Published Online: October 24, 2001
Published in Print: October 24, 2001, as Letters

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Attacks' Silver Lining Will Bypass Some

To the Editor:

It is hard to argue with a caring educator like Lew Smith who wants to use the World Trade Center tragedy as an opportunity for all of us to ask, ("What Are Schools For?," Commentary, Oct. 3, 2001). Like him, good teachers have always used events in the world outside school to encourage discussion and thinking among their students and create related, hands-on projects. The cataclysmic events of Sept. 11 would surely have inspired some serious soul-searching in their creative classrooms.

We all know this is a good thing, yet inspired teachers routinely swim against the current because the institution of schooling is built around a paradigm of mass education, not individual learning and thoughtful dialogue.

Mr. Smith's recommendation that schools adopt Peter M. Senge's learning-organization model may be one that some charter and private schools will accept. However, the children who can benefit the most when a school will "suspend assumptions about why they do what they do" are located in poor, inner-city neighborhoods. I fear that here, in the classrooms and hallways where crowd control and security are priorities ahead of curriculum and learning, the World Trade Center tragedy will probably roll through like distant thunder, with no lasting effects.

Prakash Nair
President
Urban Educational Facilities for the 21st Century
Cherry Hill, N.J.

On Ritalin Studies, Beware of Sources

To the Editor:

I got a kick out of a statement by the chief executive officer of the group Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder that appeared in your Oct. 3, 2001, issue ("Stimulant-Drug Abuse in Schools Overstated, Study Says" ). The CHADD spokesperson gleefully announced that stimulants (including Ritalin) are "completely safe when appropriately administered."

Your article failed to note, however, that CHADD receives substantial funding from the drug companies that manufacture Ritalin and other stimulants. In 1996 alone, CHADD reported on tax forms that it had received over $500,000 from these drug companies. It's not surprising that the organization has become a cheerleading group for the administration of drugs to children.

Alexandra Hopkins
North Hollywood, Calif.

History Teachers and 'Truth' Telling

To the Editor:

Jonathan Zimmerman's Commentary about history teaching since the Sept. 11 attacks ("Talking About Terrorism," Oct. 3, 2001) was a very misinformed piece written by someone who is not in the classroom.

I taught high school from 1973 to 1999. I started teaching just eight months after the United States left Vietnam and right in the middle of the Watergate scandal. I also taught women's and Chicano history, as well as the U.S. history survey, and never depended on one "truth." There are plenty of teachers who don't depend on a text for the "truth." That became evident when Americans were taken hostage in Iran in 1979, and during the Gulf War in 1991.

I now teach at a community college, and once again am very aware that there are many "truths" out there. The writer of your essay needs to be careful when discussing the profession. There are many different types of teachers teaching.

Howard Shorr
Portland, Ore.

No Conflict, Letter's Writer Explains

To the Editor:

Gerald Bracey recently accused me of being less than honest in endorsing the sentiments expressed in a June 6, 2001, Commentary by Douglas B. Reeves ("Disclaimer Urged for Letter Writer," Sept. 5, 2001). He believes I should have disclosed that I am a part of Douglas Reeves' organization, the Center for Performance Assessment. But I am not and never have been. I am, however, listed on the center's Web site as an "associate" (I wasn't aware of this, but am flattered by it).

The Center for Performance Assessment lists people who are friends of the center and have presented papers at its annual conferences (I have presented at two). I leave it to readers to decide if failure to disclose this constitutes a breach of honesty.

Mike Schmoker
Flagstaff, Ariz.

Yet More Disclosure In Letters Urged

To the Editor:

Just over a month ago, you ran a fine letter from Gerald Bracey reminding all letter writers of the importance of fully disclosing any relationships they might have with the subject of their letter ("Disclaimer Urged for Letter Writer," Sept. 5, 2001).

