Letters to the Editor
To the Editor:
Regarding the Commentary "Surviving Parent-Teacher Involvement'' (May 4, 1994): The greatest potential for improving education in America is in finding a way to make home-study work. In my 27 years of teaching, I have never understood the cry for improved curriculum or a longer day or a longer school year as a way of improving lackluster educational achievement when it is so obvious that students who are successful do homework responsibly and those who handle homework irresponsibly are unsuccessful.
If schools were taken over by big business and run like a business, how long do you think it would take to determine that what doesn't happen at home is the culprit for substandard performance and that production is not going to improve until we do something about it?
It's useless to sit back and whine about the parents not doing their job. What needs to happen is for the school to come up with strategies to help--and in some cases, compel--parents to do a better job.
First, let me describe a typical instance that illustrates the problem of parental dysfunction. Larry, let's say, is my 8th-grade English student. Once a week, Larry has a composition assignment that is due on Tuesday. He has assignments in English almost every night, but let's focus on this particular composition assignment.
Larry's parents have on their refrigerator the calendar of routine assignments that includes this composition. They also are among the 15 percent of my students' parents who get mailed home every week (in stamped envelops they provide) a report on their child's performances on anything that reflects home-study.
This report, more often than not, shows that Larry's weekly composition was done half-heartedly or not at all.
How could this be? If he were my child, or the child of parents of my top 25 percent of students, he would sit down at the kitchen table or wherever and stay there until he got the job done. And on subsequent Monday nights, in view of the fact that he had shown some lapses in responsibility, I would ask to see his work for the next day. If he said he "did it at school,'' I would tell him I wanted to see homework done in school. And, when the next report came home, if I found that the work in question had been handed in late or with poor effort, or not handed in at all, I would bring the youngster before me and ask him to explain why he told me the work had been done in school.
All of this to many parents is so much common sense, we just can't believe that some parents can't get a handle on it.
Well, let's face it, although it is critical we keep parents informed about the assignments and give them feedback on scores from homework, that, by itself, is not going to change much. There's a missing piece that the true business manager would quickly see the need to address. If 50 percent of the parents--much worse than this in some areas--can't get their children to perform adequately at home even when they know what the assignments are and have regular feedback about poor performance, what then is the problem?
One thing is for sure: It's not something one teacher on his or her own is going to change very much, no matter how charismatic or what the inclination to "stand and deliver'' might be. If the situation is going to change, it will have to be a district effort targeted mostly on how elementary teachers go about involving the parents.
When I say "involving the parents,'' I'm not talking about opportunities for them to come into school to help out, nor am I talking about parent conferences or voluminous phone calls. I'm talking specifically about what kind of direction the elementary teachers give the children's parents about what the child needs to do at home, and what exactly the parent needs to do to assist. Parents need very specific daily information about what kind of "help'' is not help at all, and what behaviors on their part for a particular night would be beneficial.
In point of fact, most parents have to be shown through day-to-day practice over a long period of time exactly how to be effective home facilitators of learning. Assuming that all parents know how to give proper home-study guidance at home just because 20 percent to 25 percent of the parents have a common-sense instinct about it is the biggest mistake today's schools are making. They DON'T know how to do it, and those twice-a-year mail-homes about what we expect parents to do to help their child have responsible home-study habits aren't worth squat!
Parents need to be taught from everyday lessons over a period of years before they can do it right and with consistency. If this is done, by the time a youngster reaches my 8th-grade class,when I provide the parents with information about the assignments and give feedback about the performances, most of them will have acquired the skills to know how to deal with lackluster performances.
Not all parents are able to respond well to the help the elementary teachers provide. We can invite parents in for monthly support groups, and that will probably be a good idea for many parents, but there are some parents who will not have the wherewithal to do anything about our direction or support.
What we need is legislation that will allow the schools to take action to impose some kind of outside-study regimen. If it is determined that the home environment is unable to foster a suitable educational atmosphere, and that, despite all school efforts, work is not getting accomplished at home, the school would have the authority to keep the child after school to participate in a "home''-study program at school. (Something of this nature needs to be done, as well, for excessive absences. If parents can't see to it that their child goes to school, then the school should have some legal grounds for having the child removed from the home and placed with foster parents.)
Successful businesses get at the root of the problem and take steps to bring about real change that can be measured by results. Our schools need to do the same thing and do it now.
