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Strive for excellence in teaching

The quality of teachers has been declining for decades, and no one wants to talk about it. Principals know the truth and have to deal with it as best they can, but unions are reluctant to admit weaknesses in any of their members, colleges are loath to acknowledge the poor quality of their education programs, and administrators are afraid that confronting the problem will further erode confidence in public education.

And so we tolerate inadequate teacher education, noncompetitive pay, inflexible work rules and regulations denying bright people in other professions a chance to switch to teaching. That is why we not only need a renewed national commitment to teaching, but alternative teacher certification programs like the one we have adopted in New York City.

Which of our college-age students, today, are preparing for teaching? A 1997 report by the National Center for Education Statistics found that education majors were placed in remedial college courses at higher rates than their counterparts in the humanities and social sciences _ nearly twice as many education majors needed remedial English and math classes.

In New York City, a quarter of those teaching in the public schools earned their bachelor's degrees from institutions that Barron's rankings of colleges and universities describes as "less competitive or noncompetitive."

Fully 31 percent of New York City public school teachers who took the liberal arts and sciences test required for certification failed, compared to only 4.7 percent in the rest of New York state. Admittedly, the problem is especially acute in New York, where low salaries, high living costs and a lack of recognition for extraordinary accomplishments scare many candidates away. But the story of declining teacher quality is consistent across the country.

So is an impending shortage of certified teachers. The Department of Education estimates a nationwide loss of 2.5-million teachers over the next decade as teachers born in the baby boom years reach retirement age. These are also the enduring teachers from an older era of higher quality.

Certification is a minimum standard and should be required of all teachers. But minimum standards should not be the goal. Our children need teachers with outstanding abilities and rigorous academic training. We need to find more powerful means to attract the most promising candidates to the teaching profession.

To recruit a higher caliber of college student into teaching, we must make it both more lucrative and more revered. To improve the quality of the preparation teachers get, we need stringent standards for entrance into teacher education, college classes geared to the real needs of schools and increased rigor of certification exams in the content areas.

We need improved models of teacher development that begin with undergraduate internships, continue with student teaching and culminate in apprenticeships with mentors and ongoing training.

We must also stop closing the door to would-be teachers who did not choose to take education courses in college. Alternative certification programs like New York's teaching fellowships admit bright people who may not have thought about teaching until it is too late in their undergraduate program to switch to education and mid-career changers who want to do something more meaningful with their lives.

Finally, on the local level we must have a stronger commitment to paying teachers a competitive wage. Teachers 22 to 28 years old earn an average of $7,894 less a year than their college-educated counterparts in other professions. The gap increases threefold by the time they are 44. Inevitably, teaching is not going to be as financially lucrative as some other careers, but it shouldn't mean taking a vow of poverty.

School systems must reduce the bureaucratic hurdles to becoming a teacher, work to increase teacher salaries and address the work conditions of inner city schools. In return, we must be able to demand more hours, more accountability and better work from an improved teaching force.

This may be our last opportunity to avoid locking in mediocrity for a generation.

Harold O. Levy is chancellor of the New York City public schools.

New York Times