Letters to the Editor
To The Editor:
I would like to share a constructive thought with Ann Cook about educational researchers and the ways that she perceives they behave ("Whose Story Gets Told,'' Commentary, Jan. 19, 1994).
Consider this: Suppose Ms. Cook decided to join the faculty of a university so that she could share all of the knowledge about urban schools that she has gained from long, hard practical experience, and so that she could share with doctoral students and their mentors what she has learned about research in schools. Many a faculty would, I am certain, leap at the chance to include her in their ranks. What would happen?
One thing is certain: To her amazement, Ms. Cook would find on the first day as Professor Cook that she was suddenly an outsider in the very schools where she has devoted so much of her adult life. She would no longer belong there. She would no longer have any legitimate right to be there. Forever, in any future attempt to foray into the schools she would be treated not as a colleague, one who belongs, but--as she observes--a guest who is permitted to be in the schools at the sufferance of those who "belong'' there.
She would be among those against whom, as Ms. Cook contemplates, the schoolyard gates may be slammed shut by those in charge. Professor Cook would spend much of the rest of her career in academe trying to negotiate entry into and acceptance in the very schools that she has come to love. And that ongoing negotiation would become a very prickly thing and continue so for the rest of her academic life.
To gain access, one must please those who are in control of the schools, and so one shapes the research agenda not to confront the hard problems but to mollify the sensitivities of those who have the power to kill the project; one learns to delicately nuance the findings and any discussion of them so as not to rupture cordial relationships with school authorities. And so, Professor Cook would discover, research in schools cannot survive if its aim is merely to find and illuminate the tough problems no matter where the search may lead. She would find that many, if not most, practitioners have contempt for whatever it is that professors think that they know and seek to use academics to legitimize whatever it is that the practitioner has found it expedient to do.
The schism between the practicing profession in the schools and people on the faculty of the university has long hindered the development of the kind of collaborative research approach that Ms. Cook properly calls for. But the problem is not, as she infers, that we have the wrong people in the university doing the research and the right people in the schools doing the teaching. Education is the only profession that has come to my attention in which one is ejected from the practice of the profession by entering the ranks of the academic faculty of the university. Though one may have been a teacher and perhaps an administrator for 20 years, the day he or she resigns a position in the schools to accept an appointment at the university, that person is automatically barred from practice in the schools.
Professors of medicine may still practice medicine in the hospitals, working hands-on with sick patients, shoulder-to-shoulder with their colleagues and students, and many are rising to the forefront of their specialties. Law professors who take tough, interesting cases are often admired and honored by their practicing colleagues. Professors of music typically carry union cards and are involved in making music alongside other working musicians. Professors of art sculpt and show their work, drama professors work in theaters.
But professors of education may not practice their profession: People speak of them as having left the schools and gone to the university. They can't teach kids anymore, except as someone's guest. They cannot supervise classes, nor can they be involved in the tough decisions that administrators face every day. Thus, when they seek to do research in schools they are outsiders entering foreign turf occupied and controlled by suspicious practitioners who tend to feel that they know more about their ailing enterprise than do these aliens from, as it is invariably said with great derision, "the ivory tower.''
As long as the Ms. Cooks of the education world arrogate to themselves not only the right to stereotype and stigmatize a minority class of people, called university faculty and their students, but also threaten to slam shut the gates of the schoolhouse so as to deny this despised minority open access to and inclusion in the public schools, one despairs of saving the public schools from their own self-destruction.
Robert G. Owens
Sanibel Island, Fla.
To the Editor:
Your article on the interim report of the National Assessment of Vocational Education ("Enrollments in Voc. Ed. Down From '82 to '90,'' Jan. 19, 1994) is itself either a study in myopic journalism or in "the sky is falling'' research.
Let me give an example of a misguided inference from the article: "Between 1982 and 1990 ... vocational credits earned ... decreased 11 percent.''
The inference is that vocational education isn't doing its job. But at about this time (the early 1980's), the report A Nation at Risk was released. The educational response was "more is better,'' and, across the board, graduation standards were increased. The result was not only that vocational education decreased, but that most elective coursework decreased. Debate, band, and other electives suffered a decline. Please put these results in perspective.
The other inference was that the decline was due to the increase of special-needs students. (The descriptor used was "skyrocketed.'') Then, to punctuate that comment, there was a statistic that in 1992 (not between 1982 and 1990), special-needs students "constituted 34 percent of high school graduates but earned 43 percent of all vocational credits.'' It seems as if we have a case here of pick and choose the statistic to make the argument.
