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Guest opinion: Teachers are crucial to America’s success

For American enterprise to regain its competitive edge we must better educate our youth. We will never do this while treating teachers like second-class citizens instead of hardworking, dedicated professionals with years of education.

Some claim that teachers are overpaid and underworked, but we pay them less than our auto mechanics, yet criticize them for not repairing every child “broken” by parental abuse and neglect. We find the money to beautify our towns and maintain our highways but can’t afford to compensate our teachers adequately or award them the social status of other professionals.

Experts agree that Finland has the best educational system in the world, and Finnish teachers are paid as much as or more than engineers, and are as highly respected. But we too often treat our teachers as little more than sitters for our children.

The money to pay teachers more could easily be generated from a corporate education tax, a small sales tax or a state lottery with funds restricted for education. Depriving teachers of their right to bargain collectively or replacing them with computers, as Idaho Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna has proposed, will lead to poorer student scholastic performance and incomplete social development. A computer cannot counsel or refer a young pregnant teen, a young man hooked on drugs or a student confused about a math problem.

Substandard teachers must improve or be dismissed, and Idaho teachers can be summarily dismissed anytime during their first three years of employment without being given a reason. Rather than tenure, veteran teachers are offered “continuing contracts” and can be removed with just cause at any time.

But poor teacher performance is often linked to low salaries, to poor support from school administrators and the community – and to low expectations. Expect teachers to perform poorly, treat them poorly, and some will perform poorly, as will their students. It’s human nature.

We force teachers to teach more and larger classes of students of disparate ability levels and then criticize them when students underachieve. We burden them with a “No Child Left Behind” or a “Race to the Top” but fail to provide enough funding or administrative assistance to make these programs successful – and blame teachers when they are not.

We commonly use the teacher’s dedication to manipulate him or her into doing more for less during and after school, from coaching sports to directing plays – all for a pittance, or no extra pay at all.

Teachers must often buy their own classroom materials and spend portions of weekends, summers and holidays preparing for classes, leaving too little quality family time or personal life beyond school. They must spend their own money to improve their credentials with required in-service training programs and college classes. Few of us would work for businesses that treated us thusly, yet we question the dedication and professionalism of teachers who complain.

Last year the federal government provided stimulus money to states specifically for teachers’ salaries, but Idaho’s teachers have yet to receive one cent. Sure, next year schools may have even tighter budgets, but if we don’t give teachers relief now, some of our best may not return next fall. At least let them decide when they get their money – money that will likely be spent at local businesses.

American companies have been criticized for accessing cheap labor overseas. But many, including our military, have had to jump ship to recruit enough adequately educated employees. A recent study reported that a sample of 15-year-old American students ranked 14th for reading skills, 25th for math and 17th for science among their peers from 34 developed countries. To compete in the world marketplace we must quickly overcome this lag. We need our teachers now more than ever to do this.

Unless we give them the support they deserve, unless we start realizing that they cannot always fix a child broken at home, unless parents and the community get more actively involved in the rearing of children and in their education, our country will continue the slide toward Third World status.

Supporting teachers and improving our schools at all levels will ensure our prosperity and our national security.

Mark Owens, a one-time teacher now living in Moyie Springs, Idaho, is chairman of the Owens Foundation for Wildlife Conservation (


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