Letters to the Editor
Adam Urbanski President, Rochester Teachers Association Rochester, N.Y.
Albert Shanker's recent proposal for a national competency exam for entry-level teachers ("Shanker Urges National Test for New Teachers," Education Week, Feb. 6, 1985) is a pivotal development in the continuing debate about education reform.
This suggestion by the president of the American Federation of Teachers is noteworthy because it departs from the customary "blaming game'' approach used for so long by so many and sets a positive example for others in the education community.
Indeed, it is daring and courageous for the head of a national teachers' union to make such a recommendation. Not surprisingly, the reaction of many is one of bewilderment and skepticism. But Mr. Shanker's idea should be recognized as visionary and can become the cornerstone of the agenda to improve public education in our nation.
If teachers are central to the education process, then they must be the focus of education reform. Better teachers mean better education. Currently, however, we are not attracting the best college graduates into teaching. Not that anyone could blame them--the "profession" offers little.
Teachers are plagued with low salaries, student violence and disruption, no promotional options that would allow them to stay in the classroom, excessive nonteaching duties, and administrators who often treat them as hired hands. Tragically, many teachers have resigned themselves to these deplorable conditions and have little hope that things will, or indeed can, improve.
But teaching should be an important and a productive way to spend one's professional life. It can be--if teachers achieve their true professional status. That's where Mr. Shanker's proposal fits in: A tough national exam would ensure that our teachers are competent and deserving of the professional status they should have. They would also command higher salaries since all recent opinion polls clearly indicate that most taxpayers would be willing to spend more on education if they felt that this would improve the quality of schooling.
However, since not all problems in education can be fixed by fixing the teachers, we should applaud Mr. Shanker's proposal and, at the same time, urge others in education to follow suit. While not denying that we need to attract better teachers into the profession, we should also focus on other improvements that would help teachers function more effectively. Could students behave better? Could parents care more? Could boards of education provide better leadership? Could administrators be more supportive?
Schoolchildren won't care if their parents don't care. We must search for specific ways to reach the parents of our students and to establish a partnership among adults on behalf of the children. Furthermore, the most excellent teachers can be rendered less effective if they do not receive the support of their administrators. We must therefore be willing to re-examine and improve the traditional relationship between teachers and administrators.
For instance, shouldn't administrators be accountable to teachers? In addition to the bureaucratic accountability that they now have, shouldn't there also be professional accountability? After all, teachers don't work for administrators; they work with administrators. Administrators don't have a more or less important function to perform; they have a different function to perform.
Obviously, not everyone will hail the notion that teachers evaluate administrators. One administrator who was obviously not favorably impressed suggested (or threatened?) that there will be reprisals: If teachers begin evaluating administrators then administrators would push for student evaluations of teachers. Now, regardless of the question as to whether or not the latter is a good idea, the retort serves to illustrate the fact that some administrators--and certainly the administrator in question--perceive the relationship between administrators and teachers to be analogous to that between teachers and students.
That's precisely part of the problem. Teachers aren't children, it's just that they are treated as such by some administrators.
Annual teacher evaluations of administrators--formally, if the district and the administrators' union can work it out, or informally through a survey if necessary--would help identify incipient problems, allow administrators to benefit from the process, and give teachers a greater say about their profession. Surely, teachers deserve an opportunity to prove that they are capable of handling this responsibility. And mutual accountability is more fair than the status quo.
What's the best way to improve education in our country? Set tough standards for teachers, pay them competitive salaries, treat them as professionals, and work with them to eliminate those conditions which currently undermine effective teaching and learning in our schools. Albert Shanker made a significant step in that direction. Now others should consider making a contribution, even if it means abandoning traditional and defensive postures. At stake is the quality of education for the next generation of America's children. Let's not allow the opportunity to slip by.
Stanley P. Wronski Professor Emeritus, College of Education Michigan State University Past President, National Council for the Social Studies East Lansing, Mich.
The medieval church promulgated its Index of Prohibited Books. Phyllis Schlafly and the Eagle Forum have promulgated their index of prohibited topics for the schools ("Groups Press Parent-Control Campaign, Get High-Level Support," Education Week, Feb. 20, 1985). Both are in violation of the underlying rationale for any educational enterprise--that it provide a marketplace for the free and responsible exchange of ideas.
The form letter prepared by the Maryland Coalition of Concerned Parents on Primary Rights in the Public Schools and distributed by the Eagle Forum represents a giant leap backward to the Middle Ages. It is the very antithesis of what responsible educators from the Swiss educator Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi to John Dewey see as the function of the school.
In the view of the Eagle Forum, the school is a hermetically contained environment in which only pure truth is dispensed uncontaminated by the harsh realities of the society in which it resides. In Dewey's view, school and society are inseparable and any curriculum that fails to recognize societal realities is doing a disservice to its students.
Consider the absurdity of prohibiting discussion on topics such as "death and dying"--even if one of the school's students has just committed suicide. Or "moral dilemmas"--even if a student wants to report the theft of school property by one of his buddies. Or "globalism"--even if the classroom prominently displays a world globe.
Furthermore, if such topics are verboten in the classroom, it is only logical that there should be no books in the classroom or in the school library that even mention these words. And if the schools abjure such books, they should not only be banned but also burned.
A specious argument frequently raised by supporters of such repressive movements (and, unfortunately, on occasion by their opponents) is that the members of the local community constitute the ultimate authority for school policy. The fallacy of that position was demonstrated in 1954 in the U.S. Supreme Court case of Brown v. Board of Education.
It did not matter that the good "concerned parents" in Topeka, Kan., whether by majority or by unanimous vote, opted for a segregated school system. The equal-protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to our federal Constitution took precedence over "local control."
In 1985, the Eagle Forum is urging its local members to pursue an equally misguided constitutional path. That path is blocked by the First Amendment.
It is recognized that there are some well-intentioned teachers who have unfortunately overstepped the boundaries that protect students' privacy, just as there are physicians who have made incorrect diagnoses or botched operations. In both cases, the appropriate remedy is not prior censorship but more demanding standards for professional practioners.