Published Online: June 23, 1999
Published in Print: June 23, 1999, as Letters



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Textbook 'Quibble':That Facts Be True

To the Editor:

Your recent article on textbook errors was excellent in most of its points ("States Setting Strategies To Reduce Mistakes in Textbooks," June 2, 1999). However, Aloia Rohr, a spokeswoman for Pearson Education, did a lot to make textbook publisher Prentice Hall appear better than it is, and some of it was at my expense.

I do not quibble concerning which details should be placed before schoolchildren. Someone better trained than I am should be doing that. What I do complain bitterly about is that the details placed before children should be accurate. Prentice Hall lists six authors on the spine of its book Exploring Physical Science. Three of them have Ph.D.s in biology education, but none of them has a Ph.D in physics or physical science education.

As a consequence perhaps of untrained authors or of content reviewers (most of the 36 reviewers are grounded primarily in other sciences), the book continues with multiple errors in fact and concept. (Over 10 of the content reviewers who are listed as "science instructors" in Exploring Physical Science are listed as biology teachers in other Prentice Hall texts. The editing of their occupations allows teachers and administrators to believe that this book was reviewed by 36 people who are currently experts in this field. It was not.)

An example: The steam engine on Page 466 exhausts spent steam through a closed valve. Britannica's steam engine uses an open valve. The Smithsonian steam expert I consulted laughs at the illustration because it is so clearly impossible. Prentice Hall did this correctly in texts of 20 years ago. This is not an obscure detail. The steam engine does not work this way.

Ms. Rohr has been quoted in print that the book has even removed an impossible experiment. There are more than one.

The text invites children to do outside reading to learn about rafting, as a supplement to more traditional material on velocity vectors. The recommended book is Mark Twain's Adventures of Tom Sawyer. But (as was pointed out in print years ago) it was Huck Finn who rafted down the Mississippi.

I do not think for a moment that I am requiring some peculiar detail that is beyond the grasp of middle school students. Fact is fact, whether or not a student understands it. No student can understand a concept presented with a nonfact. Eventually, something will break down.

Children have enough to deal with these days and should not have the burden of incomprehensible texts, written by untrained people.

Please consider a follow-up article to show the enormity of the situation. This is truly a case of true or false. Unless educators hold them responsible, Pearson Education does not have to fix Exploring Physical Science. Our students and teachers deserve better. Our schools already paid for better.

Howard Lyon
Erie, Pa.

Must N.Y.C. Vouchers Be All or Nothing?

To the Editor:

Carol Ascher and Richard Gray attack Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani's attempt to provide educational opportunities for New York City students ("Substituting the Privilege of Choice for the Right to Equality," Commentary, June 2, 1999). They argue that the proposal can only help a small number of students. In other words, if you can't save them all, save none.

This ridiculous argument ignores the extensive study done by the RAND Corp. and the New York State Department of Education in 1995 which clearly demonstrates that Roman Catholic schools in New York City do a wonderful job with poor, at-risk children. This study concluded that "[t]he Catholic schools are an asset to New York state and that these schools should be assisted in meeting their financial need." Educational grants would be a fair way to help these institutions.

Ms. Ascher and Mr. Gray also argue that somehow public schools are the only place to determine what we value in society. I would argue that schools that produce educated and moral citizens are what we should value and what we should support.

Ronald T. Bowes
Assistant Superintendent for Public Policy and Development
Pittsburgh Catholic Schools
Pittsburgh, Pa.

To the Editor:

Carol Ascher and Richard Gray quote some figures in their Commentary comparing per-pupil spending in New York City versus Scarsdale, N.Y., and White Plains, N.Y. ("Substituting the Privilege of Choice for the Right to Equality," June 9, 1999.)

What they don't do is extend those per-pupil figures to indicate what would happen if Chancellor Rudolph F. Crew had that money for all his 1.1 million pupils.

Consider: Scarsdale spends $5,000 more per pupil. That would mean $5.5 billion more for the New York City kids. White Plains spends $8,500 more per pupil. That is $9.3 billion.

