Letters to the Editor
NCAA Eligibility Rules Disallow Good Courses
To the Editor:
Your article on the National Collegiate Athletic Association's rules of eligibility came the same week I learned that one of our 1996 graduates is ineligible to row for the University of Wisconsin because, under the new rules, he is one quarter short of English credits ("Student Coursework Runs Afoul Of NCAA's Rules on Eligibility," Oct. 16, 1996). The NCAA ruled that one of our courses doesn't meet their requirements for, I assume, academic rigor. The course (Beginning TV) makes the mistake of combining the goals and curriculum of a speech course with the medium of television. Egad! Technology infused into a course to make it fun, interesting, and relevant to the '90s evidently renders it vocational. Vocational courses, as well as remedial or "special needs" classes, never make it past the NCAA clearinghouse censors.
As frustrating as that is philosophically, my real issue with the NCAA rules is procedural. If the purpose of the eligibility requirements is to keep colleges from recruiting students who are ill-prepared for college academics, then they should address college-admission standards. Students unqualified for college work should not be admitted. All of the students in your article, and the many others I know about from my crash course in the new rules, were easily admitted to their colleges. All had grade point averages over 3.0 and above-average SAT or ACT scores. All graduated from high schools whose leaders stand behind the fact that they are prepared for their next level of education.
For the NCAA to decide that the students, while qualified academically at the various colleges, are unqualified to play sports, is extremely insulting. The standards have nothing to do with either academic preparation or the role of sports in the lives of the vast majority of student-athletes. That role is to enrich and enhance a well-rounded education. I think the NCAA has lost sight of that in its relentless drive to control colleges and athletics.
Judith E. Conger
Community High School
Ann Arbor, Mich.
Free Market's Invisible Hand Could Be an Iron Fist
To the Editor:
Of the many misguided articles I have read regarding school vouchers, Ira M. Cutler's Commentary, "This 'Card-Carrying Liberal' Endorses School Choice," (Oct. 30, 1996) is the most disturbing. It is so disturbing because unlike many advocates of school vouchers, Mr. Cutler seems to recognize that the free market cannot work for education, yet he still favors school vouchers. I agree with him that it is not particularly useful to quibble about the results of the Milwaukee and Cleveland pilot voucher programs. In fact, I will grant that private schools (especially religious ones) do a better job educating children than do most public schools. But as Mr. Cutler concedes, there are not enough private schools to serve any really significant population of urban youths. Should we sacrifice the great masses of urban young so that a few of them can enjoy the choice Mr. Cutler favors?
If the free market is to reign in education, the invisible hand will come down upon our children like an iron-clad fist. In the free market of the business world, those companies that cannot perform up to par simply close down. In the free market of education, failing public schools will further deteriorate as money that could be spent to improve them is diverted to private schools via vouchers. If Mr. Cutler truly wants to help children, he should try to help the public school system that serves the masses, instead of trying to offer vouchers to a few families.
Credit Teach For America With Solutions, Not Harm
To the Editor:
Dennis L. Evans' Commentary on unqualified teachers makes some good points with regard to the "impact of political expediency on efforts to raise standards to become a teacher" ("Unqualified Teachers: A Predictable Finding," Oct. 30, 1996). In my career as a teacher in both private and public schools, and currently as an assistant principal at a large public elementary school, I have no doubt that the most important factor in the quality of a particular school is the quality of the people who work there as educators.
However, as an alumnus of Teach For America, I take exception to Mr. Evans' ill-informed criticism of this program. He characterizes Teach For America as a "volunteer" program that places "untrained college graduates in urban programs." Actually, it is an organization that first selectively recruits and then intensively trains highly qualified noneducation majors to teach in urban and rural schools where chronic teacher shortages exist. It is a program that existed on private charitable donations prior to President Clinton's term, when it became one of the models for his AmeriCorps program. The fact that Teach For America recruits successful college students from the country's best universities and only admits those who qualify based on academic success and a rigorous interview process refutes Mr. Evans' assertion that Teach For America is guilty of promulgating an "anyone can teach" philosophy.
Indeed, it is well documented that founder Wendy Kopp's vision for this program included attracting graduates of prestigious schools to public education in an effort to promote teaching as a profession requiring high levels of intelligence, skill, and commitment. More accurate criticisms might have included debate as to whether or not a trained Teach For America corps member will be more successful in the classroom than an aspiring teacher of mediocre talent with an undergraduate degree in education from a mediocre school of education, or as to whether or not schools of education and traditionally understaffed districts can work together to provide enough quality teachers so that the need for such a program would not exist.
