Letters To The Editor
I am astonished by the attention--and by the credence--given to Albert Shanker's call for a national teachers' examination ("Shanker Urges National Test for New Teachers," Education Week, Feb. 6, 1985). No one, it seems, has bothered to look behind the headlines that the president of the American Federation of Teachers/ afl-cio has won for himself.
A national exam is needed, Mr. Shanker argues, because incoming teachers ought to be tested the way prospective doctors and lawyers are. Journalists and politicians applaud. Don't they know that medical board and bar exams are state functions?
The president of the aft wants a national agency to have authority for setting passing scores for all the states. That proposal elicits more applause. Don't the extollers realize that 200 years of American tradition have made education a state responsibility? Or that Americans are overwhelmingly opposed to more federal control? Or that the federal government, which supplies a mere 6 percent of school revenues, has no moral right to seek greater control?
Mr. Shanker promises to exclude from aft membership anyone who doesn't pass his proposed teachers' exam. Reporters and other observers cheer wildly. Don't they know that one out of every five aft members is a nonteacher? Do they believe Mr. Shanker is going to expel hospital workers, state civil-service employees, deputy sheriffs, school aides, and others--that he will return their dues payments--because none of those aft members has passed a teachers' exam?
The plain and simple fact is that Mr. Shanker's call for a national exam is a public-relations gimmick. It's akin to his much-ballyhooed endorsement of merit pay two years ago. And it will no doubt suffer the same fate. Once Mr. Shanker has milked the national exam idea for every headline possible, he will quickly drop it. He quietly reversed his course on merit pay, in fact.
The National Education Association's position, which is supported by the California Teachers Association, is less newsworthy but far more responsible and professional. The nea favors high standards and both written tests and other measurements to ensure that new teachers meet those standards.
The nea's position is also more honest. Even with the low standards now in effect, we're facing a massive teacher shortage. Inadequate pay and poor working conditions are the reasons. It is tomfoolery--or gimmickry--to call for tougher tests without first making the profession so attractive that college graduates seek and compete for teaching jobs.
It is no surprise that people like Adam Urbanski hail Mr. Shanker's proposal, as he did in his recent letter ("Proposal for National Teachers' Exam Called 'Pivotal Development,"' Education Week, March 13, 1985). The Rochester Teachers Association is an aft local. Mr. Urbanski, its president, sits on the executive board of the aft's New York State United Teachers. Mr. Urbanski has little alternative but to exalt Mr. Shanker's ideas.
But serious journalists and responsible politicians ought to be more critical.
Marilyn Russell Bittle President California Teachers Association Burlingame, Calif.
The recent letter by Gary Sterling ("In Support of Jumping Off the Computer Bandwagon," Education Week, Feb. 13, 1985) appears to offer the argument for "throwing the baby out with the bathwater..."
Indeed, one can argue any side of an issue by looking at a few worst-case scenarios. If you're against teacher tenure, for example, just find a few horror stories in which inept teachers remain at their posts, protected by teacher tenure because their degree of ineptness does not quite equal incompetence. If you're pro-tenure, then examples of non-tenured teachers dismissed for apparently shabby reasons will support your argument.
Microcomputers offer a relatively new technology at a reasonable cost. The computer is a powerful teaching tool and I believe it is safe to predict that it is here to stay. As educators, we are still in the process of examining this tool, sifting through its strengths and weaknesses--and trying to keep up with the ever-increasing number of software and hardware changes--in an attempt to find its proper niche in our curricula.
I'm sure we will discover that while this tool is far from a panacea, it can tremendously enhance the educational process when used appropriately. Mr. Sterling's example of a total of 20 minutes of computer instruction constituting "computer literacy" is, I agree, not an appropriate use.
However, Mr. Sterling's barbs concerning computers in his own discipline, English, are particularly disturbing. I have found word processing to be a tremendous boon, both personally and in the classroom.
For example, students in our statistics course are required to do a major project. These students must devise surveys, collect data, analyze the data, and write a report detailing their conclusions. We are finding many students do their best work ever with word processors.
Students who are averse to writing are now doing so on the computer. Students who would never take the time to carefully proofread and rewrite their work are now doing just that, thanks to this new tool.
Mr. Sterling complains that he is "now asking to see the rough draft along with the final one." Isn't this always done? What did Mr. Sterling do before this new technology? Isn't the writing process taught--that is, starting with a rough draft and writing revisions until the final product is completed? Indeed, I would expect a number of revisions. If the word processor facilitates this process, then use it!
Mr. Sterling states that "perhaps the misuse of the computer is making me work too hard." If that's the crux of his anti-computer argument, then perhaps I'll just stay here, perched on my bandwagon.
Melvin Billik Mathematics Department Head Midland Public Schools Midland, Mich.
Your recent Commentary by Dianne Sirna Mancus and Curtis K. Carlson illustrates to what lengths the proponents of the "look-say" method of teaching reading, or psycholinguistics, will go to discredit intensive phonics ("Political Philosophy and Reading Make a Dangerous Mix," Education Week, Feb. 27, 1985). The simple truth is that proponents of intensive phonics come in all shapes, sizes, ages, religions, races, and political persuasions.
