Education Letter to the Editor

Free and Clear

October 08, 2004 11 min read
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Summerhill Redux

As an ex-Summerhillian, I appreciate the opportunity to read a reasonably balanced article on the school [“Free for All,” May/June]. I am delighted that it continues to exert a powerful influence on at least a few worthy educators and am continually amazed at how far off the radar it has fallen for most people.

I spoke with Sam Swope at some length during his preparation. On publication, he told me that much of the “alumni section” had been cut. After reading the article, I congratulated him on a well-written piece but expressed disappointment that this section focused on the child who leaves Summerhill without being able to read or write. Certainly that did—and does—happen, but I would guess no more often than at any other school. Ex-Summerhillians are artists, Web designers, small-business entrepreneurs, arts managers, scientists, filmmakers, educators, computer experts, actors, and authors, and many of us have achieved socially recognized levels of success. It is tedious to continually defend the school for its occasional “failures.” I refer other readers to Dane Goodsman’s doctoral dissertation at the University of East Anglia (in the United Kingdom), which followed Summerhill alumni in depth, for a more detailed look at how we’re doing.

Even after 83 years, Summerhill has much to recommend it. I hope that Sam’s article will reignite interest in my wonderfully unique school.

Martha Neighbors
Summerhill Student, 1969-74
New York City

As a student of education theory and a researcher and participant of free schools, I was delighted to see the topic of Summerhill addressed in Sam Swope’s article. Sam did a nice job describing his relationship to the Summerhill School. He produced a story that made ideas about free schooling accessible to educators who may be unfamiliar and uncomfortable with them.

Two elements of the article that I feel need more clarification are the misleading statement that Summerhill is unread today and the implication that the Summerhill School is an isolated entity. The free school movement, often contemporarily called the democratic school movement, has a dynamic and varied past and present around the world. In North America, this movement reached an apex in the 1960s and ’70s out of a critique of a technocratic society, a critique that is once again finding momentum in the face of rapidly increasing school standardization. The forces of standardization are felt in all aspects of education, including but not limited to testing, larger classes, and greater centralized administration. More and more families and activists are seeking alternatives to these phenomena; as a result, free and democratic schools, and books about them, are on the rise.

Sarah Anne Mills
Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada

Break It Down

Thank you for the Perspective column in your May/June issue [“One by One”]. It hits the mark so perfectly. Why doesn’t that kind of education happen? Too many old habits? Not aware that changes need to be made? Not willing to put out the effort? It seems like such a simple thing to have a situation that will actually benefit the people (students) we are working for.

Ron Stott
Cache High School
Logan, Utah

Control Room

The article about David Pitone [“Law and Order,” May/June] illustrates a problem that exists nationwide in almost every school. Administrators aren’t doing or can’t do their job of keeping order and discipline in school. They either run off to meetings or, if in the building, only “talk” to students about misbehavior and send them back to you. I have taught for 30 years and see no improvement in the way administrators behave. A lot of education time is being wasted by teachers doing their own police work instead of teaching. And it is getting worse in rural, small-town, and city schools because fewer and fewer parents support or care to support teachers in the education of their children.

Lyman Sibbett
Cowley, Wyoming

I have to thank you for some great lunch-time entertainment. We read David Pitone’s interview out loud in the teachers’ lounge. It was absolutely hysterical! We about fell off our chairs when he said he asked the assistant principal if he could “go home for the rest of the day.” In his two and a half days as a “teacher,” Mr. Pitone realized what real educators already know: Teaching is a demanding profession that takes great skill. It is sad that Mr. Pitone did not try to work out his classroom management issues but instead jumped right into litigation. I wonder if Mr. Pitone will give the legal system more than two and a half days to hear his case.

Mr. Pitone stated that “the students that are the most difficult, who make it hard for everyone, you get rid of them.” Maybe Mr. Pitone should have a heart-to-heart with President Bush about the meaning of No Child Left Behind. I am thankful that the teachers in my school don’t have Mr. Pitone’s attitude. They understand that they are here for each child—especially the difficult ones.

Molly Burger
Middleton, Idaho

Wits’ End

Free and Clear

Thanks so much for including Brett Schaeffer’s story about me [“Grace Under Pressure,” March/April]. It’s great fun, if a bit ironic, to find myself and my work painted in a pretty flattering way for an audience of people who work in schools.

I often talk fast, copiously, and in run-on sentences and non sequiturs, so any journalist who does as well as Brett did in capturing the gist of what I have to say has my appreciation. He is right that I’m not terribly “interested in minutiae and technicalities,” so I’ll leave those mostly alone. But how I’m quoted on the subject of people I love is another matter, so I want to clarify this: I’ve learned many important things from both of my older brothers, and I respect them both deeply. When I’m quoted as saying “the one thing I did get from him,” Brett and I were talking specifically about whether my brother Othman had influenced me to question the institution of school.

I’d also like to make it clear that I haven’t changed my mind about compulsory education, as your cover says. If a system is fundamentally flawed (and I still think that our educational system is), I [currently] see five ways to address that problem. One is to dismantle it. I don’t pretend to have a large enough understanding of our society and all of its interdependent connections that I could responsibly contribute anything valuable or unique to that discussion. Another closely related way is to make the system less powerful, less compulsory, less of a monopoly. We have heaps of people working intelligently on that front—legalizing and popularizing unschooling, radical private schools, charter schools, and other innovations within the public system. I’m not needed there, though I’m glad my books continue to help popularize unschooling. A third way is to try to fix the problems within the system. Millions of people are doing this—admirably, I think, considering the fundamental difficulties they are up against. So that base is covered. A fourth is to encourage the actual recipients or consumers of the system to remove themselves from the system. I did that by writing Handbook. I’m glad I did, but I don’t need or want to keep doing it or to do it again.

