Giving teachers their due

CORNELL University has done its part to underscore the value of a career in teaching. Traditionally, its presidential scholars program, which honors a small group of top undergraduates, has included recognition of the professors who left the biggest impression on these exceptional students. This year Cornell went a step further and included the high school teachers who helped instill a love for learning in these young people. The teachers were flown to the university's Ithaca, N.Y., campus from as far away as California and Oklahoma. They were honored as true professionals, people adept in one of society's most demanding callings - reaching the intellects of the young.

All too often, teaching is stripped of such honor. Recent studies by the RAND Corporation and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching found that the profession, though benefiting in many ways from the last five years of educational reform in the United States, still rests under something of a cloud. Average salaries are up to about $28,000, a 30 to 40 percent increase over 1980, with starting salaries hovering a little above $17,000. But working conditions - large class sizes, heavy loads of nonteaching duties, inadequate preparation time - remain bad, notes the Carnegie study, a survey of 13,500 teachers.

A core problem, according to the RAND authors, is the gap between the ideal perception of teachers as professionals, with the autonomy that implies, and their day-to-day treatment as semiskilled workers in need of supervision. Superintendents, principals, and teachers have to work this issue through at the building level - which is, ultimately, the most meaningful locale for reform.

It's encouraging, meanwhile, to read that schools of education are starting to see an upward trend in applications. Salaries, though still far from lordly, aren't the overwhelming disincentive they once were. A lot remains to be done, however. Teaching still doesn't attract enough of the brightest college students. And the shortage of prospective black and Hispanic teachers is critical.

Above all, teaching needs wider recognition as a rewarding career. Gestures like that from Cornell are a step in the right direction.

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