To the Editor:
Charles M. Breinin is to be commended for defining the salient issues in the study of algebra ("Algebra for Everyday Life,'' Letters, June 8, 1994). He advises that higher mathematics is impractical and should not be a graduation requirement for all students. But he omits a most important piece of information: The existing approach to meeting graduation requirements--substituting general mathematics and other such courses--has been an abysmal failure.
I submit that educational leaders like Ramon C. Cortines, the chancellor of the New York City public schools, are recognizing that a common required curriculum offers substantially more to all students than the present smorgasbord approach. The requiring of algebra for only the academically talented is an insult to human potential and a denial of a subject that is a gateway to both higher education and vocational and technical careers. Moreover, the evidence is clear that the stronger one's academic preparation, the greater the chance for success in college and the world of work.
As a longtime advocate of higher standards, I am convinced that the arguments of Mr. Breinin, however well-meaning, do us more harm than good. We are our own worst enemies, finding shortcomings and ignoring the potential benefits of high expectations. We desperately need to recognize that the public will no longer tolerate our rationalizations for poor student performance and high dropout rates. Yes, social conditions must improve; yes, we need more money; yes, lower student-teacher ratios are needed. But in the meantime, we must show curricular leadership and be willing to make substantive changes in our requirements.
It is not an accident that privatization, vouchers, and a hundred and one other solutions are being seriously considered to remediate our problems. Our parents and community members are giving us a clear message: If you won't address the issue of higher standards, we will find someone who will. And who can blame them?
Joseph M. Appel
North Hunterdon-Voorhees Regional
High School District
To the Editor:
Once again, bilingual education has been misrepresented ("Goals 2000 and the Bilingual Student,'' Commentary, May 18, 1994). Many of Rosalie Pedalino Porter's claims are plainly unfounded. I would like to draw attention to a few of the many false or distorted statements in her disappointing Commentary.
The quote highlighted graphically claims that the responsibility of public education excludes the right of students to preserve their native language and culture ("Let us not confuse the private freedom to use any language or keep any cultural traditions with the responsibilities of public education''). If students and teachers were denied the so-called "private'' freedom of expressing themselves in their native language, then there wouldn't be any language or culture at all, which is impossible. Every school community (that includes students, parents, teachers, and support staff) maintains a culture of which language is an integral part. An educational institution that is responsive is one that builds on the culture of its community members. Thus, a school culture may either be nurturing or alienating toward its members, depending on whether the school is inclusive or exclusive.
Ms. Porter passionately expresses the need to provide equal educational opportunities for second-language learners (limited-English-proficient students), yet she contradicts that desire in her criticism of bilingual education. Bilingual education provides the means by which teachers, students, and parents can communicate, which is at the heart of any educational community. Communication facilitates understanding and promotes positive relationships. When this very basic right is unavailable to students, as would be the case if bilingual education were disallowed, any promise of a qualilty education would be diminished.
If Ms. Porter truly believes in providing the best educational opportunities for second-language learners, she should be preoccupied with the quality of education, regardless of the language(s) used to enhance understanding, and in the acquisition of knowledge and skills, as well as in the professional development of the educators that serve these students.
The only way students can reach the standards of Goals 2000 is if they are given the opportunity to learn in their native language and, at the same time, learn English. Ms. Porter's persistent obsession with focusing on whether or not students preserve their native language (and culture) in the process of receiving a high-quality education should be perceived as part of a personal crusade that clearly has no place in the research or evaluation of bilingual-education programs.
Texas Woman's University
To the Editor:
U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Clarence Thomas and his conservative colleagues need to take a broader look at due-process rights and how they interface with society's problems ("Due-Process Rulings Have Hurt Schools, Justice Says,'' May 25, 1994).
Due-process hearings are absolutely needed unless our poor and minority students are to be at the mercy of discriminatory or myopic school boards. It does not follow that due process gives license to irresponsibility. Due process insures that students are not deprived of education and subjected to a Dickensian view of children.
Student Services Administrator
To the Editor:
While I concur with Robert Pearlman's concise essay on whether or not K-12 education will be able "to drive on the information superhighway'' (Commentary, May 25, 1994), I believe that he missed an important point on this issue.
