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Clinton Directive Reflects Consensus on Religious Study

To the Editor:

President Clinton's directive on religion in the public schools ("President Offers Guidance on Religion in Schools," Aug. 2, 1995) was largely based on a similar set of guidelines ("Religion in the Public Schools: A Joint Statement of Current Law") signed earlier this year by 34 religious and civil-liberties groups. These groups range the ideological spectrum from the American Jewish Congress (which initiated the project), the American Civil Liberties Union, and People for the American Way, on the one hand, to the National Association for Evangelicals and the Christian Legal Society on the other. In his speech, the president acknowledged his directive's debt to those guidelines.

Schools should know that despite the carping of a few critics, the president's directive and the earlier joint guidelines reflect a broad consensus that the public schools should neither sponsor nor inhibit religion. Those educators interested in respecting the rights of all their students and avoiding expensive and divisive litigation now have a ready set of agreed-upon rules to guide them.

Marc D. Stern
American Jewish Congress
New York, N.Y.

No Public-Private War In Debate on Title I

To the Editor:

Why pit private school students against the public schools ("Critics Worry Title I Pits Public, Private Schools," July 12, 1995)? Shouldn't all students receive equal taxpayer support? After all, the goal is to educate students. Your article says that "critics say [the Title I rule] could make more private school students eligible for services--at public schools' expense." That all students are not treated equally is discrimination.

Harry Kyran Perry
East Rochester, Ohio

Character-Education Essay 'Hides' Parental Component

To the Editor:

Buried midway in the second page of Kevin Ryan's "Character and Coffee Mugs" (Commentary, May 17, 1995) are the statements that really should initiate commentary on character: "What character education aims to address needs definition and specificity ..." and "It should come from the minds and hearts of those who send our children to school and pay the bills ..."--the parents.

Why does Mr. Ryan hide the key component of character education amid arguments assigning responsibility to "school teachers and administrators"?

As a trainer of teachers over the past 20 years, I have had my share of parents who failed to communicate character to their offspring. They have hired lawyers to have a failing grade changed in spite of the student's admission of copying or forgery. I have been summarily insulted by parents who felt my insistence on decent dress and an absence of profanity were violations of their offspring's rights. My role of being in loco parentis is limited only to future teachers who had character education at home.

Lest we forget, it is the college-age--denied character education at home--who become teachers and defy the profession to exact high standards of them.

Emma White Rembert
Chairperson of Education
Bethune-Cookman College
Daytona Beach, Fla.

Sexual-Abstinence Emphasis Aims at 'Risk Elimination'

To the Editor:

Regrettably, Susan Wilson has once again distorted the issue of teaching sexual abstinence ("Foes of N.J. Abstinence Bills Cite Local-Control Issues," Letters, Aug. 2, 1995). Ms. Wilson notes that groups supporting New Jersey's proposed "Stress Abstinence" legislation do so for purposes of political and religious agendas.

In reality, the only agenda maintained by the supporters of this legislation is that students be provided with accurate and complete information which distinguishes risk elimination from risk reduction. The proposed legislation does not prohibit instruction about contraception, but rather it emphasizes that abstinence is the only completely reliable means of eliminating the risk of hiv infection through sexual activity.

Ms. Wilson's plea for control of the curriculum by local policymakers is encouraging. But she would have that control rest with the members of the educational establishment. The same 1993 Rutgers University poll from which she quotes also contains the disturbing news that only 55 percent of New Jersey family-life educators surveyed give attention to teaching the topics of "responsible personal behavior" and "behavioral skills (resistance, communicating about sex)," while only 52 percent give attention to a discussion of the "risks/dangers of premature sex."

Supporters of the "Stress Abstinence" bill believe that there should be local decisionmaking with respect to the family-life curriculum--with a significant input from the parents whose students are attending these classes. Too often parents report that the issue of abstinence is avoided or ridiculed within the family-life curriculum, and those students who are attempting to make a responsible decision in favor of abstinence find themselves pressured to change their minds.

Ironically, the so-called comprehensive curriculum proposed by Ms. Wilson's coalition continues to restrict the rights of students to be fully informed about the serious dangers posed by hiv to teenagers. Such restrictions were never the original goals of the state's family-life-education programs.

George V. Corwell
Associate Director for Education
New Jersey Catholic Conference
Trenton, N.J.

Hitting a 'Tender Nerve' on 1933 Humanist Manifesto

To the Editor:

Edd Doerr's response to my June 21, 1995, letter to the editor surprised me by its vehemence ("Pluralism, Special Interests Vie in Public School Debate," Letters, Aug. 2, 1995). Apparently, I hit a very tender nerve.

Why is it "wild-eyed hatemongering," as he charges, to suggest that the government ought to get out of the education business? Why is it "wild-eyed hatemongering" to recognize that humanism has become the philosophical foundation of the public school curriculum? Why is it "wild-eyed hatemongering" to characterize humanism as a religion when many humanists believe that it is indeed a religion?

The Humanist Manifesto of 1933 states:

"Religious humanism maintains that all associations and institutions exist for the fulfillment of human life. The intelligent evaluation, transformation, control, and direction of such associations and institutions with a view to the enhancement of human life is the purpose and program of humanism. Certainly religious institutions, their ritualistic forms, ecclesiastical methods, and communal activities must be reconstituted as rapidly as experience allows, in order to function effectively in the modern world."

