The merit pay controversy epitomizes a critical problem in education: public perception of teachers. Teaching is first and foremost a profession. And it must be regarded as such. Merit pay belongs in the factories where a foreman can push his employees to turn out an extra two hundred screws per hour. It can be utilized in business to reward salesmen for surpassing quotas. But teachers are not working with screws or quotas. The teacher's domain is not the assembly line of the business world. Teachers are in the classroom working with America's most vital commodity: young minds.
Who could evaluate teachers for merit pay? What would be the standards and who would set them? Which teacher deserves this dubious accolade? One day Teacher A's students are at their desks struggling over the rough draft of an essay. Teacher B's students are sprawled on the floor constructing a papier-mache dinosaur. Yet another day, Teacher A's class may be learning an Ethiopian folk dance while Teacher B lectures on relativity. In which room is the most learning taking place? Should we install closed circuit TV, turn administrators into spies equipped with monitors and attempt to separate the good from the bad, the creative from the uninspired, the strict from the lax?
One of the special thrills of teaching is that each day is different. Sometimes everything goes wrong from muddy knees to bloody noses. Other times, it's just the opposite: nobody tips over the easel and two bullies share the ball at recess. One observation, one hour, one day could never be indicative of the whole.
Education is under attack because students are graduating without minimum competencies. Teachers must not be doing their jobs, some say. Merit pay will provide motivation, some think. Similar controversy rages through the medical and legal professions as evidence of malpractice is displayed for public scrutiny. But has merit pay been suggested for these professions? Should we consider a money prize for doctors with the most surviving patients? Awards for attorneys who win the most cases? Merit pay for teachers is just as ridiculous. What's more, it's humiliating to see the education profession stoop to the level of ''incentive bonuses'' as though teachers were dealing with products instead of persons.
Besides, if there's one quality teachers have, it's incentive. It's incentive that puts them in the classroom and keeps them coming back. Although, it's a wonder they do. The responsibility is relentless. No coffee breaks, telephone breaks, or bathroom breaks. It's coping with crisis after crisis. A career in the classroom has been compared to front-line combat duty. And it's getting worse. We live in an increasingly uncertain world. Children reflect this instability. Some are emotional wrecks. Others are angry, hostile, and scared. These are not the meek, mild-mannered children we knew as classmates. Today's students arrive with more problems than most of us will meet in a lifetime. And in spite of emotional trauma, they are expected to sit still and LEARN. If for some reason they can't concentrate, it's not the fragmented family, it's not the permissive society, it's the teacher who's to blame.
One step toward better education is to return to the colleges and improve teacher training courses. The education major needs to be drastically redefined. In many universities, a major in education is still considered the path of least resistance. Since education is a profession, entrance into teacher training programs should be highly selective. Potential students must demonstrate high scholastic competency. Prior to graduation, students should be required to pass rigorous certification examinations and submit writing sam-ples.
While other majors require numerous courses in literature, mathematics, or science, the education major frequently requires courses in ''methods.'' Instead of endless seminars in techniques (which can best be learned in the classroom under the tutelage of an experienced teacher) potential teachers should follow a five-year multidisciplinary course of study. For the first three years courses would be divided among literature, language, the sciences, history, mathematics, and the arts. This would provide a broad background of information. In the fourth year, students would specialize. Elementary majors would fulfill requirements in child development and primary curriculum with emphasis on language arts. Secondary majors would study in their chosen field. Because of the number of troubled children, training in psychology and sociology must be mandatory. Organization, discipline, and strategy, three of the most important aspects of successful teaching, are best refined out of the pristine academic environment. Potential teachers should have frequent and varied experience with children in classrooms, culminating in at least a year of student teaching.
Finally, in order to attract talented candidates, salaries must be competitive. Many top students reject a teaching career because the financial rewards are insignificant in comparison to other professions. Since teachers are paid by taxpayers, teachers' salaries make for great debate among citizens. In no other field is the desire for increased compensation regarded with such contempt. Teachers, sadly, are not above mortgages, food, and clothing. They, too, have families who depend on them. Teachers provide one of life's essential services and they must be properly compensated.