Letters To The Editor
Science, Math Need Blend Of Lectures, Investigation
To the Editor:
In the article "Standards Found To Present Challenge to Teachers" (related story), I was startled to read the following sentence: "But the survey found that high schools lag far behind--with 94 percent of science and mathematics classes still requiring students to listen and take notes from the teacher at least once a week."
As a science and math teacher of 25 years, this strikes me as a silly statistic. Does "investigation" preclude lecture entirely? There are concepts in both math and science that students would be hard-pressed to "investigate" without some initial guidelines (in chemistry, for example, the concept of mole; in physics, Newton's three laws, except at the most elementary level). Subsequent to "investigations"and to the class discussions which pull everything togetherthere is often a place for a coherent and concise summary of what, from this investigation, will be used for future "investigations." Furthermore, not all topics are susceptible to "discovery" except in an entirely artificial sense (most of 20th-century physics, for example, or the principle of mathematical induction).
Those who argue that schools should not function as banks from which knowledge is either dispensed or withdrawn, but should be laboratories, workshops, or studios, articulate a refreshing vision. But societies which advance must have banks which in turn fund the laboratories, workshops, and studios. Schools can dispense knowledge and then enable students to question and investigate based on extensions of the dispensed knowledge.
In short, there is a need for a judicious blend of lecture, discussion, and investigation. There is no utopian method which suits every classroom, every topic, or even each topic for every class. The survey question assumes, probably correctly, that the standards eschew lecture almost entirely. In my judgment, that is a mistake. Some of my classes prefer lecture and reach the "aha!" experience more clearly when I lead them step by step to it than if they had "investigated" for themselves; others prefer exactly the opposite.
For reasons different from the ones expressed in his Commentary in the same issue (~related story ), I agree with Edwin J. Delattre in his challenge to the report of the Holmes Group. He notes that "the report forsakes listening well as an instrument of learning and a form of respect for others; factual knowledge as necessary for responsible judgment about anything; and practiced memory as essential to formation of trustworthy habits of intellect and character."
Montgomery Catholic High School
On Upping Admissions Ante For Superior Asian Students
To the Editor:
How neat and fair-minded the San Francisco quota plan to apportion quality education among nine ethnic groups must have looked in 1983, when it was adopted (related story ). But over time, Chinese-Americans began doing too much homework and the 40 percent ceiling for any one group attending Lowell High School became too restrictive for the number of applicants the school had. The issue, we are told, is back in the courts.
Since affirmative action, which is at the root of the San Francisco plan, is currently under attack by a phalanx of politicians mouthing the unbrotherliness of their conservative constituencies, it is difficult to anticipate what sort of legal remedy will be forthcoming.
In hindsight, one can see, even without the threat of litigation, that repeatedly upping the admissions ante for Chinese students would not be a viable solution. Not only would this action result in a number of disgruntled rejects, whose qualifying scores exceeded those of all of the non-Chinese admissions groups, it would, in addition, cause stratification within Lowell High School, since the Chinese students were demonstrably superior academically. Finally, one must reckon with the tremendous pressure faced by pre-adolescent Chinese-Americans to achieve the superscores that would gain them admission.
It is likely that the blossoming self-esteem of those denied admission under this system would be better preserved if they could blame the well-known vagaries of fate instead of their own shortcomings for coming up empty. Why not revert the admission standard for Chinese-Americans to the level for the ethnic group with the next highest cutoff score and then conduct a lottery among the Chinese-Americans who achieve this score, in order to determine who will be admitted?
Plans should be drawn up also to designate an alternate facility for those bright, dedicated young people for whom there is no room at Lowell. Indeed, to show good faith, maybe a few members of the Lowell teaching corps would opt to help staff this school and begin generating a new tradition of excellence.
Henry B. Maloney
Will Market-Based System Serve Students in Need?
To the Editor:
As a bona fide member of the "education politburo," I feel compelled to respond to Michael P. Garber's Commentary, "Opening the Education Marketplace" (related story). He describes an educational nirvana achieved by means of a "deregulated, market-based education system." At the risk of interjecting a bit of reality into this discussion, let me compare his ideas of what might be with some examples of what currently is in the public school system in Madison, Wis.
- An elementary school teacher is developing an electronically linked network for district teachers to share their ideas about curriculum, classroom management, and successes and failures in motivating students.
- A district alternative program for 7th through 10th graders is located centrally, but lacks a library. Instead, the students use the public library on a regular basis for both research and recreational reading.
- A decade ago, an elementary teacher helped introduce an innovative math program, Cognitively Guided Instruction, into her 1st-grade classroom. (See Education Week, 3/1/95). Since that time, she has worked, with support from both the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the school district, to further develop and promote the approach throughout the district and the country.
- One of my children was in grave danger of completely dropping out. We found the answer to his problems at one of the district's alternative programs, which provided the nurturing environment and the high expectations he needed to succeed.
- One of my daughters started college with a year's credit for
calculus and advanced standing in Spanish. My youngest is planning to
take a physics course at the university (at district expense) in his
senior year, after completing his high school's advanced-physics
course next year.
- My children's classmates and friends come from highly diverse backgrounds--economically, racially, ethnically, and culturally. They are, in consequence, well equipped to live and work comfortably in a multicultural world.
- Madison students' averages on the S.A.T. and A.C.T. are higher than those of private school students.
Are Madison's schools unique? While the hometown booster in me wants to say yes, the reality is that similar examples exist throughout the country--in urban, rural, and suburban districts. There is innovation, creativity, and responsiveness in many of the nation's public schools. Have public schools solved all the problems? Of course not. Madison, like many districts, has students who are not achieving, and far too many of those are students of color. This is a challenge we still must meet.
