Letters to the Editor
Early-Computer-Use Stance Was 'Replete With Caveats'
To the Editor:
When you reported that the National Association for the Education of Young Children earlier this year endorsed computer activities for children as young as age 3 or 4 ("Software for Preschoolers Makes Market Inroads," Dec. 11, 1996), you told less than half the story.
Though many parents and educators have concluded that the NAEYC position is unrealistically sanguine, it must be admitted that the association's position was replete with caveats. I counted no fewer than 47 warnings in the NAEYC's position statement. It cautioned (among other warnings) that introducing computers into early-childhood education requires professionals to devote:
- More time to evaluate the appropriateness of hardware and software.
- More effort to "carefully observe children" (and watch for computer-related problems) as well as effort for "the integration of technology into the typical learning environment.''
- More professional judgment to make sure that computers "support existing classroom educational directions rather than distort or replace them" and more "pre-service and in-service training" to cope with the "extra effort" and "responsibility" that the introduction of computers will force on educators of young children.
Given the realities of our classrooms and workloads, is it realistic to expect that all these "extras" will be achieved in enough instances to avoid the other pitfalls the NAEYC warned about?
Among the other warnings: More titles for "the early-childhood educational market" are bad than good; "violence in software threatens young children's development and challenges early-childhood educators"; and educators "must weigh the costs of technology with the costs of other learning materials."
Overall, the NAEYC policy statement is less a ringing endorsement of computers saturating the early grades than it is grist for a debate that should be raging about whether computers are worth the cost at all until children reach the later elementary grades.
William L. Rukeyser
Politically Correct Practice Mocks Merit-Based Equality
To the Editor:
Reading the excerpts from Hard Lessons: Public Schools and Privatization, by Carol Ascher, Norm Fruchter, and Robert Berne ("What May Be Lost Through Privatization?," Dec. 11, 1996), I was struck by the apparent lack of connection between the idealized purpose of public education and the practical reality. I have not read the book in question, but assume that the excerpts were chosen for the purpose of accurately portraying the tenor of the book.
The crucial paragraph explains that public education "has been the key institution for assimilating successive waves of immigrants--a particularly important role today." Further, schools are to "actualize the American promise that every citizen is created equal; that is, that success should be based on merit."
Let's see how the reality stacks up to the rhetoric: Isn't the whole point of multicultural education to preserve and honor the differences between cultural groups? Haven't we been told endlessly, usually by educators, that the very concept of assimilation constitutes cultural genocide? In fact, isn't the latest fad embraced by educators the preservation of "Ebonics" as representative of black culture, as distinct from American culture? And didn't Yale University officials recently return a $20 million grant because they refused to institute a course of study dedicated to Western culture?
Then there is the concept that "success should be based on merit." Unless, of course, standardized testing fails to produce politically correct results, in which case the tests must be "gender or race normed." How many schools have banished the "unfair" concept of class valedictorian? And how many colleges maintain admissions practices that actively reject some higher-achieving students in favor of lower-qualified students on the basis of skin color, gender, or some other group classification? What does such a practice say to the student rejected?
It would be a wonderful thing if students were judged solely on merit; even more marvelous if students were taught to think of themselves as Americans, without a hyphenated prefix. Sadly, the reality of modern American education is otherwise, and perhaps those are some of the reasons why public education is failing and private choice needs to be a viable, competitive alternative.
Nonpublic N.Y. Students and Transportation Funds
To the Editor:
It is with a sense of pride that I point out an error in the inset on page 14 of your Nov. 27, 1996, issue illustrating which states fund transportation for nonpublic school ("Catholic Parents' Effort In Md. Reflects Role of Political Bargaining," Nov. 27, 1996). Although your illustrative map indicates that New York state "does not permit private school transportation funding," quite the opposite is true.
New York's school districts transport nonpublic school students from their homes to their nonpublic schools at a distance of up to 15 miles. In addition, if the student can meet a bus at a "central pickup point," the student can be transported beyond the 15 miles. This arrangement has existed in New York state for many years, and even extends to students who live in New York and attend nonpublic schools in other states, as long as the 15-mile rule is observed.
Besides transportation, nonpublic school students in New York state borrow their textbooks from districts, use computer software and library-loan materials made available to nonpublic schools, and enjoy a spirit of cooperation between their schools and the public schools.
Sister Carol Cimino, S.S.J.
Catholic School Administrators Association of New York State
While Readying To Compete, We Should Wait for Results
To the Editor:
As a doctoral candidate studying the effects of school choice for the past four years, I was quite intrigued with Jeffrey Padden's analysis of the kinds of appropriate responses necessary in market-based education ("Market-Based Education: The New Game Has Begun," Dec. 11, 1996). I agree with him that in states with competitive school choice, superintendents and school boards must respond aggressively and quickly to avoid disappearing into the ranks of the bankrupted. But Mr. Padden errs by not taking his analysis further.
