Education Letter to the Editor


November 20, 2002 8 min read
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Sen. Paul Wellstone: Complex, Unafraid

To the Editor:

While space in Education Week is always limited, the late Sen. Paul Wellstone of Minnesota was more courageous and complex than the person described in your recent story (“Wellstone Recalled as Friend of Public Education,” Nov. 6, 2002). Here are three quick examples from the many stories I could tell, having admired and worked with this 5-foot-5 dynamo since 1969:

1. When the National Collegiate Athletic Association began using bizarre standards to tell high schools which courses were and were not acceptable preparation for college, Sen. Wellstone objected vigorously, publicly, and constantly.The NCAA rejected interdisciplinary courses, or youth/community- service courses, or courses helping youngsters understand current issues. He urged that Congress hold a hearing, and asked others to join this challenge.

It didn’t matter to Sen. Wellstone that virtually all of the major Washington-based education groups were afraid of questioning the NCAA’s actions.These groups feared that the NCAA might say they weren’t in favor of academic rigor.Sen. Wellstone favored rigor, but hated arrogant bullies. He was the leading national champion of the NCAA challenge, which after four years succeeded.The NCAA backed off.

2. Sen. Wellstone was a strong advocate of the charter public school movement, calling it “the marvelous Minnesota innovation which is spreading around the country."It didn’t matter to him that teachers’ unions, which supported him, strongly opposed charters.He visited a number of charters, respected the parents and educators who were involved, and thought that although every charter was not successful, the movement was very much worth supporting.

3. Paul Wellstone was as generous and egalitarian as he was gregarious. He constantly thanked the ordinary people in his daily life that many of us take for granted.When he ate in restaurants, for example, whether at home, in the U.S. Capitol, or around the world, he always went into the kitchen to thank the people who prepared the meal.

Paul and his wife Sheila battled with and for students, innovative educators, and people who work hard but are often unappreciated.His favorite quote was from the 1800s abolitionist Wendell Phillips.When asked once why he was so intense about the issues he championed, Phillips responded, “I am on fire because I have mountains of ice before me to melt.”

Courageous, committed, compassionate, and unafraid—that was Paul Wellstone.The best tribute to him and to Sheila is to keep on turning up the heat.

Joe Nathan
Center for School Change
Humphrey Institute
University of Minnesota
Minneapolis, Minn.

The writer was a 1970 graduate of Carleton College, where Paul Wellstone taught.

Choose Better Ways To Talk of Teachers

To the Editor:

As a teacher, I was personally and professionally offended by the message implicit in this headline: “Court Halts Demotion of Detroit ‘Master Teachers,’” (Sept. 11, 2002). Using the word “demotion” implies (unintentionally, I suspect) that moving from an administrative to a teaching position constitutes a loss of status.

I know that you are keenly aware of the importance of what teachers do. I am certain that you are equally aware that too many in our society fail to regard teaching as a profession, staffed by professionals. And I’m confident that you understand how essential it is that we begin viewing ourselves as such—as career professionals who deserve respect equal in measure to the services we render to society. Implying that in any sense (other than financially) teaching is inferior to administration undermines the well- deserved respect and recognition we teachers have worked so long and hard to earn.

All of us—and especially publications such as yours—must do what we can to shape the public’s perception of teaching’s importance, and guide people to a clearer and more productive understanding of teachers. We educators must also remain conscious of how we perceive ourselves, and carefully use language that accurately reflects our true beliefs.

Patrick Mulvey
Jackson, Wyo.

Unions Represent Support Staff, Too

To the Editor:

I take offense when I hear “our” unions referred to as “teachers’ unions” (“Unions Labor to Shape Education Policy,” Oct. 30, 2002). We value and honor our teachers and work side by side with them to provide a quality public education for this country’s students. To enlighten you, the unions are made up of teachers and other education support professionals, such as paraeducators, transportation workers, security officers, nurses, maintenance, custodial, and grounds workers, clerical staff, food-service workers, and technology-support staff. We are all educators in one form or another. We all play a vital and integral role. We all help in the education of children, and we would appreciate not being left out of the picture.

Debbie Minnick
Ithaca, N.Y.

