In the play “A Man For All Seasons,” when an ambitious young man named Richard Rich asks Sir Thomas More for help in securing a government job, the chancellor urges him instead to become a teacher, saying, “You’d be a fine teacher, perhaps even a great one.”
“And if I was, who would know it?” the aspiring politician complains.
To which More rejoins: “You, your pupils, your friends, God. Not a bad public, that.”
More’s advice fell on deaf ears. Today, under less dramatic circumstances, many young, talented people are, like Richard Rich, loath to consider a career in the classroom.
The teaching profession is in a time of turmoil. Teachers have always had complaints about their pay, status and working conditions. But an impending shortage of new instructors has now pushed some educators and civic leaders to call for radical changes in the way teachers are trained and how schools are run.
Abolish Bachelor’s Degree
Two high-level panels--the Holmes Group, composed of education deans from several dozen research universities, and the Carnegie Forum on Education and the Economy, an offshoot of the Carnegie Corp. of New York--are calling for abolition of the bachelor’s degree in education, the route that most of today’s 2.3 million public school teachers followed into the profession.
Teachers’ colleges and education departments within universities have been a target of criticism for decades about lax standards, “Mickey Mouse” methods courses, and poorly prepared graduates.
Teaching has become an increasingly unpopular choice for college students. Until recently, teacher surpluses made it possible for schools to hire new teachers despite a sharp contraction in the pipeline from the campuses. But that situation is rapidly changing.
New Teachers to Be Needed
With elementary enrollments rising again thanks to a baby boomlet, and with many teachers nearing retirement age, public schools need to hire a million or more new teachers over the next decade.
The Holmes and Carnegie reformers want all prospective teachers to major in the liberal arts, sciences and humanities and to acquire most of their professional preparation in graduate school, in internships and on the job.
New Jersey claims to have solved a shortage of math and science teachers with its innovative “provisional teacher program,” which provides a pathway into the profession for liberal arts graduates who took no courses in education.
Radical Changes Demanded
The Carnegie panel, which included the heads of both major teachers’ unions, has called for radical changes to attract the best and brightest to the profession. The main lure would be salaries of $65,500 a year for “lead” teachers who would take on expanded duties.
Carnegie is currently funding test development and other efforts to lay the groundwork for carrying out its key recommendation: creation of a national standards board to certify teachers.
The price tag for the Carnegie reforms is steep: an estimated $47 billion tacked onto the nation’s school bill over the next decade.
Easing Teachers’ Task
Higher salaries would not be the only extra expense. The Carnegie task force says that to make teaching palatable, the schools must hire more aides and buy more supplies, books and other materials to make the teacher’s task easier.
Currently, the Carnegie task force said, teachers spend up to half their time “on non-instructional duties--everything from recording test scores to monitoring the halls, from doing lunchroom and playground duty to running the ditto machine. They are constantly running out of supplies, forced to use outdated texts. . . . Skilled support help is rarely available, nor the time to do the job right.”
Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers and a member of the Carnegie panel, says it takes almost a missionary zeal for someone to choose teaching these days.
Quitters May Earn More
Many who give it a try soon quit. A recent survey found that 15% of those who quit teaching in the last five years earned $40,000 or more in 1984; only 1% of those still in the classroom earned as much.
Shanker often quips that he would be running a much larger organization if he were president of the American Federation of Ex-Teachers.
The average classroom teacher’s salary last year was $25,257, according to the National Education Assn.
But salaries have risen sharply in recent years, particularly in the aftermath of the 1983 federal report, “A Nation at Risk,” which sounded the alarm about shoddy standards in U.S. schools.
Salaries now start at $18,500 in New Jersey and New York City. Beginners get $20,000 in much of California. Pittsburgh teachers have a pact that will soon put their top scale at $40,000.
Among the inducements offered new teachers this spring by the Washington suburb of Prince Georges County, Md., were a free month’s rent and discounts on car loans and credit cards.
Teaching offers vacations unrivaled by most occupations. Most teachers are women. For many, the ability to work hours that dovetail with their children’s school schedule is a significant fringe benefit.
Secretary of Education William J. Bennett has accused Shanker and his counterpart at the NEA, Mary Hatwood Futrell, of “poor-mouthing” the profession, exaggerating its drawbacks and minimizing its rewards.
But Shanker contends that public schools are the last bastion of the 19th-Century factory in American life.
“Even if we were to get better salaries and some improvement in working conditions, intelligent, well-educated people . . . who have other options, will not work for long in a traditional type of factory--and that’s what the public schools of this country are,” he has told his rank and file.
“They will not work in a place where they are not trusted, where they are time-clocked, where they’re supervised, where they’re observed, where they are treated as people to be pushed around and instructed and regulated.”
Shanker says teachers need to spend less time lecturing and standing in front of a blackboard. Instead, he says, teachers should devote more of their efforts to preparing lesson plans and figuring out new ways--including wider use of computers and audio and videocassettes--to get students more involved in their own learning.
Some have greeted the Carnegie report as visionary; others think it out of touch with what has been the reality in America’s classrooms for a century or more--a single teacher standing in front of 20 or 25 students for most of the day.
Bennett and leaders of the national associations of school boards, principals and administrators have expressed skepticism about the Carnegie suggestion that teams of teachers could take over the job of running individual schools. Bennett has scoffed at the idea of management by committee and insisted that a strong principal is the key to an effective school.
Few of the many reform reports that have emerged in the last three years have called for such radical changes in the schools; none has engendered such controversy.
Steady Erosion Feared
Shanker and other advocates argue that Americans will suffer a steady erosion in their standard of living unless the schools succeed in educating most children to a level once reserved for the elite.
It is a lofty goal. But the Carnegie panel is not the first blue-ribbon group to tilt against the windmill of school reform.
The public schools for decades have displayed a remarkable capacity to maintain the status quo. Teachers and principals are not the only ones to resist change; so do parents. In Los Angeles and other places that have tried year-round schools, one of parents’ first complaints has been that it plays havoc with family vacations.