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To the Editor:

Your March 6 issue includes a response from the director of Teach For America to my Jan. 30 Commentary concerning privately funded, owned, and operated teacher-education projects ("Teach For America: No Private-Sector 'Quick Fix,"' Letters, March 6, 1991; "The Privatization of Teacher Education," Commentary, Jan. 30, 1991). The exchange displayed the polarization of widely held views on staffing policy for our public schools.

My starting point is the conviction the United States can ill afford continuation of an education policy uncoupled from national priorities. Teach For America-like activities, I suggested, serve to prevent, for reasons of political and fiscal cost, the necessary coupling from taking place. I also questioned the advisability and feasibility of trying to support with private funds, divorced from public accountability, programs that historically have been a public responsibility. I found unrealistic TFA's reliance on more rigorous recruitment standards for entry into the workforce as a self-sufficient policy to improve the learning environment.

TFA-like projects, including alternative certification, have a common goal. The future of our schools is dependent upon "better teachers.'' This goal is to be attained simply by controlling the barriers to entry into the workforce. However, altering (a) the teaching or (b) the learning environment is far more costly and difficult to affect but also far more important.

Who might argue against young teachers who are "outstanding campus leaders with strong academic backgrounds with lots of career opportunities other than teaching upon graduation" from a top university? Of course good teachers and good teaching are important. But one also can view teachers as nigh irrelevant to the resolution of the nearing crisis, as my Commentary implied.

Just before the Gulf war ended, the Administration laid out a national energy policy to guide the economy in the next century. I argued we must not ignore the impending crisis in schooling but act now--at least start the debate--while the political and fiscal cost of action remains as small and as manageable as that of the Gulf war. The response of the TFA director, Wendy Kopp, is that "an infusion of public dollars" is not the answer.

TFA-like projects receive an enormous amount of early, often premature, publicity. Teachers indeed become relevant as well as important. But for the wrong reason--to serve as scapegoats, deflecting public attention away from debate about reform before infusion of public dollars can begin.

Teach For America felt I had overextended the importance of Scholastic Aptitude Test scores. True, such scores were not used for TFA recruit selection. But institutions where recruiting would take place were to be selected on the basis of their "selectivity, size, minority enrollment, and average SAT" Ms. Kopp's list of characteristics that differentiate TFA recruits from education majors properly notes the 1225 average SAT score. I would be among the first to argue that teachers should have strong academic backgrounds, however measured. We would all agree with TFA's statement noting the "need for academically able individuals when the average education major scores well below the mean on the SAT."

The issue, however, seems to me to be whether the pursuit of such goals must ever serve to blur the need to pursue others of equal or greater importance. The attainment of a high-quality system of public education, responsive to public priorities and public good, need not be as wild a dream as those who might profit by its postponement would pretend.


Jim Steffensen
Alexandria, Va.

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