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Make Religious Studies a Certifiable Teaching Field

To the Editor:

In your excellent article "Old Time Religion" (On Assignment, March 27, 1996), you cite the claim I made in my book, Religion and American Education: Rethinking a National Dilemma, that high school students should be required to take a course in religious studies. Whether or not this is a good idea, it strikes some, as you note, as a naive position to take, the politics of our culture wars being as nasty as they are.

I would agree, but for the fact that this is not an adequate statement of my position. I also argue in my book that students who object to taking such a course on grounds of conscience should be exempted from doing so. A plausible legal argument might be made for exemptions on free-exercise-of-religion grounds, but there is also a political argument to be made: The availability of exemptions would defuse most of the opposition to it, for no one who has a deep and principled objection would be forced to take the course.

Why not, then, just offer an elective course or two in religion for those students who are interested? Because many more students will take the course--and be liberally educated--if it is required. Indeed, requiring a course--even with exemptions--puts the school system on record as holding that a substantial understanding of religion is essential to being an educated human being. This is, of course, a true claim, one that is not implied by the availability of elective courses.

And why not leave religion to be handled by "natural inclusion" in existing courses? Because it is too important and too complicated to be left to teachers who will have neither the time nor, in most cases, the competence to deal with it adequately. Yes, religion is at least as important and as complicated as biology and algebra. And like them, it merits a course to itself, taught by someone competent to teach it--which is to say that religious studies must become a certifiable field in public education.

Is this likely to happen? No. Is it politically possible? Some places, no. Other places, maybe so.

Warren A. Nord
Program in the Humanities and Human Values
University of North Carolinaat Chapel Hill
Chapel Hill, N.C.

'Woeful' Training Exists For Educational Leaders

To the Editor:

The Commentaries in your March 13, 1996, issue by Susan Moore Johnson ("Turnover in the Superintendency") and Patrick F. Bassett ("The End of Independent Schools") focused on two different educational sectors: public and independent. But in large measure, the articles could have been interchanged.

All of education (higher, public, sectarian, nonsectarian) has trouble keeping good leaders and difficulty maintaining proper governance. Why is this? Ms. Johnson contends that it may have to do with our search for heroic leadership, while Mr. Bassett writes that we have strayed from the original and effective roles that parents, boards, heads, and teachers should play.

Of course, this is all true. The pressures on educational leadership are tremendous. There is more and better accountability for student outcomes; fewer financial resources; less disciplinary leeway; increased emphasis on the whole child in every child; and more issues on the educational platter. In addition, the educated populace no longer places great trust in teachers and other educators. Groups spring up over single issues, and we have a citizenry that assumes a media-infested "Crossfire" mentality. The question facing many of my colleagues is similar to the one facing others in the public arena: Why would I want to subject myself to this pressure?

At the same time, there are still many willing and able educators ready to assume leadership. Certainly, there are some outstanding programs available, but in large part woeful training exists for leadership of our educational institutions. The available programs are generally short in duration with an emphasis on management, not leadership. In addition, search committees have little training and either fumble around alone in the dark or hire a headhunter who has a usual stable of candidates and who oftentimes is a former failed administrator. This entire setup leads to risk aversion, not risk-taking.

If we are going to find educational leaders to move our institutions into the next century with all of its increased demands, let us prepare our would-be "heroes" in collaboration, respect for history, vision, galvanizing, fostering and nursing change, empathy, flexibility, and survival; in short, leadership.

Regan Kenyon
Secondary School Admission Test Board
Princeton, N.J.

Language-Arts Standards: An Addendum to Article

To the Editor:

Your article "Standards for the Language Arts Unveiled" (March 20, 1996) for the most part presents the issues surrounding the standards release in a clear and balanced way. However, there are one or two inaccuracies and oversights that are serious enough to warrant attention.

Toward the end of the article, you write that "[u]nder the section that deals with standard English, which they describe as 'the language of wider communication,' the authors note that although students need to learn standard English, 'this does not imply that other varieties of English are somehow correct or invalid.'"

The accurate, full quote--which can be found on page 34 of Standards for the English Language Arts--is as follows: "This does not imply that other varieties of English are somehow incorrect or invalid; rather, it means that all students need to have standard English in their repertoire of language forms, and to know when they should use it."