It is important to remember that Teach For America was designed to put talented people who are committed to teach in places where not enough licensed teachers "prefer" to work, a phenomenon I was reminded of by a recent series on the evening network news focusing on recent college graduates who were unemployed in the field of their choice. The education graduate featured held a teaching license but chose to waitress while she unsuccessfully searched for a plum suburban position, rather than teach in an urban setting. Unfortunately, the difficulties (both real and perceived) of teaching in downtrodden urban and rural districts create a need for alternative certification vehicles such as Teach For America.
Perhaps the program's greatest benefit to public education is that in six years it has attracted thousands of talented young people to serve the public good through teaching, most of whom would otherwise have never been involved in public schools. Many have decided to make a career of teaching, while others, like myself, have aspired to public school leadership. Others who have gone on to careers in law, business, medicine, social work, and politics have seen the successes and failures of public education firsthand, an experience which can only better equip them to help improve the educational enterprise as leaders in society.
There are many excellent teacher preparation programs and thousands of highly qualified teaching candidates who graduate from them each year. But it is also true that many education schools' low entrance and graduation requirements and the relative ease with which many of these graduates are granted licenses have glutted the teaching profession with mediocrity. I agree with Mr. Evans in that lowering standards is not the answer to teacher shortages, but in my experience Teach For America has not lowered but rather raised standards in public education by attracting highly qualified people to the profession, people who have made significant differences in the lives of the children they teach. Mr. Evans' assertion that the opposite is true is unfounded and misplaced criticism.
Joseph M. Sawyer
Henry B. Burkland Elementary School
On Alabama Prayer Suit: Arguing Religious 'Rights'
To the Editor:
I take exception to what Michael Chandler is doing to the schools in DeKalb County, Ala. ("Without a Prayer," Oct. 30, 1996). He has filed suit against them because he feels that having prayer at school graduations, sports events, and other occasions is somehow taking away his religious rights. I feel just the opposite.
By filing this suit, Mr. Chandler is taking away everyone else's rights. If he doesn't want to be present when people are praying, then he can stay home. He doesn't have to go and listen. But if others want to pray, then they have as much right to this as he does not to pray.
By "getting his rights," Michael Chandler is taking away the rights of others. We have the right to freedom of speech, guaranteed by the Constitution. I thought his statement that "we kind of fell into teaching jobs here" (since schools are the better-paying employers in an area dominated by sock factories that pay little more than minimum wage) was a pretty good indicator of Mr. Chandler's moral seriousness. If something else had paid more, he would be doing it. He is not teaching because he is interested in helping students.
'Mad and Mobilized' Unions Fuel Political Partisanship
To the Editor:
In "Teachers' Unions Flex Political Muscles as Election Nears," (Oct. 16, 1996) you report that the National Education Association overwhelmingly endorsed Bill Clinton, forked over $1.295 million to Democratic candidates for Congress and a whopping $5,000 to Republicans. Union officials say that legislative initiatives in Ohio will make it easier for teachers' unions to deliver votes to Democrats. The NEA distributes "mad and mobilized" buttons to its members, and the American Federation of Teachers' Jamie Horowitz explains that the union's advertising against Ohio state Rep. Mike Fox is designed to warn other legislators that they would be subjected to similar attacks if they push vouchers too hard.
But Mary Elizabeth Teasley says that NEA members "want us focused on the issues" and that the NEA's goal "is to elevate the issue of education beyond the partisanship of the [last] Congress."
Elevate it to what? A drive-by shooting?
The activities you describe are unmistakable to even the most casual observers of the American scene: phone banks, door-to-door canvassing, pamphleteering, fund-raisers, campaign contributions, color-coded maps, operatives, and organizers. This is politics--raw, practical, bottom line, and even ruthless. Advertising designed to warn legislators that they too will be attacked if they don't toe the line? Ahh, nothing like a little intimidation to elevate the old policy debate.
Ms. Teasley says that Bob Dole helped out the NEA because his speech before the Republican National Convention was seen as an attack on the teaching profession and not as an indictment of union power. Too bad, since, as you have illustrated, there is so much room for issuing such an indictment.
