WITH HIS STRONG emphasis on raising the standards of the public schools, Virginia's Gov. Charles S. Robb has his priorities exactly right. He talked forcefully about the schools at his inauguration on Saturday and again in his address to the General Assembly two days later.
Gov. Robb met a longstanding grievance of Virginia's teachers when he pledged himself, over the next four years, to bring their pay up to the national average. The average in Virginia is currently $15,490 a year, almost $3,000 below the national level--which, among the 50 states, ranks Virginia an inglorious 39th. But if the state is going to do that for the teachers, what should it ask of them in return?
Mr. Robb suggested that the higher salaries ought to buy an improved quality of teaching. That also means more demanding requirements for high school graduation, "putting pride and value back into the public school diploma." He talked about the state's rules for teacher certification--that is, the standards for selecting the next generation of teachers. Here the governor deliberately stepped into a heated debate that has been going on for the past two years in the State Board of Education.
In December the board, sharply divided, adopted new rules for certification. They represent a great improvement, but they cautiously stop short of some of the hard questions--and the hardest of all is how, or even whether, to assess a teacher's performance in the classroom. The teachers' associations fight the whole idea of assessment furiously, perceiving it--correctly-- as a threat to their least competent members. But they are also correct when they argue that all but the most careful procedures invite favoritism and political interference. The alternative has been to leave certification wholly in the hands of the colleges that teach teachers. That makes the college the final judge of its own product--not a wholly satisfactory solution. As the governor raises teachers' salaries, he will be entitled to a measure of trust and cooperation from them in introducing a clearer definition of accountability.
A good school is always built on a firm consensus regarding the meaning of that slippery word, "good." Good at what? Over the past two decades Virginians, and Americans generally, have loaded innumerable educational and social responsibilities onto the school system without setting any order of importance among them. As a result, standards declined. Now parents and voters seem clearly to have decided that they want, above all, more demanding academic and vocational instruction. Gov. Robb is volunteering to direct that reform himself. "Education carries the promise of opportunity," he told the General Assembly. That's why the quality of the schools is crucial.