The consensus is beyond doubting. Americans want substantial improvements in public education, and they are agreed that the most direct way of accomplishing the improvements is to hire better teachers.
But the consensus has been reached without weighing the costs, and the question is whether we'll be willing to put our money where our consensus is.
At least 30 of the 50 states already have instituted some form of competency testing for teachers. Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, has called for a national teachers' test comparable to entrance examinations for doctors and lawyers. There's hardly a school district in America that isn't wrestling with the question of higher standards for those who teach our children. If it were simply a matter of wanting better teachers, we would have them already.
Unfortunately, we are behaving as though we are in a buyer's market -- as though we need only to improve our ability to select the potentially outstanding teachers from the ranks of those who are applying for teaching jobs.
The truth is, it's a seller's market, and we're hardly able to keep our classrooms staffed with those marginally competent applicants, let alone the outstanding prospects we say we want.
And the numbers say it's going to get worse soon.
The 1970s decline in the school- age population, which saw school closings across America, led us to believe that we would need fewer teachers and would therefore be free to choose only the top candidates.
But the trend has turned around. The baby boomlet that started around 1977 has increased elementary school enrollments for the first time in 14 years. According to the National Education Association, we will need 200,000 new teachers a year at least through 1990. That demand for a million new teachers threatens to derail the efforts to get better teachers.
That is because the brightest young women, who used to be a captive source for new teachers, now have other, more lucrative options, thanks to the decline in sex discrimination. In one recent period, education majors ranked 17th in math ability and 14th in English ability among 19 fields of study analyzed by the American College Testing Service.
Teaching is becoming an occupation of last resort, and the most obvious way of changing that trend is to increase teachers' pay. Nor will such relatively cheap tricks as merit pay for outstanding teachers do the job. Few bright college sophomores will change their majors to education on the prospect that at some future time they might be eligible for merit pay.
We're talking serious increases, across the board. The average pay of the nation's 2.1 million public school teachers is already more than $23,500 a year. Will Americans, already grumbling over high taxes, be willing to raise that average enough to make teaching attractive to the bright propspects we say we want?
As things stand now, I doubt it. The rural and inner-city schools most in need of outstanding teachers are hard-pressed to pay the ones they already have. And even in those areas where the baby boomlet will create the biggest demand -- the suburban communities and the Sun Belt states -- it's hard to imagine taxpayers raising salaries enough to attract young people whose options include engineering, law and middle-management jobs.
We say we want better teachers, and I suppose we do. But I find it hard to believe that we will do what is necessary to get them.