Published Online: August 2, 2000
Published in Print: August 2, 2000, as Letters

Letter

Letters

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints

Blame Colleges for AP-Credit Decline

To the Editor:

Reading your article on a new analysis of Advanced Placement credit ("Study Suggests Fewer Students Receive AP Credit," July 12, 2000), I was struck by the conclusions of the study's author, which seem to confuse cause and effect. He cites the College Board's standards as the cause of the decline in credit.

But as Lee Jones of the College Board points out, the standards have not declined and continue to be validated through an excellent process: giving examinations to college students taking comparable introductory courses, comparing the results with the students' grades, and tracking their progress in the next-level course.

I suggest that one cause of fewer students' receiving credit for AP coursework is the desire of many colleges and universities to elevate their status—even if the institution itself has not changed one iota. As an example, when I was a superintendent in California, a highly prestigious university in the San Francisco Bay area readily accepted a 3 (the score on the AP exam accepted by most higher education institutions), but a nearby community college would accept only a 4 or 5 score. Farther north, I had the interesting experience of interdepartmental rivalry at a community college determining what would be acceptable. The mathematics department would only accept a 4 or above; other departments accepted a 3.

In short, the College Board is doing a fine job of validating its standards. What is less clear is whether the author of the study truly undertands the many influences that determine why higher education accepts or rejects a particular grade on an AP examination.

Joseph M. Appel
Retired Superintendent
Clinton, N.J.


Telling Only Part of Market-Theory Story

To the Editor:

In his provocative essay "Market Theory of School Choice," (Commentary, July 12, 2000), Herbert J. Walberg makes strong and authoritative statements about research findings. Unfortunately, he tells only part of the story.

He cites research by the Harvard University economist Caroline Hoxby that demonstrates the beneficial effects of competition for public schools. Indeed, her papers do support this conclusion, and they were seminal contributions to the school choice debate. More recently, several other economists have used the same quantitative methods as Ms. Hoxby to arrive at considerably less optimistic conclusions about competition. These include Christopher Jepsen of Northwestern University, Robert McMillan of Stanford University, and William Sander of DePaul University. The conclusions of rigorous economic research are not in agreement on this matter, and it is misleading to suggest otherwise.

Mr. Walberg goes on to cite experiments in Dayton, Ohio; Washington; and New York City conducted by Paul E. Peterson of Harvard University and his colleagues. He says that Mr. Peterson "randomly assigned mostly poor students ... to remain in their assigned public schools or to go to private schools of their choice." In fact, the researchers randomly chose students to receive private school vouchers. Students then chose whether or not to attend private schools, and a large proportion of them ultimately chose not to do so in each experiment.

Mr. Walberg then states that private school costs are half those in public schools. This is a compelling notion, but there is no empirical evidence in the experiments that supports this claim. In fact, there is no comprehensive cost comparison of private and public schools in the economic literature (excluding a 1968 study by Ernest Bartell). Mr. Walberg's statement resembles the "anecdote" and "conjecture" that he criticizes in the same paragraph.

Finally, Mr. Walberg notes the experimental finding that parents of private school students are more satisfied. This is an accurate, if limited, summary of the findings. It does not mention whether academic achievement improved. The Dayton and Washington experiments suggest that math achievement may increase modestly for poor minority students who attend private schools in the elementary grades. The findings on reading are less optimistic (they are not statistically different from zero at 5 percent).

In the New York experiment, there are positive effects in reading and math, on the order of 10 percent of a standard deviation in grades 2-5 (although the math result is not statistically significant at 5 percent). To provide a comparison, this change is about 10 points on the SAT. These are interesting, even encouraging findings, but they are not sweeping improvements— which may explain why they weren't mentioned.

Mr. Walberg is right that we should not ignore research in making public policy. But neither should we read it selectively.

Patrick McEwan
Assistant Director for Research
National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education
Teachers College, Columbia University
New York, N.Y.


A Gap in Scores, Not Achievement

To the Editor:

Your article about gender differences in math "achievement" ("Gender Gap in Math Achievement Closing, Analysis Finds," June 21, 2000) illustrates a widespread misconception about the very nature of achievement. Let's get real: You're talking about test scores, not achievement, and there is a difference.

