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Philanthropy and Reform: Seeking a 'Matchmaker'

To the Editor:

In a Commentary last spring, Bill McKersie and Robert Palaich identified as essential to school change the marriage of philanthropy and systemic education reform ("Philanthropy and Systemic Reform" ). They recognized in their essay that there are "limited incentives and assistance that educators and other local officials receive for redesigning core practices."

Philanthropic foundations want to see their resources effect real educational improvement; schools and school districts are desperately seeking additional funding to support risk-taking efforts to change the way they do business. We could mutually benefit from a matchmaking design that could link these needs together and form a powerful marriage for change.

Our board of education has committed over $300,000 in the last two years to support grassroots innovative demonstration projects. As new projects come on board and successful ones become established and continue, local taxpayers cannot be asked to commit ever-increasing levels of funding. We and other districts like us need to find the institutions and the reform movers who will help support effective change initiatives. Mr. McKersie and Mr. Palaich are right on target.

Russell J. Dever
Superintendent of Schools
Lockport City School District
Lockport, N.Y.

Eroding Opportunity for 'Ruthless Egalitarianism'

To the Editor:

As an inner-city teacher and administrator, I am troubled by Mark Mlawer's recent essay damning the institution of the honor roll (

  • My Kid Beat Up Your Honor Student" ). Mr. Mlawer is attacking the notion that highly achieving students should be lauded--and that parents should be proud of their achievement! Chiding parents who post bumper stickers boasting of their children's honor-roll status, he cites another bumper sticker gaining currency: "My Kid Beat Up Your Honor Student."

Mr. Mlawer attacks the very notion of honoring students for academic accomplishments, denouncing the mere listing of top achievers, the honor roll, as a "dishonorable institution." Unfair, he pontificates. What about students who successfully collect stamps? Skillful TV watchers? Kids with bad luck, no interest in coursework? An honor roll might hurt feelings, hinder self-esteem; it is "too objective."

The problem with his argument is that, for better or worse, schools exist primarily to teach academic subjects. We strive to motivate students to achieve academically through various means, including the small recognition afforded by an honor-roll listing. As Mr. Mlawer must be aware, most schools offer a host of other awards: sports trophies, "most improved," "best citizen." If academic achievement is the major goal of public education (now more than ever with the imperative to raise standards), where is the crime in making role models of top students?

But Mr. Mlawer is after bigger game. He is attacking the very existence of a class of academically gifted students, and the notion that they should receive any special treatment. As an "inclusionist," he is eager to bring all students to the same classroom: academic high-achievers, low-achievers, no-achievers, and children with a variety of disabilities requiring highly specialized therapies and pedagogies.

My own experience is that one of the most endangered species in the inner-city schools is Mr. Mlawer's target: the academic achiever. He or she is at the low end of a funding chain that allocates the lion's share of resources to remedial and special education. Withdrawing recognition is only the first step in a continuous erosion of opportunity for the academically gifted.

For America to deny opportunity to its most promising young minds would be a policy in pursuit of a ruthless egalitarianism. Ruthless, and a little violent, to quote the bumper sticker Mr. Mlawer cites approvingly.

Norman S. Zamcheck
Assistant Principal
Far Rockaway High School
Far Rockaway, N.Y.

To the Editor:

Negative attitudes toward academic excellence like Mark Mlawer's have led to the decline of our educational as well as our economic system.

Yes, all children deserve the right to an equal education. And no, they all don't receive one. Why not? Let's look at the educational system (still based on an agrarian society), the tenured, non-motivated teaching staffs, the absent parents, the video-crazed children, and many other factors. Are we supposed to lower standards to insure that everyone passes and is released into the "global economy" to become what? Maybe a biochemist? An environmental engineer? Or how about President of the United States?

There have always been people of varying skill levels, abilities, and academic achievements in society. Not all doctors that graduate from medical school become leading surgeons or researchers, not all teachers become principals or superintendents, not all police and firefighters end up as chief, and not all lawyers end up defending a sports "hero" the caliber of O.J. Simpson.

Mr. Mlawer seems to conveniently forget the stories of immigrants to this country who, despite language, cultural, economic, and social barriers, have graduated at the top of their classes in high school and contributed to American society. They and other academic achievers deserve our highest praise. They still believe that hard work pays off, they still believe in the work ethic.

Joanne Gielda
Holden, Mass.

National Certification and Trailblazing 'Communities'

To the Editor:

I just got a chance to read John Taylor Gatto's letter to the editor (

  • Seeing National Certification as 'Flea Market Collectible,'" ), in which he darkly surmises that those who achieve professional certification through the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards process will both upset normal school life and ultimately allow the symbol of such achievement to be placed for sale at a flea market.

I think Mr. Gatto misses the point. Whatever symbol the board issues to those who meet its standards seems of secondary importance to the act of completing the process, which promotes careful reflection on one's own teaching practice.

In Broward County, Fla., I worked closely to support 14 of our trailblazing teachers who went through the process. Their experience was exhausting, challenging, and filled with uncertainty, but they had strength of purpose and developed a community of inquiry which provided internal support for adult learning so lacking in schools today.

Mr. Gatto takes the organizational view--that everything in schools should be somehow measured and then compared. These trailblazing pioneers take a different view. They have created their own community of inquiry, and from community comes shared values. Organizations have rules while communities have values.

I once had the privilege of serving with a veteran of the Battle of the Bulge. He was in my unit when I was a company commander of a state-side National Guard unit awaiting a call-up in the Vietnam War. When I asked him how he had felt when that fierce battle of World War II was over, he simply said, "Cold, tired, and hungry," and that he had wanted to go home, but was proud to have served.

While the analogy is a dramatically different one from going through the national teaching-standards board's certification process, the message is the same: We see the world not as it is, but as we are. The teachers who are volunteering to go through this process are by their act creating a community of inquiry about the profession of teaching. The value in this will come as a residual effect to those who participate in and complete the process, and it will be long-lasting. They also will be proud to have undergone the process.

Thomas P. Johnson
Associate Superintendent
Human Resource Development
School Board of Broward County
Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

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