The boxed sidebar to the article failed to mention that copies of Standards for the English Language Arts are available from the National Council of Teachers of English, Book Order Department, 1111 W. Kenyon Road, Urbana, Ill. 61801-1096. The cost is $13 for members ($11 each for orders of 20 or more) and $18 for nonmembers, plus $1.50 shipping. Credit card orders can be placed by calling (800) 369-6283, ext. 235; fax: (217) 328-0977.

Anna M. Flanagan
Public Information Associate
National Council of Teachers of English
Urbana, Ill.

N.Y.C. Teacher Has Raised 'Astonishing' $400,000

To the Editor:

Regarding your People column in the March 20, 1996, issue: Without in any way diminishing the contributions of Principal Beverly McCormick in bringing grants into Intermediate School 220 in New York City, the actual grant writing has been done by teacher Frances Macko.

Formerly a United Federation of Teachers leader at a different school, Ms. Macko's primary job is teaching at-risk students; she seeks grants only part time. Nevertheless, in the year and a half she has been at IS 220, Ms. Macko has brought in an astonishing $400,000--twice what you reported--in grants that have been used for staff development, teaching students about architecture, and other academic improvements.

What makes the $55,000 grant from MIPS Technologies Inc. so compelling is that the money will be used not for computers or laboratory equipment, but for chairs, desks, and other essential furnishings. It is a sad commentary indeed that a New York City school must go hat in hand to a California company in order to replace rickety 71-year-old desks that were the schools' original furnishings. It is also sad that a teacher and a principal have to devote part of their days to grubbing for money needed to provide the basics required for education.

The people who control the purse strings at City Hall and in the state legislature should be embarrassed.

Neil S. Rosenfield
Deputy Director
Communications Department
United Federation of Teachers
New York, N.Y.

'No One Theory or Method Works for All Children'

To the Editor:

Do Kenneth Goodman, Jerome C. Harste, and other proponents of whole language quoted in your article "Best of Both Worlds" (Research, March 20, 1996) realize that many knowledgeable teachers may question their whole-language philosophy, as well as mandates that stress only direct teaching of basic skills? How politically savvy is it for classroom teachers to defend either of these ideologies when children need both skills and meaningful literacy experiences to be successful; when they learn through their own exploration and through direct teaching?

Whenever I think I have found the one solution that solves every problem or every dilemma, I meet a child who challenges me to keep looking. The students in my kindergarten classroom have not given me the luxury of supporting one side or the other. No one theory or method works for all of them.

Jeanette Throne
Kindergarten Teacher
Mercer School
Shaker Heights, Ohio

Satire on 'Observations' Misses the Humor Mark

To the Editor:

I find Susan Rubinyi-Anderson's heavy-handed attempt at humor ("Behavioral Observations Gone Awry," Commentary, March 20, 1996) both unfortunate and offensive. God knows, I fiercely disagree with the current mainstream line on special education, and I will engage in public debate on this issue at the drop of a pencil. But even in moments of our greatest antipathy and anguish, my opponents and I have never resorted to this sort of posturing.

Just whose cause is served when the fictional Jason's teacher is pictured as an ignorant, malevolent ass? This kind of loading of the dice makes it appear that Ms. Rubinyi-Anderson doesn't want to face a cogent argument.

Susan Ohanian
Charlotte, Vt.

Solving Business' Problems May Need Another Summit

To the Editor:

I read your article previewing the latest great education summit ("Getting Down to Business at Next Week's Summit," March 20, 1996) and I was surprised to see that the meeting was being led by Louis V. Gerstner Jr., IBM's chief executive officer. Considering that the International Business Machines Corp., under Mr. Gerstner's leadership, has just laid off 60,000 workers, should he be devoting his energies to solving the problems of schools or putting the wheels back on the wagon at IBM?

Mr. Gerstner's attempts to link the failures of IBM to our public schools or to try to blame them on poorly trained workers is to ignore reality. IBM has foundered because of an endless series of lousy decisions in upper management. Mr. Gerstner's true interest in education has nothing to do with children and everything to do with selling computers.

I question whether many of the leaders in corporate America have much to share with schools. I can lay off 25 percent of my staff without their help. Instead, we need a different kind of summit. Let's convene a special task force of the top school administrators in the country. Let them give Mr. Gerstner and the other leaders of struggling companies in America solid advice on how to creatively solve their problems without resorting to blaming others.

Dennis G. Kelly
Lyons Township High School
LaGrange, Ill.

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