In fact, considerable evidence has demonstrated that, for example, young women do worse than males on SAT-type math tests and yet significantly outperform males in college math classes. In a more realistic sense, then, the actual achievement gap is exactly reversed from the one your article discusses. The gender differences in math performance your article notes point to a test-score gap, not an achievement gap. This means that the skills and abilities that permit one to perform well on high-stakes tests are not the same skills and abilities that permit one to perform well the actual work.

It's high time we recognize the difference.

Peter Sacks
Boise, Idaho

The writer is the author of Standardized Minds: The High Price of America's Testing Culture and What We Can Do To Change It (Perseus Books).


Clarifying the Math in 'No Excuses' Letter

To the Editor:

In my letter of July 12, 2000 ("No Excuses: A Report's 'Curious Endorsement' Draws Further Comment," July 12, 2000), a line was dropped, and the result could lead readers to call into question my capacity with arithmetic. As printed, the lines read: "With this background, he apparently found 21 high-poverty, high-performing schools. The import of the fact that he could actually find only 17 seems to have been overlooked." The missing line noted that four of the schools were private, leaving only 17 public schools.

Gerald W. Bracey
Alexandria, Va.


Teach Work Skills in High Schools

To the Editor:

I was pleased to see your article "Career-Prep High Schools Let Students Get Their Feet Wet," (June 21, 2000), which featured the innovative programs offered at the Marine Academy of Science and Technology in Sandy Hook, N.J., and Saunders Trade and Technical High School in Yonkers, N.Y. It is imperative that we redefine a "high school experience," and that we better market to students and their parents the benefits of good business, technical, and occupational programs.

When high school students elect to augment their academic programs with business, technical, or occupational courses, it does not preclude college. Many occupational programs, for example, are supported by tech-prep, a federally funded enrichment program that promotes the "2 + 2" model. This means two years of business/technical training at the high school level, with well- integrated academic coursework, plus a minimum of two years at a college or technical institute.

Occupational classes also provide teenagers with the opportunity to meet focused, positive peers. A good curriculum presents the student not only with challenging academic courses, but also with an environment comparable to that of a typical workplace: Students are expected to work both independently and cooperatively, as contributing members of a team. They are given on-site, work-based learning experiences through internships, job shadowing, and job-placement opportunities.

Many high school administrators are quick to boast about the number of their students who go on to college. But where are the statistics on how many of them actually complete their college educations and go on to become gainfully employed?

Though guidance counselors generally advise students that it is their right to acquire a background in a business, technical, or occupational area in addition to their academic requirements, many students—and often their parents as well— still believe that an academic education and a business, technical, occupational education are mutually exclusive. They are not.

Moreover, there is more dignity in being a highly paid technician than in being a floundering college dropout with no particular marketable skills. Some people actually prefer the satisfaction derived from working with their hands. Even if a student chooses not to pursue the occupational area after high school, what has he or she lost? At the very least, such students will have acquired a life skill that may become an avocation if not a vocation.

It behooves us as responsible educators to follow the labor-market trends and projections before making decisions about what programs to eliminate. The latest indicators point to shortages of skilled labor in such areas as technology, manufacturing, health, communications, and construction. The handwriting is on the wall.

When this generation of seasoned, skilled workers retires, who is going to replace them? A shortage of such workers will have a deeply negative impact on state economies as well as the national economy. To quote the gifted educator Elliot Eisner, "The function of school is not to help kids do well in school. The function of school is to help kids to do well in life."

Arthur B. Fisher
Tarrytown, N.Y.


Arizona Lawmaker Explains Her Vote

To the Editor:

Regarding your article "Arizona To Hold Referendum on Tax Increase for Schools," (July 12, 2000): Yes, I stated on the floor of the Arizona House of Representatives that I hated the education tax bill supported by the governor and House Democrats because it causes a 21-year, 12 percent state sales-tax increase. I voted yes on the bill because of the many calls requesting me to let the public vote on the measure and because I voted to send the stadium bill to the ballot. These are the other basic inadequacies and flaws in the bill:

1. It does nothing to lower high administrative costs. Only 57 percent of education dollars make it to the classroom. There were four different amendments rejected by Rep. Mike Gardner and the Democrats that would unify and/or consolidate school districts. Phoenix Union High School District alone has 13 elementary districts feeding into it; that's 13 additional superintendents, curriculum directors, transportation directors, and so on.

2. The bill provides for no increase in the current 1.9 hours of daily instructional time required for kindergartners.

3. Rep. Gardner and the Democrats did not support the increased instruction time for 1st through 3rd grade. Currently, state statute requires 692 hours for grades 1-3, while grades 4-6 require 865 hours. They should be the same, but some districts send grades 1-3 home an hour early, losing 173 hours of instructional time per year, but also increasing bus- transportation expenses.

