Published Online: November 26, 2003
Published in Print: November 26, 2003, as Letters



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Unfairly Evaluating An 'Essential Fad'?

To the Editor:

Your article "Board Stamp for Teachers Raising Flags" (Nov. 12, 2003) recognizes that the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards aims to make teaching more professional, then unfairly evaluates the work of the board by a different standard: student learning outcomes.

I would argue that a move to professionalize teaching is "an essential fad," not "an expensive fad," given the circumstances of today's teacher shortage in which we need to attract and retain quality teachers.

Jill Harrison
Jamaica Plain, Mass.

Choice Advocate Gives All of Us Needed Data

To the Editor:

I would like to comment on your article about Jeanne Allen and the Center for Education Reform ("Agitator for Choice Leaves Her Mark," Nov. 12, 2003).

Ms. Allen has the heart and soul of an advocate, and as such, she is bound to garner strong feelings from both supporters and detractors. Regardless of one's views as to whether charter schools are a solution, parents and educators alike can be well served by exploring Ms. Allen's compilation of information. She has provided a service to those of us who are interested in improving life for children, even while her energy is derived from advocacy driven by conclusions she has made.

It is unfortunate that she can be misjudged by her use of terminology, as Education Week does in its advertising of the article for its electronic edition. Consider for a moment whether the term "the blob" in reference to educational bureaucracy is dismissive or descriptive. "Blob" has many associations for me. The first thought that leaps to my mind is respect for the many individuals who devote their lives to working within public education's establishment. Yes, "the blob" is maddening: for all those outside of it who attempt to influence its functioning, as well as for those who have the patience to work from within it.

But either association is to be commended, for showing the courage and persistence required for education reform.

Jennifer Robinson
Monkton, Md.

Policies Are Not Enough To Stop School Bullying

To the Editor:

We read with interest your article "Safe-Schools Conference Tackles Many Issues" (Nov. 5, 2003). It is clearly time to take a firm stand and address "hostile school environment" harassment and bullying.

Current initiatives to do that follow in the footsteps of an over two-decade-long struggle in the workplace not only to end the instrumental and procedural forms of employee aggression, but also to eradicate the more subtle interpersonal hostilities that create an atmosphere of disrespect. What can we take away from this history to guide us in the effort to improve the climate in schools?

As psychologists who specialize in this area, we know from over 25 years of experience that simply teaching employees the do's and don'ts is not a very effective way to change a workplace culture. Students are still more complicated: Children and adolescents are not just "little adults." It will take more than policy to change their behavior.

Steven Dranoff
Wanda Dobrich
D&D Industrial Consultants
Clifton, N.J.

What Boarding Schools Could Offer Adolescents

To the Editor:

Thanks for the article on the vanishing Roman Catholic high school seminary ("Spiritual Guidance," On Assignment, Nov. 5, 2003). I attended such schools for all four years of high school in the 1960s, and have been forever grateful for the solid education as well as the strong emphasis on self-discipline and values. I have long believed that many adolescents would benefit from a boarding school experience in a school with a special emphasis of some sort.

Jim Walsh
Austin, Texas

Among the Democrats, Two Votes for Clark

To the Editor:

Re: "The Democratic Contenders on Education," (Table, Nov. 12, 2003):

I noticed that of all the candidates listed in your table, which provides summaries of the educational records of the nine contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination, only retired U.S. Army Gen. Wesley K. Clark shows that he cares deeply about students by mentioning the need for counselors.

Those of us who are trained in counseling know that students bring more and more personal issues to school, and that their needs require immediate attention. I am glad that Mr. Clark apparently believes in giving professional help to students in crisis.

Martisa Vignali
Phoenix, Ariz.

To the Editor:

Retired U.S. Army Gen. Wesley K. Clark is the only candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination who has proposed putting more counselors in the public schools. He also supports keeping class size no larger than 18 students, and has proposed providing universal health care for all children.

