October 01, 1994 13 min read

Don’t Get Personal

Yes, schools are “dangerous places’’ [“Connections,’' September], and Rodney Wilson’s stand at Mehlville High School [“Getting Personal,’' September] is one reason why. Parents who entrust their children to public schools expect that an agreed- upon curriculum will be taught and that the community’s moral standard will be upheld. Thus, Karen Harbeck is correct when she says teachers don’t have a license to expatiate upon their personal lives. That right was lost when the baby-boomer generation could not decide, as a whole, what is “right’’ and what is “wrong.’' Thus, there is no “community’’ moral standard, and any statement of personal morality by a teacher is going to offend someone.

Sooner or later, parents will complain (as indeed they should) when their children are directed contrary to the home’s moral teaching by a teacher. After all, a child’s upbringing is the parents’ responsibility, and their tax dollars are supporting the school. Teachers are supposed to supplement parental upbringing, not supplant it. Let’s educate, not indoctrinate.

Gary Neudahl

My wife just subscribed to Teacher Magazine, but if the lead story of the September issue, “Getting Personal,’' is indicative of the nature of your articles, then our subscription will be short-lived. Consider two descriptions in the article: The message Rodney Wilson received from the administration is called “a sort of masterwork of bureaucratic evasiveness’'; Wilson’s response, on the other hand, is called “a 29-page document...which is, in effect, a polemic, remarkable for its thoroughness, breadth, and tone of barely contained rage.’' One may have indeed been bureaucratic and the other thorough, but please, show a little objectivity, a little impartiality. The article leaned heavily on one side.

Wilson asked a few questions, and I would like to ask a few, too. Would Wilson be happy for a teacher who was a drunkard, thief, tax evader, or terrorist to speak openly about his or her way of life with no mention of whether it was right or wrong? If Wilson should say these people are in a different category, I would ask him why? What these people do is ultimately wrong because God says so, just as he says homosexuality is wrong. I know this statement will get me into trouble, but so be it.

Robert Wells
Knoxville, Iowa

Up With Mediocrity

Mark Mlawer’s commentary [“My Kid Beat Up Your Honor Student’’] in the September issue was as good an impassioned cry for mediocrity as I’ve seen in a while. No doubt about it, all of us approach everything in life with a variety of hereditary and environmental characteristics that give us a better or worse shot than others at a particular goal. But to jump from there to the notion that no achievement should be recognized unless it occurs on a level playing field is ludicrous.

Let’s not cut any student from sports teams because they lack size, speed, or talent. Let’s not have any champion in any sport because schools are never evenly matched. Let’s have no soloists in performing groups. And let’s award roles in school plays at random rather than discriminating.

In fact, it’s really unfair that some corporations are more successful just because circumstances cause them to make superior products. Moreover, scientists should not be awarded Nobel Prizes just because they happen to be smart.

What we have here is the eternal voice of the whiner: “I could have done that, too; I just didn’t have the breaks.’' There is no question that honor rolls can be overstressed. Ultimately, getting high grades means only that one has high grades, not greater average human worth. But this spreading notion that people who excel should really stop it because they’re making everyone else feel bad is mediocrity at its worst.

The pursuit and recognition of excellence is desirable; there should be more of it in more areas. What is undesirable is the resentment of excellence and the continued insistence that those who excel need to be pulled back down and put in their place.

Peter Green
Cochranton, Pa.

When a principal in Santa Clarita, Calif., canceled the high school graduation’s valedictory speech on the grounds that awarding the speech to the student with the highest academic average discriminated against those students who did not do as well, I dismissed the action as the isolated act of a crank. But when I read the viewpoint by Mark Mlawer, a respected educator, I had to re-evaluate my thinking.

If we carry Mlawer’s hypothesis one step further, then I can rightfully accuse the school football team of discriminating against my son because he didn’t make it. I can also demand that we eliminate student body officers because their election discriminates against those students who are not popular enough to get elected. We could also completely revamp our grading system--down with A’s because they make those who don’t earn them feel bad.

Thank you Mark Mlawer. Up with mediocrity. Down with striving for success. It’s just another step toward achieving Third World status.

Adrienne Mack
Shadow Hills, Calif.

Although I neither agree nor disagree with Mark Mlawer’s view regarding honor rolls, I find it interesting that he has to tell us in his essay that he was an honor-roll student himself. Some people brag on bumper stickers; others in magazines.