With this reminder so fresh, I was saddened to see the recent letter from Mike Charney of the Cleveland Teachers Union ("Ohio Study Shows Whom Vouchers Aid," Letters, Oct. 3, 2001). It comments favorably on your coverage of the recent Policy Matters Ohio study ("Study: Just 1 in 5 Cleveland Voucher Pupils Left Public Schools," Sept. 19, 2001) without disclosing that Mr. Charney is a member of that organization's board of directors.

Joshua Hall
Director
Center for Education Excellence
Buckeye Institute for
Public Policy Solutions
Columbus, Ohio

Fight Racism With More Than Policies

To the Editor:

I wanted to comment on the statement of the National Urban Alliance for Effective Education, issued as a full-page paid advertisement, that was published in your Sept. 12 and Oct. 3, 2001, issues. The advertisement was ostensibly in response to my earlier Commentary on racism ("Racism and the Achievement Gap," Aug. 8, 2001).

I strongly endorse the 11 recommendations made in this statement. My emphasis on creating healing communities to eliminate racism did not imply that important changes in policy and practice are not necessary.

They are, however, not sufficient. Growing up in a racist society affects all people, those who are the target of racism and those who are not. Some people expect to eliminate these effects on an intellectual level and want to avoid the messiness that will lead to the personal transformations that are necessary in order to change policies and then fully implement them in practice. One can abolish tracking on paper, for example, and then have the teachers continue to track in their attitudes, beliefs, and relationships. Most states have laws that prohibit discrimination in housing. Yet, I know many people of color who report being discriminated against when looking for housing.

Given the attacks on Muslims after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, it is more important than ever that we develop communities where people can recover from how they have been hurt and confused and become respectful of each other.

Julian Weissglass
Professor and Director
National Coalition for Equity in Education
University of California
Santa Barbara, Calif.

Noting Philadelphia's Response to Attacks

To the Editor:

Just a word about your article on support for teachers in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks ("Teachers Delay Dealing With Own Grief, Anxiety," Oct. 10, 2001):

The Philadelphia school district closed on Sept. 12, so that staff members could spend an entire day helping one another prepare to help students cope with the tragedy. This was a time to allow our teachers, principals, counselors, nonteaching assistants, school police, lunchroom aides, and others share their concerns and help each other start the healing process.

We've gotten many e-mails from teachers and other staff members thanking us for giving them that day. One message, from a 30-year counselor, sums up the sentiments: "I cannot stress enough the effectiveness and value of providing a day for the staff in our schools to debrief ourselves prior to meeting with our students. I directly experienced the value of the school district's action to have a day of preparation for everyone. I am convinced that our time together yesterday as a staff was largely responsible for a smooth return for everyone on Sept. 13."

While we may not be the only district to close for an entire day in the wake of Sept. 11, we probably are one of only a few that spent an entire day on our teachers and other employees. I am surprised you did not include this special effort by a close-by district.

Alexis Moore
Philadelphia, Pa.

Handling 'Hot Potato' Of Religion in Schools

To the Editor:

In his letter to the editor, Jack Ferrante urges "open and objective consideration of religion" in public schools ("Character Education: Without Apology...and With Religion?," Letters, Oct. 10, 2001). Alleviating widespread ignorance about religion is certainly a laudable goal, but the difficulties in the way of doing it in a fair, balanced, inclusive, objective way are quite formidable.

There is no agreement among educators about just what should be taught, how much, and at what grade levels. Few, if any, teachers are trained or qualified to deal adequately or properly with religion.

A great many Americans are afraid that it cannot be done at all properly. Many people of various persuasions do not want their tradition examined critically, or do not want their kids exposed to ideas or facts they do not approve of. For example: Should we look critically at the development of "sacred" texts? Should we look at the dark as well as the bright sides of all religions? Should we look only at the official pronouncements of religious leaders, or more broadly at the diversity of views within each tradition?

Teaching about religion at the graduate level is easy compared to even modest efforts in grades 1 to 12. The difficulties are so great that the reluctance of educators to deal with religion is understandable. Handling hot potatoes can get one severely burned.