4. The bill calls for nearly $8 million to be spent for additional school resource officers, on-campus police officers. I have always supported the resource-officer program, but to double it is excessive when that funding could go for reduced class sizes. It will also result in taking police officers off the street, something that is particularly difficult when the city of Phoenix alone is currently short 97 officers.

5. The bill provides that principals, without input from site councils, can operate financially independent of school districts. Principals will receive one-third of their money in July, prior to school starting. This issue has been a problem with charter schools that spend their funding and do not have enough money to pay salaries toward the end of the year. The bill does not address how the rest of the apportionment of money will be given to the principal.

6. Teachers and classrooms will receive nothing until 2002, whereas the defeated House plan, known as REWARD, would have given $3,000 directly to the teachers starting in July 2001 and every year thereafter.

7. Under the Gardner bill, corporations will receive another $70 million income-tax cut this coming January, while working families will face a sales-tax increase of nearly half a billion dollars.

8. By 2011, this bill will need $889 million from the general fund, over and above what is collected from the sales tax. It will demand all future growth in the budget, and no other worthy programs will have the ability to grow, including mental-health programs.

Clearly, this effort by the governor, Mr. Gardner, and the House Democrats misses the mark. It has the potential of devastating family budgets and state budgets well into the new millennium.

State Rep. Linda Gray
R-Maricopa County
Arizona House of Representatives
Phoenix, Ariz.


Letters on Leadership: An Essayist Responds

To the Editor:

It appears I have been misunderstood, again, benignly and willfully ( "‘The Leadership Myth’: A Real Problem, Overblown? Or an ‘Inane Attack’?," Letters, June 21, 2000).

In his letter responding to my May 31, 2000, Commentary, "The Myth of Leadership," Sam Minner supports my case by documenting administrative incompetence and obtuseness with some near-classic horror stories that match the best of the "worst" of what I and many others have experienced over the years, all over the country. But he rightly takes me to task for painting everyone with the same brush and, in the process, failing to acknowledge the good, often courageous, and occasionally creative ones.

Indeed, among the many e-mail responses I recently received to an article that appeared in the May/June issue of The Futurist ("Radical Vision of Public Education"), two correspondents who were principals alerted me that the future design I was calling for was already alive and well and flourishing in Minnesota and Arizona. Clearly, here were two administrators who led schools that were arriving ahead of schedule.

So clearly, there are good administrators around doing good. And if I have slighted or pained you, that was not my intent. In fact, I need to revisit my argument because I think I have failed to make my position clear.

W. Edwards Deming claimed that 85 percent of all problems were the fault of managers. But whether Mr. Minner would agree with Deming's number or put it slightly lower or higher, the fact is—the good ones notwithstanding—the overwhelming majority of our administrators essentially are often problematical, obstructive, punitive, and small-minded. But the problem goes deeper than sheer numeric incompetence. Endemically and structurally, they embody the blockage of control, and, until they are removed, flow cannot happen.

The one who knows the job best is the one who does it. The teachers, not the principal, know what is best. The teachers alone can effect change. The teachers alone are in the arena of direct contact with each student and his achievement. If anything is going to happen, for good or bad, it will be because of the teachers, not anyone else. They are the fulcrums of change.

And if the principals were not constantly broadcasting their indispensability and frightening us by trembling over the future of our children, what do you think would happen? The teachers would fill the vacuum and take over and become the leaders. That is why principals have to get out of the way, just as engineers in factories had to become marginal so that teams could emerge as central. Or principals can elect the option of crossover and join the teachers as managers of learning and form a new collaborative or mutual leadership. So forgive me, Mr. Minner: I am not so much slighting the people as the position, the sinners as the sin.

As for the letters of Vincent L. Ferrandino and Gerald N. Tirozzi, what can I say? I knew, obviously, that it was always dangerous to be the messenger of bad news, but I did not expect that the way these two would kill the messenger would be in the form of character assassination and challenging my experience and knowledge. Cheap shot, Mr. Ferrandino and Mr. Tirozzi.