Would $5 billion to $9 billion a year more make any difference to New York City's public school kids?

Does money matter?

Are you kidding?

Gerald D. Levy
President, Education Group
National Executive Service Corps
New York, N.Y.

Finn, Ravitch Give Critic an Answer

To the Editor:

In commenting heatedly on the teacher-quality "manifesto" that we and dozens of others recently signed ("How To Get More of the Teachers We Need," Commentary, May 5, 1999), David Marshak sarcastically asks whether the two of us would entrust our own children and grandchildren to uncertified teachers whose qualifications consist of deep subject-matter knowledge and no red flags in their background ("Select Doctors, Too, by Fordham Method," Letters, June 9, 1999).

The answer is yes. That's exactly what we did. We each have two children, now grown, and to the best of our recollections one of them (Mr. Finn's daughter) studied with a certified teacher for one year. All four attended K-12 schools that sought out the most knowledgeable and capable instructors they could find, disregarding state-issued paper credentials. Their teachers were indeed superb education practitioners notwithstanding their lack of conventional certificates and education school training.

Our kids appear to us well-served by this experience. They all went on to good colleges and to lead good lives. One of us now has grandchildren in school, and they are having a similar experience. Mr. Marshak may have other objections to the manifesto, but he ought not stoop to character assassination and ad hominem attacks, especially when he doesn't have any idea what he's talking about.

Chester E. Finn Jr.
Thomas B. Fordham Foundation
Washington, D.C.

Diane Ravitch
Research Professor
New York University
New York, N.Y.

'Yes, Ma'am'? No, Sir: Legislating for Respect

To the Editor:

Louisiana Gov. Mike Foster is sponsoring a "Respect" bill that, if passed, would require students to say "yes, sir" and "no, ma'am" to their teachers ("'Yes, sir,' 'No, sir,'" State Journal, June 2, 1999). Thus far, the bill has garnered considerable support, passing the state Senate with a vote of 34-5. "The governor thought it was important that respect be shown in the schools to teachers," said Trey Williams, Mr. Foster's deputy press secretary. "Once you get respect back in the classroom, that's half the battle on discipline."

I agree. Students should address their teachers with respect. But the other half of the so-called battle will be won only when teachers demonstrate respect for students. Such respect takes many forms: starting class on time, having a clear lesson plan, returning student papers and tests in a timely manner, keeping a tidy classroom. Little things matter a great deal.

It also seems absurd to demand that students say "yes, ma'am" or "no, sir" to a classroom teacher outfitted in jeans and Nikes. Even in casual Southern California, such sartorial habits send a subconscious message to children. They suggest that the business being conducted here is informal and laid-back. No need to put your best foot forward. Your teacher certainly didn't when preparing to meet you this morning.

Now kindergarten teachers who spend a lot of time on their knees have good reason to dress casually, but then sheer size establishes their ascendancy over 5-year-olds. High school teachers have no such advantage. Many of the bright young people entering the profession are only a few years older than their charges. Inevitably, they struggle to establish their right to be in charge. And, as many learn the hard way, without classroom control, it is not possible to teach.

One of the easiest ways for a young teacher struggling with discipline to merit respect is to put on a shirt and tie. Of course this teacher's character and content knowledge should carry more weight than his appearance, but until those become a natural part of his visage, he needs to wear the trappings of a professional. Ultimately, respect will need to be earned, but formal attire at least deters disrespect.

I am reminded of the black-and-white habits worn by the Dominican nuns who taught me at Queen of Peace High School. The mysterious garb had a lot to do with the respect they were able to elicit. I know it wasn't that we were any more naturally inclined to pay attention to our 9th grade English teacher than kids are today, but something about Sister Albert Mary demanded it. I think the wimple helped.

Legislating for respect will likely achieve nothing. One can only wonder how the Louisiana governor plans to punish 10-year-old offenders who refuse to parrot, "Yes, sir. No, sir." Instead of passing another law, let's earn--by our teaching, by our character, by our dress--our students' respect.

Carol Jago
English Teacher
Santa Monica, Calif.