Perhaps the best course is to let each religious tradition provide instruction to its own kids. If religious bodies cannot teach fairly, objectively, and comprehensively about all religions, they should not complain when public schools do not do so.

Ed Doerr
Executive Director
Americans for Religious Liberty
Silver Spring, Md.

Block Scheduling: When Less Is Not More

To the Editor:

Your article on block scheduling ("Changing Times," Research, Oct. 3, 2001) touched a nerve. No existing evidence proves that block scheduling increases learning. All of its advantages are theoretical, paper-only strengths that give the appearance of great things to come, once block scheduling is adopted. Test- score improvements and the more numerous neutral results in studies of schools using block scheduling pertain not to the results of national tests, but to state or local tests, instruments geared more to public and legislative opinion and frequently changed.

Like others, I have found numerous articles touting this scheduling design, but virtually no arguments against it. I, however, researched block scheduling for my doctoral thesis. My investigation targeted teachers who had taught in both the traditional, year-long schedule and in some form of block scheduling. My research allowed me to divide these teachers into two categories.

I discovered that teachers who conducted "activity classes," such as arts and vocational classes, loved the scheduling device. But even this represented a divided opinion. Teachers who appreciated the longer instructional times lamented the inability to keep a group of students together long enough for participation in interschool competitions.

Academic teachers, on the other hand, disliked the scheduling design, for they felt they lacked the time to cover the curriculum material designated for the class or for the state tests. The reason is simple. The number of instructional hours per semester is reduced from 165 hours to 135 hours. This translates into 36 fewer class periods per class than a teacher would have with the traditional schedule, or 20 fewer classes with block scheduling. Teachers have just enough time to dispense knowledge, but no time to promote understanding.

Daniel Rettig, a proponent of block scheduling and a sometime co-author with Robert Lynn Canady, who was quoted extensively in your article, fielded questions from a group of math teachers during a seminar on block scheduling that I attended. His solution to the complaint about the inability to cover required subject matter was to compel students to take another course in the subject. Such logic displays one great fallacy in block scheduling: The question of time is not what block-scheduling advocates direct it to be.

Block scheduling, moreover, places students in classrooms for periods of time that are far beyond the scientifically noted span of attention. In my study, the teachers in academic courses found this situation detrimental to the learning process, especially for average or below-average students. Not only did these students have fewer class periods of instruction, but they also had much more time wasted at the end of classes because they could no longer be kept engaged.

The "activities" teachers in my study said they used the time at the end of these long sessions mostly for classroom management. Attention to the subject had already been lost. So, it would seem, the decreased misbehavior in hallways due to fewer class changes translated into more periods of unsettled classroom conditions. Fewer class periods and increased minutes of useless class time do not create greater learning. In this case, less is not more.

Frederic M. Muse
Asheville, N.C.

To the Editor:

The fact that you are bringing attention to a credible scheduling alternative for educators to consider is a good idea. The fact that you gave Jeff Lindsay and his "Cracked Planet" Web site exposure in your story on block scheduling is both laughable and troubling.

A publication as respected as yours should only be referencing resources that are credible. My definition of a credible source is as follows: an individual who has had at least three years of experience with a specific initiative and the research and data (both qualitative and quantitative) to support a theory, concept, or opinion. I don't believe Mr. Lindsay has the "right stuff" to be quoted in the same article with University of Virginia emeritus professor Robert Lynn Canady.

In addition, references in the article to Canadian studies that do not align with or apply to scheduling initiatives in the United States are irrelevant. Alternative scheduling, as a school reform initiative, is simply a tool and vehicle which, when implemented properly, has the ability to help K-12 schools improve school environment, teaching and learning in the classroom, and, ultimately, student-achievement results.

There are literally hundreds of studies by universities, departments of education, and local school systems that have found support for the notion that the right schedule for the right school at the right time, when implemented well, can and usually does have a significant impact on school improvement.

