US school enrollments are increasing year by year, but qualified teachers are leaving the classroom in droves. More than a million veteran teachers are nearing retirement, and more will follow.
More than 2 million new teachers will be needed in the next decade alone, according to the National Education Association, and we should hope that they start lining up soon.
Economic research shows that an educated work force is the foundation of a stable economy. A good education does more than just increase a person's earning potential.
Studies find that regions that produce well-educated high school graduates have a higher rate of business start-ups and more economic activity. Graduates also provide communities with a continuing pool of taxpaying labor.
As teacher rosters shrink, the question is this: How long will such regions be able to hold onto those benefits?
The well-known liabilities of teaching -- low pay, overcrowded classrooms and crippling budget constraints -- have led recent graduates to opt for more lucrative career options.
And those who are called to the profession despite its shortcomings often find themselves overwhelmed by the enormity of the job. According to many education experts, new teachers feel so ill-prepared that a staggering 50 percent of them bolt during their first five years of teaching.
To help stop the exodus, the Reach Institute for School Leadership, a group based in Napa, California, has started an innovative program, designed by and for teachers, that has the potential to transform those first stressful years in the classroom.
Reach's newly accredited, two-year teacher credentialing program has a goal of attracting a new generation of committed teachers, mentors and school administrators -- and keeping them for a lifetime.
In traditional credentialing programs, student teachers spend most of their time taking education courses and seminars. The time they spend in a classroom teaching students is relatively brief -- often just two weeks.
The Reach program flips this traditional model on its ear.
Instead of spending most of their time learning about being a teacher, Reach's students start the program at the front of the classroom from the very first day, with a teacher mentor by their side.
"Most new teachers who fail, fail just because they're new," said Page Tompkins, the founder and director of Reach. "When they're struggling with what to do with a problem, they had no one to say, in real time, `Let me watch you do this.'"
Before starting Reach, Tompkins, 37 and a former principal, was a cofounder of the Bay Area School of Enterprise (BASE), in Alameda, California, a public charter high school.
BASE is now the lead school for Reach, which is a partnership of eight public charter schools in the San Francisco Bay Area that provide the teachers, mentors, coaches and administrative support for the program.
Leslie Medine, a cofounder of BASE and Reach, is also the primary sponsor of Reach through her On the Move organization that trains young leaders. Other financial supporters include the Walter and Elise Haas Fund and the Dean Witter Foundation.
Terry Jones, a lecturer and intern coach in the secondary education department at San Francisco State University, finds Reach's model innovative -- and sensible.
"Universities do not do a good job, if they do anything at all, teaching students how to manage a classroom," said Jones, a teacher training expert who is an unpaid adviser to Reach. "With Reach, young teachers go into the classroom, have experiences, then come to a seminar where their coach can add theory to what they're learning first hand. It's exactly the opposite of the way it's done now."