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A Profession in Crisis, Teaching Gets New Lessons from Educator Ernest Boyer

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Ask any American to name a person who was an important influence in his or her life, and more often than not, a teacher will be cited. It may have been a third-grade teacher who made a floundering child feel special, a high school teacher who made rigorous demands or a college professor who ignited a lasting spark of curiosity.

For the better part of America’s history, teachers have been drawn from the country’s best and brightest. But times have changed. While 19 percent of college freshmen in 1970 expressed interest in becoming teachers, fewer than five percent considered it as a career 15 years later. Their concerns were low pay, poor working conditions, little opportunity for upward mobility within the profession and lack of status in the society. In 1983 the National Commission on Exellence in Education alerted the public to a “rising tide of mediocrity” in schools. Dr. Ernest Boyer, 57, president of the privately endowed Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, was already crying in the wilderness. A former chancellor of the State University of New York and Commissioner of Education under President Carter, Boyer warned in 1982 that “the profession of teaching in this country is imperiled. Rewards are few, morale is low, the best teachers are bailing out, and the supply of recruits is drying up.” Yet Boyer, who wrote the acclaimed 1983 Carnegie report High School and who is now writing a study of American colleges, is one educator offering concrete proposals to bolster the teaching ranks. He recently discussed those ideas and the problems they address with Assistant Editor Susan Reed in his office in Princeton, N.J.

What specifically prompted the 1983 national commission to warn about the “rising tide of mediocrity”?

The report grew out of anxieties about the economy in the late ’70s. We had double-digit inflation and tremendous unemployment. Our steel industry was threatened. Chrysler was going down the tubes. Japan was overtaking us in the high tech and automotive industries—precisely the areas where we thought we were smartest. Education has always been linked both to the economic and civic progress of the nation, but schools were not effectively preparing the coming generation. Test scores were declining, and there were reports of teacher incompetence and student illiteracy. We got scared.

What’s fascinating to observe is that while we’re always somewhat grumpy about schools, our schools become Mr. Fix-It when the nation gets in trouble. This is the institution we turn to time and time again, whether the threat is Sputnik or a weak economy.

What steps have been taken to improve the schools since the report?

Most states have now clarified and tightened graduation requirements. In the last two years, teacher salaries have risen about 14 percent, which is well over the inflation rate. For the first time in a decade, a catch-up effort is being made. There’s a “back to basics” move that focuses on the mastery of language. But to my mind, teaching is the nub of the whole problem. If I had one prediction for the future, it’s this: We will have good schools to the extent that we reaffirm and strengthen teaching in this country. All other issues are secondary. In the end, education stands or falls on the quality of the person who meets with children every day. This is the challenge to the nation.

But how do we attract qualified people to teaching when business and industry offer better conditions and incentives? And how, then, do we retain them?

The key elements are to renew, reward and recruit—the three Rs for good schools. There are simple ways to begin. We can institute summer grants, fellowships and even sabbaticals for teachers so they can be intellectually renewed. As for rewards, people who care can give credit informally to outstanding teachers. I mean a simple, “Thank you very much.” A note from a student or parent creates a sense of renewal and excitement that you can’t imagine. The dog-eared note is often pinned on the mirror for months because it happens so rarely.

How can the third R, recruitment, be improved?

We need to start identifying young people in the schools today who look like they might be good prospects for the profession. We have to begin a program of national college scholarships that would be given to the best students who would teach afterward in the public schools. It says to young people, “We’re going to invest in you because you’re a national resource.” We spend millions of dollars to recruit athletes now and virtually nothing to recruit teachers for the public schools. It’s a scandal.

Don’t we have to raise current salaries to attract qualified people?

Salaries are important but they’re not the heart of the problem. Poor pay is not the main factor that frustrates most teachers. They often leave because of working conditions and too little recognition. Some conditions can be fixed without a dime. Others can be fixed with modest investments.

Don’t we need a system of advancement that recognizes talent?

The current arrangement by which teachers march along in lockstep, irrespective of performance, has got to go. We need a career ladder in which teachers come in as apprentices, then advance to senior teacher, then master teacher—some mechanism that allows them to move ahead on the basis of outstanding performance. Teaching is the only profession I know in which to get ahead, you have to get out. If you’re a good teacher, what happens? You become a counselor or a principal.

The failure rate in the inner-city schools is high. Is anyone addressing the problem of teaching disadvantaged kids?

This is perhaps our most urgent problem and it is not being adequately addressed. Unless we confront this issue we’re going to face a traumatic future. It’s estimated that by 1990, 30 percent of all children in the public schools will be minorities. In some areas of the country, it’s already more than 50 percent. This pattern is tied to the broader demographic trends in the country. White America is getting older, but minority America is still young. Over two-thirds of Hispanic families have children age 18 or younger. The dropout rate among Hispanics still borders between 40 and 50 percent. I’m afraid the current move to add more course requirements will lead to more failure among inner-city students, unless we also have smaller classes, better counseling and more creative teaching.

How do you define “more creative” teaching?

A great teacher can build a bridge between what is being taught and the lives of students. I dropped in unannounced on an inner-city sixth-grade class in New Haven once. The students were all crowded around the desk of the teacher, practically denying him oxygen. They were reading Charles Dickens’ novel Oliver Twist. They were absolutely entranced, and as I watched I understood the secret. The brilliant teacher had brought 19th-century London to New Haven. The kids were discussing how Oliver could survive in New Haven. They had drawn analogies. They were saying, “He might have made it in London, but New Haven is a tougher town.” The students could hardly wait to see how the story ended. This teacher was teaching literature through the prism of universal human experience. He was teaching life.

Would you urge someone to become a teacher today?

Absolutely. Americans believe deeply in public education because we care deeply about our children and the future of our nation. Even today, there are still a lot of teachers who find teaching rewarding. And when you survey teachers, by and large the majority are more satisfied than frustrated. There are problems but there are great rewards, the satisfaction of shaping lives. So I could definitely look someone in the eye and say, “Yes, prepare to be a teacher.”