David S. Hottenstein
President
Educational Impact Online
Oro Valley, Ariz.

Standards Critique: 'Masking Hyperbole In Readable Prose

To the Editor:

Alfie Kohn, in his own well-meaning way, has masked hyperbole in readable prose ("Beware of the Standards, Not Just the Tests," Commentary, Sept. 26, 2001).

For example, he says that when support for outcome standards gets translated into specifics, it "comes to mean cut scores on standardized tests and becomes downright dangerous." Then he tries to engage us with metaphor: He suggests that telling a waiter how to cook your hamburger is like declaring to students that they will study polygons.

Nevertheless, I read on because Mr. Kohn usually has some good points to make. His four criteria for educational standards have a compelling ring to them: "How specific? How quantifiable? How uniform? And, guidelines or mandates?"

Unfortunately, here is what I understood about his concern with standards.

Being specific is no good. Somehow having specific goals eliminates the opportunity for students to think deeply and ensures that teachers will rely on drill and practice. This is a demeaning assertion about all of our good teachers. Good teachers weave higher-level-thinking practice into their instruction and make connections with related material. This ensures that students master important knowledge and skills and think deeper than just memorization.

Good standards cannot be measurable. Standards should emphasize intrinsic motivation and intellectual exploration. First, it strikes me that more fundamental knowledge and skills should be attended to before we can engage in more sophisticated, but psychologically ambiguous goals. All disciplines have vocabulary and foundations upon which we base our exploration. It is difficult to be intrinsically motivated for a discipline without knowledge of the discipline. Secondly, I view Mr. Kohn's criticism as a slippery way to avoid dealing with accountability. The important goals are not measurable; hence, schools need not bother showing parents and taxpayers any evidence of success.

Uniform standards mean that there is something wrong with a common body of knowledge. Processes of a representative democracy, principles of biology, and coherent paragraph construction, all of which are age appropriate, should not be required of all students across all states? Mr. Kohn suggests that we should not require this "stuff ... by the time a [student] is in 8th grade." Contrary to his assertions, however, essential knowledge and skills continue to be mastered well into the college years.

Mandates from the state are unfair. So, somehow, state taxpayers, who may on average contribute from one-quarter to half of education dollars, cannot demand from schools that the up-and-coming citizenry demonstrate certain knowledge and skills. And accountability laws passed by their representatives somehow "micro-manage" and "insult" educators. On the contrary, students are insulted if minimum curricular standards are not guaranteed. That is why they are mandated.

I unabashedly support standards. Permit me the following simple analogy to a trip.

Learning is a journey, and like any journey requires a map. It requires the use of observable and significant markers to measure progress along the way. These markers, by their very nature, must be standardized, like readily identifiable road signs or geographic landmarks. And their use must be mandated, as are warnings that drivers should stop at a stop sign, slow to the speed indicated, watch out for the road hazard. This doesn't mean that we should ignore the scenery, fail to indulge in exploration, or skip side excursions.

The same holds true for educational standards: Teachers and students must know where they are going (goals), how to get there (strategies), and whether or not they have arrived (measures of achievement). Clear, measurable goals for learners and teachers are necessary. Of course, learning should progress to higher levels, but not until all students are proficient with the fundamentals defined by standards.

Philip A. Griswold
Ashland, Ohio

To the Editor:

Alfie Kohn charges that the use of statewide standards in public schools inhibits good teaching. My real-world experience as a superintendent in the Show-Me State suggests the opposite.

Here in Missouri, teachers have developed statewide standards that challenge students to learn at a very high level while preparing them for the complex world of the 21st century. The standards cause educators to re-examine and revise their curricula and, in many cases, to set goals beyond the standards. The related tests provide the superintendent, board of education, and community with one more means of assessing student growth. In short, statewide standards function as a stimulus for higher achievement, not as a barrier to it.

Stewart Weinberg
Superintendent
Ladue School District
St. Louis

Vol. 21, Issue 8, Pages 45-46

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