Education Opinion


April 25, 2001 12 min read
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Shortages in Field Extend to Canada

To the Editor:

As an elementary school principal who has lived and worked for 29 years in Ontario, Canada, where we have recently undergone dramatic and damaging changes to the education system due to the current Conservative government’s cutbacks, a shortage of administrators in California is very appealing (“California Faces Shortages of Administrators, Report Warns,” April 4, 2001).

My wife and I are both educators and are committed to relocating to the United States despite living our entire lives in Canada. We are looking for a jurisdiction that values educators and the work they do and also is prepared to remunerate them appropriately for their professional work.

The problem of high student-administrator ratios you describe seems familiar, driven by cutbacks to public education and a “drive to privatize.” Resources are being cut out of the system here, as corporatism takes over, and the negativity toward educators has been continuous. As a result, massive early retirements, defections, and teacher departures from the profession are creating a teacher and administrator shortage crisis in Ontario.

The complexity and accountability demands are the same here as described in your article and have dramatically changed the role of principals and superintendents in the past 10 years. The salaries for the significant responsibilities carried by administrators are low compared with other professions, and our Canadian dollar exacerbates the problem.

This must change, along with the declining respect for the demands of these jobs. Competition for educators will become acute across North America in the next decade, with educators going to school systems that respect the profession, provide financial incentives for administrators comparable to those found in the private sector, and provide system resources to allow educators to do their jobs effectively with minimal bureaucratic interference.

Teacher and administrator departures and a resultant decline in the quality of education will continue, as top-quality educators go to the private sector or to school boards that provide the best incentives to candidates.

School systems all across North America and their state and local governments must decide whether they want quality education or education on a budget. They can’t have both.

Robert Bahlieda
Toronto, Ontario

Turmoil May Await Transfer Students

To the Editor:

Thank you for reporting on the issue of student mobility and its consequences (“Moving Targets,” Research, April 4, 2001). Successful school transfers often depend on savvy parents and school personnel. Too often, children become victims of adult moves. You emphasize the risk to elementary students who may have special needs, but the consequences for capable secondary students can be equally severe.

We moved our teenage son in the opposite direction of that experienced by Charles Andrew Williams, the accused Santee, Calif., school shooter, but I see parallels. We left Los Angeles in 1996 and came to this rural Ohio town of 7,000, much like the town of Brunswick, Md., where Andy Williams grew up before moving to California. My son faced battles from the moment he enrolled in his small public high school. But I was by his side and acted as his advocate.

My son was an honors student in his Los Angeles college-prep school and belonged in honors classes in Ohio. Your article refers to the red tape around student records. We had the records. But the counselor was unconvinced, and wanted my son to begin in regular classes. As a veteran teacher, I knew that was a mistake. Once off the honors track, students fall behind. So I insisted that my son have his trial period in the rigorous classes where he belonged.

The boy in Santee had been an honor student once, but his course placement was lost in the move.

I also know the importance of school activities for a transfer student; my son chose marching band. The school arranged for a meeting with the band director during the summer. My son auditioned, attended band camp, and was scheduled into that class. That’s where he made his first and truest friends. We were advised to call his honors teachers at home to get the summer reading assignments, unheard of in big-city schools.

Andy Williams had such personal care in his small previous school, and was nurtured by his teachers, but he apparently lost that link in his move.

Here in Ohio, my son was targeted for teasing as “the weird kid from L.A.” I refused to accept the taunting and went straight to the principal for help. Nobody knew who “snitched,” but students were chastised by faculty members and changed their behavior for the better. Who helped the young, miserable Santee student, or even listened to his pleas?

Transfer students are often treated as outsiders, unless they have exceptional qualities, the assistance of savvy adults, or luck. I saw that clearly with my own son. Schools have status symbols, like a varsity letter jacket, a role in the theater production, or membership in a club. In small schools, activities need participants. My son was needed on the swim and tennis teams, earned his varsity letter, and was “cool.” In large schools, there are too many students for the slots, and kids are left out. How do the outsiders become connected and achieve status among their peers?

