Performance-Based Licenses: More of the Details, Please
To the Editor:
Your article "Licensure Pact Pays Dividends for Teaching," (May 21, 1997) was a big disappointment. In a seven-column story, couldn't you have described some of the details of the new performance-based licensing systems? The article gives only broad generalities. It says, for example, that the system "calls for three types of tests: a subject-matter examination; a test of teaching knowledge..., and an assessment of classroom performance."
What are some examples of questions on the test of teaching knowledge? What criteria do the standards specify for assessing classroom performance? At a minimum, these questions should have been answered in a sidebar to the main story.
Only Cults, Hate Groups Reach 'Genuine' Consensus
To the Editor:
Of course Phillip Schlechty is unassailably correct in asserting that real change will occur in schools if "top-level leaders" reach consensus on "the purpose of education" and then lead the rest of the community into joining them in this consensus ("Common Understandings," May 14, 1997.) Fortunately, he errs in declaring that both of these conditions are necessary for significant change.
First, genuine consensus on such issues can never be reached. Second, even if that were possible, consensus at the top is not likely to change practice at the bottom. Beliefs about the nature of the individual and society's role in the shaping of each are based on a person's core values. Any society more heterogeneous than a cult or a hate group consists of individuals with values far too varied for genuine consensus on such issues.
While Mr. Schlechty can claim that the "top down" argument is invalid because it is not an "either-or" issue, the fact remains that what comes from above comes with the message that agreement is expected.
As a teacher, I have sat through many meetings when various representatives of the "top" have claimed, "I want your honest opinion; don't hold anything back." We know not to take that bait. We are very skilled (actually it does not take any real skill) at giving those with power over us what they want, while we continue those classroom practices that we believe are necessary for our day-to-day survival.
What is possible is open discussion of the issues with the purpose of providing clarity rather than consensus. If we operate from clearly identified positions we can work together in meeting our various needs in harmony with our various beliefs. The eight questions identified by Mr. Schlechty in his Commentary provide an excellent basis for such discussions. The leadership of a district should, of course, lead in beginning this process. Discussion should occur at all levels of the community simultaneously. Mr. Schlechty's experience in leading groups that yield only "pious statements and platitudes" should not discourage us from using a wide variety of group-process formats in working toward these ends. Groups give platitudes from fear, not from a lack of a clear position statement on the part of the leader.
Daytona Beach Shores, Fla.
A Vote of Approval For 'Contracting' Plan
To the Editor:
"How Contracting Can Transform America's Schools," May 14, 1997, struck me as the ideal vehicle for vouchering all of America's children into a strong system of accountability. This parent empowerment will stimulate parent ownership and true renewal.
Charles A. Byrne
Ohio State Board of Education
Cleveland Heights, Ohio
Regular Schools, Charters Should Play by Same Rules
To the Editor:
Gregg Vanourek, Bruno V. Manno, and Chester E. Finn Jr. argue persuasively that charter schools must be freed from "rule compliance" and "regulatory overload" in favor of "results accountability" ("The False Friends of Charter Schools," April 30, 1997.) They fail, however, to draw the obvious inference that all schools might be more successful with such freedom. Either the regulations are valid and appropriate for all schools, or they are not. I suspect the truth lies somewhere in between, but in any case, regular public schools and charter schools should play by the same rules.
Right-to-Work Groups Value Heritage, Not Harassment
To the Editor:
National Education Association General Counsel Robert Chanin's totally out-of-line remark that right-to-work organizations "live to harass unions" ("Teachers Allege Improper Use Of Union Dues," May 28, 1997,) is simply one more arrogant statement so typical of union officials unable to gain or keep their power without coercion.
If it weren't for the compulsory-fee demands on the part of union officials, there would be no need for any state or national right-to-work organization. It is unfathomable to the majority of Americans that this kind of forced-dues protection racket is tolerated at all, let alone handed over to a behemoth labor cabal by elected local, state, and federal officials. Mr. Chanin is right about one thing: "Agency fee" litigation and opposition does give us plenty to do.
When union officials like Mr. Chanin have to earn the support of their members rather than demand it, they will no longer need "to invest more staff time than any other labor union in keeping its auditing processes accurate." Voluntary members who disagree with a union's politics can simply resign and support their own causes, as Washington state teacher Cindy Omlin told your reporter, "issue by issue."
