Nashville — Like many states, Tennessee's teaching positions have a popularity problem. College freshman in the state don't seem particularly interested. The number planning to teach has plunged from 20 percent in 1972 to about 4 percent today.
And among current teachers, attrition is high. Nearly half of first-year teachers will leave the profession by 1990, according to recent studies. By 1995 , many of the state's teachers will retire.
The upshot: Within 10 years, Tennessee may have to replace 30,000 of its 44, 000 teachers, according to a special legislative report released this January.
But now there is cautious optimism that this scenario won't take place. Two months ago the state's General Assembly passed sweeping education reforms. Over the next three years, the state will pour in about $1 billion for such things as a 10-percent teacher pay raise, new classroom computers, and hiring of more math and science high school teachers as well as teacher's aides.
The cornerstone of the program is a merit-pay plan, where outstanding teachers and other school personnel will receive sizable salary supplements.
This has brought a nationwide debate to Tennessee: Do financial incentives make better teachers and improve public schools?
To many, merit pay is an almost irresistible idea. Six out of 10 Americans in a Gallup poll favored it last summer. If anything, public support in Tennessee was higher, observers say.
''There's an underlying climate in the state that's conservative,'' says state Rep. Steve Cobb, one of the prime sponsors of the education bill. And that conservatism supports ''the old-fashioned notion of rewarding excellence.'' That may be one reason many teacher-improvement reforms have come from the South in recent years - Florida, the school systems of Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C., and Houston. California and Utah also have merit-pay plans.
Tennessee's new program - while commendable for a state that ranks near the bottom in funding education - is also controversial. In other regions, merit-pay programs have generally failed. In Tennessee, it took more than a year and an extraordinary session of the General Assembly to pass the measure, originally proposed by Gov. Lamar Alexander.
Not everyone believes bonuses will improve schools. And if attracting better teachers is so important, why wasn't much of the increased pay put at the front end of a teaching career? asks Gene Bryant, public relations assistant with the Tennessee Education Association (TEA), the state teachers' union.
''We don't think the (major) rewards of teaching are monetary,'' he says. ''The real problems haven't been addressed: Are we expecting more of our schools than they can possibly deliver?''
But, he concedes, the legislation does have the merit of warming public opinion to further reforms. The General Assembly has funded the reforms with a 1 -cent hike in the state sales tax and application of a sales tax to new items. The rest will come from various business taxes.
The state's merit plan for teachers is based on a five-step career ladder. (Simpler ladders have been set up for principals, assistant principals, and supervisors.) After one year of probation and three more as an apprentice, a teacher is eligible for career Level I.
To qualify, a teacher will have to pass a state-devised or state-approved evaluation. Those who fail would most likely be fired, since they would no longer receive the state portion of their salary. Those who succeed would get tenure and a $1,000 annual supplement. The program is mandatory for new teachers; voluntary for those already in the system, many of whom qualify for a special fast-track program.
Observers say the program has addressed one of the most glaring faults of past merit-pay plans.
There's ''always the danger of attempted political manipulation,'' says Representative Cobb, one of the prime sponsors of the education bill.
Tennessee's plan will be less vulnerable to local politics, he says, because the state will conduct evaluations for career Levels II and III, where qualifying teachers receive up to $7,000 in annual salary supplements. The state also will look at local evaluations for Level I.
Still, Cobb says, the state will have to make sure the program doesn't become a simple seniority system.
A key ingredient will be gaining teachers' confidence in the evaluation program. They appear willing to give the program a try, says Mr. Bryant of TEA. But ''if teachers don't feel like it's fair, the plan will fail.''
Carol B. Furtwengler, assistant commissioner for career ladder certification, is buoyed by the reaction so far. Teachers who were the evaluators in a recent field test underwent a grinding two-week training session earlier this year. Spontaneously, at the end of the last session, the teachers gave the state education officials a standing ovation, she says.