I am less than heartened that even if funding, access, and public-private partnerships are established to help insure K-12 participation, the school personnel will be available to facilitate it. The persons responsible for hiring our school administrators have no technology experience themselves and therefore do not even see this as an essential qualification in candidates.
Even if districts employ technology coordinators and experts in telecommunications to provide training to staff members, the "critical mass'' needed to build the 21st-century infrastructure for schooling that is described by Mr. Pearlman will not take shape because those in authority do not see its value.
As an experienced school administrator (presently assistant principal and formerly director of computer education) and a doctoral student researching telecommunications in education, I can attest to the fact that most of the advertisements for educational leaders in your publication and in others that contain language about needing "persons to prepare our children for the 21st century'' are mostly just hype.
This critical issue--leadership--must also be addressed for true educational access to the information superhighway to become a reality.
Mary B. Maguire
To the Editor:
I have just read your article in the May 25, 1994, issue titled "Court Nominee Breyer Called 'Consensus Builder.''' I am most concerned to learn of Judge Stephen G. Breyer's reported "strong views'' in a dissent to a 1992 decision in favor of a learning-disabled Tufts University medical-school student who sought an alternative to multiple-choice tests.
Judge Breyer sided with the university because its expert (my emphasis) said such tests were necessary; and is said to have written that he opposed taking "a basic educational decision away from those who may know the most about it'' and placing it in the hands of lawyers.
This seems very much the U.S. Supreme Court's position in San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriquez (1973). There are others than lawyers and status quo educators who can provide studied and scholarly counsel.
To the Editor:
I commend you for your coverage of the 1993 Littleton, Colo., school board election ("Requiem for a Reform,'' June 1, 1994). There are a couple of points that should be clarified so that your readers can better understand what the Littleton community was supporting.
As one of the three "back to basics'' candidates and a co-author of the position papers referred to in the article, I want to stress that the term "traditional education'' was used in a very broad sense in the 1993 campaign. Indeed, in the debate over Littleton High School's Direction 2000 program, I defined traditional education as fixing the length of time of schooling while allowing student achievement to vary. We attempted to formally define traditional education after the election, but a controversy was created by supporters of "performance-based education.''
The Littleton school board is seeking proven instructional methods for the classroom, rather than unproven methods that happen to be fashionable. Under the broad label of "traditional education'' are numerous approaches to academic instruction and learning. For example, I recognize multiple teaching and learning styles. Lecture, coaching, and the Socratic method all have a place in a well-run classroom. The key to successful instruction is to elicit active participation by the student. This is best achieved by balancing all three kinds of teaching and instruction. The Littleton school system began to lose this balance when it began to emphasize coaching at the expense of such traditional methods as direct instruction, particularly in the elementary grades. None of the back-to-basics candidates rejects coaching as a teaching tool as long as it is appropriately used.
I support an educational system which provides equal educational opportunities for all students. I do not support systems--such as outcomes-based education--which seek to guarantee equal educational results. A varying degree of mastery should be expected if we hope to both recognize and honor differences among individuals despite equal opportunities. In this regard, my views are in accord with the Paideia Group, founded by Mortimer J. Adler.
My views differ most from the Paideia Group on the relative importance of standardized tests and their insistence on a common curriculum for all high school students. As a community, we must decide the content of the curriculum. The back-to-basics slate used the core-knowledge approach pioneered by E.D. Hirsch Jr. as a sample process, not as a proposed curriculum.
In terms of testing, the back-to-basics slate argued that standardized tests are cost-effective tools for establishing benchmarks of content knowledge and for making meaningful predictions about student performance. As such, the tests will continue to be used for a long time to come. Many educators rightfully argue that standardized tests, especially multiple-choice tests, do not adequately measure overall student performance. When I taught physics as a teaching fellow and adjunct professor, I used several types of tests, such as reports, essay questions, and open-ended problem sets. As an industry instructor today, I seek to incorporate performance assessments into my courses.
What I don't do is use performance assessments for high-stakes purposes, such as determining whether or not to award a diploma. In my opinion, this is where the Direction 2000 program at Littleton High School got into trouble.
