Letters to the Editor
Art and Other Learning
To the Editor:
Finally--Jessica Davis proposes the idea of teaching art for the value of art, instead of trying to justify its value in terms of its effect on multiple-choice tests ("Why Must We Justify Arts Learning in Terms of Other Disciplines?," Commentary, Oct. 16, 1996). In my experience, most teachers and administrators who are not aesthetically inclined do not understand art's power to enhance a person's quality of life. Maybe they could be given such an understanding by showing them examples of how the opportunity to participate in the arts as an expression of learning can have a powerful effect on children's motivation to learn.
While working with special-needs children for over 20 years, my teaching was constantly judged by how well these children improved from year to year in their acquisition of basic skills. By the time I got them in the lower elementary grades, the children's motivation to learn these skills had been significantly impaired by constant experiences of failure.
Through trial and error, I learned that the single most powerful factor in determining whether these children would succeed in school (besides their relationship with their parents) was the quality of the relationship that developed between us. I found that if I only concentrated on "drills and skills," we had battles. But if I found ways to embed those necessary skills in artistic activities such as drawing or drama, the battles ceased and the children began to be more motivated. They seemed to like coming to my resource room because they looked forward to what we were going to do.
Too often children are labeled "disabled" when in fact they have become casualties of the curriculum. Through the processes employed in what is known as "the project approach," they can come to see themselves as successful learners if given the opportunity to experience, as Ms. Davis puts it so poetically, "the joy of making thoughts tangible through the various media of art."
Early Childhood Education
University of Illinois
To the Editor:
In her Commentary ("Why Must We Justify Arts Learning in Terms of Other Disciplines?," Oct. 16, 1996), Jessica Davis describes the "scramble" of educators to advocate arts education based on cognitive transfer. One example she mentions is in children's reading scores. In doing so, Ms. Davis misses the point and builds a flawed syllogism that fails to encompass recent research into learning and the paradigm shift in education that emphasizes creative problem-solving as a prime goal.
She writes: "If experiencing and coming to know one's humanity in art is not as important an exercise as filling in the right blanks on a multiple-choice test [italics mine], it's time for us to review and revise our values and not to compromise the teaching of art by asking it to be taught to the tests of other domains." Change the italicized phrase to "the ability to achieve creative problem-solving in, say, mathematics," and the argument becomes weak. But isn't that the heart of the matter? Don't educators in both science and the humanities regard the fostering of new outcomes as the highest goal they can achieve with students? Of course they do. Witness the new math tests for grade school children in New York City, in which computation is less important than the recording of strategies for doing the math.
And to answer Ms. Davis' point about the absurdity of reciprocally evaluating the effectiveness of math learning on a child's increased ability to achieve expression in drawing and painting: During the 1970s, I observed an effective math teacher doing just that by giving his 3rd graders the opportunity and skills to make designs with lines by applying the basic principles of geometry.
There is absolutely no question in my mind that Ms. Davis is correct in stating that art must be incorporated into every child's life so that he or she may continue in the dialogue of expression that transcends time. In this context, art education is the great "open-ended" role model that other disciplines may follow, since it best addresses the cognitive and affective approaches to teaching. If we could revise the title question of Ms. Davis' Commentary to read "How Might We Apply Arts Learning in Terms of Achieving Creative Outcomes in All Disciplines," we would then have a valid question that celebrates the arts with respect within public education. We haven't lowered art, we have raised our friends.
Staten Island, N.Y.
Kohn's Discipline Critique Ignores the 'Painfully Obvious'
To the Editor:
Alfie Kohn is, of course, absolutely correct that authoritarianism has no place in a democratic setting ("Beyond Discipline," Commentary, Nov. 20, 1996). Moreover, one would be hard pressed to disagree with the desirability of students and teachers mutually discussing and establishing ethical principles of behavior.
My problem with his lengthy critique of traditional discipline, however, is that it ignores the obvious: Certain situations in life require conformity and compliance--putting on your seat belt; not smoking in the theater; keeping quiet while a speaker is making a presentation. Each one of these has a rationale which--given an appropriate setting--could be discussed ad infinitum philosophically, morally, ethically, and physiologically.
As every good teacher knows, a certain degree of control is necessary to begin those democratic processes that Mr. Kohn deems essential. To illustrate, I am reminded of an incident that occurred when I was a superintendent in a high school district in California. Visiting one of the schools during the first week on the job, I noted that punctuality was nonexistent in numerous classes--students wandered in three to five minutes after the period had begun. I talked with the principal in his office and told him that such student behavior was unacceptable. He agreed and the following day met with his faculty and reiterated my "fiat."
A few days later, I received a call from the union representative of the school who wanted to meet with me. At the meeting--attended by two other union members--he voiced his concern that while the union had no problem with students getting to class on time, there was a problem with my having mandated it without discussion.
Call me old-fashioned and authoritarian, but I felt that my response is as valid now as it was then. There is simply no reason to discuss what is painfully obvious. Students need to be in class on time for effective learning to take place. Not being punctual is disruptive to teaching and disrespectful of other students who are there to learn.
