STRENGTHENING American high schools begins
with the teachers--and, more precisely, with teachers' working conditions. Teaching is hard work, and it's carried on in circumstances that have generally deteriorated over the past two decades. Two unusually well-informed studies appeared last week, one on high schools and the other on math and science education, and it was striking that both gave heavy emphasis to the extent to which school systems have thoughtlessly allowed the daily routine to undercut the classroom teachers.
Both studies cite that hated fixture, the public address speaker wired into every classroom. It interrupts classes repeatedly through the day to announce pep rallies, advertise dance tickets and admonish teachers to get their attendance reports in. If the school itself gives priority to social events and administrative paper work over math, chemistry and English, what lesson are students to draw from that?
But unfortunately it goes beyond loudspeakers and interruptions. William T. Coleman headed a commission looking into math and science teaching for the National Science Board, and noted that teachers need more time to teach, free of irrelevant chores like monitoring the lunchroom. They also need--a touchy subject--orderly classrooms. That means tighter enforcement of the rules of behavior. Teachers need more support from administrators and school boards in dealing with students who flout those rules. 5 The second of these studies is Ernest L. Boyer's book, "High School." Mr. Boyer, the president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, has been spending a lot of time in classrooms, and comes out of them with a vivid sense of the burdens on teachers trying to take children through the academic subjects. It's not only the continual infringements on class time. It's the lack of preparation time, and time to grade papers. Question: if you were a teacher with five classes a day of 25 students each, how often would you assign essays that have to be individually read and graded? Most teachers have little voice in choosing their textbooks, commonly mediocre. Shortages of teaching materials are frequent. Many teachers work in schools that are not physically safe.
"Improving working conditions is, we believe, at the center of our effort to improve teaching," Mr. Boyer writes. "We cannot expect teachers to exhibit a high degree of professional competence when they are accorded such a low degree of professional treatment in their workaday world."
To improve the general quality of teaching will require higher salaries. But, as Mr. Boyer points out, the money will not be well spent unless school boards and the communities they represent are willing to reconsider the circumstances in which their teachers are trying to teach.