Finding Teachers

Summer vacation may be in full swing, but school is increasingly a year-round concern in the United States. And a controversy churning in Massachusetts points up the challenges awaiting American public education not just next fall, but for many falls to come.

The Bay State decided to administer a test of basic skills in language, math, and other subjects to 1,800 prospective teachers, and only 41 percent passed. Hoping to garner a few more new teachers, the state board of education lowered the passing grade. Then the storm really broke. The politicians weighed in, decrying crumbling standards.

The passing grade is now back where it had been, and Massachusetts, like most states, is face to face with the challenge of how to find all the new teachers it will need in the years ahead.

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Thousands of teachers who have shepherded the baby boomers and their children through school are at or near retirement. By one estimate, the nation will need to replace 2 million of its 2.7 million public school teachers in the next eight years. At the same time, many states are pushing for smaller class sizes, which means even more teachers will be needed.

Easy answers don't exist. But hopeful ideas include:

* Alternative certification that allows people with college degrees and proven expertise in a field to enter teaching without having to accumulate added layers of education-school course work first. This will require flexibility on the part of accrediting bodies and, especially, teacher unions, which have criticized alternative paths toward teaching as threats to educational standards.

There's little evidence, however, that instructors who enter the classroom without the standard credentials undermine student achievement necessarily. The Teach for America program, which encourages recent college grads to try teaching, suggests the opposite.

* Raise starting salaries for teachers. While salaries can mount substantially after a number of years in the classroom, low initial pay repels the brightest college grads. Signing bonuses, like those under consideration by the Massachusetts legislature, could be useful. Money is far from everything here, but pay says something about the value assigned teaching by society.

* Make it clear to young people that teaching has respect and status. College students should be encouraged to consider it as a career track that can run alongside a strong liberal arts education - rather than an option largely confined to teacher colleges or schools of education. The mastery of subjects like math or history should be elevated to equal footing, at least, with teaching theory.

Clearly, no one should be in charge of a classroom who lacks the basics of knowledge measured by the test administered in Massachusetts. But a grounding in mathematical reasoning or the rules of grammar is only one of many ingredients needed for success in the classroom.

One last point: As many excellent teachers near retirement, their experience should be put to use with future teachers. Good mentors can help close gaps in teacher preparation.

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