Down the coast in San Diego a report will be issued Friday that could reshape the future of American society. That's a big statement, but those of us who believe that America's prosperity and democracy both depend directly on the quality of our public education system consider it no exaggeration.
The Carnegie Forum on Education and the Economy will issue its long-anticipated report on reshaping the teaching profession. The panel, which includes the heads of the two major teachers' unions as well as key state elected officials and educators, is apparently ready to shake things up.
Advance reports indicate the panel will propose a national teachers' certification system for basic subject-matter competency and for advanced levels of skill and specialization. These certifications could -- and almost certainly would -- become the basis for differential pay scales, designed to attract and hold more of the highly qualified people who are now shunning or fleeing the teaching profession.
The "radical" report also is expected to recommend a fundamental restructuring of teacher training and of the use of teachers in the schools. New Jersey Gov. Thomas H. Kean, who has led the effort in his state for alternate certification of teachers who lack traditional education majors, has called the forthcoming report "the second round of school reform."
The first round was triggered by the 1983 report, "A Nation at Risk," by a panel chartered by then-education secretary Terrell H. Bell. It led to a wave of sweeping changes in most of the states, centering on tougher classroom and graduation standards, stricter curriculum requirements and tighter discipline. In many of the states, teachers were offered higher pay as an incentive or reward. The payoffs in increased test scores, attendance and achievement have been encouraging.
But it is implausible to believe that the momentum of education reform can be maintained for long without addressing directly the issues centering on the talents and training of teachers. That is a premise that Mary Hatwood Futrell, president of the National Education Association, and Albert Shanker, head of the American Federation of Teachers, share with the other members of the Carnegie panel.
Some studies have indicated that as many as half the current teachers will likely leave their jobs by 1992, through either retirement or choice of alternative work. Some recent measurements of the quality of undergraduates aspiring to teaching careers are encouraging. But for the most part, top students still tend to shun education courses and careers.
That is, presumably, the rationale for so radical a suggestion as a national certification process, separate from education degrees or state licensing. No one should ignore the risk in such a proposal. It is designed to strengthen the professional status of teaching, but it could lead to bureaucracy or buckpassing or both.
The risk is that suggesting that certification be taken out of the hands of the local and state officials who decide most other school questions may provoke a jurisdictional struggle that delays other vital steps to improve the quality of teaching. In order to gain Futrell's qualified endorsement of the report, the Carnegie panel reportedly will suggest that teachers dominate the national certification process. The panel is deliberately vague on whether there would be any federal role.
Still, nationalization could be an excuse for inaction. While the states have shown commendable initiative in meeting new challenges in education and other fields traditionally part of their responsibility, a terrible inertia pervades Washington when it comes to facing long-term social and economic needs. If you want a horrible example of what can happen to a powerful report calling for national action, consider the fate of the recommendations of the Presidential Commission on Industrial Competitiveness, headed by John Young, the chairman of Hewlett-Packard.
President Reagan appointed the Young Commission in June 1983 and, 18 months later, received its proposals for improving the United States' capability to compete in an increasingly tough international economy. As 30 senators of both parties pointed out in a public outcry last month, the response in Washington since the report was received in January 1985 has been precisely zilch.
Let us hope that is not the fate awaiting this Carnegie report. The states have shown they will react to a serious challenge. The record on the national level gives less reason for optimism.