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District leaders focus on hiring the best qualified teachers. But then what?

Administrators across the nation have long recognized the need to focus efforts on attracting high quality teachers to their districts, especially those in low-performing, remote and inner-city schools. But after the teacher arrives at the school, then what?

Now that, say experts, is a whole other issue and a whole other problem. Keeping good teachers in a school system is the battle administrators face each year.

"The real school-staffing problem is teacher retention," states No Dream Denied, a new report by the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future. The focus, says the report, has to shift from hiring qualified teachers to keeping them.

In fact, according to the report, the nation has dramatically increased its supply of teachers during the past decade and there are enough to meet yearly needs. But teacher attrition is increasing even faster. Many schools, the report says, show a net loss of teaching staff each year. "It's as if we are pouring teachers into a bucket with a fist-sized hole in the bottom," states No Dream Denied.

Approximately a third of America's new teachers leave sometime during their first three years of teaching; almost half may leave during the first five years, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics.

This is especially true in what has come to be known as "hard-to-staff" schools, the ones in impoverished regions or remote locations.

In high poverty schools, teachers left at a rate of 20 percent a year a year in 2000-2001 while the rate was 12.9 percent in low-poverty schools.

This churn puts schools and students at a disadvantage, not just in continuity but also financially. Lost are the tuition and tax supports that help prepare new teachers and the thousands of dollars school systems spend on signing bonuses given to initially attract the teachers. These losses can add up to millions of dollars. In Texas, for example, analysts estimated the cost of statewide teacher turnover at almost $330 million.

The revolving door also diverts administrators' attention from curriculum issues to constant restaffing needs. And students lose out on the benefit of experienced teachers in the schools that need them the most, says Tom Carroll, president of NCTAF.

So, how do administrators stop the staffing hemorrhage? Those who have focused on the problem say districts need to start with mentoring programs, offer pay incentives and foster an atmosphere of team work and teacher collaboration.

Carroll says the mentoring program has to be more than just assigning a teacher to another more experienced teacher for a year. It must include a team of teachers who will guide the new instructor each year. A team of mentors will help them feel as though they are not alone--one of the chief complaints of many who leave, he says.

Giving teachers a chance to collaborate more often also helps their morale and principals need to work in time each day for collaborative efforts. Teachers are also more willing to go to more challenging districts--and stay there--if they can go together with a team of teachers.

"They just don't want to do this job alone," says Carroll.

In Clark County, Nev., where the student population is growing by 12,000 to 13,000 a year, the district has developed a school improvement effort to stop the outward-bound flow of teachers leaving its 312 schools. The district began by starting a dialogue with its teachers unions, says Associate Superintendent George Ann Rice.

It developed a program, with the help of state grants, that allowed principals in tougher districts first crack at hiring, assigned full time mentors to new teachers, gave the teachers training before they arrived at the school and tied continued professional development training to pay levels. The district also has focus groups to discuss teacher morale issues, reviews all transfers and resignations, and developed a working conditions survey.

In the targeted schools where the initiatives were deployed, Rice says only 15 out of 180 teachers left.

Virginia has created teacher incentives that include one-time pay incentives for teachers who accept spots in hard-to-staff schools, who remain in the schools after three years, and who participate in training programs.

Turning the focus back onto teachers will help students as well, say educators. "Unless we really invest in that teacher and value them and treat them as professionals," says Rice. "We are never going to increase student achievement, never."

Fran Silverman is a contributing editor.