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Those who train teachers say merit pay is worth a try

Quality in education - what's needed to get it? Teaching itself must be made much more attractive, say those in the business of training teachers. They have witnessed firsthand the dramatic drop in the numbers of college students turning to education as a career.

Interviews with the deans of seven schools of education, selected at random, turned up a consensus on one of the most controversial issues confronting the teaching profession - merit pay. It's an idea bitterly opposed by teacher unions and warmly endorsed in recent days by President Reagan.

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All seven deans agreed that merit pay might improve the current situation and should, in any event, be tried. ''We must find ways to keep talented, dedicated people from leaving teaching, or no amount of work in raising standards will be that effective,'' sums up John Palmer, dean of the University of Wisconsin School of Education.

And all stressed the need - if merit pay is to be introduced on a broad scale - to search hard for the fairest way to evaluate teachers.

''I think there are problems in trying to pin down what meritorious teaching is - they're potentially solvable but the criteria for evaluation will have to be very carefully studied,'' says Mark Shibles, dean of education at the University of Connecticut.

Most deans suggest that evaluation be done by a team of teachers, administrators, and, perhaps, a layman, such as a representative of a parent-teacher group. Observation, they say, should continue over a period that is long enough to be fair. Roland Kimball, dean of the University of New Hampshire School of Education, notes that the merit system works well in his university for faculty evaluation. Though it is time-consuming and very subjective, he says, he sees no reason why it could not work well in the public schools. He insists merit pay may well prove a fairer system than present ''fixed and rigid'' salary scales based on seniority and preparation.

Dean Bob G. Woods of the University of Missouri School of Education suggests introducing merit pay first in such fields as math, science, and industrial arts , where the supply of teachers is short. ''I think it would cause less friction to start there,'' he says.

Concerning union opposition to the idea, Wisconsin's Dean Palmer says he thinks that the usually militant American Federation of Teachers may be softening its stand. ''They aren't going to say it officially, and they'll certainly hang on as long as they can, but I think they're waffling a bit.''

Still, James Doi, dean of the College of Education at the University of Washington, insists that what is most needed to improve public schools is an attempt to make teaching itself more ''intrinsically satisfying.'' He urges finding a way to return to teachers more control over their classrooms and the choice of teaching methods and materials.

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Dean Doi views the recent spurt of national education reports (four in the last six weeks) as ample evidence that there is still no nationwide consensus on what needs to be done. ''I think we're still a long way from the answers,'' he says.

''Society has made it clear that it wants all students to complete secondary school, but we haven't really yet effectively defined its function and role,'' says John Hill, dean of Indiana State University's School of Education.

Some deans insist that the whole network of laws governing teachers and pupils, as it has evolved in the last two decades, is in urgent need of reexamination. ''The growth of individual rights and due process has weakened the authority of both the school and the classroom teacher,'' says Dr. Lorrin Kennamer, dean of the University of Texas College of Education.

Most of all, say these teachers of teachers, what's needed is a fundamental change in society's attitude toward work, the role of education, and the importance of applying oneself to learning.Such a change must come before young people can be expected to take school more seriously, say the deans.

''This complex situation isn't going to be turned around by higher pay or more able teachers or a longer school day,'' observes Wisconsin's Dean Palmer. ''A great deal of what's needed is a sense of dedication and involvement that comes from families and teachers and their attitudes.''

Meanwhile, colleges may have to decide if they want to admit poorly prepared students and offer them remedial help.

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