Fresh ideas for improving US teaching

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Five years ago, you couldn't get many people together to listen to what one participant called ``all this esoteric stuff.'' But when Gov. Thomas Kean of New Jersey and outgoing Gov. Charles Robb of Virginia were hosts of a recent panel discussion on how to get better teachers, they packed an auditorium at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. ``It's not often that I get to address a group of people over six,'' joked Janice Fitzsimmons, New Jersey's Teacher of the Year and a panel participant.

The dialogue is further evidence that education is a big-league political issue for the years ahead. The country is going to need both a lot more teachers -- over 1 million more by 1990, some experts say -- and a lot better teachers, to boot. The 17 educators gathered here to discuss what the states can do.

Not surprisingly, more money heads the list. Women and blacks, once a captive labor force because there were few employment opportunities outside teaching, now have wider vistas. According to Michael Timpane, education dean of Columbia University, this change means that ``for the first time in our history, we may be called upon to pay teachers what they are worth.''

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Higher salaries are not the only way to make teaching more attractive. Albert Shanker, outgoing president of the American Federation of Teachers, the second-largest teacher union, raises the need for sabbaticals like those colleges offer. ``Outstanding people won't come in and stay if they are locked into a room with children for 25 years.''

Another need: more support for teachers in the classroom. One-third of all teachers quit during the first five years, and Mary Futrell, head of the National Education Association, the largest teachers union, says one reason is that new teachers ``frequently get the worst classes and the toughest students.''

Also at the forefront of discussion is upgrading teacher education. Leo Klagholz, director of Teacher Preparation and Certification for New Jersey, says the state dropped many required ``methods'' courses (often described as ``Mickey Mouse'') and instead prescribed a heavier dose of liberal arts for prospective teachers. Klagholz also provided a glimpse of the politics of education reform. Teacher-training faculty lobbied the state, he said, in an unsuccessful effort to keep the state requirements for m ethods courses, so that they wouldn't have to defend them to the rest of the faculty.

One option for enlarging the nation's pool of teachers is New Jersey's ``alternate route,'' (see article in last Friday's Monitor, Page 17), which, according to Klagholz, opens the teaching profession to people who don't have teacher-training credits -- top-quality liberal arts graduates, for example, and people tired of the corporate grind.

For example, it's more difficult to keep a good physics teacher than a physical education teacher. Would teacher unions object to paying the former more? No, says Shanker, ``if they didn't view it as a procedure in which others make decisions they don't agree with.''

Shanker notes that American industry has begun to realize that people work better when they have some say in what they do -- but public schools still work on the old assembly-line model, in which the word comes down from on high.

Perhaps most interesting of all is the wide agreement teachers should be given more of a hand in running the schools.

What form would teacher-management take? Teachers unions often talk about making their profession more like the legal profession, so teachers could decide who would join their ranks. Whether a monopoly of this kind is a good idea is open to question. But it's just one of many possible forms of self-management. Designing the curriculum, choosing textbooks, training other teachers, and basically having more say regarding their classrooms and their schools -- these and other options all arose in the course

of the discussion.

At Varina High School in Richmond, Va., an assistant principal job slot was eliminated and the money was used to pay teachers an extra $2,000 a year to pick up administrative duties. Principal Albert Fox says 35 of the 90 teachers at Varina now serve in administrative roles -- as master teachers, senior teachers, and administrative assistants. While they hardly run the place, they do make all decisions regarding discipline and teacher evaluations, as well as setting the curriculum (with the oversight of

Mr. Fox or another administrator). ``It gives the teachers a chance to make extra money,'' Fox says, ``and it makes them part of the administrative process.''

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