Unlike Mr. Minner, who cites chapter and verse, concedes and questions, and finally asks for balance, what do these two apologists/lobbyists have to say? It is verbally all accusation and rhetoric. I am called inane, ignorant, dispiriting, belittling, and so forth. I am accused of making it more difficult to attract qualified candidates, endangering the future of our children, and, of course, jeopardizing school reform. I never knew "inane" could be that powerful, but then I do not have the expertise these representatives of the elementary and secondary principals in the United States do in that area.

Irving H. Buchen
Fort Myers, Fla.


Extracurricular or'Cocurricular'?

To the Editor:

In "The Burden of Faulty Attitudes," (Commentary, May 10, 2000), Janine Bempechat does not seem to realize that not all learning takes place in the classroom or in the core curriculum subjects. She asks us to "rein in our commitment to extracurricular activities." But her use of the term extracurricular in reference to school- sponsored activities is itself the reflection of a faulty attitude.

School- sponsored activities should have an educational purpose and, thus, are "cocurricular." Extracurricular activities are those activities undertaken outside of school. One of the recommendations from the National Association of Secondary School Principals' report "Breaking Ranks: Changing an American Institution" includes this statement: "The concept of extracurricular serves no useful purpose. ... We propose to scrap this outmoded term and instead call these activities cocurricular, emphasizing that they are integral to the educational program."

I invite Education Week to join the NASSP and use the term "cocurricular" instead of extracurricular when referring to school- sponsored student activities.

Ms. Bempechat implies that for students to acquire skills, they must perform tasks that require analysis to synthesize information in new and creative ways. Personally, I have seen those skills developed more through the cocurricular student-activities program than in the classroom. Putting on a prom, a homecoming parade, or a play, or lobbying the school board on behalf of the student body, all require those skills. Many student activities serve as a practicum for students to use the skills learned in the classroom or from their activity adviser. Many also teach skills that employers find valuable: goal setting, organization, time management, communication, decisionmaking, problem-solving, and group dynamics, to name a few.

But Ms. Bempechat seems to feel that kids can't be involved in activities and maintain high academic standards. I agree that a balance must be maintained, and that students should not participate in too many activities at the expense of their studies. But a number of studies suggest that students who participate in activities are more successful academically. Perhaps we need to believe in the formula "Academics + Activities = Excellence."

Rocco M. Marano
Director
Department of Student Activities
National Association of Secondary School Principals
Reston, Va.


Testing and Cheating: The Real Correlation

To the Editor:

The focus on improper testing procedures by a handful of teachers and principals ("As Stakes Rise, Definition of Cheating Blurs," June 21, 2000) distracts us from the more profound ways the high-stakes-testing mania cheats students and society.

As states intensify the pressure to raise scores, increasing numbers of schools are becoming exam-coaching factories with little time for real teaching and learning. In Florida, for example, educators acknowledge that they devote writing classes to drilling students on formulaic responses to the state test's prompts. Honing this artificial skill will not prepare students for real- world writing.

Similarly, the Rice University professor Linda McNeil found that in Texas, many students whose scores were rising on the state reading test were not really able to read. Rather, they could scan answers and short passages for key words in order to fill in the wanted bubble. Further, many could not read beyond a few consecutive paragraphs because they never have to: The test consists of short, disconnected passages, so that is all they practice on.

This cheats students out of a real education. Time spent on test prep could be spent on reading and discussing real books or writing something meaningful, to say nothing of learning history, science, and art, subjects that are often dropped to focus on those that are tested. In the name of raising standards, education is narrowed and dumbed down. Sadly, this reductive schooling is now expanding into longer school days, after-school programs, Saturday classes, and summers in school, all to raise test scores, not to educate. What does this do to childhood, and what kinds of adults will be the result?

There are those who claim that now, at least, the children are learning "something." But the "something" is a substitute for real learning, and the focus on raising scores diverts attention from the real work of improving schools.

The efforts to raise average scores also leads some schools to mislabel students as special-needs so they are exempt from the test or so their scores do not count in "accountability" ratings, to retain children in grade, and to simply "disenroll" students with low scores. If this is not cheating, what is?

The inflated results on tests cheat the public. Genuine accountability informs the community about conditions in schools, including student outcomes, and it supports meaningful educational improvement. Test scores parading as accountability do neither.

When teaching is reduced to test coaching, students may be cheated out of good teachers. Why would strong, active, intellectually curious, and emotionally caring people become inspectors on the test-taking assembly line? As Deborah Meier argues, the testing regime also cheats children out of appropriate adult role models—instead of powerful educators, students get functionaries who are denied authority to make decisions.

