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The great escape

Teachers are fleeing their jobs faster than ever before. Schools, once worried about hiring, now ask: How do we keep them?

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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.

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