Teaching & Learning

March 29, 2000 3 min read

Rx for Education: High-Quality Teachers

When Bob Chase, the president of the National Education Association, and Arlene Ackerman, the superintendent of the District of Columbia public schools, were asked at a forum to name their prescriptions for fixing education, they suggested the same remedy: high-quality teachers.

The two leaders appeared together last week at a luncheon sponsored by Women in Washington, a nonprofit organization that helps women network and support community causes. They were joined by Penny Shaw, a high school art teacher in nearby Fairfax County, Va.

Both Mr. Chase and Ms. Ackerman agreed that teachers’ pay must be raised to attract and retain qualified people, particularly at a time when other sectors of the economy are thriving and offering young people so many attractive options.

Ms. Ackerman said her son had considered using his mathematics degree to enter teaching, but had shied away because he was worried that he wouldn’t be able to take care of a family on a teacher’s salary. “Young people shouldn’t have to make those decisions,” she said.

Mr. Chase, admitting that a plea for more money from a “union guy” such as himself wasn’t news, argued that salaries should be addressed as “a quality issue.”

On a recent visit to South Dakota, he said, he was appalled to learn that teachers in a rural district earned less than $15,000 a year as novices and would never break $25,000 a year, even with 40 years’ experience.

In some expensive urban areas, the NEA president added, “teachers can’t live where they teach. They have to travel an hour to school.”

Though Ms. Shaw agreed that salaries are important, she made a plea for respect and for an end to what she said is a constant stream of negative publicity that undermines confidence in public schools.

The increased pressure on Virginia schools to pay attention to academic subjects so that students can pass state tests also is undermining art, music, and vocational education, she contended. But it’s exactly those subjects that keep students who aren’t academically inclined interested in school, she said.

In addition to teacher quality, Mr. Chase said he considered universal preschool and the implementation of higher academic standards front-burner issues in education.

Ms. Ackerman cited the question of how to integrate technology into schools and continuing questions about school governance and management. Such topics aren’t academic in the District of Columbia: The nation’s capital has 27 charter schools, the superintendent noted, and they should be held to the same standards and level of accountability demanded of regular public schools, she argued.

Neither educator, not surprisingly, thought charter schools or vouchers that allow parents to send their children to private schools at public expense would solve the woes of public education.

Still, the problems are severe, Ms. Ackerman acknowledged. Her school district, she said, needs $12 million just to fix school kitchens, where faulty ovens and refrigerators make serving healthy and appetizing meals to Washington’s many low-income students a daily challenge.

“The lack of basic infrastructure outrages me most of the time,” the superintendent said of the 77,000-student system.

Policy Mavens Debate

He favors holding schools responsible for results, relaxing bureaucratic rules that discourage people from entering teaching, and allowing principals to make decisions about whom to hire. She wants to strengthen teacher education, state licensing systems, and national accreditation to make teaching more like a true profession.

Chester E. Finn Jr.

Linda Darling-Hammond

Chester E. Finn Jr., the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation in Washington, and Linda Darling-Hammond, the executive director of the National Commission on Teaching & America’s Future and a professor at Stanford University, were scheduled March 26 to debate ways to improve the quality of the nation’s teachers. The face-off—the duo’s first after numerous dueling newspaper and journal commentaries—was to be hosted by the Education Commission of the States, which will post a video of the debate on its World Wide Web site beginning April 1.

The Denver-based ECS also will post other video clips from the session through the end of May and invites comments and questions for a “virtual discussion.” That discussion will be posted on the site, at

— Ann Bradley

A version of this article appeared in the March 29, 2000 edition of Education Week as Teaching & Learning