Published Online: October 30, 2002
Published in Print: October 30, 2002, as Letters

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Is Social Promotion Harmful or Helpful?

To the Editor:

Regarding your front-page article "More Chicago Pupils Flunk Grade," (Oct. 9, 2002): I began my teaching career working with incarcerated juveniles. These misguided boys could hardly write a complete sentence. One day, we were studying a "My Turn" column in Newsweek magazine about social promotion. The writer talked about how the policy had been unsuccessful, allowing teachers to "pass along" students who were discipline problems without making sure they had the necessary skills to succeed in the following grade. One of my students said, "That's me. That is why I'm stupid."

I am in favor of curbing social promotion for the sake of our future.

Joy Walden
Kayenta Intermediate School
Kayenta, Navajo Nation, Ariz.

To the Editor:

Re: "More Chicago Pupils Flunk Grade": Intensive early intervention for lagging students is a much better solution. The policies curbing social promotion are harmful. They hurt students personally, socially, and academically. At-risk students give up because they believe no matter how hard they try, no one really cares, and they'll just be held back anyway.

These students' lives are already filled with chaos and problems. Let's figure out a way to help them. It is imperative that we let these students know that we care about them and want them to succeed.

Amy Frost
Athens State University
Athens, Ala.

Teachers: Human, Or Simulated?

To the Editor:

Concerning your front-page story "Digital Dilemma: Can Computers Sub for Teachers?" (Oct. 16, 2002): Effective, valid, reliable, software-driven "teacher- simulants" will be widespread in, probably, less than 20 years. These simulated educators will be modeled on the very best of our human teachers; that is, they will mimic teacher traits and educational practices seen as the most effective.

I also think it likely that these "sim-educators" will be far cheaper to keep in the classroom than human teachers. The need for some human teachers will not suddenly disappear. But most districts will find that the rental/lease/license/purchase of far fewer but proven, effective sim-educators (instructors far more productive, educationally speaking, than a great number of much more expensive human teachers) will catch many of the human teachers by surprise.

Rory McGarity
U.S. Department of Defense
Dependents Schools
Landstuhl, Germany

To the Editor:

Computers cannot replace a good, qualified teacher in the classroom. Computers have wasted billions of dollars in the lower levels of education. There is a time and place for their use as an excellent resource. But give our students the skills and knowledge they need from true academics, not mind control and manipulation. Students need textbooks and competent teachers.

Kay Hegler
Rolla, Mo.

High-Stakes Tests Are Discriminatory

To the Editor:

High-stakes testing is definitely discriminatory ("Massachusetts Sued Over Graduation Tests," Oct. 2, 2002). Urban schools will always be at a disadvantage because they lack the resources that suburban schools possess. And parents need to be included when identifying resources. Educated parents will always give priority to their child's education and provide the resources necessary for their child to succeed.

As a teacher, I can say from experience that each test question is formatted to measure several skills. If the student lacks knowledge in one of the skills, he will most likely answer the question incorrectly. So the student must be able to interpret the question before he can solve the problem.

Data taken from standardized tests are useful if progress is measured, or if everyone tested has the same background knowledge or exposure, excluding those with disabilities. Unfortunately, this is rarely the case.

I currently teach in a district where 65 percent of the student population was born outside the United States. The school systems from which the families emigrate aren't on the same level with American school systems, yet the children are measured by the same criteria as those who have lived in this country all of their lives.

Moreover, students from urban neighborhoods often lack solid domestic structures and the fundamentals provided to students from suburban areas. Many live in single-parent homes or overcrowded houses and apartments that consist of large extended families. These are poor environments to help nurture the learning process and can ultimately affect how students perform on standardized tests.

I can never understand how state representatives, many of whom received private education and whose children are privately educated, make decisions on how public school students are tested. Committees chosen to oversee and approve tests administered by the state set up students to failand indirectly support discriminatory practices.

Damian O'Brien
Fairfax County Public Schools
Fairfax, Va.

To the Editor:

The Massachusetts Department of Education cannot expect students to test well on what teachers have not taught. It is unfair to students. Minority students need the information and cultural experiences other students have in order to compete.

Schools should fill the gaps between minority and nonminority students. If students are testing low on content that has been taught, new and differentiated modes of instruction should be utilized. Until instruction is restructured, students should not be held accountable.

Beverly Jones
Trenton Central High School
Trenton, N.J.

Cincinnati School Is Also Teacher-Prep

To the Editor:

If you think that the charter school for future teachers is a first, then you may be uninformed ("'Teacher Prep' Charter School Seen as a First," Oct. 9, 2002). The Cincinnati public school system has had a program focusing on "Teaching and Technology," located at the Hughes Center, for several years. It was conceived as a way to begin increasing the number of minority teachers, and to provide a focus for students interested in education as a career. You should check it out.

Glen Schulte
Cincinnati, Ohio

'Whole Language': Attack and Counter

To the Editor:

Patrick Groff ("Coverage of Reading Plans Is Questioned," Letters, Oct. 16, 2002) scolds you for not citing any sources for the claim that some experts favor phonics-first but do not stress other elements of reading. Yet, Mr. Groff himself regards whole language as "empirically discredited" without citing any sources.

