If a proposed pay increase goes through, public school teachers here will begin at $14,014 a year. Starting pay for local sanitation workers is a shade under $13,000. In Texas, the average teacher has worked about 12 years and earns about $14,000. In the same state, a petroleum engineer with a bachelor's degree can start at $21,000.
Numbers like these are one reason why it is increasingly difficult to attract our brightest young people into teaching.
But there are other numbers that reflect the decline in math and verbal ability of public school students across America and the growth in the number of youngsters who graduate from high school as functional illiterates. Numbers like these make it difficult to find the political support for big increases in teacher pay.
Two respected groups--the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the Southern Regional Education Board--have come up with strikingly similar proposals for addressing the problem.
Ernest Boyer, the former U.S. commissioner of education, now president of the Carnegie Foundation, wants the states to establish scholarship programs to "attract the ablest students into teaching." He also stressed, in a speech at Yale University last week, the importance of improving teacher training --both in teachers' colleges and on the job--and the need for finding ways to reward outstanding teachers without removing them from the classroom.
The SREC, in a recent task force report, makes virtually the same recommendations, with one notable exception. Boyer's group believes that, "with state recognition and support and with public recognition, it will be possible to get the brightest and most idealistic students in the classroom."
The SREC makes no such assumption. But it believes that even if teaching can never compete with computer science or engineering or law for the brightest college students, it is possible to improve vastly the training of those students who do opt for teaching.
The SREC position is summarized in the current issue of Basic Education by its editor, James Howard.
Howard, a consultant to the SREC, believes that we spend too much time teaching teachers to teach and too little time in their general education. His proposal is for a five-year teacher training program.
"Because they need to be liberally educated women and men," he said, "all prospective schoolteachers-- elementary and secondary--should devote their first three undergraduate years to liberal studies, concentrating or majoring in one of the disciplines traditionally comprehended by the liberal arts . . .
"For the following two years, they should combine pedagogical training with practice teaching. The former they would take under the tuition of professors of education; the latter they would take under the close supervision of master teachers of the subjects candidates were preparing to teach.
"Candidates who complete the entire five-year course successfully would earn both the bachelor's degree and the master of arts in teaching degree, to become eligible for provisional certification."
Boyer's focus is on the relatively poor quality of student attracted to teaching. Howard, focusing on their training, agrees with school critic Richard Mitchell ("The Graves of Academe") who sees today's education majors as "generally decent young people, quite capable of being good teachers."
Both men agree that one of the problems in the way we now do things is the fact that the colleges not only recruit and train prospective teachers but also certify them for their teaching credentials.
They would prefer to leave the credentials decisions to master teachers in the public schools.
It is an attractive idea. But if a large number of education majors decide to go into teaching because they see it as the easiest road to a professional career, would they not be turned off by the requirement for a fifth year of college after the successful completion of which they would still be only provisionallly certified?
Maybe not--if the the salaries commanded by teachers made it worthwhile. Which puts us right back where we started. You can't sell the idea of top-flight salaries so long as the public believes teachers, on the whole, to be only marginally competent. And you can't attract the most competent college students into teaching if they are going to be paid the salaries of garbage men.