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Published in Print: September 4, 1991, as Letters to the Editor

Letters to the Editor

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To the Editor:

Our educational system as a whole has lost sight of the first principle of teaching and learning: We must not simply cram children's minds with facts; we must instill in them a love for learning, teaching them how to think and to learn.

While I agree with President Bush and Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander that we need a new approach to education, I disagree with the methods they are proposing.

Our educational system has become so begged down in bureaucracy that there's little room remaining for creativity, for finding a new and different approach. The system is so mired in credentialing criteria that principals are not free to hire individuals with the best background in and love for a given subject.

If we are to turn the system around, we must take bold steps to break the power of special-interest groups, such as the national teachers' unions. Such efforts are under way in New Jersey, Texas, and elsewhere, where lawmakers are trying to institute alternative certification for liberal-arts graduates.

Teachers are the foundation of any educational system. But if they lack a solid foundation in the rich cultural inheritance that forms the basis of their specialty--whether it is literature, mathematics, or the sciences--they cannot pass that richness on to their students.

Every child is entitled to be taught by educators who can put each subject into the context of life and learning as a whole. They must be educated in schools that are no longer willing to accept mediocrity as the norm.

This is what I propose. Reorganize one public high school in Tucson (or any other city) as follows:

  • Principal--with a liberal-arts degree and a commitment to the power of a well-rounded education. This person must demonstrate strong leadership qualities and creativity.
  • Department heads and teachers-to be chosen by the principal with no interference from central office or union representatives.
  • Certification--would not be a requirement for a position in this high school. Educators would be chosen based on their backgrounds in their subject matter and the excitement and creativity they could bring to the classroom.
  • Leadership--would come from a beard of directors representing the community, with representatives selected on the basis of their commitment to quality education and change. No micro-managers or politicians need apply.
  • Curriculum--would be developed by the principal and faculty. Textbooks would be selected based on their content and ability to incorporate our rich cultural inheritance in the subject matter.
  • Class size--would be limited to 20 students per classroom.
  • Parental involvement--would be encouraged on all levels.
  • Entry criteria for students-would be based on their willingness to be active learners, not on past academic achievement.
  • The school would be given a five-year trial period.

Our schools will not be renewed by profit-making entrepreneurs such as Chris Whittle. Privatization and voucher systems will only move us farther from quality education for all children. Our schools will be renewed by well-educated teachers who insist upon conditions that restore learning to the center of school life.

Donald Nickerson
Headmaster
St. Gregory College Preparatory School
Tucson, Ariz.

To the Editor:

Your article on the Teach For America program ("Teach For America: Salvation or 'Disservice'?" July 31, 1991) only points out the simple reality of why such a program is rejected by the vast majority of teachers and educators in America and why more and more of the idealistic recruits that Wendy Kopp, Teach For America's founder, sends out into the battlefield wind up disillusioned and quit.

There is no substitute for training: Eight weeks of preparation, which this program offers, doesn't come close to developing the competencies needed to teach.

Ms. Kopp acknowledges that Teach For America is not meant to make expert teachers. She believes that teachers will learn "through experience." What she is actually doing, she implies, is providing "motivated young people to teach in understaffed schools." Not only is this naive, it is dangerous. Young idealists enter the teaching profession every day, but only 50 percent remain after two to three years. Reality sinks in during that time--the reality that it takes more than idealism and motivation to teach at-risk youngsters.

Idealism is no substitute for competence. Some of our most experienced teachers fail in the inner city. What are the odds for success for graduates of an eight-week crash course? To the T.F.A. program, a "veteran" is one who survived one year.

Eight weeks is hardly time to grasp the basic essentials of teaching methodology. What happens to the rest of the professional training other teachers acquire after two to three years of intensive teacher training? Obviously Ms. Kopp and the Teach For America program ignore the fact that all teacher-training programs require untold hours of classroom observation for future teachers, extensive and intensive course and methodology work combined with actual classroom teaching, and a semester or year of intensive student teaching in schools before a credential is obtained-and before a candidate is unleased upon the schools.

Teaching should never be equated with on-the-job learning. That harms both teacher and student, and in the inner city this is critical and fundamental.

Teach For America is nothing but a fad and a terrible alternative to traditional teacher training. Accepting 12 academic credits for a summer institute as qualification to teach makes a mockery of university preparation for teaching, of state credentialing and licensing, and of professional accrediting bodies. Would the public trust a doctor who was trained during an eight-week seminar?

Teach For America will need more than a "fine tuning" before it is accepted by teacher trainers and teaching professionals. At present, it is more like "the blind leading the blind." We have no shortage of qualified, credentialed teachers, so why not use them? Using T.F.A. teachers in place of certified teachers is nothing short of educational malpractice.

Alfred Lightfoot
Professor of Urban Education
Loyola Marymount University.
Los Angeles, Calif.