Though presently 25 states and the District of Columbia have charter legislation, it is also true that 25 states have not yet jumped onto this bandwagon. And those states, therefore, have the potential advantage of observing the effects of school choice in other states.
At this point, there is no consistent, substantiated empirical research documenting that school choice will fulfill its promises of increased academic performance. And there are studies which are beginning to show a pattern of school choice as instrumental in increasing educational inequities, especially for the disadvantaged students. Given the general sparseness of empirical findings, and the potential for significant harm, the remaining states with no charter or choice legislation have much to gain by watching the emerging research literature carefully, prior to joining the school choice trend.
Mr. Padden does not take his automobile-industry analogy far enough. Not every advancement excitedly embraced by consumers is positive. Take, for example, the irony of airbags. Hailed as life-saving miracles, they also turn out to be death machines for our littlest customers. Perhaps school choice, like airbags, is another invention where public fascination and passion may be obscurring some potentially tragic results.
Vermont School Boards Association
On NEA and Charter Schools: Monopolies, 'Mudslinging'
To the Editor:
Bob Chase, the president of the National Education Association, writes that "in states such as Massachusetts, Michigan, and Arizona, groups have succeeded in passing laws that grant charter status not just to legitimate public schools but also to existing private schools, home-schoolers, and even individuals with no track record in education" ("Which Charters Are Smarter?," Dec. 4, 1996).
He fails to recognize that having a "track record" in education could mean a horrible track record, which is worse than no record at all. Mr. Chase goes on to list some of the NEA's recent nontraditional endeavors, such as charter school sponsorship and permitting school quality to be mentioned at the bargaining table. The "new thinking" embraced by the NEA only occurred because of the powerful reform movement led by supporters of school choice, privatization, and charter schools.
Mr. Chase believes that competition and accountability will "dismantle public education," which he claims is "open to all and accountable to taxpayers." It is time to break the monopoly on which Mr. Chase depends and support good schools that are truly accountable to parents and students. Our country needs educated and moral citizens, not merely a protected provider of education. Public schools will compete well and do a good job in an environment conducive to reform. The incentive necessary for this to happen is parental choice.
To maintain the status quo by merely creating a facade of reform condemns our children to the mediocre-to-poor educational system we now have.
Ronald T. Bowes
Diocese of Pittsburgh
To the Editor:
I just had the unpleasant experience of reading Bob Chase's opinion piece on charter schools. I thought that the National Education Association, which he heads, wanted to "dialogue" with its critics and use research findings to settle issues. Obviously, this isn't going to get the NEA what it wants, which is the continuation of the union stranglehold on American public education. And so Mr. Chase starts out with mudslinging, innuendo, and damns the entire charter movement by associating it with a few extreme examples.
Given the large number of public schools and public school teachers and the investigative prowess of the Internet, we could dredge up tons of dirt about NEA members. Based on regression curves, we could then probably project the number of union teachers who are perverts, who steal taxpayers' money, or who humiliate children and stunt their learning.
If this type of yellow journalism is the way we want to conduct the debate over charter schools, I can't wait to start slinging the mud. Bob Chase and his organization are a mighty big target.
Give Judge in Autism Case Same Working Conditions
To the Editor:
Judge Leonie M. Brinkema's decision ("News in Brief," Dec. 11, 1996) would sit better with me if I knew that the judge worked under the following conditions:
- No bailiff or other such bodyguard in the courtroom.
- No clerk.
- No panic button or other working communicator to bring in help from outside the courtroom.
- A workload that includes at least one-third more cases than the judge can reasonably be expected to manage.
- Budgeting shortfalls and procedural binds that can only be remedied by the judge's plowing of at least 12 percent of her salary into the plaintiffs' and defendants' case preparation and presentation efforts.
- Frequent attendance in the courtroom of hostile supporters of defendants and plaintiffs in various cases.
Judge Brinkema and others who urge the mainstreaming of exceedingly difficult students into the regular classroom--and the concurrent maintenance of a positive learning environment for all students, with complete disregard for abundant testimony to the negative effect that even one problem student in a classroom can have on the learning of all students--remind me of the genesis of organizational schizophrenia, as described by William V. Haney in his book Communication and Organizational Behavior: Text and Cases: Manager to subordinate: "John, I want you to be able to swim. However, you cannot swim. Therefore, do not go into the water until you can swim."
To bring the example into the 1990s for educators, I would add: "I expect you to learn how to swim within the next two months or you will be fired; if I catch you near the water before you learn how to swim, you will be fired."
'Evergreen Contracts' Are an Administrative Cop-Out
To the Editor:
I am writing in response to James B. Van Hoven's Commentary "'Evergreen' Contracts: A Reasonable Alternative to Tenure" (Nov. 27, 1996). I presently teach in the same district as Mr. Van Hoven, but unlike him, I have served 22 years here. Like him, I have divided my 32-year career between the public and private sectors.
