The elderly as teachers

There are at least two large problems in this country regarding education:

  1. Lack of good teachers
  2. Lack of jobs for the elderly

Given that people are working longer than ever, and retirement savings are very low, it would make sense to have jobs that have short working days (the average public school day is less than 7 hours long), low amounts of physical labor required (a given for almost all teachers), and breaks. Furthermore, if the demands that re made on a regular teacher are too demanding, it is relatively simple to lower the workload of an individual by having them teach less. As far as the elderly making better teachers, this is probably will not be true in high school as the material there is much harder to teach and remember for long periods of time, than the material for say, 5th grade english. The question is not whether they know the material (at least as well as the younger teachers), but whether they can teach it. While research on this point is lacking, something that bears mention is that teachers in the US apparently work far longer hours than their peers in other countries, with rather dismal results.

While it is possible that the elderly could be far worse teachers than the current teachers, I would tend to doubt it given that older people are stereotypically (research is lacking unfortunately) more patient than their younger peers, more caring, and have less conflicting priorities (generally speaking, their lives are more settled and less hectic). It is also worth noting that “and non-education majors performed just as well in the classroom as education majors” and so the lack of specific training is likely not to be severe.

Additionally, since their average workload will be lower (or even much lower) than that of regular teachers, Illness and death, and similar conditions are a legitimate concern, the odds of a teacher dying (assuming that they are of average health, and they will probably be of better than average health when they start) are relatively low (less than a 3% chance a year). Considering that teacher attrition is currently about 8.4% (not counting teacher turnover due to mobility), this risk is insignificant.

Since older people do not have the same career aspirations as their younger peers, they need less job security, less union protections, and the like. Because of this, they can be used as a more flexible workforce than regular teachers, and can therefore be more fully utilized.

Lest people accuse me of trying to take jobs away from career teachers, I would simply say that the only reason to allow people to be career teachers is if they get better with time. If they don’t, then there is no logical reason to give them raises, tenure, seniority, or any of the other perks that come with being a teacher for a long time. According to some research detailed here and here while teachers get better during their first 3 years, it is not that large (.04 standard deviations). While it might be statistically significant, its not significant in its impact on kids. Most tellingly, any sources that I could find that seemed to put a positive spin on the effect of experience failed to quantify the effect.

In light of this information, and given how much of teacher’s salary is based on experience, I am proposing that there is no reason to defend career teaching as a good  in and of itself. In light of the data, teachers get an average 3% raise year over year (mean: 3.08%, median: 2.92%) and this is for at best, a .04 standard deviation increase in performance. There is no good economic reason to pay for this kind of performance. If a drastically cheaper, similarly efficient labor supply can be found, as a society, we have a duty to use it.

To those who say that children deserve the best education at any cost, I have just two things to say:

  1. Throwing Money at Education Isn’t Working is a paper that distills the facts about the rise of education spending in this country, and how it largely has had no impact, so saving that money so that it can be used for better things (or not raised at all) would make sense
  2. At any cost is a funny thing. That means that in principle, if there was a way to raise student achievement by a few tenths (or hundredths) of a standard deviation at the cost of hundreds of millions if not billions of dollars, it should be done, no matter what the tradeoff is (trillions for a 1% gain? sure!). This kind of thinking is simply not rational. There is clearly a tradeoff in terms of what is acceptable, and a better metric to determining the value is perhaps the increase in salary later in life. While research has shown significant an ability of teachers to make a dent in student earnings (to the tune of $9285 over a lifetime in present day dollars, when comparing a teacher in the bottom 5% to an average one) this is not a majorly significant number (remember that these are lifetime totals, not yearly losses). Additionally, while a bad teacher has this kind of impact, it is not symmetric (one cannot achieve the same gains again by replacing an average teacher with one in the top 5%).

For all these reasons, encouraging the elderly to enter the teaching profession is a good idea for society, though perhaps not for current teachers.


2 thoughts on “The elderly as teachers

  1. I graduated from college in 1970 and taught math for 1.5 years in junior high schools for grades 6 through 9. I spent the next 41 plus years earning a professional designation and working as a professional using my math skills. I never stopped teaching. You would probably call me elderly. Am I still capable of teaching? Yes! Do I have more subject matter knowledge than many current teachers? Yes! If my current job ceased to be available, would I return to the classroom? No! Should I return to the classroom? No!

    I agree that, when age takes away your ability to earn a living, whether by your choice or your employer’s, you should seek another position. There is no age limit on the ability to teach. Age is neither a qualifier nor a disqualifier. The decision to employ a person as a teacher should be based only on merit and should take into consideration the ratio of benefit to cost for the educational employer.

    While I found many interesting issues addressed in the posting, I think the question of The Elderly as Teachers should be debated without bias as to the elderly or current teachers. A similar analysis might be made with The Elderly in Any Specific Role.

    From a personal point of view and as a parent who has seen 4 children complete high school, 3 of whom completed college and 2 of whom achieved a higher level degree, I would welcome senior citizens as mentors or assistants in an educational setting. I would not categorically approve them as replacements for most current teachers.

    • Perhaps I was too crude in how I described this idea. Ideally, there would be some incentive to make is easier for elder people that are qualified to teach, to teach in our public schools.

      Additionally, the reason that education is particularly well suited as opposed to some other job is twofold. Firstly, it is (or at least can be) a job that requires little in the way of physicality. Secondly, this is an area where there is a clear need for improvement.

      I did not claim that the elderly could replace most current teachers. I simply pointed out that it would be a good avenue to explore, and used the fact that there are many entry level teachers that would be roughly equivalent to these seniors.

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