Mary Ruth Curtis
Oley, Pa.

Black Flight

We who teach in public institutions, we who believe in the dignity of all cultures, we who think that young people must be taught to actively raise questions rather than accept blindly--we all must be offended by David Ruenzel’s article “Black Flight’’ [August]. From his ivory tower, Ruenzel cajoles us to share the vision that these very private African-American academies espouse, including their emotional and spiritual commitment to students. The ideas that are really brought forth from these institutions are those of segregation, blind obedience to authority, and rejection of the need to work together for common understanding.

The author mimics the philosophies of the schools he so admires by refusing to raise the questions that beg to be asked: Do these schools produce thoughtful graduates who do well in college and beyond? Are they a force for social change? Do they accept all children, as our public schools do? Does each teacher have a $50 budget for all his or her equipment, as so many do in the public schools? What happens to children who (heaven forbid) seek to raise questions about the validity of the religious practices espoused?

I found it interesting that the same day that I received my August Teacher Magazine, I also read in The New York Times about a public academy in Los Angeles where minority students have achieved spectacular results; all 114 students in the graduating class were on their way to college. Similarly, the U.S. high school math team, made up of public school students, was tops in the world in the international competition.

Our public education system needs constant assessment and change. Any system that educates millions of young people each year is going to have some serious problems. Yet what we really need to ask ourselves is do we want to live in a world in which we actively teach our children that learning to live apart is better than learning to live together? Are we really saying to our young people that we ought to judge them by the color of their skin, not by the content of their character? Is that our dream?

Paul Kelter
Associate Professor of Chemistry
University of Nebraska
Lincoln, Neb.

So now it comes to this: “Black Flight.’' What of the victory in Brown vs. Board of Education and the civil rights movement? Why is it that our government still cannot find the means to educate all children equally? It is dangerous to consider that this “separate but equal’’ concept is returning--and working. Segregation in private or public schools goes against everything our Constitution intended. In the long run, our society will suffer from a new kind of racism--one that is chosen and accepted.

Silvie Garcia-Martin
Sherman Oaks, Calif.

Language Of Math

I was pleased to see the connection made between economic background and mathematics learning in “Counting Them In’’ [August]. But I believe that researchers Sharon Griffin and Robbie Case need to be aware of yet another factor in mathematics education: language.

Although we traditionally view mathematics as involving only numbers, this subject area actually has a very high language content. Students will not be able to understand numerical value, addition, subtraction, etc., if they cannot understand the language in which these concepts are presented. Thus, limited-English-proficient students--particularly those from immigrant or refugee families--face an especially challenging task when it comes to learning basic math.

More and more ESL teachers are relying on content-based math instruction. Using this approach, teachers instruct students in the unique language of mathematics, increasing both their quantitative and verbal abilities. Not only do students understand numerical concepts better, but they also gain a broader knowledge of English.

The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics recently recommended that educators “identify and remove language-based barriers’’ to learning. Researchers such as Griffin and Case can help do just that. Their work needs to be continued--and expanded. I hope that their future research will factor in the special needs of language-minority students.

Susan Bayley
Executive Director
Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages Inc.
Alexandria, Va.

Praise And Protest

In developing their “Questioning the Author’’ technique, researchers Isabel Beck and Margaret McKeown are beginning a process that could ultimately improve children’s understanding of daunting textbooks and enhance reading and writing skills that will be necessary for later learning [“A Search For Meaning,’' August]. In my high school English classroom, I have found that making an author more human often sparks the interest of my students. It makes perfect sense that a similar type of focus is beneficial to a more meaningful comprehension of history.

I find it encouraging that this research is taking place at the elementary level, where foundations for future learning are built. It is unfortunate, however, that a technique that reaps such great rewards must be cloaked in tradition in order for teachers and administrators to set aside their fear of change and incorporate it into their classrooms. Educators are supposed to encourage new ideas and change, not stagnate in an environment that allows no opportunities for creative risk-taking and growth.

Anne Graue
Ossining, N.Y.

Rural Life Is Great

I would like to enlighten my fellow educators: Rural does not equal “Down On The Farm’’ [“Findings,’' August]. Rural America and rural life are great. Farming is great. Please do not give the impression that all who live in rural America farm or that all farmers are poor. Yes, many who live in the country are poor. But we need to choose our words more carefully.

Susan Camp
Mexico, N.Y.

