The Baltic state’s schools are struggling with the consequences of the slump and unrelenting population loss. Is firing older teachers en masse the solution?by Linas Jegelevicius 12 December 2012
VILNIUS | At 75, Algimantas Adomenas is still spry, agile, and exuberant. He has another reason to feel satisfied with his life: he still works, in a job he loves.
Adomenas has taught physics at the Vilnius Zverynas Gymnasium, a high school in the Lithuanian capital, for 27 years. “People change, but not classical physics. I feel awestruck in front of the class,” he says. And he bristles at the notion that he may have outgrown his profession: “Though I’m no IT nerd at my age, I use computers in my classes.”
The septuagenarian has not only surpassed the average life expectancy for Lithuanian men by seven years, he has withstood the tide that has swept hundreds of senior Lithuanian teachers from their jobs.
In the last three years nearly 500 teachers have been let go before reaching the statutory retirement age of 60 years for women and 62 1/2 years for men. The exodus is part of a radical school overhaul undertaken by the outgoing center-right government to modernize the education system in the face of rapid social change caused by the economic crisis and a continuing emigration wave. Unless the new government taking office this month reverses the plan, thousands more teachers may soon follow.
The controversial education reform, known as the Teacher Skills Improvement Concept (TSIC), was spearheaded in 2009 by Gintaras Steponavicius, the minister for education and science in the government that was voted out of office in October. The victory by a coalition of left-leaning parties was widely seen as a rejection of austerity measures enacted to combat the devastating economic slump.
Like welfare cuts and layoffs of public workers, education reform turned out to be very painful, with more than 100 schools closing. Many of those remaining have had to cut teachers’ pay and shrink staff, with the oldest instructors bearing the brunt of the reductions.
Under pressure, Steponavicius’ ministry retreated from some parts of the school overhaul, such as a proposal to downgrade many senior teachers to the status of teaching assistants, with smaller salaries and pensions. But even the less-harsh plan has had a ripple effect, especially after Steponavicius, in a speech in March, unambiguously urged older teachers to “vacate schools” to free up jobs for younger colleagues.
“We saw the TSIC thing, enhanced by the speech, as an unwritten order to be tougher on teachers of that age in the schools under reform,” said the top education official at a municipality in southwestern Lithuania, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“When making the lists of teachers to be affected by the downsizing, frankly speaking, we made two kinds of lists: one with the names of younger teachers and the other with the names of teachers at pension age or close to it,” the official said. “When decision time came we sacked most teachers on the second list.”
The number of teachers above the statutory retirement age dropped from 3,591 in 2008-2009 to 2,960 in 2011-2012, according to Elona Bagdonaviciene, a spokeswoman for the Education Ministry.
The overhaul has cut deeply as well for teachers just starting out, with the number of under-25 instructors dropping from 1,219 four years ago to just 618 in 2011-12.
Outgoing Deputy Education and Science Minister Vaidas Bacys defends the controversial reform. “With the significant decrease in the number of schoolchildren, down by 20,000 this year alone, to 367,000, the school reform was inevitable, and its aftermath is a need for fewer teachers,” he said.
Lithuania’s population has been falling steadily for decades – from 3.67 million in 1989 to an estimated 2.98 million this year – pushed by a low birth rate, economic hardships, and changing perceptions of women’s role in society. Emigration is the chief contributor: around half a million Lithuanians have decamped since 1990, 54,000 in 2011 alone.
School enrollment has dropped by 90,000 in the last six years, and Bacys said it is likely to keep falling through 2017 before leveling off.
Few in Lithuania dispute the need for the school system adapt to a plunging population, but in a country where teachers aged 60 and over make up around 18.5 percent of a total teaching corps of 27,000, the whip seems to be falling disproportionately hard on seniors.
“The TSIC, for many older teachers, has become more of a scarecrow than a skills development guideline,” said Jurgelevicius, whose union is the country’s largest for teachers, with some 5,000 members. “Many school principals are applying it in other forms without waiting for its full adoption, sacking older teachers first.”