The Inhumanity of Teaching Machines

To the Editor:

At first I thought that Rory McGarity’s letter, “Teachers: Human, or Simulated?,” (Letters, Oct. 30, 2002), was a parody. After all, it said that “software-driven ‘teacher-simulants’ will be widespread in, probably, less than 20 years,” and that “they will mimic teacher traits [and] be far cheaper to keep in the classroom than human teachers ... [while also being] far more productive” than many of those humans. When I noticed that the letter-writer taught in the U.S. Department of Defense school system, I made a connection.

For the past 40 years, the military has provided much of the funding for development of educational technology. Computer-mediated education has been a direct by-product of the military’s research-and-development programs. Shouldn’t we wonder about the efficacy of this approach, when the goals of the military and the goals of educating 5- to 17-year-olds are so drastically different?

One of the worst things we could do would be to adopt a model of education that in any way moves us away from our humanity and in a direction emphasizing automation, simulation, and human-free systems. The problems facing our schools can only be solved by caring teachers who know their students and the contextual variables that shape and surround their lives. Simulation has nothing to offer schools working toward achieving those ends.

And given the all-too-cozy relationship of the military and corporate America, it is no wonder we are constantly being sold the idea that students can’t learn and teachers can’t teach unless the focus is on machines. One wonders whether the private sector is engaged in marketing and selling teaching and learning like other commodities, or if it is intent on redefining and remaking teaching and learning to create new marketplaces with hundreds of thousands of captive customers. Either way, the outcomes are troubling.

Maybe the time has come for those concerned about the humanity of education to speak out about those promoting machines over humans and simulations over human interaction.

Steve Grineski
Foundations of Education Program
Minnesota State University, Moorhead
Moorhead, Minn.

Voucher Support: Based on a ‘Leap of Faith’ Or ‘Credible Research’?

To the Editor:

In “A Tentative Hope for Vouchers,” (Commentary, Oct. 30, 2002), Ted Fish properly lists warning after warning about vouchers and, to his credit, admits that we don’t know a great deal about them. He notes that the ongoing stock market debacle illustrates free-market flaws. He acknowledges that stronger members of a free-market system can hoard too much power and “often abuse the rest of us.” He can see, he says, that voucher systems “might serve only to perpetuate the imbalances already present in society,” and that know-nothing entrepreneurs may hurt thousands of kids under a voucher system.

Several other objections to vouchers are presented in his essay, which is, in short, a fine summary of the best cases against vouchers.

In light of that, I was expecting Mr. Fish to follow up by delivering an unassailable argument in favor of vouchers, some overwhelming rationalization that would trump all of the stated objections. But I’ve read the piece twice now, and the only support I can find is that “over the last 250 years ... free markets have proved to be the most effective way to manage large numbers of buyers, sellers, and goods. So we have to import that technology to our schools.”

Mr. Fish unquestioningly assumes that capitalism will work to improve schools. That’s quite a leap of faith, and a dubious one. There are many areas of life where survival of the fittest is definitely not the preferred system.

Is it possible that voucher systems are simply wrong, regardless of their potential efficacy? I have never heard a voucher advocate convincingly explain away the issues of separation of church and state, for instance. I say this as a Christian in full agreement with C.S. Lewis, who recognized the insidiousness of mixing government and religion.

If the objections are so many and so varied, and if no strong evidence exists that a move to a voucher system would benefit students, I am stumped as to why Mr. Fish would support vouchers, even tentatively.

Still, his calm approach to the topic and his call for continued dialogue and debate are appreciated. I admit to having my mind made up on vouchers (I am one of President Truman’s “one-handed economists” mentioned in Mr. Fish’s anecdote), but I am also ready to change my mind if the evidence in favor is convincing. And currently, it’s not.

Nelson Maylone
Assistant Professor of Educational Psychology
Eastern Michigan University
Ypsilanti, Mich.

To the Editor:

I was fascinated by Ted Fish’s perspective on vouchers, both fresh (through a graduate student’s eyes) and incisively informed and forward- thinking.

He is right on target when he notes that voucher programs must be established with larger dollar amounts and studied vigorously by credible scholars. I would disagree that Harvard University researchers, such as Paul Peterson and William Howell, should be called biased, however. Their credible research on limited programs helps drive the debate.

The extreme divisiveness of this issue along predictible political lines is never constructive. We can hope that young people like Mr. Fish will continue to chip away at the debate and make it clear to both sides that we should give school choice a real chance.

Laura J. Swartley
Communications Director
The Friedman Foundation
Indianapolis, Ind.

A version of this article appeared in the November 20, 2002 edition of Education Week as Letters


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