America's teachers

A million teachers are expected to retire or leave for other professions by 1990, and American public school systems, which until recently were laying off staff, once again face shortages. Especially needed are well-qualified people committed to careers in teaching.

Now is the time for school officials to take the necessary steps to guarantee that the nation's classrooms are staffed, in an orderly manner, by qualified teachers.

Two things, at least, can and must be done to guarantee high academic standards. First, schools must provide a basic level of competence for all of the teacher corps and continually weed out those who don't measure up to it. Second, they must strive to make sure that there is a minority of really extraordinary teachers in each school building. The task will not be easy.

Underlying the entire teacher training and certification process will be the need to counter nagging public doubt about the competence and caliber of the teaching profession. The profile of the beginning teacher is a person whose SAT scores and grade-point averages rank in the bottom one-fourth and who, for all intents and purposes, has never done anything but go to school. The public can be excused if it does not view this record as a promising prospect for good teachers.

One response has been for state legislatures to pass laws on teacher testing. Thirty-two now or in the near future plan to require some form of testing for new teachers. This is encouraging.

Also encouraging is the fact that the presidents of the nation's two largest teacher unions, Mary Futrell of the National Education Association and Albert Shanker of the American Federation of Teachers, urge a rigorous, comprehensive national test as part of the requirement for certification. Mr. Shanker goes so far as to call for specialized tests in the various academic disciplines as a condition for merit pay, a position unimaginable to teacher groups just six months ago.

But just passing a test, though it may be necessary as a first step, does not a good teacher make.

Building a diverse, talented school faculty is more necessary today than ever, and more difficult. The captive market of women and talented minority members that school administrators used to draw on no longer exists. Prejudice in the workplace has been significantly reduced, so the best and the brightest among women and minorities can and do seek careers elsewhere.

At Harvard University, the Graduate School of Education has found there are a lot of mid-career people who would like to make a job change. The school received 600 inquiries for 20 openings next fall in its mid-career master's program for math and science teachers.

It is no longer unusual for a woman to make a large enough salary to free her husband to switch from a job that, over time, may not be as interesting as teaching. Either spouse may now opt for entering the classroom. Efforts must be made to tap this talented pool of potential teachers.

Welcome as a way to encourage such mid-career shifts are alternative certification tracks enacted in states such as California and New Jersey. A local school district may hire someone to teach who has a college degree, but who hasn't yet taken college-level courses in education. This does not mean a new teacher is just turned loose in the classroom. Each state carefully spells out guidelines for the local district on how to work with the uninitiated recruits.

One other step will have to be taken -- more money for teachers. We believe the most effective way to secure quality teachers is to offer much higher beginning salaries.

Besides the obvious benefit of providing a more competitive wage to attract better teachers, higher starting salaries will, more than any other measure, guarantee that administrators place a priority on helping improve new teachers as well as weeding out those who just shouldn't be there in the first place.

It is easy to let a $13,000- to $15,000-a-year teacher coast for four or five years, after which it becomes much more difficult to remove that individual or change weak performance. But higher starting pay provides the incentive to make sure a new teacher -- and about 40 percent of the teachers are going to be new in the next five years -- is qualified and is receiving the necessary support to become an excellent teacher.

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