While children fail to gain a good education, while schooling is trivialized, while parents and the community are denied real information, while children are denied strong role models, and while the opportunity to really improve schools is squandered, politicians and business leaders seeking quick fixes continue to claim that test-score gains represent actual improvement.

The real consequences of the testing mania are that society as a whole is cheated. That is far worse than a few cases of overt cheating by teachers and administrators.

Monty Neill
Executive Director
FairTest
Cambridge, Mass.


Can Preschool Be Institutionalization?

To the Editor:

The concept of universal preschool ("Don't Skimp on Preschool, Early-Childhood Study Urges," July 12, 2000) undermines the influence of the family in the life of young children.

We are institutionalizing our youngest citizens during the crucial years when they need to bond with the significant adults in their lives— ideally, their parents and extended family, not a series of teachers and caregivers. Universal care also removes the option of part-day and part-year participation, reducing the amount of time families spend together. Unless children experience these foundational relationships in their formative years, future success in relationships is less likely.

In the 1950s and 1960s, we decried the institutionalization of young children by the Soviet and Chinese governments, yet isn't that what we are proposing when we promote universal preschool? We are telling families the state will take care of their children. Our efforts would be more wisely spent in teaching parents how to effectively be their child's first teacher.

Barbara Lynn
Jacksonville Beach, Fla.


A Visitor's Perspective on Performance Pay

To the Editor:

In response to your article on linking teacher performance to pay ("NEA Delegates Take Hard Line Against Pay for Performance ," July 12, 2000), I begin by saying that England, too, has debated this over the past 10 years. In addition, the country has brought in a national curriculum and standardized national testing over the same time period.

As a teacher trained in New Zealand who taught for 20 years in England, I came to the United States to find out what it was in your schooling that gave Americans the "I can achieve anything—I just have to find a way" philosophy.

I have worked in three school settings here, public and private. I see that there is something very special in the celebration of each phase of schooling, and that graduation is very special. It requires that a student not just be able to regurgitate facts, but to have participated in community service, senior projects, and to have attended school regularly.

In England and New Zealand, students pass an exam in the third year of high school, and, if they are going on to college, take a fourth year of schooling and then another examination. The results are received in the mail, and there is not the huge feeling of achievement that seems to occur here. In fact, half of those sitting for the test know that they will fail, as that is how the distribution runs. So instead of the "I can if I try" mentality, half the students don't try because they know they don't stand a chance.

But not many teachers would want my American job—even in the three schools that I have taught in, and with the type of students that I teach—if the performance of the "raw material" was the judgment basis for pay purposes.

Teachers have enough accountability in the United States, especially in California, where I currently teach. They must continually update their credentials. This does not happen in New Zealand or in England. Teachers should be current, of course, but in my 27 years of teaching, this U.S. experience was the first enforced learning that I ever did. Before, all extra learning came from my own desire to be up to date with current thinking.

Those who are not in teaching want to look at the profession from a business standpoint. The fact is that the raw material we work with is not quantifiable in business terms. And it differs vastly—not just between students, but between classes, years, and subjects. There is no magic formula to judge a good teacher. Recompense should, however, at least allow teachers to live comfortably in the community in which they teach, which is definitely not the case for teachers here in the San Francisco and San Jose areas. Even with the San Jose Department of Housing offering me a $40,000 interest-free loan, it is incredibly difficult to find housing I can afford on my salary. Beginning teachers just don't stand a chance, and our school is losing a considerable number of teachers.

So, should we add out-of- pocket expenses for just being a teacher to the salary equation, and compensation for the stress factor of dealing with violent students? Teaching is not like any other profession and cannot be run like a business; it's a service. We enjoy what we do and need to be paid for the lifetime of knowledge we give to our students.

Suzanne Brown
Fremont, Calif.


'Lessons From Life': How Do Children Perform When They Are Being Monitored and Paid?

To the Editor:

Surely they jest! Do the professors and researchers conducting the "Lessons From Life" study honestly believe that the truths they proudly proclaim are unknown to teachers? ( "Lessons From Life," July 12, 2000).

"We'll show the K- 12 world that something comes before K," says a University of Virginia education professor. "We've implicitly acted as if everybody comes to the school starting line reasonably at the same place," says a psychology professor in Chicago. Researchers at four universities found that "children who had experienced higher-quality child care as preschoolers were having greater success in school."