I believe that I, too, "bring a unique perspective to the debate on tenure." I have worked in schools with was no tenure and where the climate was both oppressive and coercive. I have witnessed teachers in these settings who were afraid to take risks, afraid to speak openly, and afraid to step out of the mediocre. I now work in a district that grants tenure, and the teachers here are not afraid to be extraordinary. And our students are the better for it. Tenure is not "the provision of an almost ironclad hold on job security"; it is a defense against arbitrary discipline, as the New York Court of Appeals ruled in 1962.
While tenure gives the individual teacher a shield against arbitrary discipline, it also protects the public against school board members' hiring their political allies, relatives, or others whose only qualification for the job is a special relationship with a board member.
Mr. Van Hoven is of the opinion that "continued success at the school is dependent in part upon responding to the initiatives of the governing board, the school head, and other leaders." Should we not measure continued success on how well we respond together to the needs of the students we teach?
I agree with Mr. Van Hoven that "public school teachers need to work in an environment that provides greater incentives toward cooperation in improving programs and practices." When I was president of the teachers' union, I was deeply involved with school and district administration in working to improve programs and practices. The "incentive" for this cooperation was never a fear for my job but rather the desire to work together for the good of the students. Of course, this presupposes that one is working with an administration that has the ability and the desire to be "inclusive, sensitive, and collaborative." It is precisely in districts where the administration does not exhibit these characteristics that tenure is most important.
The call for "evergreen contracts" is an easy way out for administrators who shirk their responsibility to supervise teachers, to encourage their professional growth, or to work with them in improving their performance. Isn't this the same guidance and support expected of teachers with the students entrusted to them? Why would we expect anything less from our administrators?
Rye Brook, N.Y.
Discipline Extremes Ignore Common-Sense Mainstays
To the Editor:
It is interesting that I can so wholeheartedly agree with the beginning of Alfie Kohn's Commentary "Beyond Discipline," (Nov. 20, 1996) and can so wholeheartedly disagree with his conclusions. I, too, dislike marbles in jars and hierarchical lists of punishments on walls, and I, too, see much of programs such as assertive discipline, logical consequences, cooperative discipline, and discipline with dignity as being the same message with slightly different packaging. But I dislike those methods for reasons far different from Mr. Kohn's--not because adults are in charge, but because they pretend adults are not in charge.
Those methods allow students to "choose" whether they wish to do what is asked of them or whether they wish to pay the consequence. Of course, adults really are deciding what is asked of children and in what form the consequences will be delivered. The squirmy 2nd grader may very well wish to spend time in a kindergarten class to avoid work or because he thinks it's cool. The student who tips her chair back may wish to stand for the rest of the period to build a reputation or to outfox the teacher. The adults have decided that these behaviors are not good and that going to kindergarten or standing is the consequence, but the discipline is masked in a phoniness of letting children think they are choosing what to do.
Mr. Kohn, on the other hand, wants to put children in charge but ignores children's need for guidance. Children misbehave for far more reasons than disliking what they have "been told to do or learn." Of course, a boring lesson may be partially to blame, but not all teachers or all curricula are engaging all the time. Children often make bad choices and use poor reasoning unless they are provided guidance. A teacher who "is not concerned with being in charge," as Mr. Kohn puts it, is either a myth or well on his way to seeking another occupation.
I do not advocate contriving elaborate schemes to coerce children into behaving. It seems much more honest to tell students clearly what is expected and to make sure that they do it. The portion of assertive discipline that Mr. Kohn dislikes (the part in which "teachers are urged simply to tell students 'exactly what behavior is acceptable.'") is the very part that appeals to me most. Simple, straightforward directions, such as "line up for lunch", "the last person out of the room turn off the lights," and "raise your hand if you have a question" are methods teachers have employed for decades for ease of classroom management.
Mr. Kohn would wish us to believe that adults deciding what is right for children is somehow wrong--and that doing so will, unless the child is involved in the decision, lessen his ability to "develop socially and morally"--that if we would only allow children to think for themselves they would magically "develop community" (whatever that is) and responsibility.
I do not believe teachers think that the "only alternative to control is chaos" any more than Mr. Kohn believes that harmony is achieved automatically when control is relinquished. I cannot imagine allowing a self-abusive youngster with autism, a high schooler with a gun, or a 3-year-old with developmental delays to decide for themselves what to do after a heartwarming chat or a discussion of curriculum.
The problem is not so much that I disagree totally with Mr. Kohn. The problem is that he paints with a brush of extremes. According to him, it must be either adults deciding or children deciding--when, in fact, sometimes adults decide (mandatory rules), sometimes children decide (voluntary rules), and sometimes adults and children decide together (negotiable rules).
Sometimes it is absolutely right for adults to tell children what to do. Sometimes it is alright to allow children to decide for themselves. And sometimes it is OK to negotiate. But dichotomizing discipline into two camps--those terrible adults who actually tell children what to do and those wonderful children who harmoniously promote responsibility and reflection--does nothing but obfuscate.
Thomas G. Finlan
Bureau of Instructional/Pupil Services
Riverview Intermediate Unit