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What Football Coaches Can and Cannot Teach

To the Editor:

After a careful second reading of "Playing by the Rules" (related story), I'm still not sure what your point is. Are you seriously trying to tell teachers that if they conduct themselves like martinets in the classroom, browbeat their students into submission, and act like dictators in their relations with their charges, then education in this country will improve?

Every coach, as every teacher, should be judged by the attitudes of the students they have had in their programs. Did anyone notice a problem with the attitudes of the Pekin, Ill., players featured in your story? One student described his priorities as "God, football, and family," in that order. Another implied that his only reason for being in school is to get grades to be eligible for football. Another said he respected his coaches more than he did his parents. Still another stated that his teachers just want to get rid of their students so they can go home. Does anyone recognize some pretty seriously antisocial attitudes there? Nowhere in the entire article do these students indicate a positive attitude toward either society or education. Does Education Week actually want to hold these coaches and teachers up as exemplary?

In the 28 years I've coached football I've seen many coaches who depend on mind control and intimidation to achieve their purpose. I've never had much respect for those types. Granted, their methods might result in more victories on the football field, and to some, that's all we're measured by.

I think more about the important victories that may come later in life, when these young men won't have a screaming and demanding person controlling their every move. What will happen then?

Classroom teachers can learn from football coaches; specifically, about expecting the highest level of performance from all and motivating students to be the best they can be. Fortunately, we don't have to behave as the coaches pictured in your story do to achieve this goal.

Kirk G. Daddow
Head Football Coach
Ames High School
Ames, Iowa

'Sex Respect' Curriculum: Reality or Comic Book?

To the Editor:

The article "Grassroots Warriors Waging Battle Over Sex-Education Curriculum" (related story) raised the hairs on the back of my neck. "Sex Respect" is not a curriculum package; it is a values program. Instead of supplying students with real information about sex, the Sex Respect program advocates abstinence as the only form of birth control and supplies students with meaningful lines such as "Pet your dog, not your date" and "Do the right thing; wait for the ring." Am I reading this correctly, or did someone slip me a comic book?

Reality. Yes, it does exist, and yes, those advocating the Sex Respect programs have their heads turned and their eyes shut. It is time to wake up. I am not arguing that values and beliefs are not important. But the role of educators is not to come to a consensus on sex education, then preach abstinence, just as it is not their role to pick a political party, and then tell students to abstain from association. Sex Respect is a program that has no place in our public schools. The program is a blatant denial of reality, and worse yet, a dismissal of its importance for students.

Dan Reynolds
Missoula, Mont.

Civics Standards: Stress Courage, Not Mere Literacy

To the Editor:

Your article on the national civics standards (related story ) boasts that these standards are "non-controversial." I disagree.

Surely there are quotes in the article that have universal appeal. Diane Ravitch of New York University is not original, but she is right in proclaiming that "democracy is not a spectator sport." Charles Quigley, the executive director of the Center for Civic Education, should be applauded for suggesting that civics need not be a separate course. The high school teacher who reveals that "I don't think they [students] have a feeling about the importance of being an American citizen" knows whereof he speaks. Unfortunately, all of this is akin to trying to convince Noah of the power of water after the flood.

One is left with the impression that the road to good citizenship can be reached best by more and more civic literacy. More "straightforward" civic education is what is needed according to William Gaston, a domestic-policy assistant to President Clinton, and he adds that "knowledge is power." Still another high school teacher urges us "to counter civic illiteracy."

Would it make these civic standards "controversial" to suggest that they and their champions should be emphasizing civic courage, rather than mere civic literacy? We are witnessing an era in which our elected representatives see their role as solely supporting the wishes of their constituents. Their own survival seems more important than that of "the American people" to whom they constantly allude. Individual, courageous judgment for what may truly be best for America is on sabbatical, with no new signs of return. No new chapters in Profiles in Courage appear imminent. As for too many of the rest of us, veterans of civics courses no less bent on civic literacy, we now seem committed to ourselves and have labeled ourselves as "taxpayers," rather than citizens.

