In The Press

May 16, 1984 6 min read

The authors of many of the recent national reports on schooling urged reforms on economic grounds, a rationale that may well be wrong-headed, says Andrew Hacker, writing in the April 12 issue of The New York Review of Books.

“We no longer have commanding figures like John Dewey and Robert Hutchins, who, in their different ways, tried to create a vision of an educated citizenry whose members would have some chance at something that could be called the good life,” writes Mr. Hacker, a professor of political science at Queens College in New York, in an article titled ''The Schools Flunk Out.”

“That this goal, however nebulous, is all but absent from current books and reports is far more disconcerting than our lag in teaching algorithms to restless teen-agers,” he says.

Only Ernest Boyer, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and author of one report, “disputes the view that the schools should be skewed to the supposed needs of the workforce. In High School, he asks that we make liberal education a universal goal,” Mr. Hacker writes.

“Boyer is right in refusing to write off children from sub-literate homes,” he continues. “Still, America is not a classless society; and class segregation is evident in our schools, a fact Boyer does not directly confront.”

In the course of reviewing the work of the various commission reports and book-length studies on the schools, Mr. Hacker also faults them for failing to consider adequately the cost of implementing their various recommendations.

And he questions whether all students should be made to take advanced courses, which several of the reports urge, he says. “Do we really want to try to teach everyone subjects that only some need to know?” he asks.

“If there is one lesson to be learned from the ill-fated drive to abolish the Department of Education, it is that government agencies, once established, acquire a momentum of their own that can stymie even the staunchest efforts to dismantle them,” write two Washington-based journalists in the May edition of Reason.

Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell, who was hired to abolish the department, write John Fund and Martin Wooster, “soon embraced it as his own, promoting a ‘new era’ of education, one in which the federal government figures as prominently as ever--and, if proposals in the works are seized on by the big spenders in Congress, one in which the federal education bureaucracy will play even a greater part.”

In their article, “An Education in Empire Building,” the authors chronicle the fate of the agency during the first four years of the Reagan Administration. Relying primarily on sources in the department whom they portray as Reagan loyalists, Mr. Fund and Mr. Wooster conclude that Mr. Bell has never been fully committed to the department’s abolition. They also cite several examples of the Secretary’s attempts to expand the federal role in education.

High-school newspapers, like their counterparts outside the schools, are protected by the U.S. Constitution. Although they may be subject to prior restraint, the student newspapers may be censored, in general, only if the material in them can be proven legally defamatory or obscene.

But according to the journalist Nat Hentoff, many high-school journalists are ignorant of their right to freedom of the press, and as a result, do not fight school officials’ censorship or suppression of material in the papers. Similarly, many school officials disregard the policy established by the U.S. Supreme Court in the First Amendment case, Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District.

Writing in the May issue of The Progressive, Mr. Hentoff cites examples of censorship that went unchallenged by students who had the legal right to proceed with the publication of the questioned materials.

If the students do challenge the censorship, as one student editor in Cobb County, Ga., did, they may be gratified to discover that the law is indeed on their side, Mr. Hentoff notes.

“It’s a shame that more kids don’t take the exhilarating risk of learning what it is to be a free person under the Constitution,” the author writes. The many students with whom he has talked who did challenge censorship attempts, he says, found that the experience--"... the preparation for court, the need to cope with being a figure of controversy at school, and the feeling of being part of a very long tradition of freedom now become very personal--was the most memorable event of their growing-up years.”

In another article, carried in the May issue of Inquiry, Mr. Hentoff argues also that school officials who conduct schoolwide searches, sometimes using specially trained dogs, violate schoolchildren’s Fourth Amendment rights, which protect citizens against unreasonable search and seizure.

Mr. Hentoff cites several cases in which school officials have--or are--disregarding the students’ rights. In one case, Doe v. Renfrow, a federal appeals court ruled that although the strip-search of a 13-year-old girl was unconstitutional, the schoolwide search for drugs was not. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the case, although Justice William Brennan issued a statement arguing strongly that the Court should have done so.

The use by Arkadelphia, Ark., administrators of urinalysis, breath tests, locker searches, and other “anti-drug” tactics is also a gross violation of student rights, Mr. Hentoff charges.

One “striking affirmation” of students’ rights came in the New Jersey case of State of New Jersey in Interest of T.L.O., A Juvenile. There, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that evidence found in an “unreasonable” search of a student could not be used against the student. The case is currently under review by the U.S. Supreme Court.

“Although low pay, burn-out, pushy parents, incompetent administrators, and apathetic kids are certainly problems,” the reason many teachers are thinking of leaving the profession has a lot to do with the teacher-certification process, argues Susan Ohanian in the April issue of The Washington Monthly. Ms. Ohanian, a teacher on leave who is working asa staff writer for Learning magazine, says her biggest complaints in 17 years in the classroom have come as the result of her dealings with “the High Priests of Certification.”

She defines this group as those administrators, government bureaucrats, and union officials who protect America from incompetent teachers by “enforcing irrelevant regulations,” promoting a “strict adherence to the letter of the law” and demonstrating a “zeal for bureaucratic pettifoggery.”

Ms. Ohanian cites situations in her own career as evidence of the inflexibility of the certification process.

In one instance, she says, she was not allowed to substitute her experience as a teacher to meet the requirement for student teaching. In another, Ms. Ohanian--a former reading consultant for the New York State Education Department--was told she could not teach elementary school because she “did not know enough about reading.”

Teachers’ unions are often more concerned about protecting tenure rights and job security than the needs of individual teachers, Ms. Ohanian charges.

She describes her unpleasant dealings with union officials who tried to prevent her from giving up her secondary-school tenure to teach in elementary school, even though she preferred teaching in the elementary grades and had more talent for it.

Ms. Ohanian concludes that schools of education are in league with the High Priests of Certification because “without all these requirements, a lot of their professors would be pounding the pavement, having to seek honest employment.”

She also charges that education schools and state officials are designing new strategies “to make certification rules more onerous and even less relevant to good teaching than they already are.”

An example of this, she says, is that the “state of New York no longer believes that a master’s degree in reading is sufficient for teaching children with ‘learning disabilities.’ Many who’ve been teaching these kids--whose major problem is not being able to read--must now take 36 new, improved units in order to keep teaching.”

She says that for all the “hassle” she has undergone, none of the High Priests of Certification have ever seen her teach.

“For all they know, I could be the best teacher in New York state--or the worst,” she writes.

A version of this article appeared in the May 16, 1984 edition of Education Week as In The Press