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'Wars' on Social Problems Ignore Cause and Effect

To the Editor:

Bravo to Timothy Shriver and Roger Weissberg for exposing the futility of designing special programs for every adolescent symptom ("No New Wars!," Commentary, May 15, 1996). By waging separate wars on drug abuse, teen pregnancy, AIDS, suicide, and dropouts, policymakers fragment efforts and create even more problems.

Several thinking errors allow this fragmentation. One is called reification. Anything that can be named becomes a "thing," and planners think they must make a program for that thing. Reification in language leads to separate images that seem to require separate solutions. Thus, thinkers fail to see that delinquencies, dropping out, violence, and other problems can all be perceived as different manifestations of a pervasive system.

A second error is a misunderstanding of the concepts of cause and effect. Ordinary mechanistic thinking ascribes destructive behaviors to external causes which act upon children--"a complex web of familial, economic, and cultural circumstances." Presumably, students must be helped to adapt and cope with these modern stresses. Thinking of causes as forces acting upon people prevents policymakers from seeing destructive behavior as an inevitable function of what goes on in society.

Constant adversarial relationships characterize the internal and external systems of society and schools. Adults consider children as subjects to be helped, molded, guided, directed, required, mandated, motivated, expected, handled, punished, rewarded, and so forth. This adult-child reciprocity leaves children only two choices: to conform or rebel. That's the system. Of course, forcing children into chronic competition with each other constitutesthe essence of the adversarial system, with inevitable destructive manifestations.

A third error of thinking is that education is something to be delivered, in other words, that prevention and solution of problems depend upon the offering of better educational programs.

Mr. Shriver and Mr. Weissberg recommend more holistic programs addressing cognitive, affective, attitudinal, and perceptual skills. Yes, of course, these would be better. But education needs to be thought of as experiences lived, not as goods received. Children need to be thought of not as objects or even as cherished recipients. They are conscious people with minds of their own. They will live out conformity or rebellion as long as we adults continue to think and act mechanistically.

Rachel M. Lauer
Straus Thinking & Learning Center
Pace University
New York, N.Y.

Quality Theater Education Brings Learning to Life

To the Editor:

Your photo essay on the school musical production distressed me ("Center Stage: A High School Enacts That Annual Rite of Spring, the Musical," April 24, 1996). Because yours is the key publication read by education policymakers nationwide, I was embarrassed by the limited scope of the article. You should present a more balanced examination of theater-arts education.

It is not that I disagree that school productions stimulate higher-level thinking and cooperative learning. As a theater-arts educator and a passionate advocate of arts education, I know the benefits of education in the arts. I also know the benefits to a whole school when all students participate in such education. Research continues to bolster my beliefs.

My concern is more that I have read no other articles about theater-arts education in Education Week. And since this one had such a prominent placement in the issue, I would, if I were an education policymaker, infer that theater-arts education is specifically about performance by a few gifted and talented students, while everyone else watches.

Performance is a small, albeit important, part of the story of theater education. National standards for what all students should know and be able to do in theater, dance, music, and visual art have been published. State and local standards extend the national initiative. These standards show that there is much more to education in theater than "putting on the school play." Skills in creativity, cooperation, research, history, and integration of learning are most of the story.

Arts education unlocks the rest of the curriculum. Quality theater education, firmly rooted in content standards, brings learning to life. By exploring information through dramatic means, students learn with understanding.

When prestigious publications like yours report only the stereotypical, education leaders obtain incomplete information. Let's hope that the same is not happening in other content areas, such as math, science, or language arts.

Michael Pearl
Alliance for Colorado Theatre
Aurora, Colo.

Michigan Tenure Law: Reformed, Streamlined

To the Editor:

I wanted to alert you to errors of fact and misconceptions contained in your recent article on teacher tenure ("Critics Target Teacher Tenure, But Most Blows Miss the Mark, April 17, 1996).

The statement that "[t]alk of tenure change also has fizzled in states such as Michigan" is incorrect. In 1993, the Michigan legislature passed, and the governor signed, sweeping reforms of Michigan's teacher-tenure law significantly streamlining the process as well as implementing other improvements. The reforms include extending the initial probationary period from two to four years, limiting recall rights to a period of three years after the date of layoff, and allowing school districts to suspend pay for up to three days in a school year without invoking the hearing requirements of the tenure act.

In addition, the hearing procedure was significantly streamlined, replacing the hearing before the local board of education and possible subsequent hearing before the state tenure commission with a single hearing before an administrative-law judge. The hearing must be completed and the final decision rendered within strict time lines to ensure a speedy resolution of tenure claims. Appeal of the administrative decision to the courts has also been simplified. An appeal goes directly to the court of appeals, whereas it used to go first to the trial court and then a further appeal could be made to the court of appeals. These reforms have significantly reduced the time and expense of a tenure proceeding.

The reforms also implemented, for the first time in Michigan, evaluation requirements both for probationary teachers as well as for tenured teachers. Probationary teachers must be observed and evaluated every year, while tenured teachers must be observed and evaluated every three years. The new law provides for an individualized development plan developed by appropriate administrative personnel in consultation with the individual teacher for all probationary teachers and for tenured teachers receiving an unsatisfactory evaluation.

Another error contained in the article concerns an allusion to a report by the ABC television program "20/20" on teacher tenure. In that report, a cursory reference was made to a Michigan case which, at the very least, took the case out of context. "20/20" reported that in Michigan a board of education was unable to dismiss a teacher who threatened a 3rd-grade student with a knife. Your article compounds the error by incorrectly stating that the teacher "threatened children with knives." Only one threat, one child, and one small pocketknife were involved.