But one might look to the area of education that currently has the type of competitive system Mr. Garber advocates--postsecondary education. Has the existence of such a market-based system at the junior-college or four-year-college level, with full consumer choice, created significantly different educational experiences for students? No. There is even less variation in the educational experience in the postsecondary world than there is in K-12 public schools--and certainly far less success in serving those students with special needs.
The critical issue for this country is how to create an education system that works well for all students. I am sorry that Mr. Garber preferred to rest his argument on spurious differences and the use of loaded words (politburo, monopolistic, government-owned and -operated, etc.) rather than grapple with this very important issue. I am still interested in learning how a market-based system would improve education for the children public schools find hardest to serve--those with special educational needs; those from homeless or highly mobile families; those who are disruptive; those whose homes and families are ravaged by poverty, or crime, or addiction.
Madison Metropolitan School Board
Who Heeds 'Lost Voices' In Educational Research?
To the Editor:
Sara Lawrence Lightfoot has written in The Good High School of the "lost voice" in education research: teachers. It is as one of those lost voices that I write regarding the article "Getting Its House in Order" (related story).
Catholic Schools and the Common Good, the book by Anthony S. Bryk and colleagues at the University of Chicago, was a seminal work in my career. I teach at a Catholic high school in Seattle and I found the book to be an accurate and penetrating look at the system of which I am a part. Until that book and The Good High School, I thought the best book written on education reform was Small Victories, by Samuel Freedman. All of these books use what Ms. Lightfoot calls the "portraiture" approach to social research, a delicate combination of art and science that has made these works powerful and influential among teachers.
Regarding Mr. Bryk's work with the Chicago schools, I agree that it is "pretty amazing" that someone of his stature and reputation would spend half of every week in the district office, but who is listening to the lost voices? Who is talking to Chicago's high school teachers, guidance counselors, coaches, and teachers?
Software is comforting. Do curricula designed using these statistics work? The gap between education theory and practice widens. The most brilliant work in high school education is being done by teachers using observation and intelligence mixed with a passion for their profession.
Who is listening to these heroes, and how do their insights translate onto software?
Intrinsic Versus Extrinsic Rewards
To the Editor:
Alfie Kohn doesn't get it (related story ). In his incessant castigation of educational incentive programs, he ignores not only the research and teacher experience that contradict him, but the holes in his logic through which one could drive a truckload of stars and stickers.
When children are first acquiring skills, the only motivation possible for them is extrinsic. Beginning readers, for example, struggle to remember and apply all of the abstract rules of decoding text, laboriously eking meaning out of each sentence. Why do they do it? Teachers know why--for praise, for the pride of accomplishment in the eyes of the adults and peers, to avoid embarrassment of failure. Even reading stories aloud to interest children in literature is an external motivator. Until the child becomes fluent enough at decoding to concentrate on meaning, there is no intrinsic reward, as much as Mr. Kohn might like there to be. When we try to imagine the intrinsic joys of, say, memorizing multiplication tables, the point becomes even more obvious.
Behind Mr. Kohn's oxymoronic "punishing reward," I suspect there lies the puritanical notion that education ought to be painful, and that anything that might add a spoon of sugar to the medicine is therefore suspect.
Research supports what many teachers have learned: that proper use of extrinsic rewards not only does not "punish" but actually enhances intrinsic motivation. Such incentives need to provide students with information regarding their mastery of skills, and establish specific and challenging goals. Reading incentive programs especially require rigorous accountability for students, and a system of reward commensurate with real effort.
But to flatly maintain that "rewards punish" does worse than contradict the research. It belittles the experience of tens of thousands of teachers who use incentive techniques and have seen their effectiveness. Used properly, such practices not only foster learning behavior, they help children get past the travails of skill acquisition so that they can truly experience the love of learning.
Thomas H. Schnick
Senior Reading Consultant
Institute for Academic Excellence Inc.
To the Editor:
Too many people like Alfie Kohn really think kids should be self-motivated. They are in fact condemning large numbers of them to the ranks of the uneducated.
To see this irony, one has to understand why, if you ask most students what school is like, they describe a prison. Sure, many girls and some boys love school. But if you ask most what the motivational system is for doing schoolwork, they will more than likely describe a system akin to slavery. If you ask most educators the reason for the lack of some work-remuneration system, they will say that education depends on intrinsic motivation and intrinsic rewards. We have to develop students' intrinsic motivation.
In our individualistic society, which is based on notions of free will, kids are supposed to want to learn. But that is a moral test of the students' good will to learn--a test of whether they are properly "moral." If they do not learn, they are lazy. Laziness is seen as immoral and sinful. Note that schools grade "cooperation and study habits."
Why are schools, especially bad schools, so devoid of extrinsic rewards? Because we see schools as places that demand good internal values. What crimes have the children committed to have to do penance? Why are they to be morally judged? Because of original sin, a piece of which, it would seem, is laziness, they are in a moral purgatory or limbo until they show they are worthy.
Why are we overjoyed by freedom of choice and capital incentives in business and in the ex-Communist world, but expect our children to perform without compensation? It is time to extend the same freedoms to them.
Pedagogy is about learning and development--not about lecturing and handing out work. The notion that curriculum is what educates is misguided. It comes from a religious "preachment" theory of education. The laws of behavior, on the other hand, are based on thousands of studies drawn from economics and psychology. They demonstrate that all outcomes that maintain or increase activity are reinforcers.
When work is assigned, the activity has to be compensated by reinforcing outcomes--not for trivia but for complex work, and not after every little piece of work but every so often.
Would we want less for ourselves? Would we work for nothing and stand to be judged at work by what we produced?
Michael L. Commons
Massachusetts Mental Health Center