American students bottom-out on international math and science tests and too many need remedial reading and writing classes in college.
One important reason is that we easily accept credentialed educators over effective teachers. Too many unprepared graduates are allowed to become "educators." Teaching is one of America's most important professions and yet our education bureaucracy - high on credentialism and low on pay - makes it difficult for well-educated people to become teachers.
Instead of making it easier for better teachers to enter the profession, our solution to our problems is too often to dumb down, not wise up. For example, we give A's and B's to two-thirds of the nation's eighth-graders, even though many are unprepared to handle high school. We "re-center" SAT scores to obscure declining student abilities. And we grant college diplomas - and teaching degrees - to people who haven't mastered high school material. (Tell me, who hasn't heard about that 60 percent failure rate on the Massachusetts teacher's entrance exam?)
Although students, teachers, and school administrators clearly don't make the grade, taxpayers spend a fortune on education - $565 billion, in federal, state, and local funds, in 1997. And yet, the United Way estimates states and businesses shell out $20 billion annually to teach employees and college students fundamental literacy skills. A very big reason for this is that we invest in good "educators" not good teachers.
People serious about a subject don't major in education. Scientists major in science, historians study history, and mathematicians focus on math. If people are really serious, they earn graduate degrees.
So why aren't more of these experts teaching our children? Because a BA in education qualifies teachers, but an MA or even a PhD in any other field does not.
Furthermore, adding college teaching to a doctorate won't get the most persistent teacher-wannabe a job in a public school. We don't "certify" people to teach unless they've taken education theory courses, no matter how knowledgeable they are in academic areas.
Not that every expert in a field is going to teach well - but it's not a far-fetched notion that someone who loves and understands a subject can ignite a student's interest in it.
How many brilliant people with graduate degrees do you think are willing to sacrifice $20,000 and an additional two years on education courses in order to land a $25,000 per year teaching job? Not many, and the number is smaller if you consider that we refuse to pay higher starting salaries to career-changers who may have spent years working in their fields.
Noncompetitive salaries and unreasonable requirements discourage professionals and capable college graduates from entering teaching.
Even the most dedicated teachers already in the profession bail out because of other reasons - overcrowded classrooms and disrespectful students. One out of 5 teachers - many of the best - began abandoning the profession in 1991 for more rewarding careers, according to the US Department of Education. Can we really blame them? All too often we demand they tolerate students whose abusive language and disruptive behavior in the classroom prevent teaching and would surely get them locked up or expelled from any church, store, library, or theater.
"Teaching is rewarding, but the pay is lousy" is fast becoming "Teaching is unrewarding, and the pay is lousy." It's no wonder that the best and the brightest rarely go into teaching, and when they do, few stay. It's time to reverse this dangerous trend.
We will save money and graduate smarter kids when we make it easier for motivated, knowledgeable professionals to make the transition into teaching. They don't need to be credentialed to start the job. There's no reason we should be able to train defense employees on the job - to program ballistic missiles, for goodness sake - but not teachers.
Don't misunderstand, though. Paying teachers competitive starting salaries and hiring more academic experts won't guarantee a Lake Wobegon society. Every student is not "above average," regardless of the number of A's and B's teachers are encouraged to pass out.
But our chance for improving public schools rises dramatically when we make it easier, not more difficult, for the right people to become teachers.
Well-educated people want to teach.
Are we wise enough to let them into the classrooms? Will we pay what it takes to keep them there?
*Jeanne Etkins, who has a master's degree in English, teaches English at Annapolis Senior High School and Anne Arundel Community College, which are both in Annapolis, Md.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society