In addition to the factual discrepancies, my main concern with the "20/20" reference to the Michigan case, and to your repetition of it, is the total lack of consideration of the circumstances involved. In that case, the teacher was attempting to deal with an unruly 3rd-grade student who was sticking out his tongue at the teacher. The teacher took out his pocketknife, opened the small blade, and told the student that if he stuck out his tongue again, the teacher would cut it out. The evidence at the tenure-commission hearing indicated that the teacher was not serious and that he was attempting to deal with the student in what he mistakenly believed to be a humorous manner.

The evidence also showed that the student did not take the threat seriously. In fact, the student approached the teacher shortly after the incident and smiled and laughed, and later stuck out his tongue again at the teacher. The administration also did not take the threat seriously at the time of its occurrence; the principal's report of the incident indicated that the teacher's intent "seemed harmless." In fact, there was not an immediate suspension or even a thorough investigation at the time it occurred.

Nevertheless, the tenure commission condemned the teacher's behavior as totally inappropriate under any circumstances. In a 30-page opinion, the commission carefully weighed all of the factors in this case, including the teacher's 22-1 / 2 years of service with the school district, that he had been judged "very effective" in all categories of instruction and classroom management, and that he had no prior disciplinary record involving physical force or misconduct with students. In light of the circumstances of the case and the teacher's long record of service marred by this one serious error of judgment, the commission determined that discharge was not appropriate and instead imposed a penalty of a two-year suspension without pay. (The actual suspension period without pay was from Dec. 10, 1993, until Jan. 22, 1996). The reporting on this case, both by "20/20" and in your article, failed to point out that the teacher, in fact, received a serious penalty, or to consider the circumstances of the case.

The notion that it is impossible to fire a tenured teacher is not true in Michigan. The Michigan tenure statute permits a district to terminate a teacher for "reasonable and just cause" and provides a due-process procedure. It should be noted that the vast majority of cases in Michigan involving charges filed against teachers for incompetence and unprofessional conduct result in discharge or demotion.

Roberta E. Stanley
Office of Federal Relations and Tenure Commission Services
Michigan Department of Education
Lansing, Mich.

Noting a 'Pedantic' Strain In Standards Criticism

To the Editor:

As a high school English teacher for nearly a quarter of a century, and as a "product of the 'drill and kill' school of literacy training," I was somewhat surprised to discover that J. Martin Rochester, in his diatribe against the new national English standards, violated several of the grammar rules he apparently holds so dear ("The Decline of Literacy," Commentary, May 15, 1996). I noted a split infinitive ("able to deftly touch"), a random shift in person ("It is true that students must learn ... before you search the Internet for information..."), and a missing helping verb ("you better have").

Despite Mr. Rochester's conviction that K-12 education has abandoned the battle for literacy, my seniors do, in fact, know and use the conventions of grammar and English usage, and would recognize the above samples as errors. They also know that sentences are clearer, crisper, and more effective when they start with strong subjects and active verbs rather than indefinite pronouns and being verbs. "It is strange that in a document dedicated to articulating standards, there is not a single reference to 'rigor.' There has been a general movement away from any emphasis on clear, coherent expository writing ..." might be rewritten by my students more clearly and coherently to read, "Strangely, a document dedicated to articulating standards omits any reference to 'rigor.'"

As for Mr. Rochester's attack on inventive spelling, whole language, and peer editing, clearly he lacks knowledge of or experience with any of the three.

The new English standards may have their flaws, but so does a pedantic insistence on clinging to 25-year-old instructional methods. The world is changing, and teachers at all levels must be responsive to those changes if our students are to meet the demands of the future.

Carol S. Luckenbach
Curriculum Coordinator
Regional School District 13
Durham, Conn.

Religious Parents Want Saints and Good Citizens

To the Editor:

In "Virtue Should Be Seen, Not Just Heard" (Commentary, May 29, 1996), Amitai Etzioni claims that "[t]he religious right is lacking a broad-based and inclusive strategy for turning public schools into citadels of character education." As with many generalizations about the religious right, this assertion fails to make some important distinctions. In truth, many groups lumped into the religious-right camp strongly support the vision of character education that Mr. Etzioni describes.

The one area where they want to question Mr. Etzioni and others like him, however, is over the goals and cognitive foundations of character education. In other words, they believe that most forms of character education aim too low. Many Christian parents long for their children not only to acquire the virtues necessary to be good citizens, but also to be captured by a moral vision that motivates them to even greater ethical heights. They pray for saints and not merely good citizens.

Furthermore, as George H. Gallup Jr. and Timothy Jones show in their book The Saints Among Us, religious beliefs and values have a great deal to do with whether a person is merely a good citizen or a saint. In other words, saints are concerned with what Mr. Etzioni terms "what one prays to or hails to." Certainly, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that public schools should not tell children what to pray or hail to, but that does not mean the public schools or authors like Mr. Etzioni should ridicule parents for believing that religious convictions greatly influence their children's moral behavior.

Perry L. Glanzer
Education Policy Analyst
Focus on the Family
Colorado Springs, Colo.

Critic Provides Refreshing, 'Intellectual' Look at Education

To the Editor:

After reading Richard Paul's Commentary titled "The Practical Impractical" (May 29, 1996), I couldn't help but miss all the wonderful words and phrases such as "performance standards," "empowerment," "portfolio assessment," and other contemporary pedagogical "buzzwords." In spite of missing them, I thought, how refreshingly appropriate to hear the word "intellectual" associated with education!

Stephen E. Taylor
Trumbull, Conn.

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