Letters to the Editor
Newark Board Should Accept New Jersey's State Takeover
To the Editor:
I am appalled that the Newark board of education has the audacity to fight the state takeover of New Jersey's largest school district (related story ).
To wage yet another court battle will cost at least another $1 million--80 percent of which will come from state aid, since that's where Newark gets most of its education dollars. Years of frightful mismanagement and waste are the primary reasons the district is in shambles today. Apparently, the current board of education has not learned a lesson from the unwarranted abuses of the past.
For years, school officials misdirected state aid and other school revenue away from the classrooms and into the pockets of greedy officials and administrators who failed to follow through on promises to improve the deplorable conditions in which youngsters are expected to learn.
But this latest, blatant attempt to appeal the takeover is unconscionable since it simply continues to rob the children of Newark again by diverting funds that could be used for up-to-date textbooks, paper, pencils, computers, and modern classrooms.
It's time for the Newark board of education to be held accountable for the money it receives from the state, to cooperate with the takeover, and to begin making the changes necessary to insure that yet another generation of Newark children won't be cheated out of a decent education.
Newark school officials have had plenty of time to implement more "positive ways to address the problem." Either they don't want to improve the situation, or their efforts have failed.
Contrary to what Newark officials claim, the takeover has been successful in two other districts, Jersey City and Paterson.
There is no downside for the children from a takeover.
John H. Ewing
Senate Education Committee
New Jersey Senate
Character, the U.S. Army, And Scapegoating the 60's
To the Editor:
Not only the educational community but the U.S. military as well is struggling with the issue of moral education (related story ). Because the young men and women of the military reflect the output of American education, the vacuum of values among young soldiers has become evident.
For some time, the Army has evaluated officers on a list of values that includes a variety of items of moral leadership derived from the U.S. Constitution and from military tradition. Interestingly, chaplains in the Army have developed a new series of classes on moral leadership based on this mutually accepted list of values.
What this demonstrates is that a diverse community can agree on a set of values. The developers of Army officer-evaluation reports have produced a list that the Army has used for a number of years. Further, when a decline in those values is observed, an organization like the Army can become educationally proactive in developing classes to instill anew those values in members of the community.
Finally, an examination of the lesson plans for those classes indicates that while chaplains have developed the classes, the classes themselves are religiously pluralistic and, in fact, teachable to those who are not themselves religious.
The military has often anticipated the field of education's latest developments. (Instruction in assembling an M-16 weapon was truly outcomes-based education long before the term became fashionable.) Perhaps in the area of moral education as well, the wider American community can find a workable model from what is happening in the Army.
The Rev. Stephen R. Bartelt
Lutheran High School Association of Greater Milwaukee
To the Editor:
Regarding Kevin Ryan's Commentary on character education, it is tiring to have the counterculture of the 1960's trotted out once again and identified as the reason for our nation's presumed moral decline. After all, the civil-rights movement, the women's movement, and the environmental movement--the three most significant areas of moral growth in 20th-century America--burst into bloom from the caldron of that difficult era. Do we really want to go back to the times when sexual harassment was a fact of life about which women could do nothing, racial segregation and institutionalized prejudice ruled black America, Lake Erie was dead, and the Cuyahoga River was on fire? I don't think so.
But the real mistake Mr. Ryan's essay makes is a much deeper one. The author assumes that there was once a time when schools turned out something besides moral savages. Predictably enough, schools have produced precisely the moral savages who would perpetuate schools' savage practices. For example, it is savagery, although it may not generally be perceived as such, for a teacher to say (with nothing but the best of intentions) that a certain student is "getting behind in school." I ask: Getting behind what or whom? Some abstract criterion such as "grade level"? Behind his or her peers?
Given differences in developmental patterns among same-age cohorts and the distribution of various types of abilities in the population, some children will always be last. The system is designed to guarantee it, and to attach subtle moral overtones to the failure of a human being to live up to the abstract and often incoherent demands of the educational machine.