Surely they jest in suggesting that teachers do not know these truths and have not known them for decades. Why else has America invested so heavily in Head Start programs since the 1960s? Why have countless parents enrolled their children in quality preschool programs, regardless of whether mothers worked? Why have libraries and recreation centers long sponsored a wealth of activities for preschoolers? Why do new elementary teachers pray to be assigned to schools where children enter with a foundation for success? And why do parents spend precious resources on private schools for their children?

Teachers know that education is a continuum, and that the process begins at birth. According to the July 17, 2000, issue of Time magazine, nearly three out of five normal-birthweight babies graduate from high school by age 19. Fewer than one out of five low-birthweight babies do so. A dramatic "lesson from life" begins when life begins. One can imagine the many factors that result in low-birthweight babies, and how these factors continue to shape a child's development.

"Education doesn't start in kindergarten. It starts from day one," says the study's scientific coordinator from the National Institutes of Health. Really? Most of the 1,000 children still enrolled in this study are entering 4th grade, and researchers have followed them through "a typical day once a year, recording detailed descriptions of how they spend their time." What is a once-a-year typical day in elementary school? There are so many skills and concepts taught, such varied activities and dynamics occurring. Do the visitors arrive unannounced hoping to see what is typical?

Researchers study "the classroom climate," which is altered by the presence of adult guests. They visit children's homes and interview families who are on their best behavior. Money is given to parents each time they complete a survey or allow a researcher into their home. The 9-year-old subjects will now wear devices to record their activity levels and will also receive money. How do children perform when they are being monitored and paid? The Heisenberg principle dictates that measurement of an active process affects the process itself. Any teacher knows that applies to children.

The focus of this research is to correlate family life and child care to educational success. Teachers are a vital link, and they too must complete "lengthy surveys about the children, the instructional program, and their own backgrounds." They must be thrilled to have this extra burden. Are they offered money as well? The article does not say. It does say that researchers "are considering an effort to gather data on genetic makeup" of the children, via blood samples or skin scrapings. How truly frightening.

I found the whole "Lessons From Life" study frightening. The representative sample is small, the participants know they are being studied and may alter their behavior, the invasion of privacy is great, and the researchers seem oblivious to what any experienced teacher already knows. Ask public school teachers like me why we send our own children to private schools, and they will tell you it is not because the teachers are better, but because the children are better behaved, motivated, and prepared. Peer-group pressure is on the pursuit of excellence. That begins in the homes, almost at birth.

Most frightening is that our future teachers are being taught by professors who have so little knowledge of what good classroom teachers know well, that education does begin long before a child enters school. How can a free society equalize the earliest experiences of its children?

Betty Raskoff Kazmin
Retired Los Angeles Teacher
Willard, Ohio


Teaching English: Like Math It Needs Grounding in the Basics

To the Editor:

For years, mathematics educators insisted they could teach math principles and the so-called basics would take care of themselves. They have finally grudgingly admitted that their approach hasn't produced as advertised ( "The New Consensus in Math: Skills Matter," Commentary, May 24, 2000).

Misguided math-teaching principles can probably be blamed on the leap from developmental brain research to pop brain-based teaching and on an abhorrence of memorizing. Educational theorists in all the disciplines seem to believe that memorizing anything will turn the child's brain to concrete, forever impenetrable by reason, imagination, or critical thinking. Apparently, these theorists have never lived with a real, live child.

Is it too much to ask that the theoreticians of English and history do some soul-searching, too? Math and science may make the modern world go round, but language and history help us determine in what direction we want that world to spin.

Like it or not, the whole world wants to learn English as a means of understanding and working together and, frankly, making money. English has always been a polyglot language with no problem incorporating new words and ideas from other languages. Whether or not one approves of how and why this has occurred is irrelevant. English developed both by being conquered and conquering, by force and by the promise of the Statue of Liberty.

Cultures are, in a way, like biological evolution, the more diversity, the greater the chance, not only of survival, but also of propagation. The English language encompasses the world. It is not simply an elitist language driving out everything else. Changes are organic and useful, rather than ideological, despite efforts by English-speaking conquerors in the past to forbid the use of some indigenous languages. This was wrong, but it is just as wrong, I believe, to dumb down English teaching for everybody on the grounds that learning conventional English will destroy authenticity.

The results of this practice have been devastating for everybody, leading to paranoid conspiracy theories, enhancing group hostility, and making interactive communication increasingly difficult. Even Harvard University has to have remedial writing classes for a sizable minority of its freshmen classes.