It is not the so-called New Right that has politicized the teaching of reading, but the progressive left. The switch from phonics to look-say in this country was perpetrated by the progressives as part of their radical reform of the public-school curriculum.
It was John Dewey who, early in the century, identified a high level of literacy and the instructional methods that produced it as one of the major obstacles to socialism in America. According to Dewey, a high literacy level produced selfish, self-centered, independent individuals who tended to reject collectivized activity. As early as 1898, he wrote the following in an article entitled "The Primary Education Fetich [sic]": "The plea for the predominance of learning to read in early school-life because of the great importance attaching to literature seems to me a perversion." And in 1935 he wrote in Liberalism and Social Action: "The last stand of oligarchical and anti-social seclusion is a perpetuation of this purely individualistic notion of intelligence."
These are only a few of the many quotes I could cite not only from Dewey but from others who were also responsible for the "reforms" in reading instruction that have resulted in our present costly and seemingly insoluble literacy problem. There has been a deliberate effort by the progressives to lower the level of literacy in this country--to "dumb down" the nation--in order to make Americans more amenable to manipulation and control by a behaviorist-scientific-technological elite.
To what extent today's educationists are aware of this scheme is hard to tell. But what we do know is that, despite the expansion of public education and compulsory school attendance, and the massive infusion of federal money, literacy has declined seriously in this country. Attempts to introduce intensive phonics in the primary classrooms of America have been met with an opposition and hostility bordering on the fanatical.
Indeed, the situation is so bad that in 1975 the National Academy of Education (hardly a New Right organization), in Toward a Literate Society, made this astonishing statement: "We believe that an effective national reading effort should bypass the existing education macrostructure. That is, the planning, implementing, and discretionary powers of budgeting should not rest with those most likely to have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, especially given their unpromising 'track record."'
What that report was telling us, in effect, is that the greatest obstacle to literacy in America is our own educational establishment and that if we want to achieve real literacy in our country we shall have to circumvent that establishment.
And that is what thousands of parents who have taken their children out of public schools and put them in private or church schools or educated them at home have done. It is certain that many thousands more will do likewise so long as our public educators insist on using instructional methods that have been proven beyond a doubt to produce not only functional illiteracy, but learning disabilities on an unprecedented scale and serious behavioral and emotional problems.
Samuel L. Blumenfeld Author Boston, Mass.
I was disappointed to read yet another pseudo-research article on the failure of the Chicago Public Schools ("Half of Chicago Students Drop Out, Study Finds," Education Week, March 6, 1985).
You previously published a commentary by George Schmidt, a self-styled educational reformer, that attempted to demonstrate the same findings with similarly bad data and worse logic ("Administrators Share the Blame for 'Teachers v. School' Cases," Education Week, Jan. 25, 1984). Now you have published the results of a study by Designs for Change, a nonprofit advocacy organization seeking a "piece of the action" in Chicago.
What is disappointing is that there are journals, associations, and means other than your newspaper of disseminating research results. And unlike Education Week, these publications and groups have qualified experts and procedures for determining the veracity and rigor of research findings before making them public.
In Chicago, it has become common practice to use research-like reports as political weapons to gain public attention and to impose on the board of education an outside point of view. For these purposes, research reports are more valuable if they are more provocative. Thus, accuracy is less critical than sensationalism.
For example, one section of your article is subtitled, "Reforms Not Helping." This section indicates that the bulk of the research results are based on students who did not benefit from recently enacted elementary-school reforms and that there is sufficient evidence to prove that these reforms have been ineffective.
Yet the freshman class, from which this conclusion is drawn, only received the benefits of education reforms for the last two of the nine years they were in elementary school. And these were the first years of the reform effort, when teachers and principals were just becoming acquainted with new materials and procedures. Surely it is too soon to make such summary pronouncements.
The point is not that the Chicago Public Schools are in better shape than they appear. I worked for eight years in Chicago and on the reform efforts, and my work was fueled by the same sense of dissatisfaction that motivates this report. There is still much to be done, at both the elementary and the secondary levels, to bring the performance of Chicago's schools up to satisfactory levels.
But it is doubtful whether self-serving reports like the one by Designs for Change, designed to aggravate the situation and create the need to hire outside experts, are going to help the schools improve.
Education Week would better serve schools by differentiating between news and science. It may seem to be news when an organization releases a report about a school system. But if the research quality is not scrutinized, it may be that the real story is about media manipulation by a political-action committee. Please let research organizations handle research reports and give public-school officials a chance.
Michael Katims Former Coordinator Mastery Learning Program Development Chicago Public Schools Chicago, Ill.
Editor's note: A Chicago school official was quoted in the story; notably, he did not dispute the report's characterization of the dropout problem as "devastating." Education Week routinely alerts readers to current education reports, leaving the analysis of their "veracity" to "qualified experts."