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'Weary Excuses' Cannot Hide Lack of Academic Progress

To the Editor:

Carol S. Witherell repeats the same old tired excuses educationists use to justify their failure to teach children academics ("Turning Critics Into Partners," Commentary, Feb. 7, 1996). Educators whine that: Critics of public schools don't know what they are talking about; parents aren't involved and leave their children home alone; children aren't motivated. The public must simply understand that (sob) schools have to deal with children who are poor, ethnic, watch television, or breathe.

After repeating those weary excuses for why students aren't learning, Ms. Witherell turns around and admonishes critics to volunteer in schools so they can see the learning taking place. I guess that covers all the bases, except the ones that really matter--the curriculum and teaching methods.

Educationists won't accept any blame when students don't learn. It's always someone else's fault. They can't seem to make the logical connection that students learn as a result of the curriculum, the way they are taught, and how they handle discipline.

As a critic of public schools, I did volunteer an average of five hours per week for four years at a state-of-the-art elementary school with the best demographics anyone could hope for. Per-pupil spending is over $8,600. Class sizes are under 24 students. Ninety-nine percent of the students meet the criteria for advantaged students. What did I find?

Ten out of 19 children left kindergarten not able to name all of the letters of the alphabet, much less know what sounds were associated with them. The four children who entered kindergarten able to read at the pre-primer level didn't improve proportionately. At the end of 1st grade, six out of 23 students couldn't read, but they sure did love books. If students could spell, knew their math facts, properly formed and connected letters, and read above grade level, they were being supplemented at home. The numbers of parents paying for tutors or sending their children to private learning centers was staggering.

The school told parents that it was only their child who was having trouble and that the child just wasn't ready to learn. No offers to tutor the children. No classrooms with individual desks, assigned text or workbooks, regular homework, letter grades, systematic phonics, direct-teaching methodology, or structured atmosphere were available. To get high-quality academics with high standards, parents had to leave the public schools and pay to get what their children needed and deserved.

The school's whole-language definition of reading didn't translate into children's being able to read actual words on the page. Fifth graders haphazardly spelled words any way they wanted. Most couldn't select the correct homonym when they wrote. Smiley faces and high achievement marks (heaven forbid a student get an actual letter grade that meant something) were at the top of papers with 32 spelling, grammar, and punctuation errors. Few of those errors were even noted by the teacher. Parents were left to wonder if the teacher purposefully ignored the mistakes, or whether she wasn't educated enough to know they were errors.

So much for students learning proper spelling, grammar, and punctuation skills by being "immersed in good literature." Every teacher I talked to told me my child was doing "good." This modeling of improper grammar was the norm. How can any teacher teach what he or she doesn't know?

When a school uses every fad that comes down the pike, yet refuses a 1st grader's request to have her own desk, her own books, to do something about the misbehaving students, and to "just tell me how to spell it right the first time so I don't have to learn it twice," it just shows that the school knows nothing about developmental learning.

When more time is spent on sex and drug education than on grammar, spelling rules, and math facts, critics are justified in questioning whether a school's main job is teaching academics or providing jobs for more dues-paying union members.

Schools identify a few students with nonacademic needs. But instead of requiring the parent to get his child in line or contacting social services, they implement costly, unproven programs and force all students to participate. Parents who do their job have no say in the amount of time and money spent away from academics.

The lack of grades on report cards, not using direct-teaching methodology, not being held accountable for the timely acquisition of knowledge of specific skills, and not adequately dealing with disruptive students makes for a sorry academic institution.

Instead of making excuses for not implementing what really works in the classroom and blaming everyone but themselves for children's lack of academic progress, educationists should listen to the critics. We know what we want our children to know and be able to do. So stop lying about whole-language results and affective programs and teach these children academic skills that work--or give parents the money so they can buy the education their child deserves.

Patricia A. Alspach
Farmington Hills, Mich.

Disruptive Students Block Those Who Want To Learn

To the Editor:

I am an attorney in the greater Cincinnati area and recently won a jury verdict of $34,000 for a high school teacher who was repeatedly threatened by a student. Our firm took this teacher's case because of concern about what is happening in our public schools.

Michael Casserly claims in his recent Commentary ("Discipline and Demographics: The Problem Is Not Just the Kids," Jan. 24, 1995) that the call for greater discipline in public schools is merely a way to legitimize racism and that alternative schools are too often a racist device for excluding minority children. African-American children, like children of all races and ethnic backgrounds, deserve a fair shot at a good education. No child learns in a classroom where the teacher is not free to teach.

An alternative school removes troublemakers of all ethnic backgrounds from the classroom and out of the way of the students who want to learn. Certainly, as Mr. Casserly argues, adults share the duty of providing safe, effective public schools. But it is important to remember that children have responsibility, too.Serious students should not be penalized when a few children are unable or unwilling to accept responsibility for their actions.

