Education's priority: public support

Could it be that the contemptuous old jest - ''Those who can, do; those who can't, teach'' - is coming closer to describing the actual state of the profession in America's public schools?

A recent Rand Corporation report indicates that the trend is for the ''least academically able students'' in US colleges to become teachers. It foresees severe teacher shortages by 1988.

Reform programs instituted in a number of states within the last two years ''will not solve the problem,'' say the Rand report's authors. With the average starting teacher's salary now at $13,000 a year, they recommend that salaries start at $20,000. It's not difficult to imagine the reaction to that of a typical school board. Other suggested steps, while less costly, involve additional outlay: giving more status and responsibility to able, experienced teachers; offering scholarships to lure talented students into teaching; and improving working conditions by providing paraprofessional help. Similar reforms are already being tried in some states.

The Rand report is the latest of a spate of such documents in the last two years. Most deal with specific problems in public elementary and secondary education - a logical approach, but one that does not go far enough.

At base, the difficulties of the public schools stem from erosion of broad local and national support for quality public education.

Many excellent teachers, while not entirely satisfied with their level of compensation, have no wish to abandon their students or their profession. But they've faced several demoralizing developments in the last decade.

If the antitax movement was not directly aimed at education, the public schools nonetheless were in the line of fire. In many cases, positive trends in compensation, physical plant improvement, and curriculum modernization were stopped or reversed.

Then enrollments began dropping. Teacher organizations and school administrations became antagonists over what and whom to cut rather than collaborators in providing the best possible learning atmosphere.

With fewer families sending children to school, the community base of support for quality public education narrowed. School buildings that served as unifying symbols in neighborhoods began to be closed, even sold.

Civil controversies, rightly or wrongly, invaded the schools. The necessary effort to remove racial discrimination in public education unfortunately alienated some segments of the public. Controversy over school prayer, limits on discipline, broader students' rights, and book censorship tended to disrupt the teaching process and rob teachers of control of their own classrooms.

And then came the renewed push for aid to private and parochial schools. It cannot be encouraging to public school teachers to contemplate the diversion of funds and other kinds of much-needed support from community schools to sectarian institutions.

Americans need to put aside their special interests and revitalize their broad commitment to quality public education. The determination and the means to correct whatever problems exist will follow.

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