The great escape
Teachers are fleeing their jobs faster than ever before. Schools, once worried about hiring, now ask: How do we keep them?
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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, it's not exactly a happy ending. For one thing, the right kinds of teachers aren't always available where they're needed. But perhaps even more troubling is the number of teachers now running for the exit early in their careers.
"It's become a crisis," says Tom Carroll, executive director of the National Commission on Teaching & America's Future (NCTAF). "We have a bucket with huge holes in it. They're leaving as fast as we pour them in."
Last week, NCTAF 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 new teachers in the process.
But in much of the country, teacher attrition statistics remain downright shocking: Almost a third of teachers leave the field within their first three years and half 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.
While it is true that many babyboomers who entered the profession in the 1960s are retiring, veterans at the end of their career account for only about a quarter of departures. Most of the rest of those jumping ship are newcomers.
Retention received little attention during the last 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.
Though the recession has forced schools to curb hiring and layoff 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.
That problem will only grow worse under the No Child Left Behind Act that 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.
And in these 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, an education and sociology professor at the University of Pennsylvania. Salaries are low. Verbal abuse is often part of the job.