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The education debate; Teachers to the fore

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America's 2.2 million teachers find themselves caught up in a national political and educational controversy not seen since Sputnik soared into the sky in 1957 and many analysts concluded that the US was ''falling behind in the space race'' because of an inadequate school system. Criticism directed at the teaching profession comes not just from politicians but from professionals within education, including the National Commission on Excellence in Education and the respected Twentieth Century Fund.

Whether such criticism is entirely warranted is open to question. Most teachers are doing a fine job under difficult circum-stances. The public should be reminded that 52 percent of all US secondary students now go on to college - a higher percentage than in any other nation. A teacher corps that is turning out so many college-bound students must be doing many things right.

Still, there is no disputing that the public is now asking for better teaching - and better teachers. The concern stems from a recognition that young persons will have to be able to take their place in an increasingly competitive, computerized, and space-oriented world. If the United States is to retain its industrial and technological primacy, it will need a well-educated and skilled work force.

School systems therefore should not have to tolerate unqualified teachers. In part, that will require that school boards come to terms with tenure (the seniority system) and with powerful teachers' unions. The latter often obstruct efforts for reform and prevent administrators from clearing out poor teachers; in many cases they have reduced teachers from their role as professionals to tradesmen intent on getting ''their rights.''

What then can and should be done to improve teaching staffs?

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