about people with graduate degrees in business, communications, computer science, engineering, environmental science, physics, psychology, and many other advanced degrees who enjoyed successful, professional careers: They’re not idiots.
It’s possible that some of these individuals, in their post-retirement world, can re-imagine life in a way that can help our youth.
The problem of learning loss from the pandemic deserves our attention. It cannot be a headline one day and then forgotten the next. This is an “all hands on deck” moment.
Early retirees, with advanced degrees, may be able to help in the classroom. It would mean another look at what is required to be certified to teach in the state. Also, guidance from a mentor teacher would be crucial.
But the bigger problem is that they won’t do it for $38,000.
Iowa is using $75 million in federal funds for a program that will encourage high school students to pursue a career in teaching by funding college credits. It’s something that might help dwindling teacher numbers, but it still doesn’t address new teacher compensation.
Nobody goes into teaching to get rich, but even a modest bump in salaries could be meaningful in solving education problems. It might be enough to prompt some early retirees to consider using their talents in the classroom.
Acknowledge learning loss, give teachers a raise, and start thinking outside the box on who can be admitted to the education club. Focus on results, not rules.
Not everyone has what it takes to teach. But some do.
It’s time to do something.
Sandra Reicks is a northeast Iowa writer.