Too often, teacher organizations are staunch defenders of the status quo. They oppose merit pay, object to substitutes taking over classes as a way of extending the school year, and look askance at uncertified people being allowed to teach, no matter how great their expertise.

So it was refreshing to hear the head of a national teachers union bluntly speak out this week in Salt Lake City about the need to improve teaching, to copy successful foreign programs, to get rid of poor teachers and to seek creative new ways of doing things.Albert Shanker, national president of the American Federation of Teachers, a smaller cousin of the National Education Association, told Utahns in a series of meetings with education groups that teachers have to acknowledge what is wrong with the school system before real reform can take place.

Presumably this means more than simply falling back on the usual pleas for more money and smaller class sizes, although those objectives remain important.

The AFT is considered a militant teachers union, taking tough, uncompromising stands on teacher pay and other issues in a way that sometimes offends people who prefer a less belligerent approach.

Given that background, it was somewhat surprising to hear Shanker call for upgrading the quality of teachers and to declare that some educators are "illiterate." He said bad teachers simply perpetuate problems by producing poor learners and dropouts. He urged greater use of paraprofessionals and volunteers in the classroom, more flexible scheduling, dumping the standard lecture method of teaching and making greater demands on student performance. All of these ideas can be applauded.

Utahns carry an unusually heavy education burden because of the large numbers of children in the state. But taxpayers have indicated they would be willing to support higher pay for teachers if that pay rewarded excellence instead of simply going into a lock-step salary schedule that rewards longevity rather than performance.

Shanker has it right. If real education reform is to take place in Utah and the rest of the nation, it must occur in a framework of openness, change and willingness to take risks and do things differently. Doing the same things in the same old way is costing too many children the education they deserve.