Letters to the Editor
To the Editor:
I have read with a sense of frustration reports of "new" initiatives to improve schooling. One such report was your article on the nea's "Mastery in Learning Project," ("nea Launches Mastery in Learning Project in Effort to Improve Schooling," Education Week, April 3, 1985).
The article says that over the next several years the nea will spend $600,000 and involve the faculties of 29 elementary, middle, and high schools in an effort to review literature, identify objectives, and eventually develop curricula and programs in a number of subject areas. One key characteristic of the program is the involvement of teachers in the design effort, an aspect of the program that is thought to enhance staff development.
"What's wrong with all that?" one might ask, and the answer might ostensibly be, "Nothing." But that would not be my answer.
My answer would be that the program is a cruel waste of scarce resources. And it is only one example of such wasteful programs, not at all unique.
How did this well-intentioned but misguided state of affairs come about? There seem to be several contributing factors.
First, while the nea is a nationwide organization, many school-improvement programs spring from the central offices of individual school districts. There are no well-developed channels among districts or states to promote the sharing of information and experiences. So, local school-improvement efforts all too often repeat each other, even repeating each other's mistakes.
Second, if you move up a level, beyond the individual school district, you again see a scarcity of channels of communication. Think for a moment of the large and growing body of education research, funded for the past two decades by the federal government. Some of this work is on school improvement. Some of it is basic research on learning and teaching. Some of it is even focused on the dissemination and utilization of research. Yet, we know that there is no easy way for people in the 15,000 school districts in this country to find out what research has to tell them.
There have been many attempts to solve this problem--eric clearinghouses, research syntheses, the columns on research and development in the hundreds of education-related newsletters, and the journals and publications of professional organizations.
These outlets are not failures, they are simply not successful enough. Even if we do not need centralization of education in America, we do need centralization of information about education.
Let us return for a moment to the nea's goals in establishing its new program. One goal is the identification of key curricular objectives. How many people reading this have at one time or another been part of a committee in a school, district, or professional organization whose purpose was to identify the main objectives in the curriculum? Most of us, I would guess. And most of us, I think, would agree that the outcomes of these committees were not necessarily an improvement on the work of past committees.
The key objectives of curricula have already been identified. Tests, closely related to those objectives, have already been written by commercial publishers, people in nonprofit research and development organizations, and local teacher committees.
Instructional guides already exist. Knowledgeable teachers who have used these instructional programs and can improve upon them exist in multitudes.
What about the notion that the involvement of teachers in the design of a program enhances their professionalism and increases positive participation? Once I believed that, but I do not now.
In Pittsburgh, over the past five years the school district has developed a series of objectives-based, test-measured teaching and learning programs. Some of these programs are very good. All of them involved committees of teachers in the design stages. But not all of the teachers in Pittsburgh were involved.
My studies of teachers' attitudes toward these programs and reports of how they have used program components show that teachers were concerned with the qualities of the materials they were asked to use. The fact that the programs were developed by teachers made little difference. If a program was good, if it appeared to foster student learning, it was appreciated.
What should the nea and all the others currently launching "new" school-improvement efforts be spending their money on? In the area of education, where money is scarce and getting scarcer, where the needs are so crucial and so well-known, we should not be reinventing. We should all be learning from what already exists.
And perhaps most important, we should be designing a better system for the flow and exchange of information. Federal attempts to set up such a system have been inadequate. Now is the time for us to consolidate information and to coordinate its dissemination throughout the states.
The Council of Chief State School Officers is a likely candidate for fulfilling this function. Let us spend precious resources on compiling and validating existing knowledge. And let the commissioners of education in the 50 states be those responsible for making sure that local districts use and share the ideas and materials that have already been developed in so many places across the country.
Leslie Salmon-Cox Assistant Director For Institutional Relations Learning Research And Development Center University of Pittsburgh Pittsburgh, Pa.
To the Editor:
Peter Gibbon's insulting letter cries out loudly for a response from the teaching profession ("Questioning the Practice of 'Publish or Perish' for Precollegiate Teachers," Education Week, April 17, 1985). Mr. Gibbon has proven that, like many of his colleagues, the principal is no longer the "-pal" of education.