The National Right to Work Committee has but one mission--to put itself out of business by returning individual freedom in the workplace to every American citizen, to guarantee to every working American the right to make his or her own choice on whether or not to join a union. We believe our country's heritage--individual liberty--demands it.
Pennsylvania Right to Work Inc.
On School Bullies, Train Students To Set Limits
To the Editor:
Congratulations on ("Bullies Beware!," May 28, 1997.) You suggest that it is time to put a stop to the pain children inflict upon each other, yet for generations, neither the teachers, parents, and principals, nor the children themselves have done much about it. Why not? Because peer-group life has been unacknowledged as a powerful source of students' successes and failures in general.
Educators and parents assume that they have all the power to control things. Yet the customs of juveniles are far more powerful. They look to each other for how much and what kind of bullying to do to whom. More important, they decide whether or not to study, to stop or start talking, to disrupt, be truant, steal, or extort. Group norms or "attitude" can take over the whole school despite Herculean adult efforts.
Denver psychologist Carla Garrity has the right idea when she aims her program at children who stand by mutely when a bully taunts a classmate. If given the go-ahead and the necessary skill practice, children could bring about all the reforms that have thus far eluded all the adults combined.
Many school psychologists are trained to work with groups. Let them put aside their IQ tests for the task of empowering pupils to reflect upon and control their own behaviors. Students are not just objects for adult manipulation. They are powerful creators of their own realities.
Rachel M. Lauer
Straus Thinking & Learning Center
New York, N.Y.
Help New Teachers 'Read' Impact of School's Culture
To the Editor:
I read with empathy James Kelleher's Commentary ("How Can Urban Schools Retain Young Teachers?," June 4, 1997.) As someone who has designed and been facilitating a professional-development project for new teachers in an urban school in San Francisco, and who has worked with new teachers in formal and informal ways as they moved from my preservice teacher education courses into their teaching contexts, Mr. Kelleher's stories echoed others I have listened to.
I think, though, that Mr. Kelleher puts too much of the responsibility for lack of professional support and resistance to his personal enthusiasm on the shoulders of students and experienced teacher colleagues and not enough on the school site as an "institution" itself or on his teacher education program (if any).
In my experience in teacher education across the country, I have come to know that it is the rare program that assists candidates to examine critically schools as sites for political and social valuing and, further, to "read" learning and teaching in the context of this school culture. While this alone might not have been enough for Mr. Kelleher to continue to teach in an urban school, having such knowledge of schools and the ability to see his classroom, his students, and their curriculum in this larger context would have, I believe, reduced the self-blame that often underlies the decision to flee.
In order to strengthen the possibility that this ability to "read the word and, thus, the world"what the late Paulo Freire suggested we do in the pursuit of changing the world will affect new teachers' decisions to continue to teach in urban schools, strong partnerships between urban schools and teacher education programs must be created and sustained. Potentially, these partnerships provide a context for experienced teachers and administrators to accompany novice teachers in the journey of learning to investigate, inquire into, and describe school cultures. Together, new teachers and experienced colleagues can conduct action research that poses problems to be explored together and opens up spaces and possibilities in school structures, curriculum, and relationships.
The best school-university partnerships are not mentoring programs, which suggest a one-way learning relationship: novice as acolyte. The danger of leaving the education of new teachers to this kind of relationship alone is that, as Mr. Kelleher himself experienced, veteran teachers have the tendency to reify their experience and are likely to pass on "what has always worked" without questioning these practices' applicability to current students or in the context of the school's culture. This is not their fault, since most of them have also been educated not to critique or examine schools from this perspective.
Only when all participants in the educating community come together and learn with and from one another can we expect genuine change to occur simultaneously in schools and in the teacher education programs preparing new teachers. I am the last educator (in my world at least) who would suggest that school-university partnerships are a panacea for anything, let alone keeping new teachers in the profession. I do, however, want to see us stop blaming students and experienced teachers for the ways schools systematically create barriers to change and appear hostile to newcomers. Perhaps collaborative partnerships will open the spaces and create the opportunities to reinvent school culture.
Stanford Educational Collaborative
Stanford University School of Education
Thoughts From Title I Essay On What 'We Owe Children'
To the Editor:
As the primary author of the U.S. Department of Education's "Prospects" report, I would like to take exception to Robert Slavin's assertion that we concluded Chapter 1 had little if any impact on the achievement of the children it served ("How Title I Can (Still) Save America's Children," May 21, 1997.) We found that Chapter 1 failed to achieve its legislative objective of closing the gap in academic achievement between participants and nonparticipants. This is not, however, the same as concluding that Chapter 1 had no effect on children.