If you take a close look at the Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Applied Technology Education Act, you will notice that it was written with special populations in mind. The federal government did not intend to fund all of vocational education. The intent for the funding was to provide "equal access'' for the special populations, by providing funds to support vocational education in providing support, personnel, and adaptations.
The article quotes the report's statement that "there is reason to believe many special-population students are being channeled into vocational education for reasons incidental to their best educational interests.'' Yet the article also notes that "research shows that students who concentrate their coursework in a vocational field are more likely to find a training-related job and earn more in such jobs than their peers.''
The suggestion that special-population students "are being channeled into vocational education for reasons incidental to their best educational interests'' is a slap in the face to those special educators who spend hours testing and developing individualized education plans with parents. And if students who concentrate in a vocational field earn a living beyond that of their peers, why is this "incidental to their best educational interests''?
Morever, the article notes that "disabled students who participate in vocational education are more likely to be employed.'' The fact that 66 percent of people with disabilities are underemployed or unemployed not only makes that statement heart-warming, but also punctuates the intent of the reauthorized Perkins Act.
The interim report maligns vocational education by saying that if "instruction in integrated courses is and remains at low levels, students in training for careers would probably be better off in traditional academic classes.'' If the "low level'' academics had been learned in the "traditional academic classes,'' vocational education would not have the challenge of reteaching what hadn't been learned in the first place. Providing more of what didn't work the first time around seems ridiculous.
As I read this article, I detected a real "attitude,'' not only in the writer, but in the national-assessment report. Maybe it's not that vocational education isn't delivering, but that special populations and the people who serve them know a good thing when they see it.
In 1979, the average hourly salary for a high school dropout was $9.59 in today's dollars. In 1991, the average hourly salary for the high school graduate was $9.43. Our students need training, and it's not "incidental'' to their best interests, it's vital.
Vocational Resource Educator
Northland Career Center
Platte City, Mo.
To the Editor:
We read with interest and relief the four letters in your Jan. 12, 1994, issue ("Insight or 'Competing With Tabloids'?'' Letters), reacting to the feature story on Foxfire's founder and former president, Eliot Wigginton ("A Trust Betrayed,'' Nov. 17, 1993).
We, too, were disappointed by the focus on Mr. Wigginton, who no longer has any roles with the Foxfire organization. Like Judith B. Munday, we felt that the"choice of a picture on your cover and the story's emphasis [on Wigginton] were poorly placed.'' We tended to agree with the sentiment in James V. Parker Jr.'s letter: "How many teachers out there, doing selfless things for children, could not get recognition in your paper because what they were doing was not sensational?''
There are about 3,000 Foxfire teachers around the United States whose work does deserve recognition, whose work in many cases is sensational. But the fact that this organization stayed intact throughout the Wigginton crisis--in fact, continued to grow and to add new teacher networks--seems to us to be the story. At the same time, we developed new collaborative projects with a number of like-minded organizations. There are very good reasons we survived and thrived, reasons that should be shared with members of educational organizations, all of whom are vulnerable to the moral misdeeds of their members and leaders.
Unlike Beverly M. Stroll's staff members, we did not throw the article aside, but that doesn't mean we didn't feel like it. As one staff member put it, "Do you know how little I care about the personal problems of Eliot Wigginton? Do you know how much I care about the well-being of this educational program?''
In your staff writer's defense, she did seek to balance the article. She spent considerable time with us and in the classrooms of Foxfire teachers. Evidently that was not sufficient enough to sway her, or her editors, from the original, assigned focus of the story.
We do not know to what extent Fran Henry is accurate in portraying Eliot Wigginton as having "very little insight into the phenomenon [of pedophilia], waving uncomfortable issues away with his hand.'' We can see that what he says could reinforce that impression, however. We do agree with Ms. Henry that Mr. Wigginton's victims deserve help. This organization has been ready since Eliot Wigginton's guilty plea to do our share for them, since they are our neighbors in this small and supportive community. Thus far, we have been constrained from honoring that intent by various legal actions. We did co-sponsor Good-Touch/Bad-Touch programs in the county for the past two years and have budgeted for it in 1994.
People in the organization, our funders, and those who know our work have been able to separate Mr. Wigginton from the organization and our work. It is encouraging that your readers make the same separations. We look forward to the day when we can focus on our work without the distraction of either lawyers or publicity about Eliot Wigginton.
Foxfire teacher networks will offer about 35 graduate-level courses for teachers on the Foxfire approach this coming summer in various locations around the country. For information, readers can contact us at Foxfire, P.O. Box 541, Mountain City, Ga. 30562.
The Foxfire Staff
The Foxfire Fund Inc.
