CORVALLIS, Ore. - A new Oregon State University survey suggests that many Oregon K-12 teachers are becoming increasingly frustrated by the state's budget woes, and the combination of low salaries, larger classrooms and fewer resources is causing many educators to rethink their profession, move out of state, or seek additional employment.
Most of the teachers surveyed say they would prefer remaining in Oregon because they like the area and have family ties. But others cited fiscal instability and a lack of support as factors that may sway them into moving across the state borders.
"Oregon is in danger of facing an epidemic of teacher burnout and attrition," said LeoNora Cohen, an associate professor of education at OSU. "Teaching is not an easy profession to begin with, and the added stresses of job insecurity, growing classrooms and dwindling support are exacerbating the problems."
Cohen and a team of graduate students surveyed 90 teachers in Oregon on their perceptions of the funding crisis in Oregon public schools. The lengthy questionnaires focused on teacher attitudes, personal and financial issues, classroom and working conditions, and changes in the teaching profession.
Not surprisingly, many of the respondents said they enjoyed teaching less today than they did five years ago, though they felt student achievement is comparable. As a group, however, they expressed a low degree of optimism for the direction Oregon public schools are going.
"Oregon has very high standards for teaching, there has been an enormous impact from the 'No Child Left Behind' mandate, the retirement system is failing, and now the lack of a budget cushion is adding multiple pressures on teachers," Cohen said. "It isn't just teachers who are discouraged; it is parents, community leaders, and students themselves.
"Our education woes haven't gone unnoticed nationally, either," she added. "Oregon is fast becoming known as 'the Mississippi of the West.'"
Cohen said the survey - which she calls exploratory, yet important - tapped into a vein of frustration that many Oregon K-12 teachers are feeling. The "big picture" issues of larger classrooms and fewer teachers are well-documented, she said, but teachers point to a variety of issues that affect student learning yet may not be as visible.
A growing number of students are on Individual Education Programs (IEPs) and that, coupled with the loss of teacher aides, can have a profound effect on classrooms.
In the OSU survey, 81 percent of the teachers say they are teaching more students with special needs than five years ago. Many of these students have attention-deficit disorders, autism, or learning disorders, while others use English as a second language.
Another effect, Cohen said, has been the elimination of specialists who teach music, art, shop and physical education. Classroom teachers have to pick up the slack, which usually eliminates any prep periods they may have used in the past.
"One result is that teachers are spending more and more time outside the classroom preparing lesson plans and grading assignments," Cohen said.
Half of the survey respondents said one of the most significant changes they face as a result of budget cuts has been the advent of "no-frills teaching," which translates into more lectures, fewer special projects, less group work and cooperative learning, fewer electives and fewer hands-on learning opportunities.
"In other words, most of what we have learned in the last 25 years of educational best practices are going out the window because of the budget squeeze," Cohen said. Teachers also are being affected on the bottom line, the OSU survey found. Nine out of 10 teachers report that they have experienced a negative salary impact from budget woes, either through salary reduction, the number of "cut days" lopped off the school year or through additional personal investment in the classroom.
Wrote one teacher: "I have paid for more materials this year...file folders, glue sticks, etc. We haven't had a real raise in years."
Others say they are spending less on the classroom out of necessity - they simply cannot afford it. More than one-fourth (28 percent) of the respondents say they or their partners have had to get another job to make ends meet, or that they were seeking additional employment. And they have had to do major belt-tightening. Noted one teacher: "We have had to eat a lot of oatmeal because of the salary cuts."
Cohen said 73 percent of the teachers surveyed say their health has been adversely affected by the public school budget crisis. Stress, depression, anxiety, sleeplessness, and weight problems are commonplace, she pointed out.
"Despite the impact of the budget on teachers, their greatest concern is what effect the fiscal crunch has on the school children and their ability to learn," Cohen said. "Teachers in the sample are an altruistic group, yet clearly the stresses on teachers cannot mean good things for students.
"When nearly three-fourths of the teachers feel their health is at-risk, that means that burnout and attrition are serious risks," she added. "Hopefully, this study will provide support for teachers in the field and encourage Oregon to provide a stable funding base for education. It also means that we need to prepare prospective teachers in our schools of education for the reality of teaching."
OSU students assisting in the survey included Aaron Barnes, L. Earl Fonville, Andy Hordichok, Jeannette Smith, and Kathleen Smith.
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Nora Cohen, 541-737-4567