Education is in trouble worldwide. Parents worry about the quality of teaching. Teachers strike. Why?
SOMETHING is seriously wrong in the field of education.. In our modern, technological world one would think children should be better educated than at any other time. Not necessarily true. Over the past quarter century standardized test scores have gradually declined in numerous countries. For instance, in the United States the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) scores dropped an average of 20 to 30 points between 1966 and the present. Worldwide, many schoolchildren are not advancing in science and math. Their reading and writing skills are also minimal. Why?
Who Is to Be Blamed?
In the United States a 1983 report by the National Commission on Excellence in Education stated: "Each generation of Americans has outstripped its parents in education, in literacy and in economic attainment. For the first time in the history of our country, the educational skills of one generation will not surpass, will not equal, will not even approach, those of their parents." More recently, the U.S. Department of Education reported nearly one in five American adults is functionally illiterate-cannot effectively read and write the English language. Many corporations, realizing this, have had to institute multimillion dollar programs to teach employees the most basic reading and writing skills-skills they should have perfected in school. What's wrong with a system that requires school attendance, but can't seem to teach the most basic skills to untold millions of youths? Is it the system? Is it lack of money? Is it the fault of school administrators? Have teachers failed? Are parents to be blamed? The answer to each of these questions is, in one way or another, "YES!" Seldom has a subject stirred as much comment as education and teachers. At a lunch break during the completion of this article, I was sitting next to a family from Canada. Across the table was a couple from England. I casually asked them both, "How do you find the quality of education in your school systems?" An animated one-hour discussion began. Education in both those countries is in serious trouble, just as in the U.S. system. The Canadians told of diminishing educational standards, lack of discipline in the classroom, incompetent and uninterested teachers. The British couple told of teacher strikes, closed schools, substandard preparation for examinations. An American woman nearby, overhearing the conversation (it was a bit loud and lively), joined in with a story from her son's high school where violence is practically a way of life. Somehow, most Americans have thought the problem was more acute in the United States. But research from our regional office directors in New Zealand, Australia, West Germany, France, England and throughout Africa indicates the problems of education are indeed worldwide.
Importance of Teachers and Administrators
It is unfortunate the modern world is just beginning to understand the importance of teachers and school administrators. After World War II, there was a worldwide baby boom. That generation of young people passed through the educational system, creating massive needs for schools and teachers. In many cases teachers were drafted for the job without fully adequate qualifications. If not academically limited, then they were often unsuited in personality. Meanwhile the hands of school administrators were tied when it came to student discipline. Many parents fail to realize some of the most influential people in children's lives are teachers. Most of our readers can probably recall good and bad teachers they had. There are those inspiring teachers who make such an impact they shall never be forgotten. Perhaps it was a high school athletic coach, the journalism teacher, the history professor, the language teacher who helped set a lifelong course. I fondly remember my high school Latin teacher. Most people think Latin is the most boring subject possible. But this marvelous teacher made language important-interesting. I went on to study German, Greek and a smattering of other languages because she made another language fun. My high school football coaches were instrumental in forming character, determination and stick-to-itiveness. One of the most fascinating classroom teachers I ever met made history come alive in my college years. While I am by no means a historian, I still frequently read books on history. Most of you can probably name your favorite teachers. But sadly, the list of such memorable teachers is usually quite short. Then, there are those teachers who bored students to tears, who never seemed to motivate, who were hard to understand and unmerciful in grading policies. We can name them, too. Between those extremes are a majority of teachers. We neither remember them for good or bad. We don't remember them at all. Creative, innovative, memorable teachers are few and far between. Why should that be? There are those dedicated educators who teach for the joy of teaching, who receive life's greatest pleasures from giving knowledge, providing direction for young people. Emotionally, there are few greater thrills than the experience of helping a youngster learn. But good teachers and administrators are hard to find for a variety of reasons: 1) Salaries are not competitive with other professions of equal or less education and responsibility. In some U.S. cities, for instance, the trash collectors earn more than the schoolteachers. 2) In many schools, discipline is at an all-time low-violence at an all-time high. Teachers do not feel safe in the "hallowed halls" of their own schools. Administrators are often criticized by naive parents for being "too tough." 3) The teaching profession has devised no adequate way to reward the truly inspiring teachers. Inferior teachers and good teachers are generally compensated the same. 4) The teaching profession is not held in sufficient respect or honor. Suppose a son or daughter planned a career in teaching. A typical attitude is illustrated by University of Chicago professor Anne Wheeler as quoted in the September 24, 1984, issue of Newsweek magazine, "Dad's a lawyer and Mom's a doctor and they both ask, 'You want to be a teacher? What do you want to do a thing like that for?'"
What About Teacher Pay?
