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Teachers: True or False?

July 20, 1986

True or false: Teachers' unions favor classroom reform.

True, tardily and tentatively. It is important that in recent weeks both major teacher organizations have endorsed reforms to improve their profession. But the real test will come when state legislatures start drafting laws to improve teacher training and certification. Nobody can help those drafting sessions better than teachers who know what classrooms are really like, especially if they are willing to stop protecting weak teachers and argue for changes that will help students.

At their national meetings both the National Education Assn. and the American Federation of Teachers supported key recommendations in the recent Carnegie Forum report on teaching. Specifically, after long resistance, NEA finally accepted the idea of a teacher-certification system. NEA does, however, want it run by state boards, where its members have the most influence. The Carnegie report calls for a national board to set professional teaching standards and issue certificates to teachers who volunteer to be measured against those standards.

The American Federation of Teachers backed more of the report, agreeing especially with its call for dropping undergraduate degrees in education. Schools must attract bright graduates from a wide range of disciplines and then teach them how to teach, rather than having undergraduates focus narrowly on education methodology as a major.

Schools will need not only better-educated graduates but also a lot of them. Teachers who were hired in the 1950s to educate the baby-boom generation are retiring. Others have simply grown weary of the classroom and have left. Estimates are that over the next seven years nearly half the nation's 2.1 million teachers will retire or quit.

An NEA survey of the nation's 100 largest school districts says that they will be short at least 32,300 teachers for the coming school year alone.

Turnover in the public schools in the next decade, then, will be enormous. School districts face great challenges to recruit, pay and retain new teachers, but they will have a great opportunity as well. Many new teachers will enter classrooms with no vested interest in the status quo, no resistance to the basic changes that must occur in order to improve teacher training and maintain high standards.

Blueprints for reform are crucial, as are endorsements by teachers and their unions, but they will mean nothing if state governors do not crusade for them and state legislatures do not turn them into law. Without uncompromising support from teachers, legislatures may be tempted to water down certification rules when they are written into legislation. That's when teachers and their unions must work with state and local leaders. That's when the true-or-false test will come.

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