Henry David Thoreau once said, "There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root." Mr. Clark seems to understand that we are not taking care of our children and that, because of this, the vicious circles of youth violence, teenage pregnancy, poor grades, and other maladies blamed on the public schools continue.

Steve Richardson
Albuquerque, N.M.

Suspecting a 'Bias' Toward Howard Dean

To the Editor:

Even though I find the No Child Left Behind Act a considerable burden with little value, your article on Howard Dean's opposition to the legislation amazed me ("On Trail, It's Dean vs. No Child Left Behind Act," Nov. 12, 2003). It truly appeared to have been written by one of Mr. Dean's campaign strategists. The extended testimonials and uncritical pronouncement of his virtues seemed rather staged. Does Education Week make any effort to be unbiased in its reporting of politics?

Dale Cox
Junior High Principal
Mesa, Ariz.

'New Heroes'? We Need Parents, Better Texts

To the Editor:

I read with dismay the Commentary by James Hiebert, Ronald Gallimore, and James W. Stigler about not looking to outstanding teachers for lessons in improving practice but, instead, looking at teaching curricula, materials, and practices ("The New Heroes of Teaching," Nov. 5, 2003).

The truth is that there are good teachers and poor teachers; there are teachers who have good materials, and others who have poor materials. But our education system will not change until the responsibility for a child's education is put on the people who have the most effect on it—the parents and their children.

I teach high school. I cannot make students do their work or study at home. I cannot even make them copy work from the board while they're in class. If education is not important to parents, then teachers will (most likely) not be able to show students its importance. And students, at least in the higher grades, need to take responsibility for themselves.

We should be making an effort to teach the parents as well as the kids. Changing the public's attitude is the only way we will be able to change the education system.

Judi Heitz
San Diego, Calif.

To the Editor:

"The New Heroes of Teaching" is a poorly disguised advertisement for the product that its authors are marketing: videotapes of classroom teachers in action.

The major problem with math education is not the quality of teachers, but the quality of their college educations and of the schools' textbooks, including the newest round of math texts.

Teachers are clever, dedicated professionals who, if given the proper foundation and support, could create educational miracles in the classroom with their own genius. Marketing by textbook manufacturers and other financial parasites of the education system has concealed and shifted the blame for low-performing schools away from themselves.

I currently work with four 1st grade classes and a gifted-child program in 4th and 5th grades in a public elementary school. The quality and dedication of the teachers of these classes is superb, yet each has his or her own style and has adapted it to meet the needs and abilities of the individual students. Education is done one student at a time, not as an assembly-line process.

I am also teaching the parents of kindergarten to 3rd grade children about math and how to teach their children, as a cooperative effort in assisting the teachers of these children.

As long as we improperly address the inadequacies of the texts, we will never make a ripple in improving math education. From my own personal experience, everything I learned in math was either incorrect or incomplete, despite my going to the best of Baltimore's public schools.

Irvin M. Miller
Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

'Real' Homework Is Learning Done at Home

To the Editor:

I believe in the value of homework—provided that it is real homework ("Lazy Children or Misplaced Priorities?," Commentary, Oct. 29, 2003). By that, I mean assignments that can be only done at home and in the community. For young children, it might be math in the bathtub; for older students, math at the supermarket and the gas station.

And the same goes for reading. For younger students, let's read cereal boxes and soup cans as well as texts. For older students, let's read insurance policies and applications, and, yes, even mortgage agreements.

Homework has the potential to extend and reinforce schoolwork in powerful ways. But, as we all know, most of the time it is repetitive drillwork and ditto pages. It doesn't have to be this way.

We want our children to be busy and occupied and productive. We want to be able to say to kids, "Have you done your homework?"—and know, if it's real homework, that everyone will benefit.

Dorothy Rich
Founder and President
Home and School Institute
Washington, D.C.

Should We Punish? Or Look for Behavioral Remedies In Problem-Solving and School Culture?