Let me help: A recent major attack on whole language is the National Reading Panel report. But this report has been criticized in a series of papers in the Phi Delta Kappan and Reading Research Quarterly over the last year and a half; in Elaine Garan's book, Resisting Reading Mandates; in Gerald Coles' book, Misreading Reading; in my book, Three Arguments Against Whole Language and Why They Are Wrong; and in a series of papers in a volume edited by Richard Allington, Big Brother and the National Reading Curriculum.

Whole language has been attacked, but it has not been discredited.

Stephen Krashen
Emeritus Professor
University of Southern California
Los Angeles, Calif.

Impossible Dream? More on the 'Team Sport' of Teaching

To the Editor:

If one accepts, as I do, the premises of Bob Barkley's recent letter ("Blaming Teachers: All Alone in a Team Sport," Letters, Oct. 9, 2002), that leads to three unanswered questions: Who else is on the team? What is the nature of the game? And, if it is a team sport, who is to blame?

Back when he was a school superintendent in Virginia, Stanford University professor Larry Cuban once noted: "Teaching is impossible, yet teachers teach. Expected to give individual attention to each child, the teacher knows that it can't be done."

The fundamental belief that a teacher can make a difference in the life of a child has always been the internal engine driving education. But just to remain sane, it's been necessary to hide the knowledge that, in the typical classroom setting, it really can't be done.

Not acknowledging that impossibility keeps hope alive, and draws educators to almost any new ideas that offer promise that "some day" it might be possible. That impossible dream continues to drive us until we burn out, drop out, or, like the Starfish-saver in the popular parable, fall back to being satisfied that "at least I made a difference for this one."

Accepting that impossibility has two, more serious consequences. First, if one assumes that any one teacher, by her- or himself, can have the knowledge, skills, and experience to respond to the learning needs of all the children whose lives he or she touches, then it seems logical that the way to "fix" teaching is to focus on preparation and in-service training programs, so that "some day" every child may have the opportunity to interact with a fully capable adult.

Second, it masks the similar predicament of two other required members of the team needed to make the dream possible: the principal and the superintendent. They, too, go to work every day knowing that they can't do what they need and want to do; or, if they think they can right now, they know they can't sustain it for long.

They share similar, unquestioned "impossibility beliefs": Principals' "know" that, by themselves, they can't meet the individual instructional-support needs of each and every teacher; and, similarly, superintendents "know" that supporting the differing and unique needs of each building's instructional process "can't be done," or at least not for long.

I suggest that these three "impossibility beliefs" are connected, and offer a key understanding needed to drive systemic change. Without understanding how they relate, fixing the entire system does seem impossible.

Mr. Barkley notes in his letter that no other professional is asked to serve all of his or her clients simultaneously. Why? Simply because other professions recognize that the core work that defines one as a professional (think nurse, doctor, lawyer) is structured around interactivity. In fact, a Texas judge recently banned sales of a do-it- yourself, legal-software package because it "ventured into the unauthorized practice of law." The reason: its interactivity.

The work in the professional's "game" is structured around a fundamental interaction with an individual. Without that non-negotiable element, it's a different game. A game that professionals can't win.

As that different game is played out today in classrooms, schools, and districts, those at the points where the system interacts with the child (primarily, teachers and principals) are expected to be accountable for the system's results as isolated, autonomous practitioners.

In other professions, such as health care, the organization is responsible for the outcomes of that core interactive process, and is held accountable for its effectiveness. For example, the hospital, as a total organization, is accountable for informing and supporting the interactions at the end of the process managed by the individual doctor or nurse. These have been recognized as moments of truth because that is where the quality of results are shaped.

No one expects a hospital staff member to function without the organization's providing the means to continually monitor and do something about his or her effects on a patient. The organization's flow of information and support informs that interaction, and time and tools are provided to support the interactivity of the process. In these other organizations, results become a shared responsibility. Individuals are held accountable for creating, managing, and sustaining the processes for achieving them.

Mr. Barkley is right about the general public, policymakers, and the profession itself needing to become more informed about the effects of what we "know" on what we believe we should be doing. To paraphrase the old comics- page character Pogo, "We have met the problem, and it is us." Specifically, in how we think about the work required by the "game" of teaching and learning, and who the players are.

Why, of all the professional- service organizations, does education continue to play a different game? If the team that is already on the field is playing a game in which we know winning requires the effective interaction of all of its players (students, teachers, administrators, and parents), then why does playing that game seem impossible?

The answer, again, seems simple. In these other organizations, participants believe they have no choice. The fundamental nature of the players and the game sets the boundaries within which they think about how to win. In schooling, a fundamental characteristic of the human mind's mental wiring limits acceptance of similar common beliefs.

As we've known for centuries, we tend to believe what we see ... because we see what we believe. From the nature of our personal experience in playing that "different game," we have developed a base of assumptions and beliefs that keep us from seeing and accepting three conditions over which we, as in those other organizations, have no choice.