Mountain City, Ga.
To the Editor:
I offer praise for your article on student discipline in a Cincinnati middle school ("The Discipline Dilemma,'' Jan. 19, 1994). It provides the kind of detailed look at the daily struggles of educational professionals that can provide a spur for truly innovative thinking about schooling in contemporary America.
From my standpoint, the most interesting aspect of the "dilemma'' posed in the article is how little the students themselves are involved in trying to solve it. All of the efforts outlined--task forces, teacher negotiations, new departments in the central administration, staff training, new discipline codes--are adult-centered solutions to a problem that most strongly affects not adults but students. Sure, the adults' lives are made more difficult by the kids' behavior, but it is these youngsters--both the ones who are disciplined and the ones who are affected by the negative behavior--whose lives are most severely affected.
The subtext of the article is the fact that various groups of adults are blaming various other groups of adults for the problem with Cincinnati youths. Why aren't the students themselves part of the reform effort? Why can't the students themselves hold each other accountable for behavior that affects them so directly? Why are adult school professionals spending so much of their time playing the role of cops, or prison wardens? Don't the students have opinions about the behavior of their colleagues? Have the adults tried to enlist the support of the "good'' kids in maintaining a school atmosphere conducive to learning, instead of merely lecturing the "bad'' kids, a "solution'' that serves mostly to reinforce the we/they dichotomy in the schools?
At the Hyde schools (both the public school in New Haven, Conn., and the private school in Bath, Me.), the students themselves take primary responsibility for discipline. Peer-to-peer counseling is the primary tool for addressing the attitudes of the kids who aren't behaving appropriately. It proves much more effective both in maintaining a good atmosphere and in teaching the "bad'' youngsters how to behave. I urge other schools to study the Hyde approach, and end the blame game.
Craig A. Cunningham
Director of Curriculum and Evaluation
The Hyde Foundation
To the Editor:
An educator by training, now an independent technology consultant, I was not surprised to read "Programmed for Failure'' in your Jan. 12, 1994, issue. Cleveland's costly experience in selecting computers for classroom and administrative use is sadly more typical than atypical for many school districts nationwide.
Having worked with both the public and private sectors for 26 years, I have seen firsthand the frustration that school systems build into their technology-selection process. Your article illustrates the unfortunate fact that the process is still as vendor-driven and political as ever.
School officials need not become technology experts, but they should be objectively informed about current technologies and how they apply to education. Cleveland's experience using vendors as consultants exemplifies all that can go wrong in the technology-purchasing process. Too many times I've been brought in on a job only after an unscrupulous salesman has taken advantage of school officials by promoting "state of the art'' hardware they neither need nor know how to use. Extended warranties, volume discounts, partnerships, and free software upgrades mean nothing if computers fundamentally don't do what you want them to do.
Self-interested vendors simply do not have the objectivity and client orientation that an independent consultant can offer. Businesses today regularly turn to consultants who provide invaluable help in selecting, designing, and installing complex technology systems. Done properly, a comprehensive technology plan will be much more cost-effective and efficient than a fragmented, vendor-driven effort.
Schools need consensus, objective advice, and honest insight to insure effective technology planning. They need professional guidance that assesses their real needs and applications, flexibly designed for future growth. My experience has taught me that the technology-planning process works best when individuals charged with this responsibility put aside their personal preferences, opinions, and levels of understanding and work coherently as a team. Politically inclined school officials have no place on a technology task force or committee. The process works best when individuals are open-minded, have common goals, and keep the students' best interests at heart.
Unfortunately, when an attempt to purchase and integrate computers in schools fails, it can be years until the financial means and school board support become available to try again. In the interim, students and administrators lose out by having to work on inferior, incompatible equipment.
Needless to say, with today's vast array of technology systems and their rapid rate of obsolescence, it is a challenging task to select current technologies while creating an infrastructure to accommodate developments for tomorrow. But it is possible to locate experienced assistance for creating the "technology highway'' of the future, before decisions are made by trial and error.
Credit should be given to the Cleveland officials who were willing to share their story on how not to buy a computer. It would be interesting to hear from those who have had a positive experience in this confusing, ever-changing arena.
Stuart M. Herbst
To the Editor:
As the manager of technology programs for the National School Boards Association's Institute for the Transfer of Technology to Education, I read "Programmed for Failure'' with a sense of frustration. The I.T.T.E. was established in 1985 by the N.S.B.A. and its federation of state school-boards associations to help advance the wise uses of technology in public education. The institute's mission is to provide objective information that will assist administrators with the array of issues with which Cleveland has struggled.