Russell E. Shipp
8th-Grade English Teacher
To the Editor:
I read with respect and appreciation Stephen Arons's Commentary on the Goals 2000: Educate America Act ("The Threat to Freedom in Goals 2000,'' Commentary, April 6, 1994). While perhaps not being in full agreement with all his objections to the legislation, I felt his argument and alternatives were credible and recognize the source of many of the difficulties facing our educational system.
His proposed alternatives, including the 10-year program for teacher education, actually border on genius. The latter proposal represents a simple, yet profound, solution to probably one of the most worrisome areas in education. The system suffers seriously from poor teaching. There are many contributing factors. The continual updating through a 10-year program would not entirely eliminate the problem, but would certainly constitute a positive means of ameliorating it.
Mr. Arons's suggestion deserves consideration. While it is too late, with the passage of Goals 2000, to consider this idea as a "substitute for national curriculum standards,'' it could still be an avenue to explore in approaching the newly created goals, perhaps creating one that relates specifically to teacher training.
It is possible to expand our approach to this task so that we view teacher training not merely as initial preparation, but as continuous professional updating. A required standard would encourage and allow teachers to become even more competent in their fields and would help improve their classroom performance.
Mary Patrice Murray
San Francisco, Calif.
To the Editor:
I am somewhat confused about the purpose of including the article "My Ordinary Career'' in your April 27, 1994, issue. Likewise, I am concerned that lay persons, education students, or those who may be unfamiliar with the high standards most educators hold might read the article and think that Louis Romano, the teacher it profiles (though his real name is not used) represents the average teacher. In fact, he does not.
As I read through the article, I was enraged. Its only worth, in my opinion, is that it highlights a major part of what's wrong with education: teachers who have stayed on the job too long.
How anyone who has been in teaching for more than 30 years can say, as Mr. Romano does, "curriculum and teaching are basically the same as they were 10, 20 years ago'' is beyond my comprehension. Where has he been? Does he read the research? When was his last growth spurt professionally? Mr. Romano's comments about professional development are comparable to an adolescent's complaint that there is no value to staying in school. He talks about the lack of understanding children have about why and what they need to learn while at the same time modeling their "without a clue'' behavior.
Mr. Romano admits his formal education courses were a lot of garbage. It would be worthwhile to know when he last took courses, what effort he put into the courses, and how he fared in them. (Come out of the clouds, Mr. Romano, there's some great stuff happening in university classrooms today.)
He further complains that "too much of [teaching] is sink or swim'' and says it would be useful to have a system of mentoring for new teachers. Teachers, he says, should have a more thorough induction into the profession. This is so obvious that if I had any sympathy for his situation, I might feel sorry that he is so completely out of touch with what REFORMS have taken place in teacher education.
Oh, I forget. He's unaware of any reforms. His mention of the impossibility of individualizing programs ("differentiating instruction'') for more than one child at a time is just ignorance and demonstrates a dire need for the professional development he deems worthless. As a classroom teacher, I had a total load of 126 students and each one had an individualized program, though they all shared activities. To do this took a lot of time and energy, something Mr. Romano apparently prefers to use "filling out his waning days.''
The fact that this teacher was passed over for a principalship is encouraging and speaks well of his school system. With no desire to change or try new techniques, with such a negative attitude about kids, what kind of an administrator would he have made? More importantly, what kind of a role model is he if he truly believes "you can't change the world'' and is content with this defeatist point of view?
Mr. Romano is correct, however, in stating that discipline is a serious problem in schools. If he would read the research, though, he might learn that classes and schools in which active learning takes place have fewer problems with discipline. He might even pick up a few new (God forbid) methods for involving kids in his classes.
This complainer's chief lament is that "teachers don't have clout any longer.'' If he wants clout, maybe he should do us all a favor and become a policeman, or something else that might give him a sense of power and authority.
Mr. Romano is the antithesis of a good teacher. But, then, I should have known by its title--"My Ordinary Career''--the article would be upsetting. Anyone who loves children, is dedicated to high standards for themselves and their students, is committed to providing skills for independent lifelong learning, who models an enthusiasm for continuous learning--anyone like this would never believe that teaching is "ordinary'' in any sense.
To Mr. Romano, I say, "Get a grip. Retire now and save our children from another appalling year of negativism about school.''
To the writer of the article I suggest some kind of addendum that makes less of an ambiguous statement about this "traditionalist'' type of teacher and, instead, highlights his growing obsolescence in the field.
