This is the time of year when millions of American youngsters trade in their beach towels and baseball gloves for textbooks and test tubes. Every one of them--from little ones braving kindergarten to teen-agers starting high school--deserve, not only for themselves but for the very future of the nation, the best teachers and the best education programs possible. They deserve a system that can teach vital skills such as reading and mathematics, reduce dropouts, improve discipline and foster a love of learning for its own sake. But they won’t find it this year.
They won’t find it because, although school years are longer and academic requirements are more stringent in many communities, the most important reforms still lie ahead, their achievement made more difficult by the fact that more students are on the way--1 million more in California alone over the next decade. What gains may have been achieved in the state’s landmark reform package of two years ago could be wiped out by the gigantic demands for more classrooms and more teachers.
They won’t find it this year because teaching has become a woefully undervalued, unappreciated job. Undervalued, obviously: The average minimum salary nationally for a teacher is $15,000. Unappreciated as well, for, as Ernest L. Boyer, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, asks, “How many of you ever thanked a teacher?” A numbing question when you think of what they do, from the first-grade teacher who gives meaning to words on a page to the science teacher who gives meaning to the galaxy. The thanks that they deserve is financial support for further studies of their own, time to think and plan, recognition from parents and students, classes small enough so that they don’t just cope with ignorance, but conquer it.
The National Education Assn. estimates that the country will need as many as 1 million new teachers over the next five years. To get them, there must be a national commitment that goes beyond rhetoric to encourage young people to enter teaching, to help them do it, to ensure that they are competent and to ensure that they have opportunities for professional growth and advancement. “The harsh truth,” Boyer said in a provocative speech earlier this year, “is that on most college campuses schoolteaching is not honored and students are discouraged from entering the profession.” That, perhaps above all else, must change.
Improving teachers and teaching requires leadership--from the teachers who must patrol their ranks better, and from local, state and national governments. Despite the denials of the Reagan Administration, there is a role for the federal government in education. It can and must help foster a climate of respect for education, provide money for scholarships for teacher training and--if the money can be found nowhere else--provide funds to reduce the size of classes. There is no more important investment in the future.
As Boyer said, putting a teacher into orbit is fine, but it is not enough. Teachers here on Earth need recognition, too.