Needs Improvement

Friday, August 12, 2005

NOW THAT TESTING has become the norm -- and now that school districts have a clearer idea of how their schools really perform -- educational reformers are beginning to look beyond mere accountability and toward the even more difficult, substantive question of how to improve schools. Not surprisingly, a plethora of think tanks, professional associations and experts of all stripes have recently focused their attention on teachers: who they are, what they studied and how much more effective they could be.

The results are almost unanimous: Standards are low, teacher training is poor and unless something is done right away, there will be an enormous teacher shortage, particularly in math and science, within the next decade. The Teaching Commission -- a group whose board includes former IBM chief executive Louis V. Gerstner Jr. and former first lady Barbara Bush -- concluded that rigid rules for teacher pay have failed to attract teachers to more difficult schools and more difficult subjects; that education schools needed higher standards; and that teacher licensing should be more rigorous. Last May the National Academy of Education issued a set of recommendations designed to deal with precisely the same problems: performance-linked teacher pay, incentives to teach in urban and poor rural schools, higher standards for teacher training, and more support for beginning teachers. The Education Trust, which has studied the extraordinarily weak content of teacher training curriculums, advocates rigorous quality standards that will make the entire teaching "market" more effective by identifying better teachers and allowing them to command higher salaries.

In some school districts these principles have already been put into practice. In Chattanooga, district officials offered financial incentives and home loans to teachers willing to work in low-performing schools, with great success. At the University of Texas, a training program has been set up in conjunction with regular math and science departments. Teach for America, which recruits high-achieving recent college graduates for two-year stints in low-income schools, is also compiling an extraordinary performance record, with students of these teachers doing markedly better than their counterparts despite their teachers' lack of traditional training credentials.

Since the president's No Child Left Behind Act -- which mandated the new accountability -- broke the taboo on federal involvement in education, it seems reasonable that these local experiments should get a national hearing. Rep. George Miller (Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the House education committee, opened the debate last spring with a bill that mimics some of the successful state programs. The bill offered federal funding to help districts pay higher salaries to teachers who work in low-performing schools, to help states overhaul their teacher training and certification programs, and -- through tax breaks, student loan forgiveness and tuition assistance -- to help encourage top students to enter the profession. Although it was probably right that Mr. Miller's bill was judged

too wide-ranging and too expensive to become part of the renewed Higher Education Act, which the committee passed last month, Chairman John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) has said he expects parts of it to be incorporated into that law or into other legislation this fall.

It's a good start: When Congress comes back to town this fall -- and the new school year begins -- this debate should begin again in earnest.


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