The Center for Education Reform
Techno-Reformers, Classroom Teachers Respond
To the Editor:
I have just read Larry Cuban's "Techno-Reformers and Classroom Teachers," (Commentary, Oct. 9, 1996). Not only was the essay well-considered and well-written, but it resonated with heightened meaning for me and for those others at my school who have read it. Here's why. Most of the visitors from the more than 100 schools that have toured our school in the past year or two consider Brewster Academy to be the most highly technologized school in the country. That may or may not be true. But it is true that we have made a huge investment in information technology. For example, all of our teachers and all of our 335 students use PowerBooks in all of their courses. They and all administrators, all departments, and most staff members communicate on a campuswide network with more than 2,000 data ports. Every desk in every classroom, laboratory, and dormitory room is wired, as is every carrel in the library. In fact, just about any place you can sit down you can plug in.
There's much more to the technology picture, but enough for now. The point is, we clearly believe that technology can be a powerful tool in learning and teaching. It is at Brewster.
What's interesting, given this, is that we think Larry Cuban has it right. He has accurately reported how technological decisionmaking is often made by what he calls "techno-reformers," who are usually not educators and not aware of the multifaceted challenges faced by teachers every day, a situation well described in the essay. We agree that as long as the current paradigm in schools, which Professor Cuban describes as a century-old combination of social organization and teaching practices, continues to be the way teaching and learning take place, technology will be a hollow promise with predictably disappointing results.
How is it possible that we are able, at the same time, to be thrilled with the situation here at our school, where technology is everywhere, and be in full agreement with Larry Cuban's position as stated? Despite the seeming contradiction, the answer is in the basic assumptions about the paradigm. We have completely changed our 175-year-old school. We no longer function with the social organization and teaching practices that were for so long the fabric of our school. They are no longer sufficient. The reality is that the technological innovations that have attracted so much attention to Brewster are not the most important changes brought to the school. In fact, they would have been an expensive mistake if they were not embedded in more important, more fundamental changes.
We recognize the frustration of both sides in what is a clash of inadequate paradigms. Educators cannot be faulted for resisting the attempts of outsiders to impose what they see as a burden, rather than the increase in efficiency and effectiveness that information technology is intended to be. Nor should those techno-reformers be faulted for desiring to see efficiencies which are commonplace in other professions, in commerce, and in government brought to the profession of education, since everyone understands how important schools are to our future.
While we agree that decisions regarding education should be made by educators, we think that those educators who are to be the decisionmakers should be comfortable with a concept that allows for challenging the assumptions of the traditional educational model.
To the Editor:
Reading the Commentary by Larry Cuban reinforced a few ideas I have had in some of my own education classes. I am a 24-year-old business education student at the University of Maine at Machias, and technology is a problem here, especially in rural parts of the state. Funds are not always available to upgrade resources to teach students what they need to know to keep up. Often, our students are left behind others elsewhere, which obviously is not helping our high school graduates. As we all know, technology is a vital part of our education.
As Mr. Cuban says, teachers are often perplexed by the rapid pace of growth in technology. They also are left behind too often because of the lack of funds for continuing education in technology. But why can't the students and teachers work together? Is there a rule that teachers can't reap the rewards of a mutually beneficial relationship? They will become more acquainted with a software program as they use it, and sometimes students may be able to help them with questions they may have.
Let's work together learning the benefits of technology. If we ignore technology, it will ignore us back, which will not help our future leaders.
University of Maine at Machias
To the Editor:
Larry Cuban does a wonderful job of outlining the context into which new technologies fall when it comes to schools. Unfortunately, he ignores his own observations and misses an important point. He states: "Why did most teachers end up using some machines (like the overhead projector, the mimeograph and photocopy machine, and the videocassette player), with only a fraction turning to others (like film, radio, television, and computer)?"
The answer has very little to do with teachers' desire for efficiency, but rather with dramatic distinctions in pedagogy. Some teachers seek to control knowledge in the classroom. The overhead, the mimeograph, the photocopy machine, and the videocassette player are wonderful tools for teachers to control the flow of information from teacher to student. On the other hand, film, radio, television, and computers represent different relationships with knowledge. The teacher yields authority and control in two respects: 1) to the medium itself and the range of information sources; and 2) to the student to consume, synthesize, and analyze the information.
This basic difference between traditional transmission of knowledge and more progressive construction of knowledge requires different modes of teaching. It has been debated for a very long time: teacher vs. facilitator; authority vs. coach. I see no reason why technology in itself would resolve this debate.
Gregg B. Betheil
Martin Luther King Jr. High School
New York, N.Y.