Who's The Winner?
Your article on the Milken awards ["The $25,000 Question," March] reminded me of a larger issue that has bothered me for a long time. I've never been comfortable with teacher awards; they seem both patronizing and demeaning. Yet the number of awards programs seems to grow every year. Television stations, business groups, government—every organization seeking to enhance its public service image seems to have some kind of "Good Apple" award.
I would like someone to do an analytical review of these awards and ask questions such as: How genuine are they? Are they exploiting teachers? Do they apply valid screening procedures? How do rank-and-file teachers feel about these awards? Maybe that's a story for a future issue.
Joe Rogers, like so many other well-intentioned but ill-informed people, has come to an erroneous conclusion: that private schools are the answer to the "education problem" in the United States ["Class Action," April]. To suggest that private schools will do a better job at educating America's youth flies in the face of logic. The child with attention deficit disorder will still have ADD in a private school. The child in a gang-infested neighborhood will still face the risks of that neighborhood even as a private school student.
The real issue here is money. The way voucher programs work, a private institution can pick and choose the students it will accept; public schools cannot. Private schools can charge tuition over and above what's paid by the state; public schools cannot. Voucher plans don't promise transportation to and from their various school sites; public schools do.
A quick question for Rogers: Do we want to wake up in another 15 years to find our nation divided along the lines of rich and poor, educated and uneducated? If we continue to suggest that private schools are the panacea for all of the ills of public education in this country, then the answer is yes.
I don't understand why Anne Scott MacLeod is so insistent in her essay "Rewriting History" [April] that every character and situation in a historical novel fit the norm of its era. If verbatim history is what children want, they can read a textbook. The whole idea of historical fiction is to tell interesting stories about special people, situations, or places in history. All the books that MacLeod criticized are very positive pieces of literature for our children to be reading, and I commend all the authors for giving us a different spin on history.
In his article "Poor Reception" [March], John Leonard wonders why television shows about teachers and schools get such lousy ratings. To me, the answer is obvious: Teachers almost never get closure. In a hospital, the patients either get better or they die. In a courtroom, the defendant is found guilty or not guilty. In the classroom, however, nothing is ever resolved. I see the same kids every day for 10 months, and at the end of that time I still don't know if I did any good or not. The student I thought I had helped turns up in jail a year later, while the one I thought had not heard a word I said goes to Harvard and majors in English, saying I inspired her. I have exciting dramas in my classroom every day, but there is no made-for-TV resolution.
What's worse for Hollywood, any moment of drama in school is surrounded by hours of tedium. A student may draw a gun on the guidance counselor or throw a can of Coke across the cafeteria, but 10 minutes later we're back in class, and I am teaching them about pronouns as if nothing happened. And that's the way it should be. If each exciting event were allowed to shape the whole school day, we really would be a television sitcom and not a school.
Garner, North Carolina
It's a small point, but since Our Miss Brooks was one of my favorite television shows as a child, I am moved to mention that Richard Crenna did not portray Mr. Boynton, the biology teacher, but a rather overage student who never seemed to graduate—kind of like Welcome Back, Kotter's Sweathogs.
Elkins Park, Pennsylvania
The C's Of Learning
School districts like Long Beach, California, ["Making a Splash?" March] that require students to wear school uniforms seem to think that clothing causes conduct. I say, rather, that character causes conduct. These districts would achieve better behavior by teaching a character curriculum focusing on conduct, citizenship, courtesy, cooperation, caring, civility, and conscientiousness. Enforcing and grading student adherence to these concepts makes more sense than enforcing dress codes. Regulating student behavior directly is better than regulating blouses and blue jeans.
Theodore Roosevelt School
Oyster Bay, New York
Jeff Meade's "A Lesson Before Dying" [March] was a refreshing article. So often the liberal press disregards the values of the people they profile. If they do mention values, you get the sense that they feel apologetic for having done so. Laurels to you for printing this!
Osceola Public Schools
Thank you for the story about Dennis Frederick. I was so touched that I found myself crying as I read the article. Those teachable moments are sometimes missed. I was very proud to have an article printed in a major news magazine about the good in teachers. I hope that it touches many the way it touched me.