Through publications, small meetings, site visits to exemplary technology districts, and its annual "Technology + Learning Conference,'' the I.T.T.E. addresses planning and funding technology, staff development, facility design and modernization, the use of on-line networks and telecommunications, and the role of multimedia instruction. With the recognition that our world is changing and that we must prepare our children to compete in a global economy in the 21st century, our programs provide educators with basic information to build a framework for integrating technology into their districts' administrative and instructional functions in such a way that, over time, the tools of technology will become as familiar as the chalkboard or the overhead projector.
The I.T.T.E. sponsors a membership program, the Technology Leadership Network, for school districts in 45 states and Canada seeking guidance in making the difficult and expensive decisions related to technology. Although our programs and publications are available to all educators, members of the network are able to use one of our greatest resources, which is the dialogue they engage in with peers in other districts willing to share their experiences.
Information about our programs is available by calling (703)
838-6722. I regret Cleveland apparently was not aware of them. With
proper planning and community support, districts can be programmed for
success rather than failure.
Ann Lee Flynn
Manager, Technology Programs
Insitute for the Transfer of Technology
to EducationAlexandria, Va.
To the Editor:
While most of the headlines relating to President Clinton's State of the Union address focused on crime control, health-care reform, and welfare reform, one of the most important pieces of legislation before Congress involving education escaped most news reports: the "school-to-work opportunities act'' ("School Reform, Training Are Key to Economic Renewal, Clinton Says,'' Feb. 2, 1994).
The proposed bill is designed to right a major weakness in our educational system: the failure to provide adequate career training for the largest single group of young people in our country--the 75 percent who do not plan to go to college.
The United States is the only industrialized country in the world that provides no structured career-path system for young men and women. As you noted in your report "Learning To Earn'' (Jan. 26, 1994), an unfortunately large number of students drop out of school physically and mentally when they realize that school isn't relevant to them and they are not receiving the training they need for a career with a future.
Research clearly shows that once a young man or woman drops out of school, he or she begins a downward cycle of poverty and low-skill jobs that few escape. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics concluded in one study that teenagers without significant work experience are likely to be chronically unemployed as adults.
Putting a career-oriented program in place that demonstrates to kids why they should stay in school and excel is the most cost-effective and humane way to reduce the welfare rolls and cut the crime rate.
Contrary to popular opinion, low-achieving high school and junior high school students aren't necessarily those who will fail in the job market. But they are often ignored as our resources are usually devoted to the bottom or top 20 percent who get most of our attention.
This middle 60 percent--today's silent majority--are those who would benefit most from a school-to-work program, a planned system of classroom and work-based learning which acknowledges that the schools cannot prepare a trained and educated workforce by themselves.
For perhaps the first time, there is legislation (which has the joint support of the federal departments of Labor and Education) that admits that if we are going to create a successful school-to-work system, we must depend on the active and continued involvement of local businesses, school systems, unions, colleges, and community leaders.
Can these disparate groups really work together in developing a new approach? Can they offer the education and training that high school students need to qualify for good jobs and meet industry's needs for a skilled workforce? Will teenagers respond favorably to a school-to-work system?
Unquestionably. During the past eight years, working with this population through a nonprofit initiative called Career Beginnings, we have learned conclusively that a school-to-work system, not unlike the one proposed by the Clinton Administration, works exceedingly well.
Since 1986, more than 12,000 high school juniors and seniors in some 30 cities across the country have participated in this privately funded school-to-work initiative, and 95 percent have graduated from high school.
Most of these students were from families with incomes below the poverty line, more than half came from single-parent families, and over 90 percent were minorities (65 percent black, 18 percent Hispanic, and 8 percent Asian).
We offer no magic bullets. There aren't any. In Career Beginnings, students attend monthly workshops during their junior and senior years on career planning and basic academic skills, as well as sessions on workplace requirements, such as employers' expectations, teamwork, and job performance.
Each student is also matched with a mentor from the local business or professional community who becomes part teacher, part coach, part adviser, part friend. Mentors are carefully selected, trained, and supported and have a clear bottom-line responsibility: Help their student understand what it takes to be successful in the world of work and to make good career decisions.
As part of the overall program, students are placed in summer jobs and internships that focus on learning and earning--giving them real-world experiences to practice the skills they have learned.
Every American young man or woman deserves a similar opportunity. The school-to-work legislation provides it.
William M. Bloomfield
Center for Corporate and Education Initiatives
The Health Institute
New England Medical Center
To the Editor:
It was troubling to see the position of the Kentucky School Boards Association misrepresented in your Jan. 26, 1994, story on planned changes in our state's education-reform law ("Ky. Officials Announce 'Corrections' to Reform''). Several points of clarification need to be made for your readers.