We can't blame the students, however, for this sad state. We have developed the means for instant communication around the world and then deliberately left the users of it tongue-tied. Sometimes, the right word can be worth a thousand pictures.

If, ultimately, understanding math requires the teaching of principles at some point, so does the teaching of English. Let educators recognize that English and English grammar are based on useful principles that can be understood, just as math principles can. In written language, in particular, rules serve to make words clear. As the most economical means of communication, language expands human potential and spheres of activity. We use a relatively limited number of words in different ways to express a vast number of ideas. Grammar makes the written word, unaided by tone of voice, pauses, facial expressions, or inflection, easily understood. Understanding language frees humans from the bonds of instinct or having to invent the wheel individually.

Of course, some people will be too rigid about rules, just as there are those now who are too rigid in their abhorrence of any structure whatsoever. There is no perfect way. We simply try to employ what seems to be the most effective and useful means. When a student understands the rules, the student can decide when following them enhances understanding and when to break them and for what end.

Some researchers believe that the human brain, upon reaching the stage of spoken words, developed an organizing ability, grammar, to make those words more useful in communicating. If English is fast becoming a universal language, then English grammar becomes important for understanding. English words and grammar will change, as they always have, but these changes should occur for reasons of enrichment and usefulness, not by forcing school-of- education ideology on children.

Teachers must know subject-matter principles themselves. Even Rousseau, whose romanticism inspires so much educational ideology, recognized the role of the teacher. The teacher, he wrote, should actually direct and control the child's values and interests, all the while letting the child think he is in control. "No subjection is so useful as that which retains the appearance of liberty; for thus the will itself is made captive. ... Doubtless he ought to do only what he pleases; but your choice ought to control his wishes."

How can modern teachers, who refer to themselves as "facilitators," lead anyone if they don't know much more than their students and they believe that teaching content not only serves no useful purpose because of our rapidly changing world, but would also inhibit adaptation to these changes? Their training in "process" and "feelings," rather than subject matter, reinforces children's experience, including lack of understanding of the whys of English. They are, in fact, teaching children that language really doesn't matter.

We witness the results, not only at Harvard, but when we are forced to hear terrible English from newscasters, ad writers, high school principals, and even presidential candidates.

Claire Collier
Shelburne, Vt.


Giving 'Hope and Despair' a Curricular Context

To the Editor:

I have just finished reading your June 21, 2000, issue. As a longtime vocational-technical educator, recently retired after 30 years of teaching English and then serving as an administrator in outstanding technical schools in New England, I found a curious, but not rare, juxtaposition of articles.

Starting with the Commentary on the back page, as I always do when reading Education Week, I sighed as I read Tom Vander Ark and Tony Wagner's essay Between Hope and Despair: The Case for Smaller High Schools," (Commentary, June 21, 2000). In it, these two Gates Foundation professionals cite an interesting statistic: "About one-quarter of today's students take ... college- preparatory," they write. "Half the students wander through high school on the 'general track,' ... the other quarter of the students never finish high school."

These fractions seem to add up to 100 percent, but where does that leave the many wonderful students who devote their high school years to studying a vocational-technical program, such as the literally thousands of young people that I have known and taught over the past three decades? These successful plumbers, auto technicians, aviation mechanics, chefs, and graphic designers surely do not fit neatly into any one of the "tracks" mentioned in the essay. Many do go on to college or postsecondary studies, but they are not "college prep" in the usual sense of the phrase.

What really got my attention in the same issue was another article, "Career-Prep High Schools Let Students Get Their Feet Wet," June 21, 2000, which described several very successful, innovative technical programs. Did Mr. Vander Ark and Mr. Wagner ever hear of such accomplishments? One would think that the Microsoft Corp., with its technical focus, would support, rather than ignore, such programs that serve to motivate many students to do their best once their high school offerings make sense to them on a practical level.

Some things never change, apparently, but one can always hope. Visiting technical-preparatory programs in Germany, Austria, and China makes me yearn for the day when our American system "gets over" its irrational, snobbish bent toward the philosophy that "every student must aspire to a four- year liberal arts degree," and opens itself to the rest of the world, which is miles ahead of us in applied education.

Marcia Baker
Director Emeritus
Burlington Technical Center
Burlington, Vt.

Vol. 19, Issue 43, Page 46

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories

Viewed

Emailed

Commented