Teacher Recruitment and the 'Delta Blues'

To the Editor:

When I saw the title "Delta Blues" in your May 28, 1999, issue and saw familiar photographs of Highway 61, I let out a tired sigh and braced myself for another cliched or superficial article about education in Mississippi. Instead, I was delighted to find that you raised many critical questions about finding qualified individuals who are willing to teach and live in underresourced rural areas. As an executive director for Teach For America, I have firsthand knowledge of the challenges.

Teach For America has been in the Mississippi Delta since 1991. As of this fall, we will have placed 225 teachers in Delta public schools. Few people know how difficult it is to find, inspire, and recruit individuals whose perceptions frequently prevent them from considering a position here. TFA's task is made more difficult as we look for people who will be lifelong advocates for education.

Making the Delta more attractive to any significant number of teachers will take time. It's not just a question of salary; there are also cultural and social deficits that need to be addressed. What we can do for the here and now is work to find more people who want to be a part of and contribute to a positive change in our Delta communities and are eager to build a stronger foundation through education.

Ron Nurnberg
Executive Director
Teach For America-Mississippi Delta
Oxford, Miss.

Bilingual Battleground: Are California's Teachers the First Casualties?

To the Editor:

Thank you for your thoughtful and thorough review of the implementation of Proposition 227 in California ("California's Year on the Bilingual Battleground," June 2, 1999). The true effects of the law restricting bilingual education will only become apparent over the next few years as we observe how language-minority students are progressing through the public school system.

One important area of concern that you pointed out deserves much more public scrutiny: the impact of the law on California's teaching force. You quote one teacher who states that she is mandated to implement a program (structured English immersion) that goes totally against her beliefs. Yet, according to Section 320 of Proposition 227, a teacher can be held personally liable and open to civil litigation for perceived failure to implement a program where classroom instruction is "overwhelmingly in the English language," or "nearly all classroom instruction" is in English but "designed for children who are learning the language."

Bilingual educators know the consequences of Proposition 227, both in the short term and the long term. The California Teachers Association, the Association of Mexican American Educators, the California Association for Asian-Pacific Bilingual Education, the National Association of Bilingual Educators, and the Association of California School Administrators have filed suit in U.S. District Court (California Teachers Association v. Wilson) to have this provision of the law struck down. They claim that the provision is unconstitutionally vague and establishes an enforcement mechanism that lacks any standards to which educators can conform their conduct. Further, the law creates a chilling effect on the speech rights of educators to communicate effectively with their limited-English-proficient students both inside and outside the classroom.

Proposition 227 places public education in California on the horns of a dilemma. At a time of an increasing shortage of teachers due to high numbers of retiring educators and growing student-age populations, the majority of whom are minorities, the law places new demands and new threats on teachers. Couple this intimidating liability law for teachers with growing public clamor for "accountability" and laws designed to eliminate "social promotion." The result is to dissuade talented bilingual college graduates from entering the teaching profession, especially when they know they will be required to compromise their beliefs and underutilize their valuable linguistic abilities.

Proposition 227 shifts the burden of responsibility for teaching language-minority students away from the most qualified teachers onto teachers who are not bilingual and may or may not be trained in effective teaching strategies for bilingual learners. Consequently, in many districts, monolingual teachers with a minimum amount of training are expected to accomplish in one year what bilingual teachers with highly specialized training and skills in two languages were formerly expected to accomplish in three to five years of instruction. The power struggle and disharmony promoted by the proponents of Proposition 227 through their attacks against bilingual educators will inevitably take its toll on California's ability to attract and retain new teachers.

As we survey the "bilingual battleground" for casualties after one year under Proposition 227, let us not forget that teachers are not draftees in some army conscripted to fight the war for the hegemony of English. They are volunteers who have chosen a profession with the goal of educating children. If laws are passed that impede their goals, they will choose to go elsewhere to find professional fulfillment. Sadly, the language-minority children of California will be the losers in this political battle.

Jill Kerper Mora
Assistant Professor of Teacher Education
San Diego State University
San Diego, Calif.

Vol. 18, Issue 41, Pages 52-53

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