Littleton is a district taking a good, hard look at itself with a school board that encourages and listens to significantly different points of view. I believe that the debate in Littleton presages a synthesis that will result in an effective school system for the 21st century.
John R. Fanchi
Board of Education
Littleton Public Schools
To the Editor:
Many are saying that we have lost this generation to senseless violence and illiteracy. Yet, we expect this "lost'' generation to provide the values it doesn't have to save the next. Are we crazy?
The schools lost this generation for us, and only they have the universal influence to save the next one. It can be done, but not unless basic changes are made, the kind that have not been seriously suggested or tried.
These changes would not cost any extra money. But they would change the psychological climate in which children function.
And isn't the whole problem one of psychology?
If the children in our classrooms feel subjugated, angry, bored, helpless, and hopeless, they are going to take action of some kind, no matter how senseless. Angry children disrupt classrooms just to get even. When they are punished, they disrupt more and are punished more.
Even the best teachers are helpless to change that psychology because the system is just not flexible. Adults plan for the children, decide for them, and then try to make the children fit into the plan. And it is such a poor plan that some children can't fit in, no matter how much they are punished.
We hear a lot about school choice. But that is choice for the parents to make between schools. Almost all schools retain the same basic instructional plan that failed in the first place.
What we need is to consider the way children feel. Give them choices that might quell constant classroom disruptions, a problem whose severity has been covered up and hidden for years by principals and teachers who do not know what to do about it.
There is only one good solution. The children must make themselves behave. Even the worst troublemakers in inner-city schools can and will make themselves behave if that is the only way they can be allowed to stay in the serious learning classes, and if three requirements are met:
1. They must understand, in advance, the reasons for everything that is required of them. They can understand that it is important not to waste learning time. A comparison with handing a $10 bill to a tutor and having the whole hour wasted helps.
2. Enforcement must be absolute. If there is to be no whispering in a formal lesson, a child whispering just once must be sent out immediately. There is no such thing as one little whisper. If one is allowed, to be fair, others must be allowed and then there is no lesson.
3. Children who are behind must be given hope that they can, indeed, learn. After all, a child who thinks he is stupid and can't learn anyway is not going to behave to get a chance to learn. Stories of great men who did not learn well when young help here.
Teachers must have something they can do, every minute, right then, if they are to have the quiet for lessons that need it, so the children can think and remember. For lessons that do not need that kind of quiet, children must have freedom to move around and choose activities.
All this is possible if two rooms work together--not extra rooms, just two rooms as they are now. One would be for formal lessons with the teacher up front. The other would be for informal lessons. Classes would change rooms as lessons required. But no child could stay in the formal lessons unless his or her behavior was perfect.
No child would be forced to be in the formal lessons. Why should Johnny have to sit through spelling drill all week before the Friday test if he already knows the words in one day? Let him decide.
My experience with troublemakers in California, inner-city Chicago, and Sarasota, Fla., has proved to me many times over that children will do what we want them to do if we give them reasons and let them choose, instead of treating them like slaves. (They also will live, and therefore learn, the values we want them to have.)
But ideas that consider the way children feel have not been in the forefront of school remedies for many years, not since the open classrooms of the 1960's. The children were happier then, but did not have the responsibility and structure they needed, so they did not learn as they should.
We reverted then to the idea that children must learn to do what they are told to do. They have been showing us since that they will not accept the domination, boredom, and frustration.
If we could just help children understand the reasons for what they need to do, and make them aware that they will be responsible for their own learning if they want better lives, the whole psychological climate in our classrooms would be different. Students will choose to do what they should if they understand the why and the how, but they will resist in any way they can being forced to do the very same thing.
We owe all the children who do behave a chance to learn in a favorable psychological climate. We owe all those who can behave for shorter periods a chance to learn for as long as they can behave. As they become interested, and can behave for longer periods, there will be a real gain for them and for society. We do not owe the others a chance to keep everyone else from learning.
There is nothing in the way our classrooms are set up now that allows children to make choices for themselves, to have formal lessons without interruptions, to have interesting choices for independent work during informal periods.
Until we set our children free, we will not have their respect or cooperation.
The writer, who is 81 years old, began her teaching career at the age of 53 in California.