We who have taught in big-city schools know how difficult it is to provide a sense of belonging to each transfer student. Your article shows how such efforts can be effective. The Santee student’s experience shows the other extreme. Nobody noticed his misery, or cared.

Perhaps school personnel need to recognize this dynamic when dealing with transfer students in secondary schools. Set adrift socially and academically, they can hinder school accountability measures, as you note. They can also experience personal alienation, suffer mightily, and explode.

Betty Raskoff Kazmin
School Board Member
Willard, Ohio

Apples, Oranges, and Educational Statistics

To the Editor:

Either I’ve lost my edge or the article “U.S. Seen Losing Edge on Education Measures” (April 4, 2001) is another effort to look for the dark side in American public education.

In the sixth paragraph, I note a reference to who in the United States participated in the study. I think I saw this: “In the United States, excluding individuals who go on to acquire further education ...”

Well who participated? What kind of a pool of students was actually assessed? Are you comparing apples to apples, or, like so many others, are you studying apples and oranges? I guess, as so many others have suggested, statistics can be used to prove any point.

J. Bruce McKenna
Superintendent of Schools
Hampton Bays, N.Y.

Who Is the Mediator When Teachers Lead?

To the Editor:

Irving Buchen’s letter on teacher leadership (“Teacher Leaders: Saving the Ship of Schools,”Letters, March 28, 2001) appears to be another in a series by those who do not work on a daily basis with children in K-12 schools. They have great ideas of little substance. Too often, their views of how schools should run are idealist. They err because they are not the people in the trenches. And they seem to thrive on the buzzword of the moment. At present, this appears to be “paradigm.” Those who consider themselves educational intellectuals love to overuse that word.

Do away with principals? Then, tell me, who serves as mediator between the irate parent and the teacher? I can guarantee you that a parent won’t listen to simply another teacher. Who is the go-between with the school board? Who shelters that teacher from an overzealous board member? Who serves as a mediator between the teacher and the student? Guess what? I’ve dealt with cases where the teacher hasn’t always been right.

Administrators also spend an inordinate amount of time on paperwork. Does Mr. Buchen want those teacher- leaders to give up more of what little free time they have to comply with the rules and regulations the paperwork encompasses? He also seems to forget the area of meetings. The number of hours a principal spends in these would have to be absorbed by those teacher-leaders. When do they find the time, and how do they prevent being overwhelmed?

Mr. Buchen’s ideas are fine, so long as no one has to set the direction, take responsibility, or actually lead. Then, too, as long as everyone accepts his or her role things will be fine. What happens if you have a teacher who will not cooperate?

I believe there is a system very close to what Mr. Buchen wants, it’s called communism, and we all know how well that works.

Dick Schaffen

Superintendent of Schools
Stanton Public School District #22
Stanton, N.D.

Early Attention and Learning Problems

To the Editor:

Hooray for Jorge E. Amsell of the Washington- based Center for Equal Opportunity, who is quoted in your article “Studies Examine Racial Disparities in Special Education” (March 14, 2001).

We read about so many studies that blame schools for placing too many children in special education, but seldom is there any mention of looking into why so many children are qualifying. Mr. Amsell suggests that there are “other factors” involved. Indeed there are, Mr. Amsell.

Brain-development research shows us that the brain is like a muscle that must be stimulated in the early years, so that it can learn how to learn (see Davy McClay’s Commentary “The ‘Receptivity Factor’” in the same issue).

Just as we would not walk into a gym and expect to lift a 500-pound weight with no previous practice, neither should we expect a child in kindergarten to start absorbing the enormous amounts of information expected with no foundation. Children must have a point of reference to which they can attach meaning (Mr. McClay calls this “prewiring” in his Commentary).

I worked for nine years as a diagnostician and once tested a 5-year-old who did not know much of anything— not colors, letters, animals, or a host of other important bits of information. When I asked the child’s parent about this lack, she replied, “Oh, we haven’t really shown him that kind of stuff. I figured he would just learn it when he got to school.”

Needless to say, this child began his schooling “handicapped.” Not because of race, medical problems, or poverty, but because his parents didn’t bother to work with him to stimulate that “muscle” he would need for the rest of his life in order to learn.

