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America's teaching force is aging, and reformers fear the trend could thwart the drive toward school improvement.

During the past 20 years, the average age of the nation's 2.3 million public school teachers rose from 36 to 41, according to statistics from the National Education Association. Unpublished data from the 1988 Current Population Survey of the Census Bureau show that 48.4 percent are 40 or older.Educators have usually invoked such statistics as evidence that mass teacher retirements lie ahead - with no certainty that the profession is attractive enough to draw young recruits.

Half to 54 percent of the nation's teachers will be eligible for retirement by the year 2000, said Jewell Gould, research director of the American Federation of Teachers.

This "graying" of the profession contains other worrisome messages, several reformers believe. Age statistics suggest that a decade of school reform has been at least partly misdirected.

"School reformers haven't looked a lot at the fact that in a decade, many of the teachers who will be in the schools are not there now," said Linda Darling-Hammond, a professor at Columbia Teachers College and an authority on the teaching profession.

Ernest L. Boyer, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, said the numbers mean the nation had better pay more heed to improving the training of the next generation of teachers. He said this group will carry the burden of reform for years to come.

He said it was a mistake to focus almost exclusively on present teachers.

"Both older and younger teachers have to be considered, but if I were to draw a conclusion, I'd say we have been far too neglectful of educating the new generation of teachers who will be determining where schools will be going in the first quarter of the 21st century," said Boyer in a recent interview.

Darling-Hammond added it's generally easier to train a new teacher in reform techniques such as team teaching than it is to persuade a veteran teacher to break long-cherished classroom habits.

Some teacher colleges have begun to address these problems. The "Holmes Group," a coalition of about 100 education schools interested in reform, is fostering programs allowing student teachers to practice new techniques in public school classrooms. Several such programs have started recently in Michigan, for example.

The rise in the average age of teachers during the past two decades mirrors declining student enrollments and tight state school budgets. Those trends have been most pro-nounced in the Midwest and Northeast.

Not all states keep teacher age data. But a check of state departments of education and local union affiliates found the average age of teachers in Connecticut, for example, is 43.3; in Georgia, 42; Indiana, 42; Michigan, 44; Maryland, 41.1; and New Jersey, 42.5.

The median age in New York was 42.4 as the 1988-89 school year, and 25.1 percent of the teaching force is 49 or older.

In Massachusetts, suffering the effects of a decade-old tax revolt measure and a worsening budget crisis, the average age is 47.

By contrast, teachers in New Mexico, a Sunbelt state with a growing student population, average 37.7.

Reformers concerned over average age emphasize they don't mean to belittle the skills of veteran teachers.

Nonetheless, the age statistics lend urgency to the need to update the skills of veteran teachers, said Darling-Hammond.