Federal rules, debt, abuse may deter future teachers

I was not a typical math teacher. My teaching career spanned the mid 1960s to 1996, with time out to raise children and earn a law degree. Following law school and wanting more time with my growing family, I happily returned to teaching algebra in Los Angeles secondary schools, including one of L.A'.s successful magnet schools, the L.A. Center for Enriched Studies. I enjoyed being a teacher and a parent involved in her children's schools.

Today, watching our bright young people doctoring, lawyering, making and reporting news and doing other interesting jobs, I seriously worry about who will want to teach our children and grandchildren. Medford recently hosted a public "Stand for Children" forum, attended by parents, teachers, local school board members, state officials and legislators. Your follow up news story (Dec. 5) reports that Gov. John Kitzhaber is proposing to cut funding for education service districts, "reallocating the money for an initiative to encourage and train the next generation of teachers." I would love to know how he might achieve that admirable goal.

Nobody becomes a teacher to get rich. But during my career, teachers were treated as professionals and trusted to perform their duties properly. We had large classes — my average class size in the 1960s was 40; at the public magnet school in the 1990s it was 35 to 38. (Only private schools kept class size below 20. ) I taught five math classes daily with at least three different preparations, and often brought home work to be completed. Teachers had regular evaluations from administrators, and feedback from students and parents.

But we were not burdened by unreasonable federal or state policies, enormous college loan debt or cyberspace attacks. Today, these burdens become deterrents to bright young people becoming teachers.

The No Child Left Behind Act is the highly flawed and punitive federal legislation signed by President George W. Bush, who transplanted it from Texas. The policy's premise was "If you test them and punish them, kids will learn more." Thus if a small group of students, either learning disabled or non-English speaking, scores poorly on standardized tests, an entire school district can be labeled a failure — and punished — despite its overall academic excellence. Teachers can be evaluated solely on the basis of students' test scores, whether they are teaching honors-level or remedial students. Like countless colleagues, I taught both.

President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, recognizing the looming 2014 deadline for universal high achievement and the punitive sanctions that could result, offered states NCLB waivers. Oregon is one of 36 states to have either applied for or received such a waiver. Our state has promised to institute achievement compacts in return for its waiver. But that promise imposes other onerous conditions on school districts and teachers.

College loan debt is a second burden. That debt nationwide has reached $1 trillion, and is growing steadily. Students — including future teachers — are acquiring enormous debt along with their college diplomas, often without realizing how much debt they have accumulated nor how much they can realistically expect to earn during their teaching career.

New federal legislation is creating a student debt calculator letting students know, before starting college, what their monthly loan costs would be after graduation. That would assume future tuition, loan interest rates and salaries for various careers could be accurately predicted. The "Know Before You Owe" initiative could actually show students why teaching is not a financially wise career choice.

Cyberspace attacks on teachers is another burden. An Associated Press article in June, headed "Bullying of Teachers More Damaging in Online Era" reports the abuses directed at both students and teachers via online social networking. "It's something that's long existed; think ganging up on the substitute teachers. But it has become increasingly dangerous as students get access to advanced technology at earlier ages," says the article.

One modern means of abusing teachers is "cyberbaiting." The AP story explains, "Students irritate a teacher to the point that the teacher breaks down; that reaction then is captured in photos or video to post online." The article says a recent study "found 21 percent of teachers had experienced or knew another teacher who had experienced 'cyberbaiting.' "

I wonder if Gov. Kitzhaber is fully aware of these burdens facing future teachers: punitive federal policies, huge college loan debt and savvy students' abusive behavior.

We all want bright, dedicated and effective teachers in our children's classrooms. But recognizing the realities, who will choose to teach in our schools?

Betty R. Kazmin earned her law degree while raising children. She taught math for 20 years in Los Angeles public and private secondary schools and served on the board of education in Willard, Ohio.

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