The goal: great teachers. The plan: a work in progress.

The teacher is the ticket.

That has not always been the conventional wisdom. Teachers have been important, of course. Parents knew the adult at the head of the class could determine whether their children skipped along or dragged their feet as they left to catch the bus. They could turn an artist on to science or convince budding writers that English wasn't their thing. They might or might not clue a parent in to a child's problems -or unusual strengths.

But the teacher's role has taken on new urgency at the close of a decade of intense struggle to improve American schools. Teachers are being asked to teach more and achieve better results - all with a population that has never been more diverse or demanding.

It is as if a profession that has long languished under neglect, if not disdain, has been handed a high-stakes final exam that has only one question: What makes - and sustains - a good teacher?

To some experts and legislators, the answer is to teacher-proof schools with a curriculum that guarantees results as long as teachers follow it to the last detail. Others say what's needed is a continued focus on boosting professionalism: creating an atmosphere where teachers improve their own and their colleagues' skills each day, and where newcomers - fresh out of college or midcareer recruits -get a helping hand in the often-difficult first year.

The focus on teachers is in many ways a natural next step in a decade that has marched steadily through questions of curriculum and courses, tests and small classes, charters and school choice.

In a survey last November by Recruiting New Teachers, based in Belmont, Mass., 9 in 10 Americans said "ensuring a well-qualified teacher in every classroom" was more important than "a challenging curriculum." Vouchers, testing, smaller class sizes, and even school choice ranked below teaching.

But if the profession's rising stature is reason for hope and pride among teachers, it carries as well sobering new challenges.

Many school districts are in desperate need of more teachers, particularly in math and science. Many towns are building schools as fast as they can pass the budget overrides to finance them. Add to that growing legislative mandates for smaller class sizes and more-rigorous tests of prospective teachers' abilities, and schools know they face a daunting task in recruiting the roughly 2 million new teachers who will be needed over the next decade.

At the same time, though, states are signaling that it's no longer business as usual.

Teacher-education colleges are facing tough questions about the qualifications of their students and the quality of their programs. Burned by criticism that many of their teachers can't teach well or don't have a full understanding of their subject matter, 38 states have imposed standards with certification exams that prospective teachers must pass. Massachusetts, which joined those ranks last year, became a national whipping post for teachers' colleges when 59 percent of candidates initially failed a rigorous new test of basic skills and subject mastery.

In response, teachers' colleges are straining to prove that good candidates are passing through their doors. North Carolina is pushing to expand student teaching from the typical 14 weeks to a year. The state also requires mentoring and is spending $11

billion on schools and teacher training over 10 years.

Reformers point to a slew of problems overdue for correction. More time on the front lines and more classes in the subject teachers will teach are high on the list. Districts must develop better ways to recruit, using everything from the Internet to bonuses or housing allowances to draw top candidates. And while states must ensure that licensing is rigorous, they need to open pathways for talented midcareer candidates to gain credentials without taking on heavy cost and time burdens.

But if experts and districts are pointing fingers at the foundations laid in education schools, they're also examining the world that awaits teachers once they enter the classroom. Many new recruits, especially those fresh out of college, report feeling overwhelmed and underprepared. Wrangles with classroom management, dealing with difficult students and demanding parents - combined with often-modest salaries - prompt 30 percent to rethink their choice within the first five years.

Educators want to turn that around - and their actions are starting to reshape a world that has been cool to change. Increasingly, say some observers, schools must prepare for a world with fewer walls, where parents and teachers interact more easily, teachers cycle in and out instead of settling in for the long haul, and performance standards are open and accessible. And there's good news, says David Haselkorn, president of Recruiting New Teachers. "Teachers had once been viewed as central to the problem - as the target - and they are now being viewed as the solution."

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