Jake Todd thought he’d spend the rest of his life in Alaska.
A second-generation Alaska educator, Todd taught special education first at Service High School and then at Bartlett High School, where he helped start a program for students who’d fallen behind in credits.
“I had some pretty good in-school leadership, and we got to create a program for students that would otherwise not basically have had the tools necessary to graduate,” Todd said. “It’s what I was made to do. Seeing kids create lives for themselves -- that’s huge.”
So why, in 2016, did he become one of the 1,000 Alaska teachers lost to attrition each year?
Todd grew up in Anchorage and moved back home to teach twice, first after graduating from college and later after volunteering in Jordan with the Peace Corps.
“A lot of people come to Alaska knowing that they’re not going to stay, but I came back to Alaska knowing that was where I was going to make my life,” Todd said.
He bought a house in Anchorage’s Airport Heights neighborhood, where many of his childhood friends had settled. He had a serious girlfriend. He also had serious and growing concern about the future.
Todd was enrolled in the state Teacher Retirement System as a Tier III beneficiary. Instead of the defined benefit pension offered to teachers in Tier I and Tier II, he had a 403(b) retirement savings account, similar to a 401(k). More significantly, like all Alaska teachers, Todd was not able to pay into Social Security, leaving him without a safety net should his retirement savings fall short.
To bolster his benefits options, Todd enlisted in the National Guard. But he quickly found that it was a challenge to juggle all his responsibilities.
“I had three jobs, or four, I guess,” Todd said. “I was coaching skiing, I worked in a restaurant, I was in the National Guard, and I was a high school teacher.”
Eventually, it got to be too much. When he found a job opportunity out of state, he took it.
“I quit,” Todd said. “I loaded everything in my Toyota Tacoma, and I drove to Utah.”
The cost of teacher turnover
There are close to 8,000 teacher positions in Alaska, and about 1,000 of them must be re-filled every year to compensate for attrition. About 800 of those new teachers come from outside the state, according to a presentation to the Alaska Municipal League last year by Diane Hirshberg of UAA’s Center for Alaska Education Policy Research.
That annual recruiting effort comes with a price tag. A 2017 ISER analysis estimated that teacher turnover costs Alaska school districts about $20 million annually.
Experts say there’s a cost to students, too.
“Unfortunately, high turnover is synonymous with inexperienced teachers, and ultimately results in decreased student achievement,” the ISER report states. The report also found a correlation (although not necessarily a causal link) between high teacher turnover and low reading test scores in Alaska.
In a 2012 study conducted by the National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research, analysts concluded that while some turnover is good -- such as when ineffective educators leave the system -- there is a causal link between high turnover and poor student performance. In fact, researchers reported, students in high turnover schools are negatively impacted even if their own teachers stay from year to year.
“The findings indicate that turnover has a broader, harmful influence on student achievement since it can reach beyond just those students of teachers who left or of those that replaced them,” the study reports. “One possibility is that turnover negatively affects collegiality or relational trust among faculty; or perhaps turnover results in loss of institutional knowledge among faculty that is critical for supporting student learning.”
Part of the impact on students may be that educators -- like members of any other profession -- get better with practice. ISER found that while teachers make significant gains in effectiveness in their first year or two of teaching, most reach their “peak effectiveness” after five to 10 years on the job, and they often keep improving for decades. If they leave early in their careers, like many Alaska teachers, students never benefit from that unrealized potential.
ISER’s research doesn’t point to a single reason for Alaska’s teacher turnover, which is higher than the national average of 8 percent, and education professionals say there’s no one factor to blame. Some people simply aren’t a good fit for education. Teachers from Outside may not like the weather or the distance from friends and family.
“No one’s ever tracked exactly why people leave,” said Anchorage teacher Ben Walker. “They don’t do a real pointed exit interview. ISER’s never done a study on it. The data on it -- I just don’t think it exists, which means that it’s all through these personal stories, and they’re easy for people to dismiss.”
‘I honestly don’t know what I’m going to do’
Walker has taught in the same classroom at Anchorage’s Romig Middle School since 2006, working with kids who come “from Birchwood to Girdwood,” as he puts it, for the school’s magnet programs. In 2018, Walker was named Alaska Teacher of the Year, an honor he’s quick to say is not for him alone.
“It’s really a representative award more than it’s an individual award,” Walker said. “It’s really representative of the entire school and different parts of the system that have supported me.”