Joseph M. Appel
Director of Assessment
Education Alternatives Inc.
Magnet Schools Analysis Did Not Pass ED Muster
To the Editor:
We would like to clarify an issue raised in your review of the U.S. Department of Education's evaluation of the impact of federally supported magnet schools on school desegregation ("Magnets' Value in Desegregating Schools Is Found To Be Limited," Nov. 13, 1996).
Education Week incorrectly stated that this evaluation reached essentially the same conclusions as the earlier analysis by David Armor and Christine Rossell. In fact, Mr. Armor and Ms. Rossell did not examine magnet schools supported by the federal Magnet Schools Assistance Program, and they looked at a different research question: desegregation trends in districts with magnet schools compared to districts whose desegregation plans did not include magnets.
The department chose not to publish these researchers' analysis due to concerns about the validity of the methodology. Since the Armor-Rossell study did not address the effectiveness of the federal magnet school program, Education Week is incorrect to imply that the department chose not to release the analysis "because its conclusions undermined the program."
We hope this clears up any misunderstandings about the report.
Planning and Evaluation Service
U.S. Department of Education
When 'Pay for Performance' Isn't an Incentive System
To the Editor:
It is a fact that the pay-for-performance mentality of the business world is coming to education. Clifford B. Janey speaks to the point very well in his Commentary, "Incentive Pay: A Logical Step Toward Teacher Accountability," (Nov. 6, 1996).
However, having just returned to educational administration from a 15-year stint in performance improvement (senior sales and consulting with the world's largest performance-improvement company), there is a key point in this article needing clarification.
Any "system" whereby "98 percent of teachers are likely to either meet or exceed standards for performance" is not an incentive system.
What it is, instead, is a districtwide effort to communicate basic expectations. There is a difference.
Lauri John Hakanen
Zion District No. 6
Yes to Teach For America, 'Flexible Credential Programs'
To the Editor:
Joseph M. Sawyer's defense of Teach For America ("Credit Teach for America With Solutions, Not Harm," Letters, Nov. 20, 1996) was an appropriate response to Dennis L. Evans' Commentary, which criticized the organization as a "shortcut" ("Unqualified Teachers: A Predictable Finding," Commentary, Oct. 30, 1996). I hope Teach For America starts a trend of programs that increase access to teaching without lowering standards.
In trying to operate within a resistant, bureaucratic system, even Mr. Evans cannot provide "rigorous professional preparation." I earned my teaching credential at the University of California, Irvine, where Mr. Evans directs the credential program, with only one semester of student teaching and a series of wasteful credits in thin, mandated courses. I would not describe the experience as rigorous. However, I was pleased to be treated as a professional, working with a small group of student-teachers as a team and attending at least one large survey course that the instructor mercifully taught as a seminar.
Teachers should not be treated as bureaucratic line workers but rather as management-level professionals. Starting my career, I preferred to work in an urban Los Angeles school. But I felt demeaned by the process: Take a simple-minded exam, pay a fee, stand in line to process forms. I ended up in a suburban school because I submitted a letter and r‚sum‚, was offered an interview with the principal, and was hired under the direction of a mentor teacher for "on the job training." When I moved to New York City, I faced the same maze of eligibility. What happens to educators when they are forced to jump through these hoops?
Teach For America has overcome a bureaucratic obstruction for college grads and should be applauded. But what can be done better? Graduates from the best schools are not prepared, at 21, for the "myriad decisions that teachers make." A better solution is to open up the doors of teaching to qualified professionals. Twenty years of success as an engineer or a journalist proves that someone has the maturity to make judgments and the knowledge of content necessary for classroom teaching. Private industry should be encouraged to lend its best people for a year or two in the classroom. Experienced professionals facing early retirement should have an option to ease into teaching. Universities can lead the way by offering flexible credential programs that take into account real-life experience. And principals should be able to make hiring decisions based on their needs and evaluated by the standards set for their schools.
New York, N.Y.
Evidence Shows Boost From Site-Based Management
To the Editor:
I take issue with the opening statement in your article "Study: Site Management Has No Effect on Scores," (Oct. 30, 1996). It claims that "teacher involvement in school management and decisionmaking does not appear to help or harm students' performance on standardized tests." Even though the article goes on to explain that school-based management is not necessarily bad, many readers will conclude from this opening that shared decisionmaking and site-based management are simply fads that will soon disappear from the scene.
My own research profiles nine schools throughout the country where students are achieving, regardless of socioeconomic status. In each case, however, some form of site-based management, shared decisionmaking, or quality-improvement process was adapted to the school. The underlying rationale for this type of structural change, based on both common sense and current research, is that the majority of decisions that have an impact on learning need to be made in the arena closest to the learner.
No proponent of education reform would hail site-based management as the only component needed for turning schools around, but evidence is clearly showing that it is a significant factor.
