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Many New Teachers in Louisiana Are Throwing In the Towel

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Many new teachers in Louisiana are sending an alarming message to the state's education community: They are giving up.

After two years, only about half of the state's beginning teachers are still teaching in the districts that hired them, researchers have found. Fewer than two-thirds are teaching in other public schools in the state.

The study, issued last month by the Louisiana Education Policy Research Center at Louisiana State University, paints a picture of frustration and low morale among new teachers in the state's 64 parish school systems.

Student discipline problems, low pay, and a lack of support from school leaders are the novice teachers' primary complaints about their jobs.

Nationally, new teachers leave the classroom at a higher rate than their more experienced colleagues, education researchers have found.

But Louisiana's situation appears to be especially severe, the study found. The median attrition rate statewide is higher than for some single districts in other state studies.

"The reason Louisiana probably has more difficulty [with retention] than other states is the salaries are very low," said Carl D. Frantz, the director of the research center and the study's author.

"Some teachers feel it just isn't worth the aggravation," he said.

High attrition rates affect districts throughout the state.

But the study found that the attrition of new teachers was most acute in rural school districts--contradicting a common belief among educators that urban districts have the hardest time convincing teachers to stay on the job.

So Goes the Nation

Nationally, studies of novice teachers have turned up similar findings about why new hires decide to leave the field.

For example, a 1992 survey of 1,000 beginning teachers by the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company and Louis Harris & Associates found that many were disillusioned with their choice of work.

About one-fifth of new teachers completing their second years in the classroom said they were likely to leave the profession within five years.

Most cited a lack of support from parents and administrators, low pay, and the social problems of students as the main factors contributing to their desire to quit.

Sheila Kirby, a senior economist for the rand Corporation who has studied teacher attrition in other states, said the departure of beginning teachers "is definitely a problem in the profession."

But she said she was alarmed at the percentage of new teachers in Louisiana who appeared to be moving out of the field.

"We're in for some trouble if this is a new trend," Ms. Kirby added, pointing to the high number of veteran teachers who retire each year in most states.

Louisiana already has a shortage of special-education, mathematics, and science teachers. About 10 percent of the state's teachers in all subjects are teaching without a standard teaching certificate.

The state's rural school systems appear to be in the most danger of teacher shortages in the future.

In rural schools, new teachers are leaving at higher rates than teachers elsewhere, Mr. Frantz said, adding that some cited the quality of life as another factor in their decision to leave.

The center's study was based on interviews with district officials, teacher surveys, focus groups of beginning teachers, and other data on the state's parish school systems. Two districts with high attrition rates and two with low attrition rates were also studied in depth.

Some educators in Louisiana were not surprised by what the center discovered.

Moving On

Two years ago, the Louisiana Association of Educators published a survey of new hires that found that many were dissatisfied with teaching.

Low pay, discipline problems, and student apathy were the most common complaints, union officials said.

"Many teachers don't believe they should have to go through that kind of suffering" without the benefit of high pay, argued Mary A. Washington, the president of the union.

Louisiana teachers' salaries are among the lowest in the nation--48th to be exact, Ms. Washington noted.

The national average for teachers' pay is $35,723; the state's average is $26,285.

Rural districts--and small school systems that border urban districts--have the hardest time retaining beginning teachers because they lack the money to pay them well, Ms. Washington said.

She speculated that some new teachers leave to seek jobs in neighboring Arkansas or Texas, where salaries tend to be higher.

Beginning teachers, many of them fresh out of college, are more likely to explore their options than veteran teachers, some teacher-educators have said.

"They just pick up and go elsewhere or move to another profession," Ms. Washington said.

Playing for Keeps

But the battle is not lost for Louisiana's schools, the center's study found. It mentions several steps districts could take to help persuade new teachers to stay, apart from raising salaries.

First, districts should try to cut down on discipline problems by coming up with policies that support the teacher and, in some cases, remove disruptive students from the classroom.

The report also suggests that schools assign fewer students to new teachers and avoid assigning the teachers to difficult classes.

Districts should also offer a full orientation and training program, mentoring, and other professional support for new teachers, Mr. Frantz said.

Although some teachers said districts could not pay them enough to work under their current conditions, the study suggests that higher salaries might be effective in retaining unmarried teachers--and particularly those with other career options.

But the burden should be shared by the state, Mr. Frantz argued. State education officials, he said, should find ways to make local funding more equitable, improve teacher training and certification, and cut down on mandates that make it more difficult for districts to come up with creative solutions.

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