Because of the constraints of our research design we could not reject the possibility that the participating children may have been worse off in the absence of Chapter 1 assistance. In other words, Chapter 1 may have prevented participating children from falling further behind in school even though it did not achieve its stated mandate of compensating for a variety of disadvantages that place certain children behind their peers from the time they start school. This is a subtle but important difference.
In other respects, I am in full agreement with Mr. Slavin's recommendation that Title I become the engine of school reform through the provision of resources and incentives to spread the adoption of "effective and replicable approaches" to the education of at-risk children. I also agree that this means much greater attention to rigorous evaluation of promising programs so that educators can be better informed about what can work in their schools. There is far too much pressure on school administrators today to be seen as "doing something" in the face of declining school performance. And sadly, this need is too often filled by developers who make grand promises for the effectiveness of their program without any scientific evidence to support their claims. No wonder parents, teachers, and students are discouraged when today's fad turns out to be tomorrow's disappointment.
Mr. Slavin points to today's "medical innovation system" as the model that should be used to sort out effective programs from those that simply don't work. I wholeheartedly agree, but we must be willing to subject educational interventions to the same types of rigorous testing and evaluation that are used to determine the efficacy of new drugs, medical services, surgical procedures, and other therapies. That is, we need to begin a process of controlled educational "clinical trials" that begin with small tests to allow a better understanding of the program or teaching strategy, how it should be implemented, and for which types of students.
These early, small-scale studies would then be examined in somewhat larger demonstration projects at multiple sites, and if they still passed muster they should be finally subjected to multisite, randomized experiments to determine whether or not there is a positive impact on student learning. Only at that point should programs be approved for the type of broad replication proposed by Mr. Slavin.
Today's schools are replete with stories about the failure of yesterday's faddish approach. Like Mr. Slavin, I agree that we owe our children more, and hope that we can move to a better system for testing solutions and disseminating those that are proven to be successful.
Michael J. Puma
Managing Vice President
Education and Child Development Area
Abt Associates Inc.
To the Editor:
Robert Slavin's Commentary raises some interesting issues but overlooks a key one. Such qualities as imagination, inventiveness, and caring have a research base, too. As an important study conducted by the Charles A. Dana Center at the University of Texas-Austin indicates, high-poverty schools do not need to purchase programs for all students to succeed.
Schools that are both successful and high-poverty share attributes that are rooted in what it means to have a genuine sense of commitment. These include a strong sense of inclusiveness, where everyone, regardless of job title, contributes to the success of students in multiple ways; an orientation toward "no excuses," where members of the school community see themselves as a primary influence on student success; the courage to experiment, especially when current practices are not working; a clear focus on the academic success of every child that permeates all decisionmaking; a sense of family, so that school employees, students, and families enjoy mutual respect; collaboration and trust that allows for disagreement; and a passion for learning and growing that makes continuous improvement an exciting opportunity.
The authors of the Improving America's Schools Act, which contains Title I, have included support for assisting schools in identifying and strengthen-ing these kinds of attributes. Known in the legislation as "school support teams," small groups of skillful and sensitive educators from successful high-poverty schools provide external support to schools engaged in schoolwide planning. They provide encouragement to educators, helping them awaken their own imaginations, regain the courage to say "why not?," and engage each other, the school community, and the community at large in open dialogue about what can and ought to be done to ensure that all students experience academic success.
Most states are currently developing such systems of school support. For example, Texas, subsequent to a 1994 school-support-team pilot initiative, is completing its second year of statewide implementation. In spite of logistical challenges and financial constraints that stretch the limits of human generosity, we are experiencing promising results. Equally exciting, school-support-team members are learning from each other and from the schools they visit. The interaction is promising for all, and I urge educators involved in Title I programs to investigate this form of support as well as the research on successful schools that can guide the questions a school asks about itself.
Some special programs, such as Mr. Slavin's, may have a research base that addresses their effectiveness, but what successful schools in the Texas study did, every school can do without such a program. It happens when we hold ourselves to the same high standards for learning and caring that we talk about for students.
Texas School Support Team Initiative