To the Editor:

As admirers of Joan F. Goodman's writings on moral education, we were greatly surprised to read her defense of punishing children under certain circumstances ("Is Punishment Passé?," Commentary, Nov. 5, 2003). Equally surprising was the gap between her premises and her conclusion.

Ms. Goodman urges us to attend to the difference between serious and less serious—and between moral and nonmoral—infractions, arguing that we shouldn't respond the same way to very different acts. Fair enough. She also points out that it's not so easy to distinguish the act from the actor. Again, we think many readers would agree.

But she assumes that these points, which make up the bulk of her essay, constitute a defense of punishment. Perhaps the problem here is her use of an odd and idiosyncratic definition of the word. She says that punishment, unlike discipline, is "intended to induce remorse for moral culpability." But one can't defend a concept simply by building the intended effects (or intentions) into its very definition.

Punishment consists of using one's power to impose something aversive on an individual—in effect making that person suffer for something he or she did. Sometimes this is motivated by a primitive understanding of justice (you did something bad, so now something bad should be done to you), and sometimes it's driven by the hope that it will lead to a desirable change in behavior.

Whether punishment actually does have that effect—whether it induces remorse, or leads children to become more caring or responsible—is an empirical question. And we think the evidence pretty clearly shows not only that it usually doesn't, but that it makes the outcomes favored by Ms. Goodman, by us, and by most people less likely to occur. That's why teachers and parents find themselves punishing the same kids over and over.

Punishment makes people mad, and "simultaneously provides [them] with a model for expressing that hostility outwardly," as the developmental psychologist Martin Hoffman put it. In other words, punishment sets an example of using power to make other people unhappy so they'll be forced to capitulate. It also ruptures the child's relationship with the adult, who is now seen as an enforcer to be avoided rather than a caring ally.

Does Ms. Goodman actually believe that a child who has just been punished is consequently more likely to develop a "morally conscientious heart"? That he sits in detention, reflecting deeply, and realizes that hurting people is wrong? More likely, he's thinking about how mean his teacher is, and maybe how he's going to take his revenge (on the kid whom he blames for getting him into trouble).

Punishment leads children to ask, not "What kind of person do I want to be?" but "What does this authority figure want me to do, and what happens to me if I don't do it?" Like rewards, punishments retard the development of conscience by magnifying the importance of self- interest. Thus, when Martin Hoffman's research demonstrated that punishing children interferes with their moral development—Ms. Goodman cites no data to the contrary because there aren't any—he explained that result by pointing out that punishments "direct the child to the consequences of his behavior for the actor, that is, for the child himself," not for the victim.

Even with respect to ordinary conduct, punishment rarely produces anything beyond temporary compliance. However, the more interested we are in issues of morality and conscience, the more important it becomes to see a troubling act not as an infraction to be punished but as a problem to be solved.

Alfie Kohn
Belmont, Mass.

Nel Noddings
Ocean Grove, N.J.

To the Editor:

I totally agree with Joan F. Goodman in her Commentary "Is Punishment Passé?" Certain behaviors should be left for discipline (talking, lateness, dress-code violations, and so forth), and more serious offenses should be reserved for punishment (vandalism, stealing, injuring others, and the like). However, Ms. Goodman never explores what type of punishment will deter or stop these more serious offenses.

There has been no lowering of the level of serious offenses occurring in schools over the last 30 years (and I'm not referring to school shootings, which are a level unto themselves). Here is my answer to the problem: We build a school culture that makes the school a very special place, where students want to be. Then, we create a school action policy, so that students will know that, if they commit serious offenses, they will not be allowed to attend the school.

This is not suspension or expulsion. It means instead that, so long as "deliberate offenses against the welfare of others" continue, the student will have to be educated at some other place or time, until his or her behavior is changed.

Elliot Kotler
Ossining, N.Y.

Vol. 23, Issue 13, Pages 28-29

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