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The Not-Quite Profession


For teachers, the last 10 years have brought mixed results.

"A Nation at Risk," the much-discussed 1983 report on the status of American education, sought to raise the quality of teaching and the status of teachers. Salaries for teachers, the report said, should be "competitive, market-sensitive and performance-based." School boards should adopt 11-month contracts for teachers and use incentives to attract outstanding students to teaching, particularly in math and science.

There's been some progress. The good news is that average salaries, adjusted for inflation, increased 22 percent in the decade to about $37,000 ($40,000 in Maryland). Four-fifths of the states now require would-be teachers to pass tests, though these tests of minimum proficiency hardly resemble bar examinations for lawyers. Some colleges revamped teacher education so graduates gain higher levels of expertise, much of it through on-the-job training.

But the bad news overwhelms. Not enough top students are entering the field, most teachers' colleges have not changed their ways significantly, and severe shortages remain in math and science. Bright African-Americans and women are entering other fields where they can earn more money and respect. And teachers are still underpaid compared to other professions. There was consternation in the local legal community, for example, when the pay of beginning lawyers in major Baltimore-area firms slipped last year from $50,000 to $49,500. Beginning teachers' pay in the Baltimore metropolitan area ranges from $22,162 in the city to $25,550 in Howard County.

Unlike lawyers and physicians, teachers have little control over who enters their craft or the professional development of colleagues. Their pay is based on an industrial union model, with raises pegged strictly to seniority. Teachers themselves have resisted changes to emphasize competency, not seniority. Incompetents, defended at great cost by the unions, are almost never fired. It's difficult for non-educators -- retired people or those who want to change careers -- to make the transition to teaching. There is a body of knowledge and skills all teachers need, but education is failing to tap a rich vein of talent with all the hurdles it throws up at the gateway to the profession.

Given this dismal outlook, little wonder the brightest students choose other professions. That's particularly worrisome in a decade that will see one-third of the nation's teachers retire.

Reform, though, is percolating that could alter teaching for the better -- and rather quickly.

At the national level, 100 education deans are calling for "professional development schools" -- university-school partnerships to educate teachers. In Maryland, Higher Education Secretary Shaila R. Aery proposes a five-year teacher-education program, the fifth year devoted to a teaching residency similar to a prospective doctor's medical residency. A National Board for Professional Teaching Standards is developing a voluntary, nationwide system of board certification (similar to those for physicians, lawyers and accountants).

This activity is based on the proposition that teachers, for whom performance is as important as intellectual knowledge, should submit to rigorous preparation, certification and selection: four years of solid academic work and a fifth year in the classroom under supervision of master teachers.

More also has to be done to make schools places where professionalism flourishes. The top-down management style in most districts dictates against this. So does collective bargaining modeled after blue-collar industries. Teachers themselves are going to have to give up some outdated practices in return for more autonomy, more say over how they do their work. That, after all, is at the heart of what we call professionalism.

Tomorrow: Fairness in Finance

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