Jeanne C. Baxter
Professor of Education
Northeastern Illinois University
Can Biologists Draw Line Between Science, Mysticism?
To the Editor:
In your recent article "Counter Evolutionary," (Nov. 20, 1996), Joseph McInerney, the director of Biological Sciences Curriculum Study, is quoted as saying that evolutionary theory cannot determine whether there could be "intelligent design." He claims that "[intelligent design] is an assertion that falls beyond the province of science, which demands naturalistic explanations, and into the realms of mysticism."
Interestingly, the official statement on teaching evolution by the National Association of Biology Teachers sets forth this definition of evolution: "The diversity of life on earth is the outcome of evolution: an unsupervised, impersonal, unpredictable, and natural process of temporal descent with genetic modification that is affected by natural selection, change, historical contingencies, and changing environments." It seems the NABT believes that science can determine whether the evolutionary process is the product of an intelligent designer or is "unsupervised" and "impersonal."
Apparently, Joseph McInerney and the National Association of Biology Teachers do not agree upon where the province of science ends and "the realms of mysticism" begin. This disagreement is the heart of the problem. The key issue is whether the philosophy of naturalism (the doctrine that nature is all there is) is being taught as science.
Perry L. Glanzer
Education Policy Analyst
Focus on the Family
Colorado Springs, Colo.
Proposition 209 Victory Distorted in News Accounts
To the Editor:
I am disappointed in your article "Anti-Preference Measure Sparks Competing Suits," (Nov. 13, 1996), which is just another example of the deceptions surrounding Proposition 209.
You reported that "California voters overwhelmingly approved Proposition 209." In fact, the final tally on this measure was 54.4 percent in favor vs. 45.6 percent opposed. Since passage required a majority, Proposition 209 was approved by a margin of 4.4 percentage points. Why do you consider 4.4 percent to be overwhelming approval?
You also described Proposition 209 as an "amendment that ends racial and gender preferences." What Proposition 209 has done, in fact, is to end affirmative action programs that required state government agencies to establish goals in hiring, admissions, and contracting policies whereby the racial and gender distribution in the local community would be taken into consideration. Such programs, in and of themselves, did not establish any "preferences" whatsoever, contrary to claims by 209 supporters.
San Diego, Calif.
Superintendent Test-Taker Is Wrong on SAT Course
To the Editor:
I am writing on behalf of Kaplan Educational Centers in reference to "The Superintendent Takes the SAT," by Ann Lawrence, the superintendent of schools in Saddle Brook, N.J. (Commentary, Nov. 20, 1996). Ms. Lawrence has made teaching SAT content a priority in her district, and has been rewarded with consistent score improvements from her students, including a 21-point increase in mean SAT scores in 1995. Kaplan applauds her effort to bring Saddle Brook's test scores up to state and national averages.
However, we must take issue with her assertion that "each time parents write a check to the Princeton Review or Kaplan Educational Centers, they are casting a vote of 'no confidence' in the public sector." This is absolutely untrue. Test preparation does not try to compete with or supplant public education. Kaplan teaches specific skills for specific content to those teenagers whose parents want them to have every possible advantage when they apply to college. It is not specious to say that parents can believe in the quality of their child's education and still want them to have extra preparation for college-entrance exams.
Kaplan provides resources which are tailored to help individual students improve upon their weaknesses. Had Ms. Lawrence, who scored a perfect 800 on the verbal section of the SAT but a rather abysmal 460 on the math, come to Kaplan, we would have refreshed her knowledge of math content and then taught her strategies to maximize her score potential. Test preparation does not take the place of classroom instruction, but it can supplement it and meaningfully help students get into college--an important goal of both public education and private test preparation.
Director of Pre-College Programs
Kaplan Educational Centers
New York, N.Y.
'Robin Hooding' Privates: A California Example
To the Editor:
In response to "Robin Hooding the Privates--Giving to the Publics," (Commentary, Nov. 27, 1996), I point to the Summer Enrichment Program in Pasadena, Calif., co-sponsored by Pasadena's Polytechnic School, three other area independent schools, and the Johns Hopkins University Center for Talented Youth in Baltimore. The program's founders, Carmie Rodriguez and Betsy Stork, established this program in 1990 as a way for independent schools to reach out to students in the Pasadena Unified School District. The obligation to become a community resource was tugging strongly at them, and this was how they responded.
The young "scholars" in grades 4-8 who participate in the Summer Enrichment Program are nominated by their principals. They complete a demanding five-week program concentrating on raising their math, language arts, and computer skills. Program staff members come from public and independent schools and share resources to make this an outstanding experience for the students. All funding is through private sources. The foundations and individuals who support this endeavor give enthusiastically because they see positive results. Ms. Rodriguez and Ms. Stork believe the program also prepares the students to return to their schools and become stronger leaders.
As co-director of the program from 1991 to 1994, I can say that it was the most exhilarating experience I've had in education. It is absolutely an example of "Robin Hooding the Privates [and] Giving to the Publics."
David T. Estrada
Monterey Park, Calif.