Classroom teachers are among the people I most trust. I remember the self- giving and inspirational ones from my boyhood, and I am close now with several of the same breed who have been teaching my own children. They are lively company. As a journalist, I trust teachers because what they say usually checks out. They aren't hustling a line.
I had this feeling of trust recently when I spent an afternoon with 20 high-school teachers. From Portland, Maine., to Honolulu, they were part of the Teacher Renaissance Initiative, which is a national program sponsored by the Education Commission of the States. The group had been invited to share ideas about teaching, children and excellence: Something's broken, how do we fix it?
Repair crews from every other part of America have been at work on the failures of education, so why not, the commission reasoned, go to the teachers? They are the first to be blamed and the last to be listened to.
The discussion leader of the 20 men and women was Robert Lynch, a social-studies teacher in a Jericho, N.Y., public school. His goal was, first, to evoke ideas on how to strengthen the profession and, second, to learn what effective action could be taken to make the ideas work. Lynch began by asking each teacher for the one reform that, if it were fulfilled, would most improve education in his school.
Unsurprisingly, no teacher wasted time on the current rage -- testing teachers. Arkansas tried it last year, and Texas last week. The dream of routing the incompetents from the classrooms because they flunked a test is part of the same illusion that a drug test will clean up baseball. A dozen teachers can score 100 percent on their competency tests and, combined, still have hlf the natural talent of one teacher who flunked. How do you test classroom creativity or artistry?
The resentment of teachers to being tested is justified. It goes beyond defensiveness to the weariness of being hit by another piece of chalk thrown from the back of the room by someone -- the public -- who should know better.
The 20 teachers at the commission's forum did know better. These were among their recommendations to improve the high schools:
Flexible school days.
Drug and alcohol programs.
Requirements for administrators to return to the classroom every five years.
Better instructional materials.
Courses for interpersonal relationships.
Basic skills to be taught before high school.
Reviewing these and other suggestions, Lynch said: "The biggest challenge is to come up with education reforms that cover the vast range of problems. The range is phenomenal. The differences in resources are also vast."
Why is that so difficult for the public to understand? Every teacher in Texas and the other 49 states could score 100 percent on competency tests and it would still not lower an inch the high hurdles most public-school teachers are asked to jump every day. Why do the state legislatures that pass laws for competency tests not also demand that class sizes be limited to 15 students? Why no calls for teachers' aides to help in the daily secretarial work, grading papers, supervising lunch periods and working with slow or fast learners? In a 1981 survey, nearly three-fourths of the teachers had no aide.
Teachers are like nurses and the police, two other callings to which we assign multiple roles. We pay poorly and expect richly. The demands on teachers are staggering. They are given orders by federal, state and local politicians, the school board, the PTA, the principal and assistant principal, parents and assorted task forces of experts announcing that American education is a mess and someone -- not them -- should clean it up. That's the fun outside the classroom. Inside are the kids: as many as 180 in six or seven periods a day. And finally, the noise of the bells and the intercoms.
Who needs it? Real-estate offices are filled with second-career ex-teachers. So are other professions. A 1981 study reported that "teachers who scored highest on measures of academic ability are most likely to leave teaching early . . . and those who score highest leave teaching in the greatest numbers. Those who score lowest are most likely to stay in the classroom. Excellent teachers see too many poor teachers earning thousands of dollars more than they are because of seniority. Our finest teachers have been attacked too often for 'the sorry state of American education.'
The teachers I had the luck to spend time with believed the state was more confused than sorry; they had yet to give up. Education reforms are meaningless unless the teachers are part of the process by which those reforms are created. Children can't be taught without teachers. How can the public?