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High Teacher Attrition Grabs Attention in N.C.

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For school administrators in North Carolina, a recent survey of the state's new teachers brought bad news and worse news.

The bad news was the large number of rookie teachers who leave the profession within five years. Even more alarming, however, was the fact that the brightest teachers are the ones most likely to bail out.

The survey released this month by the state education department has prompted school authorities throughout the state to search for solutions to the high rate of attrition.

The department surveyed records of the more than 81,000 teachers hired in the state's public schools since the 1979-80 school year. By the end of the fifth year after they were hired, the survey found, one-third had left the profession.

And the survey showed that after five years of teaching, 44 percent of teachers who came from colleges considered to be in the top one-fourth in the state had left, compared with only 26 percent of teachers coming from the bottom fourth of colleges.

The survey, which did not ask teachers their reasons for leaving, has prompted the state school board to seek more information.

"We want to get more voices heard and go over a longer period of time, so we're planning another survey that's trying to be more comprehensive," said Eddie Davis III, a state board member who is also a teacher.

Training Needs Cited

The high attrition rate for teachers isn't confined to North Carolina. From 30 percent to 50 percent of beginning teachers leave the profession within their first five years, according to the New York City-based National Commission on Teaching and America's Future.

But teacher training and retention have been of particular interest in North Carolina, which ranks 39th in the nation in teacher salaries, according to the American Federation of Teachers.

"This subject now has everyone's attention," said John Dornan, the executive director of the Public School Forum of North Carolina, a nonprofit research center.

Mr. Dornan's group released a similar report last year that showed a strong likelihood that graduates of the North Carolina Teaching Fellows Program would leave teaching after completing their obligation to the state. The highly touted program, administered by the Public School Forum, awards four-year scholarships for selected teaching candidates in exchange for a four-year teaching commitment.

New teachers, Mr. Dornan said last week, tend to feel overwhelmed by classroom responsibilities and often do not receive proper support. "The long and the short of it is they want real-life experience, and they want it earlier," he said of new teachers.

Jane Norwood, a state board member and an education professor at Appalachian State University in Boone, agreed. "My biggest feeling is that we do need to give potential teachers good experiences in which they are in a lot of classrooms from an early stage," she said.

Ms. Norwood added that only a certain amount of classroom management can be taught--the rest must come from actual practice. She recommended that schools allow longer student-teaching assignments, and that administrators avoid giving student-teachers troublesome classes.

Mr. Davis said the assignment of rookie teachers to the most difficult assignments is "the informal and very quietly kept secret" in school districts. "That's something I think that we as educators are going to have to confront--that the more experienced and 'better' teachers are getting the classes that are easier to teach."

Coaching, Driving Buses

For some new teachers, however, there are other reasons that drive them away. Dave Merriman, a former North Carolina Teaching Fellow, was recently named teacher of the year at Chewning Middle School in Durham.

But the fifth-year teacher said that next year will probably be his last in the profession.

He said new teachers are often subtly pressured to take on time-consuming coaching and extracurricular responsibilities. In his school, where there is a shortage of bus drivers, young teachers find themselves behind the wheel as well, he said.

"There's absolutely no support," Mr. Merriman said of administrators. "We see them when they want us to drive a bus."

He added that, though he enjoys teaching, he cannot afford to buy a house or raise a family on his current salary.

The average starting salary for North Carolina teachers in 1994-95 was $20,620, the AFT reported.

Pam Huff, another former teaching fellow who now teaches at Northern Granville Middle School in Oxford, said that after four years of teaching, she is considering leaving the classroom for an administrative position.

Ms. Huff said that although she has received support in her school, the biggest problem for most new teachers is the lack of a safety net.

"It's the only profession where on your first day on the job, you're expected to do the exact same job as someone who's been there for 20 years," she said. "A lot of times when people have problems there is not anyone to turn to."

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