A recent news release from Virginia Tech's public relations office quoting three deans of education in Virginia as questioning the state board of education's attempt to tighten teacher certification standards was unfortunate. It reflected a fundamental lack of understanding by some educators of two decades of effort and progress in public education in Virginia and the critical role our colleges and universities must play in ensuring and improving teacher competence. It also ignored a growing body of information and public opinion focusing on teacher training as one significant way to improve the performance of our public schools.

This discussion needs a historical context, especially in Virginia. The quality of our schools is too important to be left to the diverse standards of 1,300 individual teacher education schools.

Public school enrollments exploded between World War II and the mid-1970s. This growth, plus increasing importance placed on the high school diploma, created demands for massive numbers of new teachers. Existing schools of education grew dramatically and new ones (such as that at Virginia Tech) were created to turn out ever-increasing numbers of schoolteachers. As schools of education became more "professional," they became increasingly alienated from the arts and sciences that provide the subject knowledge for prospective teachers.

The turbulent 1960s and 1970s had tremendous influence on public education. Mass education, rapid growth and overcrowding took their toll. Standards declined, order in the classroom became a problem and the schools were given the task of responding to too many contemporary social problems. In addition, Virginia had to play catch-up to the rest of the country.

Virginia's leaders recognized these challenges and -- systematically if sometimes painfully -- have been restructuring and improving education for the past two decades. In the early 1960s, the Spong Commission took on this work and came up with recommendations for the public schools that received significant financial support from a sales tax.

Another major advance occurred in 1972, when the General Assembly joined with educators to set the Standards of Quality -- still considered a pioneering concept in American public education. The evolution of these standards has continued over the years, and they have been the primary force in improving financing, standardized test scores and discipline in the schools.

The process is continuing with increased emphasis on teaching and teachers. More career opportunities for women diminished the number of high-quality prospective teachers just at a time when we hoped they would have been improving. And low salaries have contributed significantly to this decline.

The primary challenge facing our public schools in the years ahead is how to attract bright students into teaching as a career and how to provide them first-rate, prestigious training for it. Salaries and rewards for outstanding teachers should be improved right away.Public education is in many ways analagous to the automobile industry. It is a huge and diverse enterprise. Quality and productivity must improve to meet the challenges of the 21st century. Talent and enthusiasm are critical.

The state board of education does have a good plan to provide alternative paths for competent individuals to enter the teaching profession and for testing minimum competence. Education schools should benefit from the competition; and while a knowledge of teaching techniques benefits most teachers, it is ridiculous to contend that experienced, competent people must in every case have formal training in teaching before entering the classroom. It is wrong to assume, for example, that outstanding legislators are not qualified to teach government courses, or that Ralph Sampson is automatically not qualified to teach or coach basketball.

Ernest Boyer, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and former chancellor of the State University of New York, was recently quoted in the Chronicle of Higher Education as asking the following question: "How can we expect to attract good students and teachers if universities and colleges themselves are not supportive of the process and do not help give dignity to the work?"

Colleges and universities have a special interest in leading this effort. For too long, education departments have been stepchildren in many institutions. This has to change. There should be a connection between the arts and sciences and education. Quality must be the overriding priority.