Published Online: March 31, 1999

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Good Teachers--Guaranteed

To the Editor:

This spring, California State University-Long Beach will issue warranties with each of the 700 graduating student-teachers ("Warranty Pledges Help for Struggling Teacher Graduates," March 3, 1999). Under a policy adopted last month, the university guarantees job performance by its novice teachers. But unlike dysfunctional toasters, newly hired teachers cannot be returned for replacement. The university promises to send out education professors to assist any floundering teachers.

On the surface, this is a wonderful idea. The first year of teaching is enormously challenging whatever your preparation has been, and, without support, many talented new teachers simply throw up their hands and walk away. Thirty percent quit within the first five years. As for a warranty, I just don't think new teachers have much in common with household appliances. And a guarantee from a university that is busy training next year's 700 candidates seems improbable. Such a program garners headlines but is unlikely to solve real problems.

The place to support new teachers is in the schools. A guarantee meaningful to new teachers should come from their more experienced colleagues. It might look something like this:

"We, your new peers, promise to keep our doors open, to listen, to withhold judgment, to offer our best advice, never to say, 'I told you so,' when you ignore it. We promise to invite you to our after-school gatherings and to introduce you with gusto when you arrive. We promise to help you circumnavigate the campus and also such rules as must be circumvented. And on those days when an errant child has caused you to forget, we promise to remind you why you became a teacher in the first place. We solemnly swear to be there when you need us."

New teachers deserve nothing less.

Carol Jago
English Teacher
Santa Monica, Calif.

Regulations Fuel Classroom Exodus



To the Editor:

Jana S. Eaton's "The 'Excuse' Schools," March 10, 1999, is a great piece. She candidly describes the frustrations most teachers feel because of the federal government's interference in our classrooms. How can we deliver a high-quality product when we are not allowed to set reasonable expectations for our learning-disabled students to reach?

The federal laws governing the education of students with disabilities have turned classroom teachers into "enablers"--the result, "learned helplessness" on the part of our learning-disabled students. I believe that teachers are leaving the profession not only because of low salaries, but also because of the frustrations imposed on us by federal regulations, as interpreted and misinterpreted by those around us.

Donna Garner
Hewitt, Texas

Reform Target: Obsolete System



To the Editor:

While one can sympathize with Perry Oldham's concerns over intrusions and distractions in the classroom, ("Contending With Distraction," March 3, 1999), I feel compelled to respond to his theme in relation to the tone pervading much of what was reported in that issue.

The methods of education making news as we enter the 21st century appear to be basically the same as when we entered the 20th century. Reform revolves around calls for grade retention and teaching phonics. No matter who you are--governor, mayor, or anyone else--if you can say the phrases "retention vs. social promotion," "phonics vs. whole language," and "higher standards," you're an educational expert.

The next level of expertise involves a desire to maintain the sanctity of the safe, conventional classroom, that oasis that offers our children a temporary stay against confusion. This is far too simple. The reality is that, yes, our children are different from how they were in the past, our world is different, and, no, we or they are not going back to the way we were. As Neil Postman correctly points out in The End of Education, the central tenets that supported public education in ages past no longer exist, at least not in the form they were in before the advent of the information age. Technology has changed how students learn, but unfortunately not how we instruct. The real world's intrusions into the safe systems of the schools will only be increasing.

And simple attempts at reform will only increase the gap between what has to be done and what is being done. Serious school reform must mean implementing new and expanded curricula and instructional methods, using technology and assessments that require research and questioning. Thinking deeply and broadly about issues should underlie any actions we take. A yearly calendar, as opposed to an agriculturally based 180-day calendar, and research that is available and being used on a 7-day, 24-hour basis--as now exists outside our schools--should shape our educational system.

Today's typical reform advocate sees symptoms such as failing city schools and bored students, but fails to understand their source in outdated structures. They are treating symptoms, not causes, which is not a comforting vision for the future.

Leon Botstein writes in Jefferson's Children that "the problems we face have as much to do with motivation and linking learning to life in age-appropriate ways, as with defining proper tests and standards." The underlying cause for the dissatisfaction between the public's expectations and schools' performance is rooted in the dissonance between an aging, industrial-based organization and a modern, rapidly evolving information-age society.

Unless public educators take strong and dramatic steps to address underlying obsolescence in the areas of curriculum, instruction, assessment, and use of time and technology, the public will continue to focus on quick-fix solutions that will not only fail, but will, in doing so, further undermine public education.

