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How to Retain Good Teachers

* An analysis of a federal survey suggests that the best and brightest instructors are leaving the profession. But in Orange County, the trend is only partly true. Experiences vary among local school districts.

March 15, 2000|From staff and wire reports

About one in five teachers leaves the profession within the first three years and those who leave are likelier to have entered college with higher test scores than those who remain, according to a new analysis of federal survey data.

That nationwide pattern in teacher turnover suggests that "the best and brightest" abandon the classroom much faster, the trade publication Education Week concluded in "Who Should Teach?," its annual report on education this year.

Among teachers who graduated from college in 1993, those who had left the field by 1997 were about twice as likely to have scores in the top 25% nationally on the Scholastic Assessment Test or American College testing program than those who were still teaching, the study found in its review of Education Department surveys.

Mickey Hollis, acting associate dean for the division of education at Cal State Fullerton, took issue with the report. The average GPA of students in the university's teaching program is 3.0, and they also must have unique social abilities.

"I would question the validity of it. We're getting a very good quality of students that are very bright, but one has to also balance that brightness with a social IQ that probably exceeds that of the average person."

"People who go into teaching have to be able to tolerate a lot of ambiguity," he said.

The graduate teaching program, however, has seen exponential growth, increasing by more than 100% in three years.

In 1996, 350 Cal State Fullerton graduate students received their credentials; last year, 865 did.

According to the Education Week survey, dissatisfaction with working conditions, student misbehavior and relatively low salaries were the most common reasons given by teachers who left.

The profession sometimes does itself a disservice, Hollis acknowledged, by traditionally placing young teachers with the most difficult classes and students.

"In many cases more experienced teachers have earned the right to get rotated out of that situation," he said, "but unfortunately I think we somewhat pay the price for that."

Such departures undermine a national effort to upgrade teacher quality--shown in other studies to be an important factor in student achievement--and exacerbate teacher shortages in urban areas and some academic specialties.

In Orange County, which will need about 30,000 teachers in the next 10 years, those trends hold only partly true and vary from district to district.

Most districts cite a continuing need for teachers or even a shortage, but officials attribute the dearth of candidates more to a booming population than to teacher dissatisfaction.

Santa Ana, which saw its student population increase by 2,000 last year, hired 423 teachers and lost 96--almost half of those to retirements.

"We've had two waves of early retirements and those account for the single largest reason people leave," said Vera Munoz-Harrison, director of certificated personnel for the district.

Despite the shortages, which are projected to worsen in the next decade, the gap between teachers' salaries and those of other professionals has been growing, the study found in analyzing census data.

From 1994 to 1998, the salaries of teachers with master's degrees increased by less than $200 a year, after adjusting for inflation, compared with $17,505 for the four-year period for other workers with the same level of education. About half the nation's teachers have master's degrees.

Even though unionized teachers generally get raises based on seniority, the study found that the salary gap also widens the longer someone stays in the profession. Teachers in their 20s earn almost $8,000 a year less than other college graduates the same age, but teachers in their late 40s earn about $24,000 less than their college-educated age mates.

In his second year as a teacher at Davis Elementary School in Santa Ana, Mario Castillo said a commitment to the community and a love for children has made teaching rewarding career with few drawbacks.

A graduate of UC Irvine with a degree in economics, Castillo, 29, first worked for a mutual-fund firm in Los Angeles before deciding he would have more fun teaching.

"The only bad parts at first were when I felt I wasn't really doing the best job I could do--that I needed more training," he said.

A series of Orange County Department of Education programs for new teachers eased his transition into a second-grade classroom, he said. Once a week, he and others were taught classroom management skills and other subjects necessary for successful teaching.

Indeed, educational experts throughout the state and county cite adequate teacher training, mentoring and support as among the most effective ways to keep young teachers in schools.

In Garden Grove, which has one of the highest salary schedules in the county--teachers with a master's degree and 10 years of experience earn about $57,000--only about a dozen teachers have left the district in the past five years, officials said.

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