The National Commission on Excellence in Education has given the nation an alarming assessment of the product of its school system. However, it has only touched on the central issue in the failure of schools and the challenge it poses.
The central issue is that the teaching staff has not been good enough for the job to be done. It is shot through with mediocrity, and the good teachers we do have suffer from the mediocrity around them.
Statistics clearly show that the least academically able high school graduates have historically been the ones to enter colleges of education. College professors have described their students as coming from the bottom of the barrel and the college of education as the dumping ground of their universities. A disturbing fact is that the ability of people now entering teaching is further declining.
The most able people will not enter or stay in teaching without a revolution in the way teachers are compensated, teacher talents are utilized, and teachers are trained. Compensation and training will be the most difficult reforms.
Teacher compensation. Teachers are now compensated on a uniform, lock-step salary schedule that assumes all teachers to be of equal value when they are at the same point in years of service and academic credits. Not only is this a patently false assumption, but it would be impossible to pay all teachers what may be required to attract and hold exceptional teachers.
Teachers claim that there is no fair way to differentiate their salaries except on a time and academic credit schedule. They are over-suspicious about those who evaluate their performance and see a plan of merit pay as a form of servitude. This type of compensation is also the bane of unions.
The key to integrity in compensating teachers on the basis of ability is to anchor teacher evaluation on student achievement. Teachers are now evaluated largely on the basis of what someone thinks students are learning from teachers based upon how that someone subjectively appraises the way teachers deal with their students. How much better to start with what students actually do learn!
Computers now permit highly sophisticated analysis of student learning as well as maintenance of complete student profiles and allowances for differing student characteristics in the mix of a class. If there are shortcomings in measuring the highest level competencies students should be achieving, educators and those who budget funds for educational research should give top priority to their elimination.
The evaluation of teachers on the basis of their main reason for being, helping students to learn, may not be precise enough to grade each teacher on an exact scale for salary purposes. However, it should be feasible to group teachers by levels of ability taking into account both student achievement and other factors that can be objectively measured, particularly peer and parent relations and leadership responsibilities.
It urgently behooves teachers and their unions to recognize the bald fact that the public is not going to pay all teachers what it takes to attract and hold the outstanding teachers that school systems must have.
Teacher education. The need for drastic revolution in teacher training has been incisively documented by many experts beginning with James Bryant Conant and ''The Education of American Teachers'' and James D. Koerner and ''The Miseducation of American Teachers'' in the early '60s and carrying on in a special ''Reform'' issue of Phi Delta Kappan, the prestigious journal of education, in October 1980.
Some progress has been made since the Conant and Koerner reports, but the tenor of much recent professional writing is one of despair. College educators seem unable to break the old molds and there remains little incentive for able people to enroll in their programs. The following are key elements in the required reform drawn mostly from conclusions of recognized authorities. The question is who will ignite and sustain the revolution?
1. Thorough training in the academic disciplines should undergird the education of all teachers. Its quality should nurture critical thinking and esthetic judgment. There is no time for an undergraduate major in education. Academic subjects should be taught exclusively by academic faculties.
2. Introductory education courses and educational psychology should be taught by academic faculties.
3. The student teaching component of teacher training should be elevated to the status of a one-year graduate program limited to students in the upper 30 percent of their baccalaureate classes. The program should be planned and supervised by clinical professors of equal rank with academic professors and with a reward system based upon clinical proficiency. The graduate school should also be a center for research in teaching. It should not be necessary for institutions offering undergraduate courses in education to provide for graduate work.
4. Society's need for skilled practitioners calls for the states to heavily subsidize the graduate program because teachers are severely limited in their potential return on an investment in teacher training.
5. Teachers should be certified on the basis of having graduated in the top 30 percent of their baccalaureate classes and upon the recommendation of institutions conducting graduate programs. These requirements eliminate the need for elemental competency tests.
Public awareness. The basic school problem is not one of finding out how to educate children or what it takes to attract able people into teaching and prepare them for successful careers. The problem is one of enormous intransigence within the ranks and the Establishment. Its solution calls for public awakening to the task and sustained effort to surmount the human barriers.