To the Editor;

I read your article "Teach For America: Salvation or 'Disservice'?" with great interest. As a former Teacher Corps intern in rural Mississippi, I always believed that my pre-service internship prepared me well for my teaching career. While the U.S. Education Department's Teacher Corps and Teach For America are not exactly the same, much of Ms. Kopp's new approach is extremely similar to what I experienced in the late 1960's.

Programs that entice successful college graduates into the teaching profession do much to improve the overall delivery of educational services. While internships such as those described should not supplant a well-rounded preparation program, they can play a very important role in the restructuring of the teaching profession so widely discussed.

I trust your readers will not view Teach For America as just another fad that will quickly disappear but rather as the continuation of an alternative approach to entering a most rewarding profession.

James H. Weiss
Superintendent of Schools
School Administrative Unit No. 21
Hampton, N.H.

To the Editor:

The excerpt from Jonathan Kozol's introduction to the book Outside the Dream, presented along with Stephen Shames's powerful photographic images in your July 31, 1991, issue, was most impressive. Coming as it did in the middle of the summer, when I have time to communicate my reactions to what I read, it could not fail to evoke a response from this humble reader.

The most conspicuous aspect of the text was its illogical linking of causes contemptuously cited with the shocking effects portrayed in those haunting photographs.

The parents of these victims of child poverty are characterized as "themselves too frequently the products of dysfunctional and underfunded urban schools" once again, the blame for the ills of our society are laid at the doorstep of our educational infrastructure, and the incredibly unsympathetic executive branch of the government. How easy it is to leap to such a conclusion, especially when one's soapbox is completely removed from the physical reality of the day-to-day workings of an actual urban school.

Consider the photographic evidence: an impoverished 12-year-old peers wistfully from behind a cracked window pane in a Philadelphia slum; three children in El Paso study texts--probably supplied by their dysfunctional and underfunded urban school by the light of a kerosene lamp; a 15-year-old in Chicago sits with her 8-month-old baby ("In less than a year," we are told, "she would be pregnant again"); two brothers in an Orange County, Calif., vacant lot play with a gun; and in the Bronx, New York, a youth is being helped to a heroin injection ("An addict at 15," the caption says, "he is now serving a life sentence for murder").

How many of these images of children "outside the dream" testify to a lack of educational dedication, either of funds or of spirit?

I taught for 10 years in an inner city high school in New York City, more than half of those years during the Carter Presidency, and the images back then were no different. The differentiation between "educating" and "training" Mr. Kozol speaks of never arose in any of the schools where I taught over the last 17 years. All pupils, whether they chose to be students or not, were there to be educated; that is the function of an educational system.

Can Chapter 1 funding, no matter how bountiful, dissuade a 14-yearold from becoming pregnant or dealing in drugs? Believe me, I've seen the valiant efforts. Mandatory lessons on drug-abuse prevention, supplemented by heavily funded programs employing full-time counselors. Sex-education programs specially designed to educate young welfare teens about the pitfalls of welfare-inspired teen pregnancy. Specially designed high schools for pregnant teens.

The money has been pouring in for years. Every time another tragedy hits the front page, the sensitivity hucksters crank up their machines. If teachers were more sensitive to the signs of child abuse, there would be less child abuse; ergo, staff development on child abuse. If teachers were more sensitive to the signs of impending teen suicide, there would be less teen suicide; ergo, staff development on teen suicide. If teachers were more sensitive to the signs of drug abuse, there would be less teen (and childhood) drug abuse; ergo, staff development on drug abuse. If teachers were more sensitive to the scourge of AIDS, there would be less AIDS among teens; ergo, staff development on AIDS, along with the promise, in New York City schools, of the distribution of condoms.

The list goes on, each item accompanied by funding.

Meanwhile, welfare children are still encouraged by a misguided but benevolent government to breed on the dole, because we are a civilized nation, and do not wish to condemn children to poverty. If many of those children only show up in school on the days that free transportation passes are issued because the law says they only have to be on the register-not regularly attending--for their mothers to receive welfare checks, it must be the fault of the dysfunctional school system and the unsympathetic Administration in Washington.

Sensitivity to the ills of society as manifested in public-school pupils is surely one of the many obligations confronting the teachers of any civilized nation, and one we shouldn't shirk. Perhaps not all the staff development my colleagues and I have been given has been silly political posturing. But the problems persist.

Disruptive children in New York City schools have been protected ! from expulsion since before I began ! teaching. Even those who commit serious assaults on staff members or fellow students are given--at worst--a "superintendent's suspension," which means a transfer to another school, where they become someone else's problem. I have even known of some cases where the assailant was sent back to the school where he caused a problem, only to flaunt his contempt for his victim and cause more problems.

