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What We Lose When Teachers Retire

In many of his speeches, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan cites the projection that one million teachers will retire over the next decade. He uses this projection to support his policy objectives to transform the profession by reforming teacher evaluation systems, identifying effective and ineffective teachers, rewarding and removing teachers based on their effectiveness, and recruiting a new brand of teacher.

These are all common strategies leaders use to improve the labor force, but I wonder if these are the right strategies to emphasize when one third of the individuals in the profession are about to exit. I worry about the loss of what Dorothy Leonard and Walter Swap call "deep smarts" within schools. In their book Deep Smarts, Leonard and Swap describe how experienced professionals carry a highly sophisticated mixture of explicit and tacit knowledge. This knowledge is developed over time when experiencing variants of common problems. Leonard and Swap describe how this specialized knowledge is often lost when experienced professionals leave an organization. They urge organizations to protect this essential knowledge that resides in the heads of their professionals.

To preserve deep smarts within an organization, the leadership must be intentional about facilitating the transfer of knowledge among its staff. This means creating a system of collaborative professional learning. Approaches like teaming, coaching, guided experimentation are especially important tactics for transferring deep smarts.

In education we know the value of this type of active learning for teachers. Policy makers are calling for teacher preparation to emphasize such things as clinical experiences for teacher candidates. However, when it comes to supporting practicing teachers, policymakers and educational leaders are moving in the opposite direction. They are emphasizing things like "targeted PD" and "anytime PD" via the Internet, which may have an isolating effect. These strategies have their place in the teacher development continuum, but in times of change and great turnover in our profession we must focus on strategies that cultivate and transfer effective practice from teacher to teacher. By doing so we accelerate the growth and development of novice teachers, retain and spread the effective practice of the most effective teachers, and keep our best teachers engaged in continuous improvement throughout their profession.

Below are some policies and programs legislators and local educational leaders may want to consider for supporting the transfer of "deep smarts" across the teaching profession:


  • Adopt a new definition of professional learning that drives professional learning decisions to the school level and emphasizes collaboration. See here for recommended language included in legislation introduced by Rep. Jared Polis of Colorado.

  • Offer programs to increase principals' skills and abilities facilitating school-based professional learning and coaching.

  • Require that extended learning time designs contemplate structured learning time for educators as well as students.

Policies such as these will support better teaching for more students, help ensure that educators continue to improve their practice throughout the profession, and protect "deep smarts" from evaporating when large groups of educators retire.

M. René Islas
Director, Learning Forward Center for Results

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The opinions expressed in Learning Forward's PD Watch are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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