AS THE millennium approaches, Americans are concerned about a number of serious issues, including computer crashes, the possibility of Social Security funds being drained by retiring baby boomers, and scary scenarios of genetic engineering.
Our concerns about these issues are justified. However, one serious problem is already upon us: the severe shortage of qualified public school teachers, especially at the secondary level.
State Superintendent Nancy Grasmick, in a Nov. 12 Op-Ed column in The Sun, wrote that Maryland colleges produce about 2,500 new teachers a year, but that number is woefully inadequate. She said, "Maryland schools opened in the fall of 1997 with 5,700 additional teachers. In the fall of 2001, nearly 11,000 additional teachers will be needed."
Maryland's schools chief focused the rest of her article on ways to attract top college graduates to a career in teaching. Most of her ideas are intriguing.
As a large number of teachers near retirement age, she is correct about the need to replace them. But no matter how attractive we make the profession to college graduates, the numbers of those eligible to leave in the next 10 years are so great that replacement will be impossible.
School administrators would be wise to develop strategies to keep potential retirees from leaving the moment they are eligible to retire. Managing rooms full of other people's children, not to mention teaching them useful skills and knowledge, is a challenging task - especially in contemporary America, where the school functions as a surrogate home for many children.
Yet the people who run education frequently fail to consider the well-being of their most precious resource: the classroom teacher.
Ironically, and depressingly, almost all of those guilty of such neglect are former teachers, exhibiting astonishingly short memories of the challenges posed in the classroom.
Hiring excellent young teachers and keeping the best veterans around for a few extra years will be a daunting task that will require no less than a revolution in public attitudes toward education and a willingness by school officials to move away from the often insensitive management style that can so alienate teachers.
Several issues should be considered:
* Make public school teaching financially competitive. Let's get away from the guilt-trip argument that teachers and their unions often invoke during salary negotiations - namely, teachers are victims of a greedy public that doesn't care about their financial plight. Salaries are mediocre at best, but teachers are far from the poorhouse, and with many other employee groups in America underpaid, taxpayers aren't sympathetic to this argument. A more valid argument for substantially increased salaries is, simply, you get what you pay for. In a democracy based on a free-market economy, where a person's place in the class structure is financially determined, much of his or her self-worth is salary-based. Many engineering majors fight through a very difficult regimen because a company is going to offer them $40,000 or more to start. Such a salary ensures early financial security, but the boost to its recipi-ent's self-image might be more important.
In poll after poll, Americans say education is their major concern, but when it comes time to provide the funds to make teachers' salaries competitive, public officials succumb to the short-sighted view that money is not the problem. It is time to face facts. In every service-oriented occupation (teaching, police work, firefighting and nursing), some people live with a lower-than-competitive salary because of the satisfaction of serving others. But there aren't nearly enough of these individuals in teaching to meet school demands, especially in economically depressed areas. While most people are not so self-sacrificing, they will provide an honest day's work for a fair salary. Education has not been able to attract enough of the best and the brightest college graduates, so school systems fill their needs with the best of the rest. Many of them become good teachers, but some should not have been hired.
Grasmick suggests that the public provide bonuses and tuition tax credits to top college graduates and to teachers who pass national certification tests. These ideas are on the right track, but they won't succeed because they only nip at the problem. When the math or science whiz who likes working with people sees that a teacher can start at $40,000 a year right out of college, bonuses will not be needed to entice him or her to teach.
Law school will no longer be seen as the only path to financial success for a liberal-arts undergraduate. We also have to be willing to pay even more to those who teach in inner cities and depressed rural areas. Perhaps it is a sad thing to admit that teachers are as mercenary as the rest of society, but 10 years after beginning to compensate them on a par with other professionals, our schools would be filled with excellent instructors.
* Institute real site-based management. When Stuart Berger was hired as Baltimore County superintendent in the early 1990s, many teachers were excited by his embracing the concept of site-based management for schools.
Teachers, parents and student leaders were going to have a significant role in setting local school policy, but such was not the case. Berger implemented a decentralized process by which school principals controlled budgets and faculty hiring. But these principals were closely monitored by central-office administrators to ensure that they followed his management guidelines. Teachers, parents and student leaders were largely left out of the process.
Not that principals necessarily wanted to hear faculty ideas. Throughout my teaching career, I was often amazed at the adversarial manner in which principals dealt with faculty. Most were good at praising faculty members at school meetings, but too few really respected their teachers. Those teachers who were willing to give up afternoons to serve on faculty councils were seen as malcontents and troublemakers.
When I was chairman of the faculty council at a school where we had serious discipline problems in the hallways and the cafeteria, teachers on the council gave up hours of personal time to put together a pamphlet of suggestions for how administration and faculty could jointly solve the problems. After completing our work, we proudly invited the principal to our next meeting to share our ideas. He picked up the pamphlet, which had been carefully typed and bound, quickly shuffled through the pages and tossed it aside, saying, "I run my school, not the teachers. Anything else?" As the council members sat in stunned silence, he got up and left.
In the short term, he saved himself the time of having to review and discuss school management with the faculty. In the long term, he contributed to the demoralization of his teachers and lost the benefit of the experiences of those interacting daily with students.
* Follow the Mayor Rudolph Giuliani discipline model. Almost everyone remembers the pre-Giuliani New York City, a place synonymous with crime. Citizens were victimized by burglars, car thieves and muggers. I remember the Jack Lemmon movie "The Out-of-Towners," in which married tourists suffered one indignity after another at the hands of the city's thriving criminal element. In less than a decade, the city has reversed its negative pTC image. What did Giuliani do? He decided that no crime would be ignored. He believes that an atmosphere of lawlessness is the best breeding ground for criminals. When he became mayor, everyone who contributed to such an atmosphere was challenged and often arrested. Streetwalkers, panhandlers and loiterers were assumed to be up to no good, so the police made their lives miserable.
Public school authorities bear an uncomfortable resemblance to New York's pre-Giuliani politicians. One disruptive student can, day after day, destroy the learning atmosphere for 25 or 30 well-behaved kids. And don't think for a minute that discipline problems occur only in tough city schools. Talk to teachers in a district's best academic school, and they will tell you that, while behavior is generally good in their high-ability classes, in many other classes too much time is spent on discipline.
Schools would be more civil if a higher level of decorum was demanded. Imagine a classroom where a student curses a teacher and is sent to the office for disciplinary action. Imagine the teacher's humiliation when the smirking student returns to the classroom unpunished. Insult is added to injury when the administrator tells the teacher that this is the way students communicate today, so it's best to avoid future confrontations. Such problems arise partly from the fact that an element of the administrator's evaluation is the number of expulsions and suspensions he or she issued that year.
Several weeks ago, in response to the recent disruptions at Southern High School, the chairman of the Baltimore school board announced that suspensions and expulsions would no longer be held against principals. I wonder how many other jurisdictions make local administrators worry that discipline policies might short-circuit a career. Whatever the reason, the failure of administrators to address student misbehavior is a major factor in teachers' decisions to quit.
Would implementation of these suggestions immediately solve the teacher shortage? Certainly not. This professional dissatisfaction developed over many years. A solution will take time and a sincere, consistent effort by those who can make the necessary changes.
But, if officials were to significantly improve salaries, include teachers as a valued part of the planning of curricula and school policies, and provide effective discipline standards, Maryland public education would be better prepared to meet the challenges of the millennium.
Gary Levin recently retired after 32 years as a teacher in Baltimore City and Baltimore County schools.
Pub Date: 12/06/98