Walker said it’s hard to describe the depth of relationships that are built inside a school building, especially as generations of students move through -- younger brothers and sisters and, eventually, children of former students.
“You really develop a sense of family, not only with coworkers but with students,” he said. “When you shake that up and people are just coming for a couple of years … that really hurts kids and their connection to school.”
Walker has seen plenty of his colleagues leave Alaska, and he doesn’t want to join their ranks. But as a Tier III employee with no access to Social Security benefits, he admits it’s not out of the question.
“It’s completely, 100 percent a kitchen table conversation,” Walker said. “I honestly don’t know what I’m going to do. I really love Romig. I really love the people I work with. My wife’s really happy; she teaches at Dimond.”
But, Walker acknowledges: “We could get hired anywhere else.”
While Walker’s friends who work in the private sector don’t have pensions either, they do have the fallback of Social Security if their retirement investments don’t pan out.
“We’re navigating this without having that safety net of Social Security,” Walker said. “It becomes very stressful to try to manage it, and it becomes a lot more attractive to not do that and just go someplace with a defined benefit.”
‘Get your start in Alaska’
Last year, Walker was one of a group of Alaska educators who published an opinion piece expressing a variety of frustrations, among them their retirement benefits. In it, they say the current retirement system encourages a phenomenon they call the “tourist teacher.”
“A tourist teacher comes, enjoys the outdoors for a few years, has some adventures, and then takes their however many grand back with them,” Walker said.
In a way, Alaska’s Tier III plan almost encourages this, according to Dan Doonan. Doonan is the executive director of the National Institute on Retirement Security, a nonprofit backed by organizations like the AARP, state retirement boards, and labor unions including the National Education Association.
“If you were going to have a career where you have a defined contribution plan and a defined benefit plan part of the time, you’re way better off having the defined contribution up front,” Doonan said.
If an employee is vested in a defined contribution plan early in their career -- like Walker is -- they can then change to a job with a defined benefit plan without giving up their first retirement plan. While they put in the years to become vested in the defined benefit plan, the defined contribution plan will keep growing.
“It could actually be a sweet spot if someone moves from Alaska to Oregon at 30 or 35,” Doonan said. “The economic incentives are real: Get your start in Alaska.”
Whether or not most young teachers are thinking that far into the future is unclear. The majority of Tier III teachers aren’t taking an active role in managing their retirement accounts, according to NEA-Alaska President Tim Parker. But if they are, he added, it’s reasonable to think they might be encouraged to leave, especially if they’re not originally from Alaska.
“You can go to any of the other 49 states, where they all have better retirement options for you with more security,” Parker said. “You can go back closer to family. That starts to sound kind of attractive. You can take 100 percent of the money that you put in, 100 percent of the money the state put in, and it’s all portable.”
And with demand for teachers soaring nationwide, some districts are looking for any potential advantage to get and keep educators. Both Fairbanks and Sitka recently inked new teacher contracts that include additional retirement contributions and resources, and Parker said he wouldn’t be surprised to see other districts follow suit as they try to attract and retain qualified educators.
“When people get in their 30s, and especially when they have families and they start to have kids, whether or not there is a retirement that is solid is something that is going to factor into that,” Parker said.
‘It definitely breaks my heart’
The week before Jake Todd packed his pickup and drove out of Alaska, he proposed to his girlfriend. It took them a couple of years to find jobs in the same place, but they’re now married and settled in Minnesota, where Todd works for a U.S. Forest Service Job Corps program that serves populations similar to the kids he worked with in Anchorage.
“It definitely breaks my heart,” Todd said. “My family’s up there. I moved away and a couple of months later, my dad passed away. At my dad’s service, there was a community that came out. When I left Alaska, I gave that up. There were kids and grandkids of people that my dad had taught in that room, and coworkers and families, and it kind of makes me sad that I don’t run into former students anymore.”
Ultimately, he said, he didn’t feel that he could build a viable long-term future for himself as a teacher in Alaska.
“Friends are good, family is good, but they’re not what puts food on the table when you’re 85,” Todd said.
Presented by NEA-Alaska, an organization of 13,000+ members who work in Alaska’s schools. NEA-Alaska exists to be an advocate for an excellent public education for each child in Alaska and to advance the interests of public school employees.
This story was produced by the creative services department of the Anchorage Daily News in collaboration with the Sponsor. The ADN newsroom was not involved in its production.