Students Are People

The essay “College Exasperations’’ [“Comment,’' August] struck a personal chord with me. As a student who has just completed his senior year in high school and who is currently packing his books, clothes, and music collection for the big move to college, I would like to second Jean Goddard’s opinion.

One of the failures of our entire educational system manifests itself particularly acutely at college application time. This is the tendency to view students as products rather than as living processes. This failing, I would say, is a result of the market system, which seeks to prepare 90 percent of us for increasingly nonunionized wage labor. Even those of us who wish to resist such alienation end up thinking in terms of packaging ourselves in a way that will please and tempt the more competitive colleges and universities. We wish to become marketable and thus prostitute ourselves by moving away from self-established goals and genuine passions toward more socially acceptable and ultimately conformist ideals.

Do we really want--to take one particularly heinous example--more Boy Scouts than free thinkers in higher education? I don’t think so. But “Boy Scout for 12 years’’ fits a lot better into the little space on the university application form than “loves Bertolt Brecht and Samuel Beckett and other modernist drama, interested and fairly well-read in post-structuralist and neo-Marxist social criticism.’'

College applications need to move away from the inherently static fill-in-the-blank format that my friends and I dreaded in 11th grade, hated in 12th grade, and are now clearing off our desks into trash and recycling bins. In an age of telephones, there is no reason why every student can’t be personally interviewed. In this post-Gutenberg era of international, instantaneous communication, there is no reason why we can’t rely on essays in which honesty and intellectual devotion--rather than gimmicks--are the necessary ingredients.

It is apparent from reading your magazine that more teachers are questioning the hierarchical nature of our educational system: the use of GPAs, SATs, APs, and bulleted lists of accomplishments to condense and categorize young people. Students are not numbers but living, breathing, working human beings.

Ben Kafka
San Diego

Give Me Singapore

You cannot imagine the disgust, contempt, and anger I have begun to feel every time I read another article against corporal punishment. Magazines such as yours and the misguided authors of such articles as “Nix The Hickory Stick’’ [“Comment,’' August] produce an endless stream of fraudulent propaganda and refuse to balance the debate with thoughtful opposing articles.

Thanks in large part to the media’s efforts, America is awash in a permissive, aimless chaos that breeds crime, self-loathing, depression, and hopelessness in our children. When adults are stripped of authority and the power to create a sane world for our children, why shouldn’t we expect a wave of juvenile crime, suicide, and illegitimate births to result? If this isn’t social insanity, I don’t know what is.

One doesn’t have to be a child beater to believe in corporal punishment. You do have to understand our adult responsibility to set a child’s feet on the right path and to act reasonably with the child’s interests in mind.

In view of the failure of their theories, I am at a loss to understand the fanatical zeal of the forces opposed to corporal punishment. This didn’t start with the PTA or with other mainstream organizations. It began with very skilled, subversive little vigilante groups with big-money backing and enough half-baked psychologists to give the movement a semblance of respectability. Then all hell broke loose.

Today’s America may be the world they want to live in, but I’ll take Singapore anytime. Kids aren’t killing kids there, and survival isn’t their biggest worry.

Fred Gibson
Thermal, Calif.

The Safe Choice

Regarding the continuing debate on the school voucher issue [“Letters,’' August and May/June], I’d like to add a few thoughts. With my children enrolled in parochial school, you’ll assume correctly that I’m in favor of the voucher concept. But it’s not for the usual monetary reasons. Sure, I’d like to save some tuition dollars, but we made this choice for our children years ago.

My problem with most of those who oppose school vouchers is that their reasons seem abstract: the demise of public education as we know it, a blurring of the line between church and state, budgetary nightmares. Certainly all are relevant concerns that should be addressed. But also of concern is the dilemma of parents in Newark, N.J., Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and other cities who find themselves day after day sending their children to schools that measure success not in terms of learning but in escaping physical harm. What parent wouldn’t want a safe haven, a more disciplined learning environment, and high expectations for his or her child? Public school systems that function well would not be threatened under this plan, but those that don’t would be shaken out of their complacency.

School vouchers, especially in urban public school systems, would finally give parents and students a choice--a long overdue choice--to opt for education, not just survival. It is a choice most of us fortunate enough to reside in “good’’ school districts take for granted. Dealing solely in high-minded abstractions trivializes the plight of urban students and postpones yet another workable solution.

Barbara Parent
Marmora, N.J.

A version of this article appeared in the October 01, 1994 edition of Teacher as Letters