The story alleged that the K.S.B.A. "criticized'' a delay in state sanctions against schools with poor student-assessment scores, and claimed that the association "has strongly opposed'' school-based-decisionmaking councils.
When the proposal to delay the school sanctions was made, the K.S.B.A. did raise concerns about this development as it related to a 1993 court decision on accountability of school councils. However, in no way did the K.S.B.A. "criticize'' either Commissioner of Education Thomas Boysen or the delay. In fact, the association has endorsed the commissioner's recommendation to delay the sanctions as well as his other "midcourse corrections'' in our education-reform law and timetable.
As far as the allegation that the K.S.B.A. has "strongly opposed'' school councils, two points merit your readers' consideration.
First, yes, the K.S.B.A. strongly supports legislation to require school councils to act within districtwide policies set by the community's elected board of education. However, the K.S.B.A. has been and remains committed to the contribution councils make to increase parental involvement in Kentucky's school-reform effort. The association is also pushing legislation to strengthen the clout of parents on school councils.
Second, the K.S.B.A. is an organization of its members. In a January 1994 survey by Kentucky's largest newspaper, nearly eight in 10 school councils reported no problem in their working relationships with local boards of education. If the K.S.B.A. "strongly opposed'' school councils, that survey should have shown vastly different results.
In the early days of Kentucky's 1990 education-reform law, people raising questions about any aspect of the law were labeled "critics'' or "opponents.'' Fortunately, today Kentuckians have learned that you can raise issues and questions about specific parts of the law and its implementation, and still be strong supporters of education reform, as the K.S.B.A. and its members are.
Director, Communications Services
Kentucky School Boards Association
To the Editor:
The article in the Jan, 26, 1994, issue entitled "Police to Apprehend Truants in Philadelphia'' captured (no pun intended) for me the essence of one of the most significant problems facing public education. Schools are simply not seen as good places to be. Rather, as in Philadelphia, they are considered on a par with a police holding tank; a form of punishment; a way of reducing street crime. Educators not only blindly accept their part in using the schools in a custodial or punitive role, they contribute to it.
One of the most time-honored and widespread punishments for behavioral transgressions in school is detention. Some school districts have extended the idea of detention to the concept of Saturday school--telling students, in effect, "You've been pretty bad, so you deserve something more than just detention; you're assigned to Saturday school.'' Incredibly, some teachers use their own subject-matter as discipline. English teachers assign essays for misbehavior; physical-education instructors demand laps or pushups from misbehaving students; math teachers assign more homework because students aren't paying attention.
In Philadelphia, it appears that the school board is prepared to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to punish students who don't like regular school by making them attend an even less attractive school. The assistant superintendent is quoted: "We are not pretending that this is a high-quality instructional program. This is strictly meant to discourage kids from not being in school and hanging out all over town.''
Sometimes, when things seem crazy and everything is going wrong, a good approach is to stop doing what you're doing and try the opposite! Instead of perpetuating and contributing to the notion that schools and education are punishment, what if we were to say to the truants in Philadelphia, the gang types in Los Angeles, and the disruptive ones in every high school something like the following:
School is a good place to be and you can't be here if you don't attend on a regular basis and obey our rules. Go away! We not only won't chase you and drag you back, but you can never come back unless you agree to the rules. But the catch is that you must go somewhere and do something. That assignment may be a Civilian Conservation Corps camp experience; it may be full-time employment; it may be vocational or technical training; it may be some other form of government service, but you will be somewhere whether voluntarily or involuntarily. If school sounds better than those other options and you agree to abide by the rules, you are welcome to return with full privileges.
Any teacher or school administrator will tell you that a great deal of time, energy, and resources go into dealing with a relatively small percentage of youngsters who either don't want to be in school or who want to be there but only on their own terms. The average high school student in Philadelphia misses 41 school days a year? Can you imagine the effort that teachers and administrators go through trying to deal with such a situation? Let's tell such students they can just drop by when it suits their purposes. Turn them out and concentrate on making school the place it should be for the students who want to be there.
I am not suggesting that our schools don't need to improve; obviously they do and they can start by dropping some of the silly and counterproductive practices noted above. But ultimately, until we stop expecting our teachers to deal with youths who, according to the article, would be committing robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, and thefts if they weren't in school, we will doom our schools to being places of punishment.
Dennis L. Evans
Department of Education
University of California, Irvine
The writer was a high school principal for 21 years.