Clearly the times call for something different from what we have known or done. We need alternatives to what the standards-makers are proposing. Genuine citizenship is not the stuff of accumulated knowledge alone; it's about thinking, compassion, and commitment. Real citizenship involves making moral choices on substantial issues and, as such, its measuring stick is a "gut check" rather than a traditional quiz. Educating future citizens requires a curriculum that stimulates adolescents to ask questions, to formulate and question their own beliefs, and to challenge viewpoints long held. Far from being straightforward, the teaching of citizenship can be as elusive as nailing jelly to a tree.

Would it be subversive to advocate the study of democracies that failed the "importance test," such as the Weimar Republic? In that case, would what the German people needed have been more civic literacy? Was knowledge power? Or was knowledge useless because it lacked courage and commitment?

Such comparisons would enable students to recognize the fragility of democracy and the need for individual action to make a democratic society function and survive. They may be convinced that they can and must make a difference. They may be more willing to assume the weighty responsibility of preserving and perpetuating our society for future generations. Then, truly, they will have passed the "importance" test.

Henry C. Zabierek
Dean of Studies
Lebanon High School
Lebanon, N.H.

Ohio Collaboration Ties Top-Down to Bottom-Up

To the Editor:

I read with interest the Commentaries on the back page of the Nov. 23, 1994, issue. I was especially intrigued with your headline, "Top Down or Bottom Up?" related story ) your update on the dormitory project that will house 16 Bronx Regional High School students in New York City contains some misinformation.

The project was conceived of about six years ago, with construction beginning two years later. The building, around the corner from the school, had been a dwelling with 20 apartments (not "some houses next door"). Abandoned and used as a crack house, the structure required gut rehabilitation (not "sprucing up"), with much of the work done by students from the high school.

More important, however, is a clearer understanding of our current funding situation and the issues it raises about this and similar projects. While the need to provide housing for students has not abated, our dormitory stands empty. Recently, the New York State Homeless Housing Assistance Program threatened to "temporarily" move in another program until we secured funding. So we are not, as your report indicates, "waiting for more money from the state." To date, we have not received any commitment to fund operating costs.

Using a homeless shelter as its model, the state expected us to run the dormitory with funding that could provide little more than "three hots (meals) and a cot." We argued for a program that addressed residents' social, educational, and emotional needs with staffing levels that could guarantee safety. Recently, it appeared we had convinced the state rate-setters to increase the amount they would allow for this project. But with the election of a new Governor in November, the future of this project is uncertain.

What has been lacking in all of our negotiations with officials is a sense of urgency. Our dormitory is seen as just one of many projects to house the homeless in a political climate unsympathetic to anyone in need. While the officials who met with us have all been well meaning, they seem to be unable to go beyond current procedures and ways of thinking about funding and licensing. It has fallen on us to figure out how to fit into existing funding streams and established social-service categories, instead of these officials creating a plan that fits this project and the students it serves.

If urban residential public schools and dormitories are ever going to become a reality, those with the power of the purse are going have to develop the new and innovative thinking these important projects require.

Steve Shreefter
Chairperson
Dormitory Project Board of Directors
Bronx, N.Y.

Could Some 'Reforming' Actually Be 'Recycling'?

To the Editor:

In your Nov. 30, 1994, issue, under the heading of "Ideas and Findings" related story you report that two researchers, Valerie E. Lee and Julia B. Smith, have used collected data to identify some promising school-reform practices. Specific practices identified were: having students keep the same homeroom throughout their high school years; creating schools within schools; and arranging for parents to volunteer in schools.

When I enrolled in 1962 as a 10th grader at Hueytown High School in Jefferson County, Ala., I was assigned a homeroom teacher with whom I remained assigned until graduation.

According to the diploma pursued, almost all of a student's classes were taught in a certain wing of the school. This practice, in effect, created schools within schools.

I do not recall that there were many parent volunteers around, but I suspect our parents did their "volunteer" work with us at home.

There is an old saying around here that "what goes around, comes around." Could it be that what our teachers and administrators knew 32 years ago is just now "coming around" again? Is this reform or recycling?

Charles J. Ray
Superintendent
St. Clair County Schools
Ashville, Ala.

Math-Teaching Strategies Can Bridge Gender Gap

To the Editor:

Your story "New Hampshire District Contemplates All-Girls Math Class" (related story) points to a growing interest across the nation in all-girls classes as a way to remedy the imbalance in mathematics achievement between boys and girls.

