If Education Secretary Terrel Bell is right, the news is not how many teachers are striking in the United States -- but how many are not. He says that teaching, "the nobles of all our professions," has sunk to an all-time low in both prestige ands monetary rewards. As the new school year begins, he sees no greater challenge to American public education than making the profession of teaching attractive to more talented and qualified candidatesD.
Students should have no lesser mentors If their full potentialities are to be brought out. Probably most adults remember at least one teacher who meant all the difference somewhere along the line. The need is to ensure that such teachers do not become rarer and rarer.
Yet the task of getting and keeping excellent teachers is hampered by the rigidities of public school systems where, as Mr. Bell notes, salary schedules have the "dreadful sameness" of a railroad timetable. A dramatic instance of inflexibility appears in the way school districts now are cutting down on teachers in the face of falling school enrollments: they are doing it by seniority whether or not this means retaining the most effective teachers.
Many fine teachers remain at their posts. Some feel a "vocation" they cannot resist. Some are in districts with the wherewithal and enlightened administration to provide rewarding working conditions.
But there are teachers "living on the edge of poverty in this country," as Secretary Bell puts it. Especially in the sciences, trained people have little obvious inducement to choose teaching over the higher corporate bidders in the marketplace.
How to prepare and recruit a new generation of teachers -- and foster excellence on the job? In recent public appearances Secretary Bell has been suggesting some of the possible incentives. They begin at the beginning by honoring the university teachers of teachers, perhaps with endowed chairs or distingguished professorships, in the manner teachers of engineers, lawyers, or doctors are honored. The Bell incentives go on to include a reward system encouraging "upward mobility" in schools as in colleges, perhaps with academic ranks to recognize outstanding teaching. He notes the only upward path now is for a teacher to attend a graduate school, seek administrative credentials, and become a principal. He warns that legislators don't want to budget more money for teachers' salaries in a system requiring that the worst have to be paid as much as the best if the best are to be paid appropriately.
It may be hard to see how teacher incentives can be increased at the same time the federal government is reducing its financial commitment to education. But the states have no choice but to respond to Mr. Bell's call to them to begin the revisions promoting quality teaching. It is a reasonable choice in the sense that each state does have different conditions demanding tailor-made solutions. What must be avoided is a repetition of the state neglect of questions such as equal opportunity which, as Mr. Bell acknowledges, brought federal involvement in the past.
Already some places are using extra incentives. Better teachers are sometimes given smaller or more interesting classes. Extra pay is offered for serving in less desirable schools. Some schools find funds to reward effective teachers by paying for summer projects they might have done anyway on their own time. Private schools retain star teachers by sharing them with industry or their outside researches. Public schools might consider more such approaches.
The infrequent efforts at meri tpay systems have run into troubles of administration. But so have merit systems in private industry.A start needs to be made, not only to reard merit but to take account of such present disparities as a teacher of one subject with few or no papers to grade, for example, being paid the same as a teacher of a subject with many more papers and much more time invested.
One way to move forward would be to loosen the budgetary strings on principals, so they could have some discretion in dispensing funds where they might do the most good. This would place a burden on principals to be fair and judicious. But they should have these qualities anyway to establish the morale which, even under the present system, can encourage excellence.
Secretary Bell does not come on strong as he ticks off his points. But his tenure will have been worthwhile if he succeeds in launching the nobles profession on the journey to just rewards.