To paint with such broad strokes, as Mr. Kozol does, characterizing all children who are not deemed as needing extra help as "privileged," is embarrassingly naive. To condemn a system that would expel only "at a certain point," mind you, students who became so disruptive that they made it impossible for any of their classmates to have instruction, is narrow-minded, notwithstanding the fact that expulsion has been outlawed in many urban school districts.

Assuming that "smaller classes with more patient teachers" were a commodity purchasable with federal funding (in fact, it is; it's called special education), to suggest that this is the solution for such problems as poverty, drug abuse, teen pregnancy, and the alarming proliferation of deadly weapons, is again, embarrassingly naive.

Does all of this sound like the ravings of a cold, unfeeling "burnt-out teacher"? I assure you, I am not. I stubbornly persist in my contention that the only way we can respect our children and their needs is to shift some of the responsibility for their success as productive--yes, productive-human beings back where it belongs. Not only because the educational community can't do it all, but also because it is unfair to deprive young minds of character development in the form of the requirement to become responsible.

There is no crime in expecting children to become productive; it is neither exploitative nor unrealistic. It is by far the healthiest course for all concerned to hold all mentally competent humans responsible for their own actions. To educate children is to give them this capability; it is part and parcel of "the dream" Mr. Kozol invokes.

Freda Schwartz
Holmdel, N.J.

To the Editor:

The problem with Louisiana's "controversial" mathematics requirement ("Louisiana's Unique Algebra Mandate Remains Controversial After 7 Years," dune 5, 1991) is that Louisiana made the same mistake American educators have consistently made when faced with a demand to improve science and math skills: They assume that "science and math skills" are synonymous with "algebra, geometry, trigonometry, biology, chemistry, and physics."

In reality, the high-school courses we teach are the products of historical accident. Algebra, geometry, and trigonometry gained prominence in the 1850's, when civil, military, and industrial engineering were dominant career fields. Biology, chemistry, and physics entered the curriculum in the early 1900's--simply because they were the only recognized, legitimate science disciplines of the time.

Continuing these courses under the guise of "fostering math and science" only deludes the American public (educators included) and placates colleges, which regard these courses as "hurdles" by which to sort out the fit from the unfit. The science and math we need today--or in the 21st century--deal with topics like ecology, computer science, and the "hard" social sciences.

Neither Louisiana nor the nation at large needs to preserve the calcified remnants of the last century's curriculum reform.

Stephen E. Phillips
Superintendent
Alternative High Schools
and Programs
New York, N.Y.

To the Editor:

At first blush, there may be a tendency to give kudos to the six districts nationwide that will begin this fall, under a College Board-sponsored pilot, requiring that all students enroll in algebra in the 9th grade and in geometry in the loth grade ("6 Districts To Require Algebra, Geometry for All Students," June 12, 1991).

But a multitude of questions arises when schools suddenly require students to engage in rigorous coursework that generally requires attainment of formal operations. We assume, of course, that previously held standards for these courses will not be compromised, even though those enrolled will be of significant cognitive diversity.

While it is admirable that districts reach out to those who have historically been filtered out of springboard courses such as algebra, to assume that all students can successfully engage in symbolic manipulation is ludicrous. Students are different. Excellent non-collegebound programs exist in which students learn numeration, measurement, and geometry; probability and statistics; and patterns, relations, and algebra in a Brunerian format over a three-year period.

To give the subtle (not so subtle?) message, "We are preparing you for college in case you change your mind" is not conducive to building a positive attitude. And what about the other side of the desk? Secondary-school mathematics teachers are notorious for drill/kill, lecture methods. Students of diverse mathematical backgrounds need a myriad of hands-on activities, group engagement, nontraditional assessment procedures, frequent monitoring, and so on.

I certainly hope the corps of instructors in these districts activates the recommendations of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, especially that group's Professional Teaching Standards. No one disagrees that U.S. students could do much better in mathematics. But to ignore shoring up the non-college-bound curriculum and, by fiat, widen the audience for college-bound mathematics, is a dangerous approach.

Vincent J. Hawkins
Supervisor of K-12 Mathematics
Warwick Public Schools
Warwick, R.I.


To the Editor:

Robert Slavin's criticism of my June 15, 1991, Commentary on the National Academy of Education report, Research and the Renewal of Education ("Research Report's Critic 'Ignorant' of Work on Collaborative Learning," Letters, July 31, 1991) is typical of the defensive reactions among educational researchers.

Unfortunately, Mr. Slavin completely missed the point, for reasons I shall leave to him to explain. What I expressed perplexity about was not cooperative learning. I am dubious of the claims made for it, but that was not the point of the statement Mr. Slavin criticizes. My point was that if students can learn from other students, they can probably learn from noncertified adults, but research on the possibility is off limits.

The more Mr. Slavin argues that students can learn from each other, the more he strengthens the point I was trying to make. Next case.

Myron Lieberman
Washington, D.C.

Vol. 11, Issue 01, Page 1

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