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Survey Finds Teacher Alarm Growing Over Societal, Health Woes of Youths

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By Debra Viadero

Washington--American teachers are viewing the societal and health problems of young people with growing alarm, according to a new national survey.

The 1989 Survey of the American Teacher documents teachers' increasing concern over issues such as "latchkey" children and what they see as growing numbers of young people who drink, take drugs, drop out of school, or become pregnant.

And, the survey says, teachers believe schools should be collaborating with social-service agencies in helping to address these problems.

Other findings from the survey, which has been conducted annually since 1984 by Louis Harris & Associates for the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, present a generally more positive picture of the situation in the nation's schools. They show that, for the most part, teachers welcome educational reforms in their schools. And many teachers believe that their pay and professional status have improved as a result of some of those reforms.

In addition, nearly half of the teachers surveyed said the quality of education in their schools was "excellent."

The report on the survey, "Preparing Schools for the 1990's," was released here last week. The study was based on telephone interviews during May and June with more than 2,000 elementary and secondary teachers across the country.

'Latchkey' Children

According to the survey, 76 percent of teachers were troubled by the growing ranks of children who are left on their own after school hours. Thirty-three percent of those polled described the problem as "very serious."

The situation was viewed with particular concern in urban schools, where 54 percent of the teachers said the plight of such "latchkey" children was very serious.

The problem of student dropouts was of increasing concern to the teachers surveyed. The percentage of teachers who said the dropout problem was very serious was 22 percent this year--up from 11 percent just one year ago.

And teachers also expressed growing concern about illegal-drug use among young people. The number of teachers who said the drug problem was very serious rose by four percentage points over last year, to 18 percent this year.

But, in the view of many teachers, alcohol abuse among teenagers is an even greater problem. Concern over teenage drinking jumped 10 percentage points over last year's survey, with 37 percent of teachers now describing it as a very serious problem.

Alcohol abuse was described as being particularly a problem in high schools, where 51 percent of the teachers were seriously troubled by it, and in rural areas, where 44 percent of the teachers called it a serious concern. And, unlike other societal problems identified in the survey, teenage drinking was seen as a bigger problem in schools with few minority students, according to Mr. Harris.

In response to these concerns, an overwhelming majority of teachers said schools should mobilize social and health resources for students. Ninety percent of the teachers surveyed endorsed that strategy, and 84 percent saw the linkage between schools and social-service agencies as "crucial in keeping at-risk students from slipping through the cracks," Mr. Harris said.

"Schools cannot do the entire job by any means," the pollster remarked, "But the key tie between the educational process and such social and family services must be recognized and established."

Cause for Optimism

On a more positive note, 48 percent of the teachers polled rated the quality of education in their schools as excellent. That number is 4 percentage points higher than it was in 1984. The biggest gain in this area was found among high-school teachers, 38 percent of whom gave the teaching quality in their schools excellent marks. By comparison, 318percent of high-school teachers expressed the same degree of satisfaction in 1984.

"But, inner-city and rural schools are well below average," Mr. Harris noted. "So the gains are painfully wrought and not uniform."

The report notes, for example, that the percentage of teachers who were seriously troubled by their students' lack of basic skills was 21 percentage points higher in urban schools than in other areas.

And, as the survey has reported in the past, job satisfaction among minority teachers continues to be alarmingly low. Of black teachers surveyed, 43 percent said they plan to leave the profession.

The survey also found that:

  • The number of teachers who say their ability to earn a decent salary is satisfactory has jumped from 37 percent in 1984 to 48 percent this year.
  • The number of teachers who say they are respected by society showed a similar increase over the same period, rising from 47 percent to 53 percent.
  • A dramatic increase has occurred in the number of teachers who said they would advise a young person to go into teaching: 67 percent said they would give such advice this year, compared with only 45 percent in 1984.
  • In schools with mentor-teacher programs in place, 86 percent of the teachers were enthusiastic about the program. Considerably fewer teachers favored career-ladder and merit-pay programs.
  • More than half of all teachers said educational reforms in their schools had had a positive effect on students; only 43 percent said reforms were as beneficial for teachers.
  • Teachers overwhelmingly favored the establishment of school leadership committees composed of principals, teachers, and students to enact and enforce school rules.
  • More than 60 percent of the teachers said teachers should be held accountable for the academic success of their students.

Copies of the report are available from Louis Harris & Associates, 630 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10111.

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