OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

Teaching profession under siege

02/22/1999

CORVALLIS, Ore. - The teaching profession is under siege from an increasing number of social, economic and political factors, leading to large, unmanageable classrooms, a chasm between educators and the community, and growing frustration among teachers.

Those are among the conclusions presented by three education analysts in an article printed in the most recent issue of the journal, The Educational Forum.

Lead author LeoNora M. Cohen, an associate professor of education at Oregon State University, said that the sociological changes affecting the teaching profession over the last quarter century have been profound. The result, she says, is that an increasing number of children are at risk for dropping out of school, becoming addicted to alcohol and other drugs, committing suicide, or eventually becoming incarcerated in prison.

"If you take a class of 30 kids, about 50 percent of them will be okay," Cohen said. "Seven or eight will be at moderate risk. Another four or five will be at serious risk. And three of those kids will be at extreme risk. You can see it as early as kindergarten, even pre-school - little kids who have uncontrollable anger, or don't have adequate food, or need to feel they are in a safe environment."

The other authors of the paper were Karen M. Higgins, an assistant professor of education at OSU, and Don Ambrose, an associate professor of education at Rider University in New Jersey.

Cohen said the 1983 Nation at Risk report catapulted the education profession into the national spotlight and "teacher-bashing became fair game." But the real problems, she says, are rooted in sociological changes, particularly the instability of nuclear families and growing economic pressures.

In 1969, 14 percent of school children were at the poverty level, she said. By 1993, that number had jumped to 23 percent. The effect on schools and the education profession has been dramatic.

"It isn't just that schools are operating on less money than they should be," Cohen said. "The support from social service agencies has also declined because of their budget problems. When you add in the fact that a majority of school children now come from something other than a two-parent family, you can see the obvious problems that arise."

Teachers can usually deal with several serious problems, Cohen said. But the number of difficulties coming from all sides, she added, is "overwhelming."

Some of those difficulties are economic, with pressures including inadequate funding, low pay, lack of professional development and mentoring, and a scarcity of resources from books to computers. Political issues range from poor working conditions, to test standardization pressures, to the fear of operating in a litigious society. The social pressures may be the most prevalent and include violence, changing values, the weakening of social service agencies, the erosion of family units, a lack of parental and community involvement, poverty, and others.

Cohen said that teachers no longer have the luxury of focusing primarily on lesson plans. They must be equal parts counselor, health practitioner, and, in some cases, surrogate parents. Most of all, teachers must be advocates for their school children, whether it is ensuring they eat properly, have warm clothes in the winter, or are safe from a range of abuses.

Cohen said there is a nationwide shortage of teachers projected over the next decade yet some college students say they are hesitant about pursuing a career as an educator. They have observed too many school problems during practicums and have heard too much teacher bashing, she said.

But Cohen, who has spent nearly three decades teaching on both the East Coast and West Coast, says there are solutions. Teachers, parents and the community must join forces instead of opposing one another to solve real school problems.

"I think there are a lot of untapped resources out there," Cohen said. "The whole idea of volunteers in the classroom has a lot of merit. Senior citizens can be a great asset in the classroom. Universities can offer mentoring for new teachers and volunteer service by students.

"And local businesses could encourage their employees to volunteer by allowing them to take an hour of paid work time to help out at a local school."

The news media, which has played a major role in teacher-bashing, Cohen says, is beginning to present more rounded views of teachers.

Still, several problems remain that better parental and community support alone cannot address. One of those issues is what the authors call the "collapsing infrastructure" of America's schools. Simply put, many buildings are falling apart.

Bulging classrooms are an increasing problem. A combination of funding cuts and increases in student enrollment have left too many classes with upwards of 30 students. Ideally, Cohen said, they should have fewer than 17, especially in primary grades.

"These issues, frankly, are scaring some prospective teachers away," Cohen said. "You have to be up front and honest about what education majors will face when they graduate and get their own classrooms But the ones who stay the course are the ones we need.

"We encourage them while they're still in college to go out and see as many different classrooms, schools and districts as they can," Cohen said. "If they go through all that and say they still want to be teachers, that they want to make a difference to a child, then they probably will make that difference."