Let's ignore what it must be like to teach for a man like Mr. Gibbon. (Although I assume good ol' Pete sent a notice to his teachers explaining that he certainly wasn't referring to them.)
Mr. Gibbon says that "teachers are passive and unambitious ..." I would invite him to meet the many teachers I know who are involved in the political and artistic direction of their community. Even in this exurban area in which I teach, town councils, symphony orchestras, and concert audiences are made up of real teachers.
He also says: "The reform movement has been initiated and carried through by professors and legislators." Those same reform movements are politically motivated and are segregating some students, as early as the 8th grade, into programs that will not allow them to gain a college-prep diploma. I don't think we should be proud of reforms of this nature.
"If you are ... doing your job right, there is no time for a serious intellectual life," Mr. Gibbon says. He should be informed of the invention of the computer. It has no intelligence. A teacher who has no serious intellectual life is no longer a teacher but has become an automaton. A teacher who has no serious intellectual life is not doing his or her job right. Such a teacher is vegetating.
And finally, Mr. Gibbon falls into the trap of quoting those Scholastic Aptitude Test scores again. (Given the lack of space, let's avoid a discussion of what the sat's really measure.) Those scores belong to high-school juniors, not teachers in the profession.
How many of us have had nice, dumb students who know they have to go to college, know they're not bright enough to be doctors or engineers, and tell us they guess they'll be teachers? Does anyone really know how many of them make it?
No, Pete, the "original, the eccentric, the brilliant--the potential 'publishers"' are not "misfits." We're out here teaching and putting up with principals like you who are trying to turn us into nice, obedient robots.
Kenneth V. McCluskey 11th- and 12th-Grade English Teacher West Canada Valley Central School Newport, N.Y.
To the Editor:
In a recent article, you reported on Eileen Gardner's resignation from her new post as a senior adviser to Secretary of Education William J. Bennett ("Two Bennett Aides Quit Amid Furor Over Their Views: Article on Handicapped Sparks Angry Reactions," Education Week, April 24, 1985). Since that time, a lot has been written criticizing Secretary Bennett's capitulation to the liberals and condemning Senator Lowell P. Weicker Jr.'s "McCarthyite" tactics. And rightfully so, since the actions of both men are inexcusable.
Unfortunately, in the midst of the furor a major issue has been overlooked, namely the role of the federal government in the education of the handicapped.
Ms. Gardner rightfully questions whether the handicapped and local communities are best served by programs as they are currently implemented at the federal level. In several of her published papers on this issue, Ms. Gardner points out that federal mandates work against excellence in education because they do not allow local communities to direct resources where they are most needed.
In fact, she believes the programs are woefully mismanaged, to the extent that the handicapped often receive no benefit from them. Specifically, children with all sorts of physical handicaps are thrown into classes with children who have emotional problems, to the detriment of both groups. Naughty children that teachers no longer want in their classrooms are tossed into "special-education" classes that, of course, receive correspondingly higher amounts of federal dollars. Again, the truly handicapped suffer, resources are squandered, and excellence is compromised.
And Ms. Gardner ought to know. She was there in the trenches with the teachers in classrooms for the emotionally disturbed.
How ludicrous it is to imply that Ms. Gardner is unconcerned with the plight of the less fortunate. Why else would someone go into such a profession? How unfair it is to depict her as uncompassionate.
What the issue really boils down to is a difference in operating philosophies--egalitarianism versus individualism, collective responsibility versus personal responsibility, state control versus local control, Senator Weicker versus Ms. Gardner. Either Senator Weicker deliberately misinterpreted what Ms. Gardner stated, or else Ms. Gardner's writings are way over his head. I will be charitable and presume the latter.
The worst part of it is that, in either case, Ms. Gardner was never given a chance to defend her position. In a matter of a few hours, she was found guilty because of her association with a conservative think-tank called the Heritage Foundation.
Joe McCarthy would have been proud!
Sally D. Reed Chairman/Executive Director National Council for Better Education Washington, D.C.