Published Online: February 12, 1997

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Theory-Practice Dichotomy Is 'Tired Old Hobbyhorse'

To the Editor:

As a teacher-educator, I had hoped for something interesting in the Commentary by Diana Wylie Rigden ("How Teachers Would Change Teacher Education," Dec. 11, 1996). My hopes were disappointed. In reporting survey data, she set a up a tired old hobbyhorse, the theory-vs.-practice dichotomy, and rode it for two pages. I think this issue was treated at greater length and with more cogency by John Dewey himself in a 1904 article, "The Relation of Theory to Practice in Education," in the Third Yearbook of the National Society for the Scientific Study of Education (excerpted in Reginald Archambault's collection, John Dewey on Education).

This is not a simple issue, despite attempts to make it so. I am not going to analyze it at length, just make two comments. First, it is too easy to portray all teacher-educators as occupants of "rarefied" ivory towers of "theory." For my part, I consider myself and many of my colleagues to be teachers ourselves in common cause with our peers in pre-K-12 schools and agencies. I am responsible for assigning about 400 student and intern teachers per year; I teach undergraduate and graduate courses on campus and at school sites; I supervise student and intern teachers and meet daily with cooperating teachers and administrators. I should be personally offended by any attempts to demean what I do, but I'm not: I'm just saddened that caricatures of my work are still sought and reported in surveys of teachers.

John Dewey rightly saw castigations of so-called "theory" as disservices to an entire profession. We all have theories and practices: It's impossible to teach anyone anywhere without constructing them both. The issue is not bipolar but holistic: How can a beginning professional be encouraged to become, in Dewey's words, "a thoughtful and alert student of education," rather than one concerned only with "immediate proficiency," which we all want and need as well. It ill serves our profession to place some of us in conflict with others in a bogus dichotomy.

By the same token, teachers who want to make teaching better should be encouraged to ask hard questions, not just give pat answers in yet another survey. I'd like to ask the following: What would be the benefits of strongly linking methods, curriculum, and resources in colleges and universities to those in schools and agencies? Haven't we already had lab schools and normal schools that did just that? Didn't they foster practices that now and then enforce status quo conditions unfair to women, minorities, and people with disabilities? What would serve to make schools better?

I am suspicious of any report that shows teachers favoring more extensive preparation for status quo practices of teaching, when so many of the teachers I know question the fairness and effectiveness of the practices that dominate today's schools. We have too many theories and practices of curriculum and pedagogy that, as Theodore Sizer says, numb too many bodies and minds. Is more of the same in colleges and universities really going to make all schools better?

I suspect that the National Commission on Teaching & America's Future asked better questions than the ones whose answers Ms. Rigden summarizes, and I'm sure that we all deserve better suggestions than the ones she reports. We don't need another manufactured crisis, another periodic spate of trashing each other over "failures" within our profession. Instead, we need to do what all teachers do best: ask good questions and facilitate problem-solving.

Henry St. Maurice
Director of Field Experiences
University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point
Stevens Point, Wis.

On the 'Genesis Myth' and Other Realms of 'Nonscience'

To the Editor:

In his letter of Dec. 11, 1996, Perry L. Glanzer, education-policy analyst for the Christian ministry Focus on the Family, takes me to task for stating that the creationist notion of intelligent design "is an assertion that falls beyond the province of science, which demands naturalistic explanations, and into the realm of mysticism," ("Counter Evolutionary," Nov. 20, 1996). He finds a contradiction between this statement and the official position of the National Association of Biology Teachers, which states that evolution is "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." Mr. Glanzer suggests that the NABT and I "do not agree upon where the province of science ends and the realms of mysticism" begin.

Nothing could be further from the truth. I am a former president of the 8,000-member NABT and was on the committee that wrote the position statement to which Mr. Glanzer refers. The paragraph that precedes the excerpt Mr. Glanzer cites includes the following statement: "Whether called creation science, scientific creationism, intelligent-design theory, young-earth theory, or some other synonym, creation beliefs have no place in the science classroom. Explanations employing non-naturalistic or supernatural events, whether explicit reference is made to a supernatural being or not, are outside the realm of science and are not part of a valid science curriculum. Evolutionary theory, indeed all of science, is necessarily silent on religion and neither refutes nor supports the existence of a deity or deities."

