Published Online: March 19, 1997

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Knocking Volunteerism Is Ill-Considered 'Parochialism'

To the Editor:

In "Effectiveness of Clinton Reading Plan Questioned," Feb. 26, 1997, you included an intriguing quote from Judith R. Birsh, an adjunct assistant professor and master-teacher trainer at Teachers College, Columbia University: "You really have to be cautious about using volunteers. If these children are not learning to read easily, I don't know how untrained people can be expected to do it better."

Ms. Birsh's statement indicts several lay initiatives currently under way both within and without our schools. Are we to believe that parents who help their struggling children at home are wasting their time, perhaps even causing damage? Should we abandon peer-tutoring programs as ineffectual? Perhaps we should cancel our call for community volunteers altogether and discourage the use of private tutors as well, since virtually none of these lay participants are "trained." The issue is not whether volunteers can "do it better" but whether we could "do it" worse.

Your article goes on to state that several others agree with Ms. Birsh that "the task of teaching reading is a sophisticated one and best attempted by those with an understanding of how children learn to read." The longstanding debate between advocates of whole language and phonics instruction makes it painfully apparent that the experts have achieved very little in the way of shared and agreed-upon understanding of the process, so whose understanding of the process should we embrace?

Ms. Birsh's denigration of volunteerism reflects a parochialism we can ill afford to indulge in our efforts to educate our nation's children. For centuries, the vast majority of children have been taught to read by "untrained" individuals. There is a place for those specially trained in reading, but there is an equally valuable place for volunteers.

Teresa T. Hearne
Lutz, Fla.

Involve Spec. Ed. Personnel in Charter Schools' Planning

To the Editor:

Problems with special education rules and regulations should be minimal in the planning and implementation of charter schools if special education personnel are involved in the initial planning stages ("Spec. Ed. Rules Pose Problems for Charter Schools," Feb. 19, 1997). Unfortunately, special education is often neglected as a partner in reform efforts.

The Stevens Point, Wis., school district is in its third year of operating a charter school for grades 10-12. The school is called TEAMS, which stands for Teaching, Educating, Advising, and Mentoring Students. The teaching staff includes full-time teachers in the core academic subjects and a full-time teacher of special education.

The teachers have developed a differentiated curriculum that is academic and experiential. Eighteen of the 100 students enrolled are students with disabilities ranging from autism to cognitive disabilities. The charter school has been such a success for the students and the district that a secondary study committee is evaluating whether its concept has broader ramifications for the whole district's secondary program.

Special education rules shouldn't be a problem for charter schools. They won't if special education personnel are made stakeholders and share in the success of the school.

Jerry Bohren
Assistant Superintendent
Stevens Point Area Public School District
Stevens Point, Wis.

Union Critic's Own Agenda: Dismantling Public Schools

To the Editor:

With his Commentary berating teachers for joining and supporting the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, Robert W. Kasten revives an infamous tradition of protecting teachers from ourselves ("An Oligopoly With a Unique Agenda," Feb. 19, 1997). Previously, this attitude has taken the forms of requiring teachers to stay single, avoiding reading of novels, and preventing us from venturing out in public unescorted.

Logic and reason need play little role in Mr. Kasten's arguments, as obviously the choices are too complex for us to comprehend. Because some teachers in Sweden support government subsidy of private schools, American teachers should as well, he argues. (Should we also support a national health-care system, as in Sweden?) Out of 48 teachers' unions surveyed, 14 back choice-voucher plans. When Mr. Kasten labels this "52 percent" he must be using mathematical formulas beyond my comprehension. When he bemoans the fact that U.S. teachers do not have a choice in professional unions and organizations to join, and cites as evidence that there are more than 20 independent teacher associations in existence, his reasoning is too complex for me.

Might I respectfully suggest to Mr. Kasten, as he swings his paternalistic gaze from his comfortable office to the manicured grounds of the Alexis de Toqueville Institution, that he cease fretting about protecting teachers from our professional organizations and unions. Might I suggest that he become more intellectually honest, and explain that he opposes the NEA and the AFT because we block his agenda of dismantling public education in favor of subsidizing private school tuition. Might I suggest that he turn his attention to real issues of improving the conditions of teaching and learning in our public schools.

Thomas Blanford
Raleigh, N.C.

Thanks for 'All Too Rare' Appreciation of a Teacher

To the Editor:

I was moved by the sincere letter Albert Camus wrote in 1957 to his former elementary school teacher ("A Teacher's Legacy," Feb. 12, 1997). I found his gratitude real and his words eloquent when I first read the letter in Camus' autobiographical novel a year ago. "Thanks" are all too rare. I appreciate Maurice R. Berube's essay for calling this one to everyone's attention.

Nancy Webster
Miami, Fla.

Teachers' Group Opposes Tying Performance to Scores

To the Editor:

I am writing to clarify the Texas Classroom Teachers Association's position on the new Professional Development and Appraisal System, or PDAS, discussed in your article "Texas Proposal Ties Teacher Performance to School Scores," Feb. 12, 1997.

Our organization appreciated being contacted for the story, and I had a relatively lengthy conversation with your reporter regarding many aspects of this new system. Although I realize that space limitations do not allow the opportunity to explore nuances, it is not correct to indicate as you did that the TCTA does not oppose the use of campus ratings in professional evaluations.

The association has always opposed relying on Texas Assessment of Academic Skills test scores to assess teacher performance. We have never wavered from that stance, and we have made this position known both orally and in writing. After reviewing the state commissioner of education's proposed appraisal draft, the TCTA submitted a nine-page document suggesting changes. At that time, and on numerous other occasions, we have voiced our objections to tying teacher performance to test scores.

The TCTA has neither supported nor opposed the PDAS document as a whole, but we have aggressively lobbied against the one criterion linking teacher appraisals with test scores.

We are strongly encouraging our members to become involved in the process of determining what teacher-appraisal system will be used and in helping design locally adopted appraisal instruments. There is much misinformation circulating regarding the PDAS and the perspectives various organizations have on the document, and we appreciate your assistance in setting our record straight.

Jeri Stone
Executive Director and General Counsel
Texas Classroom Teachers Association
Austin, Texas

A Vote for Charter Schools From Teacher, Union Member

To the Editor:

I am a public school teacher, a New York State United Teachers' Union member, and a parent who believes firmly in the charter school concept. I have come to this belief because of my own frustrating experiences in the public school system.

When I read Joe Nathan's Commentary, I took heart ("The Charter School Movement Is Growing Because It's Working," Feb. 19, 1997). I long to have more of a say in the decisions that affect me and the children with whom I work. I'm tired of seeing administrators parade through my district with their own agendas superimposed on an already disintegrating system. I'm dedicated to the children with whom I work, but not to the status quo.

Charter schools would mean having some kind of public school choice in our area, so that a rural district like mine wouldn't be the only education provider in town. I want to be an integral part of something worthwhile for kids; I want to have input into the decisions made around me. I'm tired of sitting on committees that shoot down innovative ideas simply because they mean change.

Radical change in the public education system is needed so that my daughter won't feel miserable listening to sarcastic teachers who don't like for students to ask the "why" question--why are we learning this?--only to be told that it's because the teacher said so or because the students need it to pass a state test. Those reasons don't make a dent with students these days.

I have been hearing reports from all over the country about the dramatically positive changes occurring with students and parents in charter schools. I long to be right there with them instead of stuck inside a dysfunctional system accountable to no one.

Deborah Lazarus
Woodridge, N.Y.

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