There is bad news in the report issued last week by the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future. And then there is worse news.
Taken together, they show why reform of the education system is a priority for this country as we enter a new century.
The bad news, widely publicized in last week's news stories, is that the current standards for training and hiring teachers are well below the needs of the information society and a growing, diverse student body.
The worse news is that more than a quarter of those hired to teach each year lack even those minimal qualifications. They are either unlicensed or given provisional papers just to staff the classroom.
"In recent years," the report says, " more than 50,000 people who lack the training required for their jobs have entered teaching annually on emergency or substandard licenses. Nearly one-fourth of all secondary teachers do not have even a college minor in their main teaching field."
This is not the first time this point has been made. As this report notes, a similar manifesto, called "A Nation at Risk," issued in 1983, warned that our schools were drowning in "a rising tide of mediocrity."
What is one to make of this? It is instructive to ask what the reaction would be if we were talking, not about schools, but about the nation's airlines, where the business and professional elite of this country spends so much of its time.
Suppose a report had been issued last week saying that thousands of unqualified pilots and air traffic controllers were being placed in cockpits and control towers each year. How long would it take the government to stop that practice?
Well, you say, lives would be at stake. Believe me, the lives of these children are at stake. If they are not helped to get the survival skills for this modern economy by competent, motivated teachers, their lives are going to be a misery.
As always, race and class are deeply embedded in this problem. Schools with a high level of nonwhite and/or poverty-impaired students have far higher percentages of unqualified teachers than schools with white middle-class or affluent constituencies.
"In the nation's poorest schools," the report says, "where hiring is mosr lax and teacher turnover is constant, the results are disastrous. Thousands of children are taught throughout their school careers by a parade of teachers without preparation in the fields they teach, inexperienced beginners with little training and no mentoring, short-term substitutes trying to cope with constant staff disruptions. It is more surprising that some of these children manage to learn than that so many fail to do so.
The commission offers a five-step program that would, it says, deal with this problem by 2006. We have heard about such timetables before. Indeed, the commission chairman, Gov. James B. Hunt Jr. of North Carolina, was one of the governors who seven years ago set Goals 2000, the six world class standards they said it was vital for the nation to meet by the dawn of the new century. Don't hold your breath.
But also don't throw up your hands. As the Hunt commission notes, "this situation is not necessary or inevitable." The practice of hiring unqualified teachers "was almost eliminated in the 1970s, " through a combination of financial help to college students preparing to teach, the Urban Teacher Corps and a real drive to raise teacher salaries. But in the last few years, we have slid measurably backward.
One key is to do what often has been recommended: Require prospective teachers to take a four-year undergraduate major in their subject matter specialty, then add a fifth year of graduate education in teaching techniques and a period of practice-teaching with skilled mentors. The report contains a heartening description of just such a program at the University of Cincinnati.
But we also need to overhaul schools, which today are top-heavy with supervisors and administrators. We need to empower qualified teachers to use their skills - and reward them for doing so. That is what the charter-school movement, endorsed not just by President Clinton but by such Republican Governors as Minnesota's Arne Carlson and Texas' George W. Bush, is all about. It encourages innovative educators to create their own break-the-mold schools.
But most of all, we have to make a decision to pay for this, to say that the people who teach our children are as important to us as the people who fly our planes and need to be as well qualified.