- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 4, 2004

School districts acted fast in the late 1990s when experts warned about an impending shortage of 2 million teachers. They offered hiring bonuses and housing loans and even imported teachers from as far away as the Philippines.

Then, just as quickly, headlines proclaimed the shortage over, thanks to a recession that pushed new applicants into the field.

As it turns out, though, the ending isn’t exactly happy. For one thing, the right kinds of teachers aren’t always available where they’re needed. Perhaps even more troubling is the number of teachers running for the exit early in their careers.

“It’s become a crisis,” says Tom Carroll, executive director of the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future (NCTAF). “We have a bucket with huge holes in it. They’re leaving as fast as we pour them in.”

NCTAF recently hosted a conference on new teachers’ experiences in Milwaukee. Participants discussed the ways a minority of school districts — such as Rochester, N.Y., and Columbus, Ohio — have dramatically improved teacher retention, saving money on hiring and retraining teachers in the process.

However, in much of the country, the statistics on teacher attrition remain shocking: Almost a third of teachers leave the field within their first three years, and half leave before their fifth year, according to a NCTAF report.

In the 1990s, for the first time, the number of teachers leaving the profession exceeded the number entering. Though it is true that many baby boomers who entered the profession in the 1960s are retiring, veterans at the end of their careers account for just about a quarter of departures. Most of the rest of those jumping ship are newcomers.

Retention received little attention during the past decade as educators focused on pumping more people into the profession. Increased student enrollment and initiatives aimed at reducing class size helped create a perception of a looming teacher shortage.

Although the recession has forced schools to curb hiring and to lay off some teachers — in addition to giving veterans second thoughts about leaving their jobs — some observers warn that it’s just a temporary hiatus.

“The shortage is not over,” says B.J. Bryant, executive director of the American Association for Employment in Education, which publishes an annual survey of teacher supply and demand each fall.

Yet recent research suggests that fears of empty classrooms may be exaggerated. The nation’s colleges produce more than enough teachers — although graduates don’t necessarily migrate to the regions and fields that need them most.

Shortages are confined largely to schools in the Sunbelt, as well as urban and rural communities. Similarly, slots in specialties such as science, math and special education remain hard to fill.

Montgomery County’s school system has a rate of attrition well below the national average, according to spokeswoman Kate Harrison.

“But in certain areas — such as special education, math and science — there are fewer applicants and a continual need for good teachers,” she says. “We are fortunate because we offer competitive salaries and a lot of professional support. We get many more thousands of applications than we have openings.”

As a result, she says, the system has few problems filling teacher slots. There has been a new emphasis on staff development since Superintendent Jerry Weast took over in 1999, Mrs. Harrison notes.

“We have staff development teachers in the schools and other special staff who assist beginning teachers,” she says.

The nation’s shortages will only grow worse under the No Child Left Behind Act, which stiffens certification requirements for specialties. For example, districts will no longer be able to place a teacher with a general science preparation in a position requiring certification in biology or physics.

In such hard-to-fill specialty areas, attrition proves particularly troublesome: Special education or science teachers are twice as likely to quit teaching as social studies teachers.

The price associated with such high turnover is tremendous. In Texas, for instance, the loss of 40 percent of new teachers during their first three years is estimated to cost the state between $329 million and $2.1 billion in termination, recruiting and training expenses.

Some of the reasons teachers leave the profession are fairly obvious, says Richard Ingersoll, a professor of education and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. Salaries are low. Verbal abuse often is part of the job.

However, Mr. Ingersoll’s research shows that the way the teaching profession is structured also contributes to the problem. Teachers have little decision-making power at their schools and generally get no special help in their early days on the job.

Education experts say education suffers from an entrenched “sink or swim” model unique to the profession. Doctors serve long residencies, and attorneys may work years under senior partners, but new teachers can be thrown into the most difficult classes and worst schedules without support.

“We’ve not done a good job of creating entry conditions to help them learn their job well,” says Pat Wasley, dean of the University of Washington’s College of Education in Seattle. “We have to acknowledge them as novices.”

The notion that rookie teachers need support isn’t necessarily new. Some schools have offered mentoring programs for first-year teachers for decades.

In the past, however, schools tended to give such programs too little money or time to allow them to work effectively. In most cases, simply pairing a new teacher with a more senior buddy who might write encouraging notes or commiserate in the faculty lounge didn’t prove sufficient.

Eventually, however, a handful of districts hit on a more successful mentoring formula. In 1986, the school districts and teachers unions in both Columbus and Rochester adopted more substantive programs.

In Rochester, mentors have been relieved of half their course load, which often allows each of them time to help four new teachers. The result: Retention has increased from 66 percent to more than 90 percent in the 16 years since Rochester began its Career in Teaching program.

Columbus went even further, entirely relieving its mentors of teaching duties in order to focus on their caseloads of 12 to 15 rookies. They are required to observe each new teacher 20 times in the classroom and to schedule 10 conferences.

Mentor Pam Snyder says she winds up seeing each one at least once a week.

Ms. Snyder says that kind of support is much different from what she received when she began teaching 26 years ago and saw her administrator briefly perhaps once or twice.

“I felt very lonely,” says Ms. Snyder, who is starting her fourth and final year as a mentor. The most common issue for new teachers is getting students to do what you want them to do, Ms. Snyder says.

“We’re another set of eyes and sounding boards for tips, suggestions,” Ms. Snyder says. “A lot of them would be fine teachers with or without us, but with us they get there faster.”

Staff writer Ann Geracimos contributed to this story.

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