As a Title I language-arts teacher, I work all day with students who have been savagely stigmatized for being late, last, or behind. Age grouping in schools and the peculiar institutions of "grade level" and graded evaluation are remarkably effective ways to guarantee that some people can always be made to feel inferior, to be labeled, ridiculed, and stigmatized. Mr. Ryan's essay leaves out any discussion of this kind of moral savagery, perhaps because it has so well served the august and credentialed intellectual minority who run our schools and other institutions.
We cannot pursue character education without examining the moral character of education itself. We dishonor the mission of education when we say we are trying to make young people fit for society. On the contrary, we must redesign our efforts and attempt to build a society into which everyone will fit. If we succeed in this, much of the behavior that we find reprehensible will disappear. If we do not succeed, or worse, do not even try, the growing ranks of those dispossessed by the postindustrial age will become a cancer on the soul of the nation, and it will be our moral failure, not theirs, that is to blame.
Royal Oak, Mich.
Gold Stars and Stickers Work, But No Money, Please
To the Editor:
The title of Alfie Kohn's Commentary, "Newt Gingrich's Reading Plan: Money Is the Wrong Motivator for Kids," is easy to agree with (related story). I asked 10 parents of elementary-age children (grades 1-7) if they would support a program in their school which paid their children $2 for completing a book and doing either a written or oral report. The 10 responses were all "no's." I then asked 10 middle school teachers the same question and again received all negative answers. How much thought, I wonder, went into this new concept of "awarding" money?
Although I strongly dislike a monetary amount placed on completing a book, I disagree with Mr. Kohn's statement that incentive plans, gold stars, praise, and other bribes "are not merely ineffective over the long haul, but actually counterproductive."
Although the majority of students don't really want to work and produce day after day, we teachers know students need to do so to further expand their skills and broaden their thinking and knowledge. As a teacher during the past 20 years, I have successfully used stickers, smiles, praise, points, hard candy, etc., with both special-education and regular-education students. And even 7th graders love the stickers.
To the Editor:
Three cheers for Alfie Kohn. He is indeed correct--money is the wrong motivator for kids. Let's not bribe kids to read, to get good grades, or stay in school.
Let's make school exciting and meaningful. A child's natural curiosity is our best ally. If not artificially fed, if not brutishly bribed, it will grow. Students then come, stay, and learn.
Gustavo A. Mellander
Graduate School of Education
George Mason University
To the Editor:
I appreciate the work that Alfie Kohn has done in gathering and summarizing vast amounts of research relating to education. I empathize with his value judgments. His books have inspired and influenced my teaching. I am concerned, however, that if young teachers uncritically take what he says as holy writ, their careers may be short and not very rewarding. To make his points, Mr. Kohn oversimplifies and takes arguments to extremes.
For example, he seems not to consider teacher-student cultural factors. He implies there is one right way to teach regardless of societal context. (I've seen Buddhist monks in Thailand effectively use teaching techniques that I would not consider for my classes.) Secondly, condemning all competition is not helpful. David M. Buss discusses naturalistic and antinaturalistic fallacies in his 1994 book, The Evolution of Desire. The antinaturalistic fallacy, I believe, applies to Mr. Kohn:
"Some people have exalted visions of what it means to be human. According to one of these views, 'natural' humans are at one with nature, peacefully coexisting with plants, animals, and each other. War, aggression, and competition are seen as corruptions of this essentially peaceful human nature by current conditions. ... The antinaturalistic fallacy occurs when we see ourselves through the lens of utopian visions of what we want people to be."
Teacher attitudes often are more important than specific methods. Two instructors may use the same grading system, for instance. The skillful teacher turns it into a valuable tool; the other one creates the situation Mr. Kohn condemns.