And so I am interested now in a fifth way: Show those same recipients and consumers, if they are going to remain in the system, some of the ways, subtle and not so subtle, that they can expand their power over their own experience while they are there. It’s this [idea] that I’m exploring in my new book. It’s huge and exciting territory, and I am coming to believe more and more in the power of a human being to transcend her circumstances.

Grace Llewellyn
Eugene, Oregon

I was disappointed that the profile of Grace Llewellyn did not include any significant account of the ideas that have attracted attention to her work. I suspect many of our most gifted teachers see themselves as primarily dedicated to their students and see (or tolerate) our modern school system as but a means to that end. Educators have a special appreciation, based on experience, that school isn’t for everyone, and one would like to believe that many who are committed to education welcome the exploration of alternatives to school.

Evan Hunter Wright
Camarillo, California

As soon as I read the headline on your March/April cover, I smelled a rat. Not one shred of data was offered that justified the contention that Grace Llewellyn had “change[d] her mind about compulsory education.”

So she discovered that homeschool parents are real people with real hang-ups. As a homeschool father myself, in addition to being a church school principal, I could have told her that. So she’s writing a book for kids within the mainstream school environment. A commendable nod to the fact that most kids won’t or can’t take the plunge if “all” and “nothing” are the only two options. Yet the article clearly states that Llewellyn “still stands behind the ideas in her book.” I’m still trying to figure out whether the article represents wishful thinking or blatant misrepresentation.

Harry Shenk
Pilgrim Christian High School
Hutchinson, Kansas

Long Division

I am curious about information included in “Lost in Translation” [March/April]. In particular, the author quotes that “average scores of Everyday Mathematics students on each state’s standardized test were significantly higher than for students of similar reading level, socioeconomic background, and race who were not using the curriculum.” I have read the study and it asserts that “the results also hold across all income and racial/ethnic subgroups, except for Hispanic students....” As such, the article implies that all races benefited from use of Everyday Math, which is untrue.

In addition, the article implied that the study included 100,000 students who used Everyday Mathematics. In fact, the study looked at 100,000 students who used three different “reform” curricula, which also included Math Trailblazers and Investigations in Number, Data, and Space. Could you please offer an explanation for these discrepancies? Since your magazine is read by so many educators across the country, I feel that it is important to clarify these misunderstandings.

Ed Hedges
Norman, Oklahoma

Samantha Stainburn’s reply:

We regret the impression that only Everyday Math students were included in the study of 100,000 students. As a group, those students using EM notably outperformed the students not using any of the three curricula; among Hispanic students specifically, there were “no significant differences between the scores.” It was the statistically significant data that was summarized in the discussion of “average scores.” In fact, the study’s executive summary iterates the findings with the following statement: “All significant differences favored the reform students; no significant difference favored the comparison students. This result held across all tests, all grade levels, and all strands, regardless of SES [socioeconomic status] and racial/ethnic identity.”

Passé Professors

Anne Fairbrother’s essay “Minding the Gap” [Comment, March/April] was so timely and full of truth that you should have devoted a special issue to the subject [of] the great disconnect between what goes on in education schools and what actually happens in our public institutions of primary learning. Ms. Fairbrother makes a lot of sense, but she is dreaming when she envisions “discussions between professors, education researchers, and classroom teachers, meeting as equals.” Most people who are in the field of education but work at a college are there because they don’t have the stomach to deal with students, parents, administrators, or school boards—although I am guessing that it is mostly the students. Docile, hung-over undergrads and work-exhausted nontraditional students are much easier to be with in a classroom on a bright spring day.

I have been teaching for 15 years, and the closest an education professor has been to my classroom was to pick up a stipend check for some tedious (and worthless) inservice at my school. When Ms. Fairbrother suggested that education professors return to the public school classroom to teach, I had to laugh out loud. I am willing to bet that most of them would rather cut off an appendage than keep a roll book again.

I think state universities should force them back into classrooms, possibly in at-risk school divisions, to maintain their credentials and hold their jobs. As it stands now, “educators” who do not spend the day in buildings full of children are siphoning off federal and state education money, for which the outcome is a minimal return at best and robbery at worst. Someone who has not taught daily since the Reagan administration has nothing to offer me, or a prospective teacher, on any professional level. They are going to teach us how to have our kids do better on NCLB high-stakes testing? How could they, since the vast majority of them have never been in this situation themselves?

Real teachers who deal daily with real students will never be able to meet equally with the university variety of “educator,” no matter how many E’s and D’s [the latter] have after their names. We are just that much more important than they are.

John McMahon
Fredericksburg, Virginia

Walk This Way

I am a middle school teacher in the Little Rock School District. We read the article “Take It Outside” [Comment, March/April]. I started a walking program in October 2003. As of today, we have walked 140 miles as a class. The kids were featured in the district’s newsletter. We walk 20 minutes a day anytime the weather will allow.

Our [students have] shown great improvement in their learning. Attentiveness in class, behavior, and attitudes have greatly improved as a result of this program. All it takes is a will to get off our butts and on our feet. It’s time we put the “physical” back into education.

Richard Reynolds
Henderson Magnet Middle
Little Rock, Arkansas


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