Professors, administrators, union and government officials, policy-makers, commissions of experts, the president--they all tell us how to improve public education and what to do about teachers. It's time to hear from teachers. So I, a teacher fresh from the classroom, will suggest what needs to be done.
However, the first thing we have to do is decide what is important in education.
This country now uses schools to correct ills that appear as society changes. Teachers must teach not only math, English, history, science, art, music and physical education, but also sex, drug and career education, appreciation of various cultures and, most recently, computer literacy. Then society blames teachers and schools when students are not "as well-educated as students were in years past."
When I went to school, America knew which courses were important. But now everything should be taught. We must decide what our educational goals are and order them by importance. Then we must ask teachers how far down the list the schools can go without compromising subjects higher on the list. Low-priority items should be taught outside of school, or the school day and year should be lengthened to allow time for the extras.
Several concepts emerge in the rhetoric of the experts: Higher Pay. The base pay for starting teachers is shockingly low compared with starting salaries in other fields. The pay continues to be relatively low as the teacher advances. For example, my son earns more per hour as a novice tennis teacher than I do as an experienced teacher with almost a Ph.D. Merit pay --extra pay for exceptionally good teachers. Sometimes this is confused with other "extra pay" plans, such as pay for particularly difficult assignments, e.g. inner- city schools; pay for failing to use sick leave; and incentive pay to attract people to fields that need teachers. Teachers' unions oppose all of these pay plans, but are particularly vocal about merit pay under current evaluation systems. But with a different evaluation system, merit pay could work well. Master teachers --teachers identified as excellent who take on greater responsibility for program development, training and evaluation and receive higher salaries than their peers.
The teaching profession faces severe problems: First, it is not attractive to the best and brightest youth, and many excellent, experienced teachers leave the classroom. They are lured away by higher salaries and/or more challenging jobs. Low starting salaries should be raised considerably.
Another major problem, undoubtedly, is the bad press teachers are receiving. Low SAT scores among education majors now in college and tales of misspelled or mispronounced words are considered newsworthy. Rarely does one read about the daily excellence of dedicated professionals. From these negative stories, the public draws the incorrect conclusion that all teachers are poorly educated. Lack of respect for the entire profession has been the result.
The teaching profession also lacks a vertical dimension. Most teachers would like to be able to advance while working. They want to use their creativity, be given greater responsibility and get higher pay without leaving the classroom for administration. A career ladder is needed. Year after year, one teaches basically the same subject matter. Curricula are redesigned, textbooks changed and the styles of teaching varied, but these are lateral changes. The teacher does not learn really different material or new skills-- just new twists on the same old material.
Teachers desire and should have more responsibility for setting school priorities. Teacher commitment has been improved in school systems that have involved teachers in evaluating their schools and deciding how to respond. Test scores have risen, sometimes dramatically. If involvement is a key to teacher commitment, then those in authority must include teachers in local school planning.
We teachers also can--and should--assume the responsibility for evaluating our peers. Currently, evaluation of a teacher is usually done by one administrator, the principal. Although endless efforts have been made to create objective criteria, evaluation of one person by one other remains highly subjective. For example, one of the 11 criteria for evaluating my teaching performance was, "Plans for and utilizes those resources which motivate and enable a student to achieve learning objectives." I assumed that this meant I was using a variety of learning materials and teaching techniques with my students. For my principal, it meant that I was using a resource teacher to help plan and conduct behavior programs of specific students. Clearly, we had different subjective interpretations of the same objective criterion.
Once principals are out of the classroom-- away from the daily student pressures and overwhelmed by administrative pressures-- many lose understanding of the problems faced by teachers. And principals frequently find it difficult to point out needed improvements to teachers; critical evaluation might damage relations with the staff.
Teachers' peers, by contrast, understand the stresses and can see what is being done well and what needs improvement; are familiar with the curriculum; and can offer on- the-spot advice. Their collective evaluation may tend to be neither as positive nor as negative as one person's. Finally--and very important--teachers will want to see that their profession is not represented by the few poor teachers who exist.
I am often told that teachers cannot assume such responsibilities because those who traditionally went into teaching were women who, for many years, could find no other work. They were willing to take low-paying jobs, were not aggressive or ambitious and would avoid conflict. This is an outdated description. Given the chance to play a greater role in evaluating peers and planning school programs, my fellow teachers can and will accept the greater responsibilities and fulfill them competently.
So my answer rests on several elements:
1. We must decide what we want education to be. We cannot make increasing demands with no priorities.
2. We must create a higher base pay for all teachers.
3. We should provide a career ladder for teachers.
4. There should be peer evaluation, as the sine qua non for
Giving teachers trust, respect, chance for growth and responsibility plus higher base pay will keep and attract the best to the teaching ranks.