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, 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.
But Professor Ingersoll's research shows that the way the teaching profession is structured also contributes to the problem. Teachers have little decisionmaking power at their schools and generally get no special help in their early days on the job.
Education expert say K-12 education suffers from an entrenched "sink or swim" model unique to the profession. While doctors serve long residencies and attorneys may work years under senior partners, 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.
But in the past, schools tended to give such programs too little money or time to allow them to work effectively. In most cases, simply pairing up 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 teacher unions in both Columbus and Rochester adopted more substanative 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 rose from 66 percent to more than 90 percent.
Columbus went even further, relieving its mentors of teaching duties entirely 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 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 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, Snyder says.
"We're another set of eyes and sounding boards for tips, suggestions," Snyder says. "A lot of them would be fine teachers with or without us. But with us they get there faster."
Sometimes, helping a new teacher requires more. Julie Almquist's first mentee four years ago in Santa Cruz County, Calif., was overwhelmed from Day 1. After spending all summer preparing to teach arts to middle schoolers, the rookie had her teaching assignment switched to high school language arts two days before school started and she scrambled to teach five classes in four different classrooms.
By November, Almquist says she saw the warning signs of a teacher ready to quit. Yet she stuck it out after Almquist helped her control the classroom, deal with parents, and craft a curriculum.
Experience suggests that kind of support does make a difference. In both Rochester and Columbus retention rates have improved since the mentoring programs began.
Intensive mentoring isn't necessarily expensive - at least, not in the long run. In Columbus, for example, costs were actually reduced by cutting annual hiring from 1,000 to 250 new teachers.
There are other benefits besides savings. Researchers at the University of California at Santa Cruz found teacher and student performance both improved through mentoring programs.
New teachers who participated developed the skills of second- or third-year teachers, while their students' test scores were comparable to those of peers learning from veterans.
In addition, mentors say the job comes with its own rewards. "I really feel I make a difference," Almquist says. "It made me feel great."