The education debate; Teachers to the fore

America's 2.2 million teachers find themselves caught up in a national political and educational controversy not seen since Sputnik soared into the sky in 1957 and many analysts concluded that the US was ''falling behind in the space race'' because of an inadequate school system. Criticism directed at the teaching profession comes not just from politicians but from professionals within education, including the National Commission on Excellence in Education and the respected Twentieth Century Fund.

Whether such criticism is entirely warranted is open to question. Most teachers are doing a fine job under difficult circum-stances. The public should be reminded that 52 percent of all US secondary students now go on to college - a higher percentage than in any other nation. A teacher corps that is turning out so many college-bound students must be doing many things right.

Still, there is no disputing that the public is now asking for better teaching - and better teachers. The concern stems from a recognition that young persons will have to be able to take their place in an increasingly competitive, computerized, and space-oriented world. If the United States is to retain its industrial and technological primacy, it will need a well-educated and skilled work force.

School systems therefore should not have to tolerate unqualified teachers. In part, that will require that school boards come to terms with tenure (the seniority system) and with powerful teachers' unions. The latter often obstruct efforts for reform and prevent administrators from clearing out poor teachers; in many cases they have reduced teachers from their role as professionals to tradesmen intent on getting ''their rights.''

What then can and should be done to improve teaching staffs?

* Set high standards. The process of awarding lifetime teaching certificates might well be ended. Teachers should be required to qualify periodically. Also, at least 20 states now require minimum competency tests for new teachers. Such competency tests should be established in all states.

* Improve teachers' colleges. These should upgrade their instruction and requirements for degrees. Substantive courses should be stressed - mathematics, science, history, English, etc. - as opposed to courses on ''teaching methodology.'' These courses on methods can be useful. But at the same time they too often substitute ''know how'' for ''know what'' in the prospective teacher's orientation.

* Raise pay to attract and retain good teachers. The average salary in the United States, after 12 years of teaching, is around $17,000 for a 10-month or so school year. Many teachers find it necessary to supplement their income through part-time and summer employment. Is it thus surprising that too many skilled teachers, or potential teachers, opt for more financially rewarding jobs in industry?

That is not to say that money alone should be the only priority in recruiting able teachers. Many, perhaps most, teachers enter their profession out of a deep sense of altruism and love for children. And some teachers who are mothers find the vacation schedule to be a big compensation. But still, at a time when many engineering, computer-related, and business-school graduates start their careers at salaries of $17,000 or more, there is a strong case for boosting teacher pay scales.

* Consider merit pay. President Reagan has been advocating awarding special incentive pay to outstanding teachers. In the past, teacher groups have tended to oppose merit pay, arguing that such plans are difficult to administer (who would, for example, do the evaluating?) and would invariably lead to favoritism and politics in the school system. In recent weeks, however, some teacher groups have begun to back off from their opposition. They now are calling for maximum participation by teachers in the development and actual implementation of merit pay plans.

The concerns of teacher groups ought not to be taken lightly. Yet private industry has learned to live with merit pay. Teachers could be expected to do so also, provided such programs are fairly administered and drawn up with their cooperation.

* Introduce master-teacher plans. Under such an approach, now being considered in California and Tennessee, teachers recognized for their classroom excellence would be given special compensation for training other teachers. One advantage of such plans is that they provide a way to retain male teachers, who increasingly are fleeing education for higher-paying jobs in industry.

* Provide special bonuses for specialists. Math and science professionals are particularly needed in many school jurisdictions. Why should school systems not pay more, or offer special incentives, for experts? Kentucky, for example, ''forgives'' educational loans granted math and science teachers who teach for at least three years. After that time the teachers are free to stay in teaching, or, if they wish, work elsewhere.

* Free up teachers. Teachers should be relieved of administrative duties, particularly those involving collecting money, supervising lunchrooms, following up on absentees. Teachers should be allowed to focus on their primary mission - teaching.

In sum, teaching deserves the highest possible recognition and appreciation from society at large, for few professions have such a profound impact on a nation's future. At the same time, teachers themselves should welcome efforts to eliminate mediocrity and to make teaching the fulfilling ''learning experience'' it should be for both teacher and student. This could bring a whole new sparkle to the teaching profession.

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