Linking education to the real world, being compassionate, employing meaningful research, and ceasing to blame the students and their parents are the first steps to accepting responsibility and creating educational systems that fit our society.

Barnett Sturm
Superintendent of Schools
Cairo-Durham Central School District Cairo, N.Y.

More Testimony on Smaller Schools



To the Editor:

What a refreshing Commentary by Andrew Rotherham about the many advantages students receive at a small high school ("When It Comes to School Size, Smaller Is Better," Feb. 24, 1999). As an assistant principal at a small rural high school, I would offer a few more benefits:

The small size of my school gives me the opportunity to know all the students. With about 180 to 200 entering freshman each year, I can learn names and faces in about two weeks. This enables me to spot strangers who come on campus without permission or to cause trouble. Although large high schools usually have more than one assistant principal, recognizing nonstudents from among the 3,500 to 5,000 students on their campuses must be close to impossible for these administrators.

Students in a small high school also benefit from increased access to support services. Some students in large high schools invariably fall between the cracks because of the overwhelming problems all students bring to school. But our counseling department, even though understaffed, still has the ability to offer all of our students that extra help that can make their education successful. A small school also gives every student the opportunity to connect with someone else, so that no student feels totally alone. These connections can be with counselors, administrators, teachers, classroom aides, or community members.

The high school of the future needs to be no bigger than 600 to 700 students. Mr. Rotherham cites educational research to back up this statement. I offer my real-life experiences. Small high schools do provide students a better educational setting. The politicians in charge of school funding and construction must be made to realize that smaller is better.

Mark D. Babiarz
Assistant Prinicpal
Woodlake High School
Woodlake, Calif.

Essayist Defends Voucher Stance



To the Editor:

I'd like to reply to two letters written about my Commentary, "Bribing Students Out of Public Schools," Jan. 27, 1999. Leon J. Leonard, who chairs a county board of education in Georgia, takes me to task in his letter, primarily because I am a teacher-educator ("Voucher 'Bribes': Why Parents, Professors Disagree," Letters, March 10, 1999). He asserts that such people remain out of touch with public opinion, oppose rigorous academic standards, and, in general, prepare teachers poorly for their work. Although I would be pleased to debate these charges with Mr. Leonard, here I have only the space to say that none of his attacks on professors of education is responsive to the issues I raised in my Commentary, which dealt with private school enrollment trends and vouchers.

In my essay, I argued that voucher advocates' use of "exodus" metaphors to conjure up flight from public schools just doesn't square with reality. The share of K-12 students enrolled in private schools is not only low--about 11 percent--but it has been remarkably stable throughout this century and especially during the 1990s. Today, despite several decades of sustained criticism of public education, even families with the money to send their children to whatever schools they wish are not switching to private schools. Mr. Leonard ignores all these points, but he does respond to one thing I wrote: He objects to my characterizing vouchers as "bribes." David Lemire lodges the same objection in his letter ("Giving a Choice Is Not a Bribe," Letters, Feb. 17, 1999).

I stand by my use of the admittedly provocative word "bribes," although I don't mean to imply vouchers are necessarily an "inducement to do something dishonest or unethical," as Mr. Lemire claims. Bribes are indeed inducements, according to my dictionary, but not always to do something wrong. I believe private schools can be right for some children, and in my Commentary I went so far as to confess I can sympathize with arguments in favor of means-tested vouchers limited to poor and minority students. But, curiously enough, Messrs. Leonard and Lemire do not mention such students in their letters.

This telling omission lends support to the concluding point of my Commentary, a prediction that the current campaign for means-tested vouchers, if successful, will prove to be the opening move in a game of political strategy whereby the face value of vouchers will be increased and income restrictions will be eased. Eventually, middle- and upper-income families who are currently satisfied with their local public schools will not only become eligible for vouchers, they will be tempted to use them. Money talks. A family unwilling to switch to private schooling for, say, $1,000 per student will surely be more likely to make the move when the inducement rises to $3,500, $4,000, or $5,000. That's the way politics and markets work.

Voucher advocates realize that, of course, and those in their ranks who are determined to get students out of public schools will see to it that the bidding for students continues until an exodus finally occurs. And that will amount to using public money (which, as Mr. Leonard points out, comes from taxpayers' pockets) to bribe students out of public schools.

Joseph W. Newman
Professor and Chairman
Educational Leadership and Foundations
University of South Alabama
Mobile, Ala.

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