Educators who consider single-sex classes as an option should recognize that it is not solely the absence of boys that gives girls more freedom to flex their analytical muscles. Rather, it is the use of teaching strategies that complement the way girls learn, such as:

  • Blending competitive and collaborative learning;
  • Encouraging risk-taking;
  • Capitalizing on writing and oral skills;
  • Setting abstract concepts in the context of everyday life;
  • Using gender-friendly examples and textbooks; and
  • Holding high expectations and offering female role models in math.

While not a panacea to insure gender equity in math, single-sex classes may prove invaluable in helping coeducational schools balance the gender equation.

Meg Milne Moulton
Whitney Ransome
National Coalition of Girls' Schools
Concord, Mass.

Election Results Were Not Referendum on Unions

To the Editor:

The Pennsylvania anti-union activist Susan Staub claims in her letter to the editor (related story) that the November election results demonstrate teachers' unions are "out of touch" with the electorate. But her inaccurate statements demonstrate it is she who is out of touch with the facts.

Contrary to Ms. Staub's statement, the Pennsylvania State Education Association does not use the funds collected from so-called "agency shop" fees assessed to nonmembers for political contributions. To do so would be a violation of federal law. All political contributions made by the p.s.e.a. are not from union dues or agency-shop fees, but are instead from voluntary donations by our more than 132,000 members.

It is true that our endorsed candidates for governor and for the U.S. Senate lost by narrow margins in November. But it is also true that the dominant issues in Pennsylvania's elections, as articulated by the victorious candidates, were crime and the state's economy. The elections were not a referendum on public education and teachers' unions.

Surveys by Phi Delta Kappa and the Gallup Organization demonstrate that most Americans have favorable opinions about public schools and public school teachers. Opinion research conducted in 1994 for the p.s.e.a. by the Garth Company, a New York-based firm, demonstrates that Pennsylvanians give their teachers extremely high approval ratings.

The Garth Company report concludes that most Pennsylvanians "feel that their teachers excel on virtually every professional level: experience, currency, commitment, preparedness, and ability to communicate with students."

Annette Palutis
President
Pennsylvania State Education Association
Harrisburg, Pa.

Intellectual Smugness Versus 'Fearful Self-Righteousness'

To the Editor:

John Dewey's assertion of his philosophical beliefs as a religion does not make it so, at least on this side of the looking glass. Richard A. Baer Jr. (related story) is correct in saying that the word "religion" may be stretched beyond some set of beliefs in a supreme being; English is a semantically elastic language, and any good dictionary shows how we have taken the term into various colloquial byways. But this fact hardly makes Dewey a theologian.

To say that all assertions about approaches to reality or ethics are actually religious tenets is both ingenuous and impracticable. The founders of this nation clearly meant religion to be construed as sectarian, not secular, beliefs. Any other construction would in fact forbid any education at all, if by education--as opposed to training--we mean helping people learn to think for themselves.

Reasonable people can debate whether some issues require training rather than education: aids, for example, or teen pregnancy, or drunk driving. Perhaps some things are so dangerous and critical that children must simply be led away from them. This is the type of choice responsible adults have always made for minors.

On the other hand, responsible adults and caring parents have also always known that child-rearing (and child-educating) is a process of knowing when and how to let go. When to tell, when to show, and when to question. Unless we build in a certain quotient of mistakes and reasoned consideration of their implications in noncritical areas, the child will never learn to live outside our cocoon.

To say, as some educators do, that every decision for children at any age should be a matter of personal choice based on individual consideration seems irresponsible. To say, as some on the religious right do, that the only source of truth is revealed truth seems educationally claustrophobic--and potentially as dangerous to human development as asserting that there is no truth at all.

I believe it was George Bernard Shaw who wrote, "The trouble with Christianity is not that it's been tried and has failed, but that it's never been tried." The same could be said of real education in this country: As citizens and people we should be discussing and deciding what should go on each side of the responsibility equation, instead of just hollering for the whole pie. The loud and bitter conflict between intellectual smugness and fearful self-righteousness is probably already teaching our children a lesson we'll one day wish they hadn't learned.

Kenneth Bradford
Richmond, Va.

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