Many parents don’t understand that children must be read to, listened to, talked to, exposed to music and art, and shown a host of other experiences very early in life if they are to be successful in school.

If more parents paid attention to these early needs, perhaps there would be fewer students needing special education services.

Terri Cooter
Assistant Director
Special Education Services
Moore, Okla.

Terminal Cynicism: Reform Needs a Revolution, Not a Premature Obituary

To the Editor:

America has had to endure the impotency of educational reform throughout my 50-year career. Now, in “The End of School Reform” (Commentary, April 4, 2001), Peter Temes cynically tells us the system cannot be reformed, and to accept the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation’s heroic idea of simply saving as many students as we can.

Mr. Temes gives us the analogy of the man who loses his watch in the living room, but chooses to look for it in the kitchen because the light is better there. Indeed, once America finally tires of the misplaced kitchen searches of Mr. Temes and colleagues, it can start searching where a new and revolutionary educational system is to be found.

Such naysayers rigidly believe that the basic purpose of school must be the intellectual development of the student. But this focus is only a minor subset of a far more powerful purpose: character development.

A focus on character unleashes the deepest human motivation—self-discovery. Adolescence is primarily meant to help students answer the three basic questions of life : Who am I? Where am I going? What do I need to do to get there?

Today, our zeal to provide universities with better students and industry with better workers forces students to ignore or look elsewhere to answer these crucial questions. But if we focus schools on character, and thus self-discovery, students will begin to devour what we presently try to shove down their throats—and more.

Why don’t schools make this obvious intellect-to- character transition? Because we fear (1) revolutionary change of the unknown, and (2) our abilities to address larger issues like character.

Character is primarily taught by example. This means that teachers—and parents—need an ongoing program to address their own character and self-discovery.

In character development, parents are the primary teachers and the home the primary classroom. This means that we must make the family part of our educational process, and train parents just as we do teachers.

Clearly, to change schools for our kids, we must first be willing to change ourselves.

We presently lack the guts to institute such revolutionary change, but given increasing Columbine-like tragedies, we may soon find the vision to shuck our long-term cynicism, as expressed by Mr. Temes, and finally live out the true meaning of our American creed.

Joseph W. Gauld
Founder of Hyde Schools
Bath, Maine
Woodstock, Conn.

Performance Pay: Establish Trust, Start Small

To the Editor:

Over the years, merit-pay plans failed primarily because the methods used to judge teacher performance were invalid. Jerry Jesness closed his recent Commentary on the subject (“Teacher Merit Pay: Been There, Done That in Texas,” April 4, 2001) with the hope that “this round of merit-pay innovators finds a better way” to compensate teachers who perform well. A better way has been developed. Merit pay has been replaced with “performance” pay.

To avoid the problems previously associated with merit pay, a performance-pay plan should be based on the following guidelines:

  • Teacher participation should be voluntary.
  • Performance pay should be added to a teacher’s regular salary.
  • Multiple measures such as peer reviews, teacher portfolios, and student achievement should be used in evaluating a teacher’s performance.
  • A variety of methods, such as reports and performance projects that demonstrate student learning, should be used to measure the achievement of a teacher’s students.
  • If used at all, the results of standardized tests of student achievement must be evaluated in light of the ability, previous achievement, and socioeconomic background of a teacher’s students.
  • Plans should be developed cooperatively by teachers and administrators.
  • Plans should specify clearly how teachers are to be evaluated, who is to do the evaluation, and how teachers are to be compensated.
  • Teachers must be involved actively in administering the plans.
  • There must be a reasonable assurance of sufficient long-range funding.

Performance-pay plans are not easy to develop. The process can be divisive. Successful plans can be developed only when there is trust among teachers and between teachers and administrators. Therefore, it makes sense to develop “pilot” plans in individual schools, rather than a districtwide plan.

A performance-pay plan based on the guidelines I have suggested would not be as dramatic or sweeping as some plans currently being implemented. Nevertheless, a modest plan may have a better chance of long-term success than the sweeping districtwide plans that, if history is any guide, seem destined to fail.

Carl O. Olson
Retired Educator
Sarasota, Fla.

A version of this article appeared in the April 25, 2001 edition of Education Week as Letters


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