Barbara Rado Mosseau
To the Editor:
The saddest thing about your "Pioneers in Professionalism'' piece (April 20, 1994) is the extent to which none of the teachers in it seem to understand how irrelevant the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards is and how rapidly vanishing is the recent Western conceit of professionalism. Not only can the society at large not afford yet another protected class, but, in the case of teachers, a class whose function has been for all the 20th century to get in the way of learning.
Overteaching is already the major problem of schools, though U.S. Education Department and foundation folk are too divorced from human reality to recognize this, and parents (though not home-schooling parents) too bewildered by the rich apparatus of school hype. The catastrophic passivity and indifference among the enforced clientele of our compulsory school institution is caused by the kind of star teachers Rick Wormeli and Diane Hughart are being encouraged to become. Both of them seem like otherwise nice kids, so I regret having to say that I'd rather see my own children on the run from the law than in the company of adults who submit to the dehumanizing routines described in the article. Behind the cosmetic facades, I think we have two people who have some serious identity problems which they hope an official designation of favor will take care of. It won't, as witness the millions of school administrators who thought the same thing.
It isn't their fault, of course, but the fault of a diseased idea of social organization which thinks that value can be assigned rather than earned. Fortunately, this crazy idea has no chance at all of succeeding since the first graduating classes of nationally certified educators will destroy the harmony of any school they enter. That is, if they are given any perks for their effort; if not, they will be relatively harmless.
What was most annoying about the well-done story came from the apparent lack of awareness that the classroom-teaching and classroom-management skills which dominate the assessment have almost nothing to do with learning. I realize that contention will strike schoolpeople who read this letter as bizarre, but 50 years from now, when the "profession'' has been thoroughly deconstructed, it will all be as plain to everyone as it is plain to me now that the day of institutional government schooling is almost over.
When it comes apart, the national board's certification will be just another paper collectible seen occasionally at flea markets.
John Taylor Gatto
New York, N.Y.
To the Editor:
Head Start doubtless has merit. The hard data on its successes are impressive. Its widespread acceptance is handicapped, however, by confused depictions of it, such as those made by Lawrence Schweinhart and David Weikart ("Making Head Start Work,'' Commentary, April 27, 1994).
For example, these two self-styled experts on Head Start first claim that young children in Head Start must "initiate, design, and carry out their own learning activities.'' Two paragraphs later they desert this Rousseau-like notion. Now they inconsistently insist that Head Start teachers must "engage in methodical teaching practices.''
Then, the fundamental purpose of Head Start, they maintain, is to promote a vague and indeterminate condition called children's "development,'' "developing,'' or "developmental levels.'' To gain far-ranging approval, however, Head Start instead must set and carry out clear-cut, consistent, and empirically verified goals. It thus must disassociate itself publicly from muddled and airy perceptions of its methods and aims.
San Diego, Calif.
To the Editor:
I was pleased to read in the article "'Schindler's List' Spurring Calls for Holocaust Education'' (April 30, 1994) that U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley, along with others, has encouraged the use of the film as an educational tool.
The hope is, of course, that with the teaching of the Holocaust, and genocide in general, our children will help produce a kinder and gentler world. Unfortunately, this lofty goal will never be attained if we look only at the sins of other countries. Although the Holocaust is a good starting point, we must pull the log from our own eyes.
Eye surgery being a delicate operation, we can first look at our nation's glaring indifference to the Holocaust before we finally joined the war. According to "America and the Holocaust: Deceit and Indifference,'' a provocative documentary that aired on PBS last month, the U.S. government could have compiled its own "list'' and possibly saved the lives of many Jews. The U.S. government could not have stopped Hitler's atrocities, but it could have removed immigration laws that had the effect of preventing Jews from coming to America, passed a bill that would have allowed 20,000 Jewish children to enter the country outside the immigration quotas, cracked down on antisemitism in the nation that barred Jews from certain professions and from vacation resorts that advertised themselves as preferring a "Christian clientele.''
Moving from the Jewish Holocaust we must look more closely at the crimes of our own nation: the holocaust of Native American tribes, the enslavement and oppression of African-Americans, and the mistreatment of other Americans of non-European descent. Internationally, we can look at the U.S. government's domination of the Philippines and the banana republics of Latin America and of Hawaii, to only name a few. Currently, we must question our policies of political weakness and indecision in reference to Haiti and Bosnia.
My purpose is not to bash America, but to urge that we hold out our past (and sometimes secret) sins to our children so that they not only build a nation that is kinder and gentler, but one in which the very marrow of existence is justice for all.
San Francisco, Calif.