Jurgelevicius contended the previous government botched the urgent job of education reform, turning an opportunity to improve the quality of instruction with new skills and training into a lever to pry out hundreds of older instructors. Steponavicius’ approach, the union leader said, amounted to “cut it if you can’t fix it.”
Departing Deputy Minister Bacys said the ministry took a number of measures to cushion the social impact of the layoffs.
The issue of teacher layoffs will persist even beyond the expected stabilization of student numbers in five years, Bacys said, “but many redundant teachers will be employed in new multi-purpose educational facilities. Some 500 will be retrained as preschool teachers, while 700 will assume jobs in other education-related capacities, especially at primary schools. If we were to add up the numbers, we’d have pretty much the total of teachers who have lost their jobs.”
However, the ministry planned far deeper cuts for the next two years, with more than 5,000 more teachers slated to go. Their fate now lies with the new, more labor-friendly Social Democratic government.
JOB LOSS, PENSION PAIN
Job security is not the only economic issue facing Lithuania’s teachers. The country, unlike most EU member states in Western Europe, has taken no steps to create pension plans for teachers.
“The government pledged to create such plans in its 2008 program, but ... it has never raised a finger in that direction,” Jurgelevicius said. “What we have been hearing all the time is that the crisis-stricken budget could not bear the burden.”
The union chief said he has “heard assurances from very high-ranking Social Democrats that the single-profession pension plans will be created. The union will try to make sure they will end up in the new government’s program. And, certainly, to scrap the current Teacher Skills Improvement Concept.”
A prominent Social Democrat, former Prime Minister Gediminas Kirkilas, confirmed that the new administration intends to set up teachers’ pensions plans, although he said it was too early to put a price tag on the scheme.
“Undoubtedly, the entire school reform and all the teacher issues have to be addressed. We’re really dissatisfied with the rushed reform by the former ministry, which has brought so much irritation and uncertainty to schools, teachers, and society,” Kirkilas said.
Asked why the matter of teachers’ pensions plans was not pursued when he stood at the helm of the 2006-2008 Social Democratic government, Kirkilas said the government was “preoccupied” above all with teachers’ salaries.
If the Teacher Skills Improvement Concept is canceled, it will remove one barrier to senior teachers serving out their full careers. But it would do little to reverse what some say is the growing problem of age discrimination in Lithuania.
“Age-related discrimination is perhaps most active in the education sector, where teaching quality is often associated with a fresh teaching staff and being able to adapt to innovations. But it has been increasing in other fields as well,” said Ausrine Burneikiene, the country’s equal-opportunity ombudsman.
“The discussion about whether sexagenarian teachers meet the modern requirements for the job has gone beyond the boundaries of the TSIC,” Jurgevicius said. “There are many 30-year-old teachers out there who have little clue of what they are mumbling in front of the children. You can’t just write off old teachers with their expertise and life experience.”
Not all educators agree. Arunas Aleksandravicius, principal of a high school in the northwestern town of Silale, backs the reform plan, and even favors lowering the statutory retirement age.
“I am really against any age-based discrimination against teachers, but over many years I’ve seen many senior teachers who come to class to ‘sit out’ the lessons, not to teach,” he said. “In these cases, we do a favor to the teacher, but the schoolchild yearning to learn is the one who suffers at the end of the day.”
Aleksandravicius said he has laid off about 10 retirement-age teaches in the past four years while retaining two who continue to work “successfully.” He believes the retirement age should be dropped to as low as 52: “There are just too many stressed-out and – excuse my language – whacked-out teachers in their 60s or older out there.”
Other school heads stoutly defend their older teachers. Daiva Ziuriene, principal of at the Vilnius high school where Algimantas Adomenas teaches physics, said most people “don’t give a thought to his age when they see him explaining the subject in a matter-of-fact and articulate way.
“The pupils and their parents love him, and he pays everyone back with his love, passion for physics, and, most important, his deep knowledge of it.”