New Ulm, Minnesota
Peter Berger's attack on Vermont's portfolios ["Portfolio Folly," March] is characterized by omissions of important facts and severely flawed reasoning. Berger asserts that portfolios cannot attain a level of reliability adequate for use in a state assessment program. He cites an older report on Kentucky to this effect.
However, in the past year, an array of nationally prominent measurement experts—including Robert Linn, Edward Haertle, and Anthony Nitko—has examined Kentucky's system and found it to be sound. Linn explicitly noted that the portfolios have improved sufficiently in reliability to be used. Haertle referred to the system as a "model for the nation." FairTest's evaluation in our state-by-state report, Testing Our Children, found Kentucky's to be among the nation's better programs but Vermont's to be superior.
Berger apparently believes it is impossible to establish valid and reliable group judgments. Thus, he rejects not only the idea of developing standards for judgment but also of selecting examples for such judgments. If Berger were correct, we would live in a world in which quality and achievement could never be judged by groups. By this reasoning, Olympic events such as ice skating and gymnastics could not be judged. If Berger were correct, we would logically be left with no means of judgment; behind even the supposedly "objective" multiple-choice test is the group subjectivity of deciding what is important and how good is good enough.
No one is arguing that the process of learning to use portfolios, projects, and other performance assessments is easy or fast. Rather, it is educationally necessary if large systems want to signal to students and teachers that learning in depth is important and want to report to the public about such learning. For this reason, far-reaching assessment reform is a process of changing teaching to encourage students' acquisition of content and their ability to understand and use knowledge thoughtfully.
Berger argues that Vermont's portfolio assessment program has not had these positive effects. However, the RAND studies he quotes found portfolios had a valuable impact on instruction, even in the program's first few years. These positive effects are the most important aspect of Vermont's assessment initiative, though they do not occur simply as an automatic result of portfolio assessment but through professional development linked to them.
Increasingly, Vermont's approach is being used as a model by districts around the nation, precisely because of the important support for improved teaching provided by the portfolio assessment program.
Acting Executive Director
Title I Works
I was disappointed in the negative angle of your article "Why Doesn't Title I Work?" [November/December 1997] and its lack of detail regarding successful programs for Title I students.
After 11 years as a teacher, I started teaching Title I mathematics to 7th and 8th graders last year. By the time students reach my class, they have an extremely negative attitude about math. One of my goals is to change their thinking so that they can again feel positive about their abilities. If Title I programs succeed in turning around children's perceptions of math (and reading), then they are successful, as far as I am concerned.
Title I students will most likely never catch up with high- ability students or even significantly narrow the gap that separates them. Keep in mind that in reading or math, they are at the lowest end of the curve. The goal is to help them catch up with the average student. And the programs in my school do just that.
Indian River Middle School
Philadelphia, New York
"Coming Of Age" [February] was great until I reached the part about hiring new teachers because they're easier to train than old teachers. Then I got angry. I am an older teacher who loves change. And I think there are many of us. Wake up, David Ruenzel! The age of a teacher does not automatically make them a stick in the mud.
After screaming, yelling, and crying, I had to write to explain my feelings about "Coming Of Age" [February]. After raising a family and having two careers, I finally had the chance to pursue my lifelong dream of teaching English. Since my previous two-year degree was in business, I had to attend college full time for four years, which I did any which way I could with two young children and a family business to look after. My hoped-for dream, however, soon turned to a bitter nightmare. My classmates, who are young enough to be my children, all received full-time positions while I substituted year after year. Schools placed me first on their substitute lists because I always took the initiative and because my varied background meant I could teach most any subject. Yet when full-time positions opened, I was always pushed aside.
Many other teachers I meet substituting have encountered similar age discrimination and are now giving up their dreams of teaching because of financial necessity and frustration. School administrators are missing out on older "young blood"—people who have vast life experience, knowledge, wisdom, and desire to share their eager minds with the youth of today. People, such as myself, who have 20 to 25 years until retirement resent this blatant discrimination and ignorance.
It has been four and a half years of heartbreak and frustration for me. I have decided to dedicate my experience to a privately funded school for teens from low-income families. This is not teaching in which I am trained, especially after attending Cambridge University in England. So Beowulf sits gathering dust on my shelf as I teach young adults to read and write and my "youthful classmates" play in the political school systems.
Tiverton, Rhode Island
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