Better Teaching Key to School Improvement,
Atlanta--The National Commission on Excellence in Education, holding the third of six planned forums on educational issues here last week, heard a new group of professional educators express vehement, if not unexpected, views on the quality of America's schoolteachers and how to improve it.
Saying that education has for too long provided a "professional nesting ground for mediocrity," Superintendent Robert N. Fortenberry of the Jackson, Miss., schools told commission members that teachers must be paid better to attract "the best minds" to education.
Mr. Fortenberry also criticized across-the-board pay scales for teachers, arguing that they allow "no flexibility to reward superior performance." And, alluding to the national shortage of science and math teachers, Mr. Fortenberry said educators must come up with "some sort of varied pay scale" for these teachers to keep them from being hired away by business and industry.
Mr. Fortenberry was one of approximately 30 speakers to address the commission during a day-long hearing on the topic of teaching and teacher education held at Georgia State University.
Established by U.S. Secretary of Education Terell H. Bell, the commission will re-port back next year with a list of recommendations to strengthen American education.
Calling for tougher requirements to enter the teaching profession, Mr. Fortenberry predicted that improving the professional competency of teachers will "result in a more profound acceleration in student learning than changing any other factor under control of the school."
Far-Reaching Results Possible
He added that "dramatically improved teacher competency could yield the far-reaching results necessary to effectively and finally discard specious excuses for why students do not achieve."
Georgia and other southeastern states were cited several times by various speakers as leading the nation with their teacher-certification programs.
To be certified in Georgia, for example, teachers must pass a standardized test on their knowledge of courses they wish to teach. And during their first year on the job, new teachers must receive a positive review of their classroom performance, based on the judgment of experienced teachers and administrators.
Mr. Fortenberry's school system implemented a policy this year that put performance on an equal footing with seniority in staff-reduction decisions. By 1985, performance will count three times as much as seniority when contract decisons are made, he said.
Saying that "there are few if any 'born teachers,"' Mr. Fortenberry was one of several speakers endorsing the extension of the current four-year teacher-education programs by as much as one year. It was suggested that the extra time be used to give students internships in the classroom.
Other suggestions made to the commission to improve teacher quality were: to make salaries more competitive with other career options now available to women and minorities, who traditionally have dominated the teaching profession; to allow students teaching experiences much earlier in their college careers; and to strengthen eligibility and entrance requirements for those seeking to enter the teaching profession.
But Ralph Turlington, commisioner of the Florida State Department of Education, argued that to attract the best students into teaching, people also must start endorsing the profession as "being worthwhile" and as "making a contribution to society." "If we perceive that those in education are at the low end of the totem pole, you are never going to attract the best," he said.
Mary Lou Romaine, president of the Atlanta Federation of Teachers, indicated that while low pay was an important issue, teachers had other complaints about their profession, too. She noted that a 1981 poll of Atlanta teachers by her federation showed that 75 percent of the teachers would not go into teaching if they had the choice to make again.
Teacher complaints, she said, included having a "self-image so battered that it is near zero;" being "bludgeoned" into "states of blind obedience" while being asked to lead students to high achievement levels; and lack of administrative support for teachers who are faced with "dramatic curriculum changes."
She also recommended that teachers be guaranteed a free lunch period, saying that "even prisoners have lunch breaks."
'Best Minds' Not Attracted
Several speakers presented the commission with data to collaborate Mr. Fortenberry's assertion that the "best minds" are not being attracted to education. But Robert B. Scanlon, Pennsylvania's secretary of education, asserted that this is not a new trend in education.
Mr. Scanlon said that "American teachers have never been drawn from the segment of students with the greatest academic ability," adding that since the 1920's, research has shown that those who enter teaching score less well on measures of academic ability than other college graduates.
For example, the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) scores of 1980 senior education majors were 48 points below the national average in mathematics and 35 points below the national average in verbal skills, Mr. Scanlon said. If the average sat score for all colleges and universities were used as the entrance requirement for the nation's schools of education, he added, about 70 percent of the applicants wouldn't get in. "That ought to be of concern."
Gary Sykes, a research associate for the National Institute of Education, said, "The phenomenon is that we're no longer getting the brightest people going [into the profession] rather than that we're dropping our standard and taking a poorer quality. We're losing at the top, not the bottom ... The problem is how to attract the best."
"What's happening," he added, "is that the best and brightest women are no longer going into teaching. They're going into engineering, law, or business. The same is true of minorities.
"Education for decades has enjoyed a hidden subsidy--blocked career mobility for women and minorities."
Mr. Scanlon agreed that salaries are a problem. "It is only natural that salaries in the bottom one-third of the economy attract students in the bottom one-third of the college-going population," he said.
Figures presented to the commission during the hearing indicated that the 1981 entry-level salary was $20,136 for engineers, $17,604, for computer specialists, and $11,758 for teachers with a bachelor's degree.
Mr. Scanlon was chairman of an ad hoc committee for the Council of Chief State School Officers that is developing recommendations proposing that the states raise the standards for entry into teacher-training programs in an effort to reduce the supply of teachers, drive up salaries, and thus attract more able new teachers into the profession. He described the proposals during the Atlanta hearings. (See Education Week, May 5.)