I'll resort to a cliche: "You get what you pay for." Traditionally, teachers are among the lowest paid of the educated professions. While advances are being made in many areas, faculty salaries lag behind comparably educated people in other fields. The April 25, 1985, issue of U.S. News & World Report featured an article on the executive pay structure of America's largest corporations. Many upper-level executives now earn in excess of $1 million a year. I couldn't help but wonder how many of these highly capable, top-level men and women would have entered the teaching profession or would have become academic administrators had they been able to earn salaries higher than those now paid in the teaching profession. And if most of them had become teachers and educational administrators, what kind of educational system would we have? These corporate executives have the ability to motivate employees, convince the board of directors, sell their products. Some have taken companies on the verge of bankruptcy and brought them back to profitability. They are men and women of personality. Dedication. Hard work. They make the right decisions. But it is not hard to understand why someone potentially able to earn a chief executive-level salary would choose that over a virtually subsistence-level teaching career. Nor is it hard to understand why someone already in teaching would quit it in order to work toward executive responsibility. It is unfortunate our Western society has put so much emphasis on materialism, but that's the way it is. Those dedicated teachers who stayed on the job when -they could have earned more in another field deserve admiration. But admiration and job satisfaction are not the answer. The teaching profession is also on the bottom of the desired career list of many young people today. When children are asked what they want to be when they grow up, they answer almost every profession but teacher. The best of the college students seldom enter teacher training programs-there is no bright economic future in it. Who are the majority of students choosing a teaching career? In a July 1983 interview with U.S. News & World Report, Secretary of Education Terence Bell observed, "Most of the students who are studying to be teachers today score in the bottom 25 percent of the college entrance examinations. That shows how far we've slipped in making teaching attractive." To be more specific, a National Education Association report revealed the average SAT score of college-bound high school seniors intending to become teachers was only 812 (out of a possible 1600 points). By contrast students who planned careers in engineering averaged 987, those planning careers in mathematics averaged more than 1,000 and the national average for all seniors taking the test was 893.
A Price to Pay
With the furor over teachers and education growing annually, it would be well to take a long, hard look at the future to see what must be done to attract bright, creative, talented men and women to the teaching profession. One good place to start is to elevate the pay structure to a respectable level and place it near the top of the priorities that will help attract the cream-of-the-crop to this profession. As a contrasting example, it is a shame many who don't even learn the basic skills of reading and writing can earn astronomical salaries in professional athletics. Millions of Americans are willing to pay $15 or more to view a professional sporting event, making it possible to pay high salaries to athletes. Yet those same spectators may scream at the thought of paying an extra $15 in taxes to support teacher pay raises. And those same people are the chronic complainers about the standards of education their children are receiving. It somehow doesn't make sense. The concern over educational standards and the mounting violence in the public schools is driving more and more American families to place children in private schools or even take them out of school altogether, educating them in the home. But the high cost of private schooling doesn't make this a viable alternative for most families. And few families are really qualified to educate their own children at home-even though in the United States some estimate as many as three million people are pursuing in-home education. In Britain many parents are so concerned about the teacher strikes and other problems of education that thousands are pursuing special schooling for their children. The school systems of many nations are clearly in trouble.
A Word About Teacher Qualifications
Awareness of lower test scores, disruption of classes, lack of discipline and related problems have focused attention on the lack of qualifications in teachers. Recent legislation passed in the state of California requires a proficiency test for college graduates entering the teaching profession. The first test was administered in late 1982. Results were shocking. Nearly 7,000 prospective teachers took the test. Almost one third failed it. How many of the presently credentialed teachers could pass the test? California does not require such testing for established teachers. But many states are considering it-a few have implemented this procedure. In many cases teachers resist such testing and evaluation. Why? What is there to fear if they have been properly educated, are good teachers, have a successful record? Taking a test shouldn't interfere with that career. And what if they can't pass a standardized test? How about requiring night school till they can? And if they can't should they even be teaching at all? A cartoon appeared in the London Daily Mail. In the cartoon teachers on strike were picketing with signs for more pay. One teacher's sign demanded the superintendent "shud pay us what weer wurth!" Another teacher leaned over and said, "For your sake, I do hope he doesn't." Eloquently spoken! If pay scales are ever going to reach an acceptable level, teachers must be qualified. Of all people who ought to know reading, writing and arithmetic, teachers should.
The Question of Merit
Then there is the question of teacher advancement and pay based on merit-success in the classroom. This sounds good at first, but no one has yet devised an effective method for evaluating teachers. It is subjective. A few years ago I took a course on the history of higher education. I don't think I ever had a teacher more interesting in the classroom-he was truly a teacher's teacher. Students in the School of Education clamored to get his section of the required course. But in university life, most teachers are evaluated on how much they publish-not only on how well they teach. This teacher loved teaching so much and was so good at teaching that he didn't find time to publish often enough in educational journals and magazines. When evaluated for tenure, he was turned down because he had not published sufficiently. Yet his classes were full. All the students I talked to said he was the best teacher they had ever had (and this was in the doctoral program). Those teachers who can inspire, motivate and lift the spirits of students need recognition. Up to now they have had to be content with a file drawer full of appreciative letters from former students. The future of education is at stake. The next generation and the one after that are in our hands today. We need quality teachers and safe schools. There is little chance the most capable lawyers, doctors, corporate executives, accountants and businessmen are going to retrain as teachers and school administrators. But the rewards of teaching and school administration are great. The joy of seeing children learn, grow, progress, overcome is beyond explanation. If men and women of high school and college age see the challenge of teaching for what it really is, if they knew it would become one of the most highly respected professional fields, if they knew it would have sufficient and comparable financial rewards as other professions, you would see a new flood of students to the field of education. And it would not be a flood of those who didn't know what else to do, of substandard students who couldn't measure up to law, business and medicine courses. It would be a flood of the most capable men and women in the nation. If parents, administrators and teachers would rally together with the intent to ban polydrug abuse, to improve conditions, to restore discipline and make the schools safe and to strive for excellence, we would be on the way to solving our education dilemma. In a short time the furor over teachers and education would cease!