AMERICA'S 2.2 million public school teachers are returning to their classrooms this fall in the midst of the biggest educational soul-searching in the nation's history. Education reform in the United States has already involved billions of dollars, countless education conferences, an unprecendented amount of literature, and legislative action in each of the 50 states. Yet it is just getting started. Reform efforts so far vary widely from state to state and range from teacher competency tests, to curriculum tightening, to merit pay and career ladders for teachers -- naming a few.
Many teachers say the proposed reforms to raise salaries and improve working conditions are too little, too late. Yet there are some new signs that the recent surge of attention paid to schooling in America has slowly created a climate in which teaching is being viewed as a more respected, desirable profession -- both for current and prospective teachers. If sustained, this shift would reverse an embittering trend that has persisted for 15 to 20 years. Policymakers say such a shift comes not a moment to o soon, since the country will need 1 million new teachers by 1990.
The education reform, which roughly dates from President Reagan's 1983 report entitled ``A Nation at Risk,'' is an attempt to address the crises of elementary and secondary public schooling that have been building since the early 1970s. Of the reforms, educators largely agree that those to help teachers are the most critically needed.
Reasons for the recent deterioration of public education here are complex, and appear to reflect many of the idiosyncracies and trends of American culture during the 1960s and '70s: a changing society offering wider employment choices for women, social attitudes that were often lax, shifting populations, a reduced interest in public institutions in favor of individual pursuits, and a suspicious view of ``traditional education'' as synonymous with ``rote learning.''
As a result, public education received little attention, even as Scholastic Aptitude Test scores plummeted. Teaching was not seen as a glamour profession. And throughout the 1970s, teachers' salaries never kept pace with inflation.
In light of this, many teachers today are cynical or dubious about the reforms. As Chris Pibho of the Education Commission of the States in Denver says, ``Teachers have been organized around the same problems of money and respect for 10 to 20 years. They aren't going to change their outlook overnight.''
Although reforms haven't produced immediate, concrete results, conversations with a number of teachers and teacher experts indicate that such reforms may be producing good effects in another important area -- public perception.
Gary Sykes, a teacher specialist from Stanford University who has spent several years helping with the extensive California state school reform movement, says reform efforts have had a ``subtle but real effect on teachers,'' many of whom are beginning to feel that ``things are on the move.''
Part of this ``movement,'' say reform-watchers, is a renewed appreciation for what makes a good education. And teachers play a large part in that movement.
Harriette Silverberg of Metropolitan Life in New York helps coordinate an annual Louis Harris study on teachers for her company. For many years, Ms. Silverberg says, teachers have been complaining that their profession was not taken seriously. That's changing, she says. And now, ``The public is beginning to see the teacher as vital -- at the center of education. We find that teachers are beginning to feel this, too.''
In south Florida, for example, sixth-grade math teacher Jeri Newman says the reform efforts have changed ``public attitudes'' toward teachers.
Merit pay is discussed in newspapers and on the radio. And ``the fact that people are finally admitting teachers are under paid is positive,'' she says. Further, ``People no longer say, `Oh, you're a teacher, that's too bad.' '' A result is ``greater cooperation between teachers and the community.''
Art Wise, education expert at the Rand Corporation, says there has been ``too much talk, and too little action'' in the reform movement so far. Still, he thinks, the reforms have made a difference. ``You are no longer considered to be a fool for wanting to be a teacher,'' he says.
Another important change is the interest in education shown by business and industry. Almost every state reform commission included a leading business person. One of the principal reasons General Motors gave for locating its new Saturn automobile plant in Tennessee was the extensive education reform effort under way there.
As Mary Futrell, president of the National Education Association says, ``Business groups, civic groups, urban leagues -- all want to talk about education. We weren't getting that five years ago.''
What will it take to keep the reform ball rolling?
Ms. Futrell told the Monitor that for reforms to continue, it's important to ``keep education issues before the public.'' The reform movement is ``not out of the woods yet,'' she says, and ``everyone -- parents, the business community, and the political community -- has to work together.'' And again, ``Major changes will cost money.''
A need for more reform money also concerns Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). ``You can't undo several generations of teacher neglect with just a little bit of money. There needs to be a continuation of high levels of funding,'' he says.
Mr. Shanker noted in a phone interview that the Reagan administration's tax reform package, which would do away with state and local deductions, ``would deal a death blow to school reform. That's where a lot of local money comes from.''
Also, there needs to be a much greater move toward the ``professionalization of teachers,'' Shanker says. This includes replacing the ``factory model'' schools reinforce -- where the teacher is supervised like an assembly-line worker -- with more peer assistance and review for teachers.
It also includes, he says, a development of ``a national examination for teachers -- a way to screen them.''
The AFT is opposed to the type of quick, emergency teacher certification now taking place in the teacher-shortage states of Texas and New Jersey. This gets back to the question of professionalism. ``You don't find any emergency doctors or lawyers, do you?'' Shanker asks.
Most educators agree that reform has come a long way but still has far to go. As Mr. Wise says, ``We haven't turned the corner yet -- but we're turning it.''