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Teachers unions need more than a bit part in America's education drama

Do teachers unions present a roadblock to educational progress? The question is applicable to Boston. Negotiations for a teachers contract have been alternately on and off since last April. Union members will vote next week whether to hold a one-day walkout on Dec. 15.

But the question is not limited to Boston. Unions will have to play a role in the educational debate now sweeping the country.

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Union officials say they promote education. Edward Doherty, president of the Boston Teacher's Union, says the union operated a homework hot line last year. Students could call the union office at certain times, speak to a teacher on duty, and get help on homework.

Paul Devlin, president of the Massachusetts Federation of Teachers (MFT), says his organization is developing educational television programs, such as a biology lesson at the beach, to ''show children (who are) learning outside the classroom.''

That seems backward. Shouldn't the emphasis be on learning inside the schools? One element common to all the educational reports issued within the past year is that the quality of classroom teaching must improve.

There is a lot of emphasis today on the quality of education across the country. Countless reports are being circulated. Meetings are being held between politicians, educators, and businessmen. The Massachusetts legislature has formed a commission to study education in the commonwealth.

If the quality of education is to improve, there must be cooperation between all interested parties. This was one conclusion of a conference on educational partnerships held recently in Boston. This cooperation must include the school administrators who set priorities; the politicians who allocate funds; the business community which seeks capable workers; concerned parents; teachers - and teachers unions.

Harvard University Prof. Gerald Horton, one author of ''A Nation at Risk'' (the report that startled the country last spring), says, ''Even if the schools were still as good as they ever were, they would not be good enough.''

Dr. Horton says that because of ongoing changes in technology, people may not be able to expect long-term careers in specialized fields. Schools should be turning out students who are ''always ready to turn over a new leaf, always ready to learn,'' he says. Horton says he hopes something comes of all the attention focused on education before the nation's ''two- to three-year attention span is exhausted.''

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If progress is to be made, says state Rep. James G. Collins (D), a change must come in teacher's contracts. The professional labor laws imposed on Massachusetts school systems would ''put private industry out of business,'' he says.

Representative Collins, co-chairman of the joint House-Senate committee studying education, suggests the teaching profession needs to be restructured. He suggests colleges revise their in undergraduate programs for students who want to become teachers. And he would set up career ladders to award salary increases to teachers who do meritorious work.

Instead of allowing eight to 10 weeks of student teaching, Collins says there should be a much longer internship period. The intern would complete a master's degree program before becoming a full-time teacher. He also calls for examinations to test teachers' substantive knowledge.

Mr. Devlin of the MFT says other issues should be addressed. The problem with teachers, he says, is the ''quality of recruits.'' Because teachers' pay is traditionally so low, he says, it's hard to attract qualified teachers.

Devlin says that people entering the profession ought to be tested. They should not be allowed to teach, he says, if they can't pass a ''filter'' test.

But Devlin refuses to impose the same requirement on teachers already in the system. A process of remediation should begin now, but shouldn't be retroactive, he says. As if to back up his point, he adds, ''We don't go out and test the students we've recently graduated.'' Why then, he asks, test the teachers already teaching?

Yet there is that need. The number of school-age children is declining rapidly, and will continue to do so through the end of the century. There will be less need for new teachers. Are we simply to sit out the next 35 years - until current teachers retire - before youngsters can get a better-quality education?

At the same time, a change in the structure of the teaching profession should be implemented fairly. Methods of evaluation, working conditions, and pay scales deserve attention, and in many cases should be improved.

Devlin speaks of current performance-evaluation forms that include such phrases as ''copes well.'' Teacher evaluation needs to be standardized. Measurements of a teacher's performance should be done fairly and objectively, not subjectively.

Teachers also need to be paid adequately. Joseph Cronin, president of the Massachusetts Higher Education Assistance Corporation, says, ''We need to pay for talent. We are in danger of getting exactly what we pay for.''

Ellen Guiney, director of Boston's City-Wide Education Coalition, says a reasonable salary depends on a person's perspective. In Boston, she says, teachers' pay averages $27,000 a year. For many, she says, that is a reasonable amount for 10 months' work, with good vacations.

Given circumstances such as the budget-cutting Proposition 21/2 and declining student enrollment, teachers feel they need union protection, Ms. Guiney says. But, she adds, school administrators must be willing to understand and support the needs of teachers.

If the teachers unions have the interest in education they profess, they will leave off promoting education outside the classroom and work toward improving education on the inside. They can and should communicate the reasonable needs of the teachers. But instead of taking short-sighted views on pay and job protection, they need to widen their perspective. They should participate openly with other concerned groups to adopt long-range educational solutions.

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