  • That every child comes prewired to learn; and therefore students want to learn, and will take a responsible role in doing it.
  • That teaching requires the active involvement of more than one person called a teacher.
  • That the district is the playing field on which the game is played. It is the minimum unit of sustainable change, and when it becomes a coherent unit of work, fundamental districtwide change is actually possible. Effective teaching and learning can happen in every classroom, in every school building in a district. We don't believe that districts can be natural systems of collaborative relationships that optimize the success of each of their parts.

If "winning" for all children requires that each child interacts with a process that starts from his or her unique learning strengths and needs, and then takes them to "content" ends that society prescribes, then the interdependence of these three beliefs needs to be understood—in particular, that for sustained systemic change, the third is most critical, because it is the container for the other two.

Unfortunately few have experienced school systems (with all the dynamics and conditions that they encompass) that can create and sustain their improvements regardless of changes in personnel and community politics. But they are there and can be observedbut only through a lens shaped by the above three beliefs.

Ironically, the need to document and portray what this lens reveals comes at a time when major foundations are pulling back on systemic reform efforts. They've given up on "whole-school reform," "scaling-up," and other ways they once thought would offer pathways to districtwide change. Here again, the failures to do that may have less to do with schools than with the ways reformers think about them, and about the work that they do.

For example, one finds consistent references to this work happening at just two levels: the school level and the policy level. District-level work apparently goes on the "policy" side, and is not seen as an integral, connected part of the work of instruction that surfaces at its end in the school and classroom.

It appears that the box these reformers and their funders can't think outside of is a school building full of individual teachers (and a principal). The larger box they haven't been able to simultaneously see and address with their strategies is a school system full of people-connecting processes that support the requirements for quality teaching in each classroom.

That frame for understanding might provide the missing handle on sustained, systemic instructional improvement for all classrooms that foundations have been looking for. In it, the unit of improvement is the instructional/teaching process ... and the district is accountable for it.

On that playing field, the team that is already there can finally win.

Lewis A. Rhodes
Silver Spring, Md.

Bravo, the Arts! (Blame the SAT Verbal Decline On Something Else)

To the Editor:

In attempting to explain lower verbal scores on the latest SAT, Wayne Camara, the vice president for research and development for the College Board, is quoted in an article titled "Officials Tie Entrance-Score Dips to Curriculum," (Sept. 4, 2002) as saying that "too many high schools are putting emphasis on the arts, theater, and 'multimedia' study ... at the expense of composition and grammar." Mr. Camara's statement contradicts prevailing thinking pertaining to fine arts education in our nation's high schools, as outlined below:

  • Regrettably, arts education programs are customarily the first subject areas that are targeted for reduction or elimination from a school's academic program as a result of budgetary shortfalls. For Mr. Camara to say that high schools are overemphasizing the arts is simply contrary to what is reality.
  • There is a vast amount of research data supporting the theory that high-quality and comprehensive fine arts education in school can enhance student achievement in other academic disciplines, particularly reading, writing, and English/language arts. As vice president for research and development for the College Board, Mr. Camara should be aware that SAT verbal scores for arts students are consistently higher than those for students with no arts coursework. Since fine arts students excel beyond non-arts students on the SAT not only on the verbal section, but in mathematics as well—our nation's schools should, in fact, increase opportunities for students to study the arts, not diminish these valuable and worthwhile programs.

In addition to the many other benefits for students, which are too numerous to delineate here, the arts are the best vehicle for reaching any given student. The arts are one of the most effective means of teaching other academic disciplines and are a powerful method of connecting segments of the curriculum that are often fundamentally compartmentalized. Most importantly, though, the arts are essential in and of themselves because our personal, social, economic, and cultural surroundings are shaped by the arts.

Before placing primary blame on other content areas for lower verbal scores on the SAT, perhaps it would be prudent for Mr. Camara to investigate the curriculum and instructional practices in English composition and grammar in our nation's schools to determine the actual causes for lower verbal scores on the SAT.

Thomas H. Waggoner
Director of Fine Arts
Division of Curriculum and Professional Development
Texas Education Agency
Austin, Texas

To the Editor:

It is obvious that the College Board's Wayne Camara has no idea what the fine arts curriculum covers. Blaming fine arts for the failure of English teachers, or any teachers of any subject, has come to be the national educational pastime.

Congress passed and the president signed a law last year supporting the fine arts as core subjects. Obviously, Mr. Camara has yet to avail himself of that knowledge.

My students are generally successful within two years and can produce gallery-quality work within three years. My visual arts program teaches visual problem-solving based on the elements of art and principles of design. In addition, I teach basic algebra and geometry using the color wheel to demonstrate division of a circle and scientific methodology to illustrate mixing secondary and tertiary color, while requiring the students to write an algebraic expression for each color they mix. All of their visual solutions require a written critique and analysis as part of the evaluation and assessment process.

I believe Mr. Camara owes me and other teachers of fine arts an apology.

Judith Miller
Round Rock, Texas

Vol. 22, Issue 9, Pages 44-45

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