California proposal aims to make teaching a true `profession'

Californians have watched their school system fall from among the ranks of the country's best to dead last in student-teacher ratio. The once wealthy education system is also near the bottom in spending per pupil as a share of state income. In response to this downward trend, an independent California Commission on the Teaching Profession has drafted what is perhaps the most comprehensive school-reform proposal in the nation. The heart of the plan is to make teaching a true profession, borrowing from principles that have guided the legal and medical professions, and incorporating sound business-management concepts.

``It is clear that the state of public education in California has been on the decline for the past several years,'' says Dorman Commons, chairman of the privately funded commission and former chief executive officer of the Natomas Corporation. He believes the principal reason for the decline is that the teaching profession is not attracting capable people and holding them.

``If we don't do something about the incentive and structure of teaching, none of the other reforms will have a payoff,'' says Gary Sykes, the commission's research director.

Included in the proposals are recommendations to:

Replace the commission that now issues teacher credentials with a Teaching Standards Board made up chiefly of classroom teachers. The idea is to make teachers self-governing professionals like doctors and lawyers.

Grant teaching credentials on the basis of performance on evaluation examinations rather than by courses completed in college. This would allow colleges to train teachers in the most effective manner, eliminating the current rigid standardization in educational curriculua.

Require one-year ``residencies'' for beginning teachers as a period of internship under the supervision of a mentor teacher and a college professor.

Create ``career ladders'' so that good teachers can rise in rank and pay level without necessarily being promoted out of the classroom. One unique idea in this plan is the ``board-certified'' teacher, one who has passed special exams to achieve a higher status, akin to board-certification of surgeons in a medical specialty.

Formulate ``educational policy trust agreements'' as a new legal mechanism for negotiating professional issues (such as teaching standards) and educational issues (such as the makeup of the school curriculum). The point here is to move teachers out of the adversarial attitude common to wage bargaining.

Underlying all these proposals is the need to pay teachers more and reduce the student-teacher ratio. Mr. Commons admits this would make the plan an expensive proposition. ``But there's a lot of evidence that we have the resources if we're willing to commit them.'' California has a balanced budget but Gov. George Deukmejian has vetoed similar ideas in the past, because they were too expensive.

The proposal is popular with teacher unions, even though it involves giving up some union prerogatives. One of the most avid backers of the plan is Albert Shanker, New York-based president of the American Federation of Teachers.

Similarly, Ned Hopkins, spokesman for the California Teachers Association, says, ``It's absolutely terrific.''

The California Senate and Assembly education committees held a public hearing on the plan last week and found it had wide support among politicians of both parties.

``Our thrust is quite simple,'' Commons says. ``Teachers should be given and should accept the responsibility for setting, improving, and policing their professional standards.'' -- 30 --

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