Blog entry Jack Ehnes

Teacher Pensions Help Save Lives

Teacher Pensions Help Save Lives

When you think of groundbreaking breast cancer research you might expect to find a group of skilled medical experts and a wealth of scientific analysis. What you might not expect to find is the invaluable role the nation’s largest educator-only defined benefit pension plan played in a gold-standard study such as this.

The California Teachers Study heralds humble beginnings in an unlikely encounter between representatives from CalSTRS and women’s health researchers in need of teacher volunteers. Although funds for the study had been commissioned by government research agencies, a single point of access to California’s educator population to solicit volunteers had eluded the experts. Add to that, the lifelong commitment volunteers would need to accept in order to participate in a premier study on the causes of breast cancer and other health conditions in women.

Researchers realized a potential breakthrough might be found in a pension fund upon attending a legislative presentation given by CalSTRS in the mid-1990s. The presentation, chock-full of educator statistics, also included a compilation of pooled membership data. This was the vital access to volunteers researchers had hoped for.

Currently, CalSTRS serves California’s 879,000 public school educators and their families from the state’s 1,700 school districts, county offices of education and community college districts. This unique access provided scientists with the population scale needed to compare the experience and exposures of women who develop breast cancer to those who do not. Experts sent out a baseline survey to CalSTRS members who were quick to respond.

The California Teachers Study began in the fall of 1995 as a prospective study of 133,479 current and former public school educators. Data gathered from the research has been citied in numerous medical journals throughout the past 20 years and is hailed as one of the most important cancer studies in the nation today. More than 100 detailed reports have been published in medical journals as a result of information provided by CalSTRS members.

Statistics compiled by the California Teachers Study support the keen observation of many parents, students and researchers alike, that teachers tend to be a dedicated lot. According to the California Teachers Study, about half of the teacher participants were over age 50, and 49 percent of those teachers had been in their careers for more than 20 years.

CalSTRS’ statistical information also supports this observation. On average, teachers retire around age 63 following more than a quarter century of service.  Add to that, the composition of California’s public school educators, which are made up of 70 percent women, and the value of studying the population receiving a CalSTRS pension is colored with positive possibilities.

It’s worth noting that the study also led to the early discovery and treatment of breast cancer in at least one of its volunteers. Just days after receiving the survey questions, a retired school nurse discovered a lump. Within 24 hours and following a biopsy, it was confirmed that she had breast cancer. She credits the study with making a difference in her life.

Throughout the years, the California Teachers Study has covered important scientific, yet practical health questions facing women today. With much of the negative rhetoric about defined benefit pensions – it’s good to know that not only do defined benefit pensions offer a more secure retirement, but one could reason that the CalSTRS pension has also helped save lives.

I encourage you to find out more about this study online at www.calteachersstudy.org and by watching a short video.

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