In other words, the humanist program calls for taking control of and transforming all of the cultural and religious institutions and associations of the nation so that they will be made to effectively advance the humanist agenda. No other religion in America calls for taking over the institutions and associations of other religions.

We are supposed to be living in Mr. Doerr's much-vaunted pluralistic society. But we have it in the words of the Humanist Manifesto itself that the intention of humanists is to reconstitute everybody else's religious institutions, rituals, and ecclesiastical practices to conform with humanist goals.

The fact that, in Mr. Doerr's words, "most mainstream American Christians and Jews happen to share many of the views and values found in the 1933 and 1973 Humanist Manifestos" does not negate the fact that our public schools have become humanist parochial schools and therefore are in violation of the establishment clause of the First Amendment.

Samuel L. Blumenfeld
Waltham, Mass.

Teacher-Quality Issues: A Few More Suggestions

To the Editor:

I read with great interest the three Commentaries presented in July under the headline "What To Do About Teacher Quality" (Commentary, July 12, 1995). Each of the changes recommended by the writers of the three Commentaries would improve teacher quality, and the combination of them all would be a great step forward toward the goal of high-quality education. However, all of these recommendations require changes to the educational system, and we reformers know how slowly change takes place. Therefore, I would like to add a fourth alternative that is currently available to school districts.

As a doctoral student, I have been studying the issue of teacher evaluation and how it relates to teacher quality and, ultimately, teacher dismissal. I have found that a good evaluation system, used consistently, correctly, and fairly, will provide the information needed to improve or maintain teaching quality in a district.

As a last resort in the quest for high-quality teaching, that same evaluation system can provide the documentation appropriate to support a case for dismissal. Many districts may already have the means necessary to start improving teaching. It is just a matter of implementation and changing focus. Evaluations need to cease being meaningless rituals and become instruments for change.

I have also found that even rigorous procedures for dismissal of tenured teachers can be made workable by the presence of a suitable evaluation system.

Agnes Gilman Case
Rochester, N.Y.

To the Editor:

After 40 years in teacher education, each year of which was devoted in part to supervision of student teaching, I find Allan A. Glatthorn and Charles R. Coble's wish list of reforms in teacher preparation little more than another of those that surface periodically--and die aborning. The obstacles to the fulfillment of their recommended reforms are overwhelming.

For example, polls of student and in-service teachers have indicated clearly that the very nature of methods courses prevents them from being "rigorous and coherent." Then, a "careful" selection of students for teacher education will not be made, since this action would impact negatively on education school enrollments. Neither, for the same reason, will there be any serious intent to make "rigorous external evaluations" of student-teachers (presumably to weed out significant numbers of them).

Even less likely to occur is Mr. Glatthorn and Mr. Coble's speculation that classroom supervisors of student-teachers will become "professional" in this service without receiving substantial payment for it. It is grossly naive to assume that in-service teachers will give the time and effort needed to adequately mentor student-teachers simply as a matter of professional courtesy.

Wish lists, such as Mr. Glatthorn and Mr. Coble's, also are nonoperative because they display no sense of proportion. That is to say, schools of education first must prioritize the reforms they need to make. They then must accomplish fully the item at the top of the list before attending in progressive order to its successors. Only in this way will there be explicit proof that reforms are accomplished.

Patrick Groff
Professor Emeritus
School of Teacher Education
San Diego State University
San Diego, Calif.

To the Editor:

I must take exception to some of Lynn Kurtz's assertions in "Certify 'Those Who Can,' Not Just Those Who Can Pass Education Courses" ("What To Do About Teacher Quality," Commentary, July 12, 1995). While it is true that we should consult an expert when we want something done for us, as in building a house, it does not follow that these masters of construction automatically become masters of instruction when asked to teach. In fact, those who perform at the highest levels often find it very difficult and frustrating to work with those who do not have similar gifts, a phenomenon frequently seen when "hall of famers" take over the coaching of sports teams. Even good drivers find it hard to help novices: Ask anyone who has been out on the road with an experienced family member.

Although important, understanding one's chosen discipline is not enough to ensure classroom success. One must also appreciate the developmental stages and learning styles of students, apply learning theory in individual and group contexts, balance classroom-management needs with the nurturing and respect that all children need, model values required for good citizenship, evaluate, design and select motivating tasks, communicate effectively to students and parents, and help students understand the connections among their subjects. (That's the short list.)

This combination of ingredients cannot be created just by immersion in a given content area. Indeed, the current structure of higher education, with its emphasis on developing expertise in an increasingly narrow band of specialization, actually constrains the acquisition of these tastes.

Certainly, we need to make changes in teacher education so that teachers are better prepared to lead 21st-century classes. We also need to make staff development one of our highest priorities so that educators can remain current in both their fields of specialization as well as in human learning and development.

In this quest, we can learn much from the gifted coaches and musicians who motivate students and lead them to higher and higher levels of mastery. But we should not forget that teaching is a complex process. The best teachers are not just outstanding craftsmen. They are true artists who can blend understandings of content areas and educational theory with a sensitivity to students' needs.

Robert Feirsen
Principal
W.T. Clarke Middle School
Westbury, N.Y.

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