Mr. Glanzer asserts that "the key issue is whether the philosophy of naturalism (the doctrine that nature is all there is) is being taught as science." Not so. The key issue is whether students and organizations such as Focus on the Family, which insists on forcing the Genesis myth into the science classroom, can distinguish science from nonscience.

I know many fine scientists who are deeply religious; they do not assume that "nature is all there is," and their nonscientific, spiritual lives are very important to them. When they practice science, however, nature is indeed all there is, because that is the central assumption of doing science. The question of whether there is anything beyond nature is an empty question for science because it is unapproachable through the methods of scientific inquiry, which assume that nature is explainable without appeals to the supernatural. In short, one of the central requirements of scientific explanations is "no miracles allowed."

Focus on the Family is just a few miles from my own organization. I would have been happy to clarify my position had Mr. Glanzer called or visited. This would have been preferable to having him introduce yet more misinformation into a debate that already is plagued by an excess of heat over light.

Joseph D. McInerney
Director
Biological Sciences Curriculum Study
Colorado Springs, Colo.

'Pushing Back for Center' Should Energize Advocates

To the Editor:

I am completely in agreement with Eric Schaps, whose cogent Commentary on the current craze for basic skills above all else, "Pushing Back for the Center," appeared in your Jan. 22, 1997, issue. He makes a strong case. We need to get vocal, write letters to the editors of our local papers and of magazines, and let people know what we believe in, rather than letting business and political leaders define our mission.

Joann Kersten
San Lorenzo, Calif.

California Text Adoption Did Not Stress Phonics

To the Editor:

The article, "Calif. Text Adoption Puts Emphasis on Phonics," (Jan. 15, 1997), misreports what happened in this state's recent reading-instruction textbook-adoption process. Since experimental research firmly supports direct and systematic teaching of phonics information, it would have been marvelous if the headline was correct. Unfortunately, it was not.

In the process referred to above, the California state board of education approved for the use in this state's schools seven different reading-instruction text series for grades K-5 or 6. Only one of them teaches phonics information in the "systematic, explicit" way that new laws in California mandate. The remaining six series are whole-language-oriented and therefore do not teach phonics information in a manner that is "scientifically proven," as the new laws demand.

The truth about the California reading-text adoption process therefore is that the state board of education defied the state laws by only rejecting whole-language-oriented texts published by relatively small companies. The ones published by huge financial conglomerates, which have the power and resources to lobby effectively, were accepted.

To be legitimate in this affair, the board should have acted like the federal Food and Drug Administration does when it finds products on the market that are proven to be ineffective and/or harmful. The board could not muster the ethical fortitude to do that with the whole-language texts it considered.

Thus, the complaint by the whole-language movement's founding light, Kenneth Goodman, that the California textbook-adoption procedure was "an example of hysteria that is affecting decisionmaking in education" is specious.

In fact, whole language is alive and well in California, despite the fact that its popularity there in the past has denied millions of children full opportunity to learn to read.

Patrick Groff
Professor Emeritus
San Diego State University
San Diego, Calif.

'Activity Does Not Equal Results'

To the Editor:

Education Week's undertaking of the grading of America's schools was a massive, and much-needed, project. (See "Quality Counts," Jan. 22, 1997.) Americans are not only entitled to, but should have readily available to them, accountability measurements to ensure the true mission of the public school system, educating our children, is being accomplished. The report's call for quick and substantial education reform is irreproachable. Unfortunately, Quality Counts does little to track true accountability for results, and relies heavily on measures of what goes into schools, rather than what emerges, to determine its grades.

In 1995, a few state education leaders created an organization geared toward true reform. We did so because of our frustration that there were still too many in policy- and opinion-making roles who did not understand that yesterday's need for a quick monetary fix is not today's solution for improving education. Today six state education chiefs, two state boards of education, and more than 50 individual members are part of the Education Leaders Council. And we can tell you firsthand that not only are simple "inputs" no measure of quality, but the illusion of progress can be created very easily without doing anything to really demonstrate it. Here are a few illustrations out of hundreds that show where the report's editors went wrong:

  • Standards and assessments. The Education Week report shares our commitment to rigorous standards and assessments but differs in the criteria of "rigorous." ELC member states at varying stages of the standards-setting process were surprised by their rankings in the report. Virginia, home to "extraordinarily clear and well-grounded in content" standards, as characterized by the American Federation of Teachers and notable scholars, came in behind Pennsylvania, where recommendations by Gov. Tom Ridge's standards commission will not even be made until March. Both Arizona and Florida recently implemented their first set of core standards, which will eventually be used as a basis for academic promotion, yet they, too, ranked behind Pennsylvania.
  • Teaching-corps reform. The report inaccurately docks points from Florida for not having an independent professional-standards board, though the state has utilized the Education Standards Commission in this capacity for over 10 years. Another failure is the report's lack of attention to efforts encouraging ineffective teachers to leave the classroom; providing performance contracts to teachers--a growing and promising trend among many districts improving on seniority-based employment; offering teacher scholarships to the brightest college students, establishing alternative routes to certification, and providing higher salaries for teachers who do perform.
  • Charter schools. Unequivocally, we dispute the editors' fear of "alternate forms of education [which] will emerge to replace public schools as we have known them." Albert Einstein said that insanity is providing the same inputs into an equation and expecting different results.

We believe choice to be an essential component of any true reform. Specifically, we believe the creation of charter schools, public schools free from most of the bureaucracy stifling the public school system, returns more power to those closest to our children. We believe parents, empowered with the choice of which public school best suits the academic needs of their children, drive the engine of reform. Schools which are held accountable for academic achievement, and fiscal management, will most benefit the most important people in education: children. To all but overlook the importance charters play in the reform arena is to have one's eye on the wrong ball.

  • Local control. The U.S. Constitution reserves all powers not delegated to the federal government to the states or to the people. Education is not a right or power assigned to the federal government, and we categorically refute the report's assessment that "strong traditions of local control dilute the effectiveness of state policy in changing the way schools are organized and operated."

With tens of thousands of readers, you owe it to your readership to acknowledge those measures which allow us to truly judge state and national progress in public education. We can all give the impression that much is happening; but activity does not equal results. The harder job for state policymakers is to take the bold and urgently needed steps to actually alter the current delivery of educational services, set high standards, hold schools to hard and fast consequences, and report the results accurately and thoroughly.

We look to Education Week to correct the deficiencies in future reporting, and congratulate you for those elements you did well.

Gary Huggins
Executive Director
Members of the Executive Board
Education Leaders Council
Washington, D.C.

Editor's Note: Quality Counts used the only comparable outcome indicators available: NAEP scores. It correctly ranked Pennsylvania, Virginia, Florida, and Arizona on standards and assessments according to the methodology used. Florida does not have an independent professional-standards board.

To the Editor:

The first thing I did when I saw California's grades in Education Week's Quality Counts report was ask my students what they would do if their report card read: B minus, C minus, D, two D minuses, and an Incomplete. "I'd pack my bags and run," said Amir. Another student, who insisted on remaining anonymous, replied that she would shrug and tell her mother that the report card must have gotten lost. "You can always bury it once," she said.

I wonder which solution this nation's states will choose--Amir's or student X's. We run away from the NAEP data about student achievement in math and reading at our peril. These numbers tell us that it is not only poor children or minority children or second-language-speaking children who are failing to acquire the skills they need. It is almost all of our children.

Burying the report card is always an option. We can shrug our collective shoulders and with great reluctance heave a shovelful of excuses on public education's grave. But if we choose this option, let's be very clear that it is the future of democracy we will be burying.

When I asked my students what their parents would do if they brought home a report card like California's, Marita said she would be grounded for life. ("Life," to a 15-year-old, means anything longer than five days.) But how do you ground a whole state? Let's do away with its Nintendo for a year. It would be a start.

Carol Jago
Santa Monica High School
Santa Monica, Calif.

To the Editor:

I commend your Quality Counts report. But as it is summarized in the San Francisco Chronicle of Jan. 16, 1997, you appear to blame our passage of Proposition 13 for all of our school woes.

Proposition 13 was passed because homeowners were being taxed out of their equities as inflated realty prices meant inflated valuations and property-tax hikes.

State financing of schools makes sense. We have experienced huge increases in population as U.S. citizens moved West and as we have attracted many legal and illegal immigrants. Last year income taxes were reduced 5 percent overall; this year our governor has proposed a 10 percent cut for business and industry but not for individuals. The state has pre-empted funds normally earmarked for schools the past few years. Not only schools but our courts are underfunded.

The only fair tax is the income tax. Ours is too small. Instead we have large, regressive sales taxes and also seek school financing through a lottery. This is a questionable practice.

Douglas C. Rigg
Berkeley, Calif.

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