'Real Knowledge, Not Mysticism'
To the Editor:
Warren Nord scores public schools for not teaching more about religion (related story ). But he overlooks the truly formidable difficulties in the way of actually doing it: Teachers are not adequately trained. There are no adequate textbooks available on the subject. There is no agreement among teachers, scholars, parents, or religious leaders as to precisely what matter should be taught, at what grade levels, and in what amounts.
Any approach that is not neutral and balanced would be wrong for both constitutional and pedagogical reasons. Any approach that balances the good and dark sides of religion is likely to be opposed by parents of various persuasions.
Public schools should try to lessen ignorance about religion, but if they cannot do it right, they should not do it at all. The U.S. Constitution requires public schools to be neutral regarding religion, and teaching science, math, languages, and other academic subjects does not violate that neutrality.
Americans for Religious Liberty
Silver Spring, Md.
To the Editor:
Warren Nord wants to indoctrinate public school students in an unspecified official state religion for only "secular" and "liberal" reasons. Government religious indoctrination is secular, he says, because understanding religion is important.
Of course it is. Schools ought to teach about religion, more so than they do now. That does not mean that they ought to teach religion. The distinction, clearly laid out in the original school-prayer case, Engle v. Vitale, in 1962, escapes Mr. Nord.
Government religious indoctrination is liberal, he says, because it gives voice to disenfranchised religious subcultures. What disenfranchised religious subcultures? Are churches, religious media, and religious-based politics banned in this country? The author is pressing, inarticulately, the religious right's claim that they are victims of a secular society that cruelly exposes them to another way of thought. Tough. There is no right to ignorance.
Finally, Mr. Nord takes great pains to develop the fallacy that because nonreligion is a religion, religion religion should be taught on an equal footing with nonreligion religion. Does he realize that if every belief is a religious belief, then there is not much room for a First Amendment protection against abridgment of religion?
Unlike Mr. Nord, I am no professor of philosophy, but I can tell the difference between belief based on evidence and belief based on faith. Schools exist to teach belief based on evidence. Churches exist to teach belief based on faith. Why expand the role of churches into school unless one wants to diminish the learning of reason and science and officially promote the acceptance of the unspecified One True Religion?
A. Hewitt Rose
To the Editor:
Warren A. Nord is spouting nonsense when he claims that the scientific method "rules miracles out of the picture a priori." If 100 percent of non-Christian AIDS patients died, and only 50 percent of Christian AIDS patients died, does Mr. Nord think that scientists wouldn't notice? Before he turns teachers into miracle-mongers, let him provide evidence that miracles exist.
He accuses educators of "indoctrinating" students by assuming "one highly controversial set of definitions--those provided by modern science and social science." Those definitions aren't "highly controversial"; they are the basis of modern Western civilization. I'll bet when Warren Nord needs medical treatment, he doesn't consider scientific medicine "highly controversial"; he goes to see a medical doctor, not a faith healer or a shaman.
For the first time in history, we can teach our children real knowledge, not mysticism. Incredibly, Mr. Nord specifically mentions evolution as an example of such knowledge, and supports the teaching of creationism. Is he serious? Nothing in modern biology makes sense except in the light of evolution, and it is the duty of science teachers to teach such science, as it is understood by the overwhelming majority of professional, working scientists.
And why does he assume that it is only his own, Christian mythology of Adam and Eve that should be taught? There are a thousand religions in the world, each with its own creation story that contradicts all the others, and all insisting that they and they alone have all the answers.
Parents have all the time they need to saturate their defenseless children with mysticism. Public school is the one oasis where society can teach the next generation what it needs to know, free from god-speak. Yet, Mr. Nord would deny children even that much. His solution to this nonexistent problem of indoctrination is to suggest employing "teachers certified in religious studies." (He carefully avoids the possibility that K-12 teachers willing to achieve such certification might tend to be fundamentalist Christians).
Religion courses should not be inflicted on our young people, not because religion is unimportant, but because religious beliefs are too important and too personal to be handed over to government control.