In the Covington, Ky., schools, we refer students to an alternative school when they become recurring discipline problems who can no longer function in the regular classroom. Our district is both inner-city and nationally recognized for its academic achievement. Discipline has been the key to the schools' success. We are placing our emphasis on educating students who want to learn, rather than catering to disruptive students within the regular classroom.

Philip Taliaferro
Covington, Ky.

Public-to-Private Essay Slights Marketplace Law

To the Editor:

Plato said you can't find truth unless you call things by their correct names. Adam Urbanski's Commentary ("Make Public Schools More Like Private," Commentary, Jan. 31, 1996) never does get it right.

Public schools are run by state government. Private schools are public schools not run by state government. Both serve the public. The difference is that one is under political control and one is a self-standing, independent operation.

One is under the laws of the marketplace, where failure brings immediate change or extinction. The other is insulated from failure; in fact, over the past 40 years, the more it fails the more money it is given.

You cannot make schools run by state government into independent schools, self-standing, self-determining, and fully responsible to their client‚le for their existence. Any of these characteristics the state-run schools try to adopt must meet the political test, and even if adopted, must then be accepted by powerful teachers' unions.

Alas, Mr. Urbanski's dream is utopian--government schools that are somehow independent of government. The folks in their state-run schools are wonderful people, no doubt, but they also know who writes their checks. We forget the aphorism that you cannot serve two masters. Freedom and independence are the stuff of excellence, not modified government power that has to satisfy a political majority.

A woman can't be a little bit pregnant, nor can a state-run school be a little bit free. It either is or it isn't. You can't take the single thing that makes independent schools successful--their independence--and make that a government virtue.

Robert S. Marlowe
Upper Marlboro, Md.

'Redefining Excellence' With Admissions Policy

To the Editor:

Below is an amended version of the new admissions policy for San Francisco's Lowell High School that you reported on in a recent issue ("New Admissions Policy Sought for S.F. School," Jan. 24, 1996). I have added my own words in brackets.

"The plan, released this month by Superintendent Waldemar Rojas, would admit 80 percent of the school's students [to the basketball team or the chess club] through a traditional point system based on academic [basketball or chess] achievement. The other 20 percent would be admitted to Lowell [basketball team or chess club] based on other criteria that would expand the pool of eligible applicants and enhance diversity in the school's enrollment. Under the new policy, 20 percent of Lowell's students [on the basketball team or in the chess club] would be admitted based on consideration of such factors as socioeconomic status, homelessness, or residency in public housing; family hardship or illness; and participation in extracurricular activities."

Perhaps a newspaper like Education Week, a local hospital, or any of a number of professional enterprises should use the criteria of currently being poor, ill, and living in public housing as germane for considering the employment of 20 percent of its staff. Redefining excellence is difficult.

Barry Koestler
Evaluator
Dayton Public Schools
Dayton, Ohio

Tossing Out Tenure: Not A Bad-Teachers Solution

To the Editor:

Those championing the cause of getting rid of tenure for teachers seem to have two primary reasons for doing so. First and foremost, they argue that tenure protects bad teachers from getting fired, thus giving all teachers a bad name. Second, they argue that if the rest of the working population doesn't have tenure, then teachers shouldn't have it either. It is the first of these arguments I would like to address.

Before any teacher is granted tenure, that teacher is required to be on probation for a certain number of years. During these probationary years, most states require school principals, supervisors, and/or administrators to evaluate the probationary teacher several times. Most school boards' policy manuals require the same thing.

It seems reasonable to assume that if evaluations are done well, if the time and effort to weed the dandelions from the roses is put in up front during the probationary years, those who make it through probation and are recommended for tenure have indeed earned it.

The granting of tenure is not an action that makes a teacher good or bad. It is teaching performance that earns a teacher those labels. And teaching performance can be observed and evaluated. If the argument is made that tenure protects bad teachers, we must assume that they were bad to start with.

If tenure is, in fact, protecting bad teachers, then we need to look at the reason for bad teachers being recommended for tenure. Is it because principals, supervisors, and administrators are not doing an adequate job of observing and evaluating before they recommend for tenure?

Why don't we look at strengthening the process of evaluation during the probationary years and weed out the dandelions? Why are we waiting until the garden is choked with weeds so that our only alternative is to bring in the back hoe, dig it up, and start all over?

As an educator, I would applaud administrators and school boards who deny tenure to probationary teachers because their teaching performance is documented as inadequate. I challenge more administrators and boards to do that. But I will rally against those same groups if the denial of tenure as a practice is naively recommended because there are bad teachers out there. That is not the solution to bad teachers. The solution is to weed early.

Tenure ensures that good teachers, teachers whose performance has been observed, evaluated, and judged to be of top quality, won't be dismissed arbitrarily.

Carol A. Bacig
Staff Developer
Duluth Public Schools
Duluth, Minn.

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