Boston — ``The most important educational event of the year'' is how Gov. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee describes it. He's talking about the plan revealed last week by the Carnegie Forum on Education and the Economy that would significantly upgrade the entire concept of teachers and teaching in America -- change the way teachers are educated, the way they work, what they are paid, their career paths.
Since it has come out, several educators have called the Carnegie plan nothing short of historic -- destined to influence American education, and hence American culture, for at least 50 years.
Others say that it's a chimerical document that will be squashed by the teacher unions, particularly the National Education Association (NEA), before the year is out.
Nonetheless, the report has spurred education experts to agree that if any time is right for a major restructuring of America's teaching force, the time is now. Nearly half the nation's 2.3 million teachers -- many of those the best educated -- are expected to leave teaching by 1993, they say.
The new plan is designed to make teaching a genuine profession, rather than simply an occupation. It would provide for national certification for teachers, more teacher say-so in the schools, a liberal arts as opposed to an education undergraduate degree (topped by an M.A. in teaching), and career advancement and salaries as high as $70,000.
Despite quibbling over this or that policy item on the Carnegie agenda, educators say that the new plan has unleashed a set of ideas that will have to be reckoned with in any future efforts to improve American schooling.
``People are always announcing the dawn of some new approach in education,'' says Harriet Tyson-Bernstein of the Rand Corporation. ``And I was skeptical [of the Carnegie plan] at first. But I think this one may be for real.''
Secretary of Education William Bennett praised the initiative, saying on NBC's ``Meet the Press'' on Sunday that ``the American people will pay for good teachers, but they want performance in return.'' If the proposed Carnegie national certification standards ``are real,'' Mr. Bennett says, ``then we've really got something here.''
Mr. Bennett supports the idea of giving higher salaries to those who are proven to be excellent teachers. Until recently, he notes, the teacher who conscientiously graded papers well into the night earned no more than teachers who cut corners.
One glaring hole in the plan, noted by several sources, is that the role of school administrators, especially principals, is not addressed. Scott Thompson of the National Association of Secondary School Principals says that the unstated assumption in the report, that schools can be run collegially by committees of teachers, is ``a mixture of modern management and liberation theology.'' It's ``sadly awry,'' he says -- a position shared by Bennett and others who point to research showing that good schools inevitably have strong principals.
The genius of the report, say many sources, is its combination of breadth and political savvy. Because it calls for change in nearly every aspect of teaching, groups hewing to a status quo line -- schools of education, teacher unions, educational psychologists, many state legislators, and school boards -- would all have to change in order to fulfill new demands. Such groups would be unlikely to undertake significant reforms in isolation.
Already the NEA has come under fire for its lack of tangible support for the plan. NEA president Mary Hatwood Futrell, a Carnegie Forum participant, signed the report but attached reservations about most of the serious changes. ``The NEA's basic position is `Give us more money and leave us alone' '' says one educator. An NEA spokesman says, however, that the Carnegie plan will undergo active debate at the organization's annual meeting in July. The plan won't succeed if the teacher unions don't buy into it, experts say.
At bottom, two main themes seem to be driving the recent support of the new reform package. The first is economic. As leading school reform advocate Gov. Alexander of Tennessee puts it, ``Either we build a wall around our country, or we get ready to compete in the world marketplace. The quality of our teachers in the 1990s will decide the future of America.''
The second theme is more purely educational. The time has arrived to develop a teaching force that can teach thinking and writing skills well. This comes nearer to the heart of learning, say educators such as Ms. Tyson-Bernstein of Rand. ``We've gone beyond the 1970s, where most plans to better teaching involved external, or manipulative efforts, such as team teaching or giving merit pay.'' The Carnegie plan represents an effort to develop teachers that are able to look deeply into the teaching process, she says.