Education Opinion


March 01, 2000 11 min read

Star Struck

I don’t know why I do it, but I keep reading publications like yours and finding myself on the brink of a stroke or heart attack. “Gold Star Junkies” [February] prompted just such an experience. I can’t imagine what planet your writer, David Ruenzel, lives on, or why he insists on popularizing the bankrupt philosophies of Alfie Kohn. Ruenzel’s story and your cover make America’s teachers feel bad about using practices that have worked for millennia— practices that are essential for even the basic maintenance of classroom discipline, let alone academic excellence.

Every society lives or dies according to whether it transmits appropriate rewards and punishments to its members. The value of extrinsic rewards is so completely woven into the fabric of our lives that we hardly need to think about them—we create them and respond to them as naturally as we breathe. Yet America’s teachers seem hellbent on convincing themselves that it just ain’t so.

Dave Ziffer
“I Can Read!” After- School Reading Program
Batavia, Illinois

“Gold Star Junkies” misses the mark. It gives the impression that behavioral approaches are ineffective and harmful. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Though teachers should encourage children to learn for learning’s sake, not all students are ready for such a challenge. Many students come to school acting out in a way that interferes with learning. Such behavior can be addressed through some of the techniques dismissed in the article.

External motivation simply cannot be as bad as Ruenzel implies. If it were, no one would look forward to their paycheck, a form of external motivation for most individuals.

Shawn Powell
School Psychologist
Laramie County School District No. 1
Cheyenne, Wyoming

Not So Bright

While I understand Kirsten Olson Lanier’s point about the problems in identifying students for gifted education [“Schoolhou se Slur,” February], I believe she approaches the subject from a flawed perspective. In most classrooms, children who have difficulty learning get help in numerous ways—ways not only applauded by the federal government, but also funded by it. Children of “average” ability, meanwhile, are catered to daily.

The only children who are not encouraged to reach their intellectual potential are the “bright” students. They are expected to repeatedly listen to lessons they understand the very first day, to help other students, and to squelch their curiosity.

The point of gifted education programs is not to exclude or weed out the “stupid” children, but to offer gifted students the same opportunity for personal growth that is available to other children.

Suzanne Averitt
Havelock, North Carolina

I was quite offended by “Schoolhouse Slur.” Along with the author’s implied assumption that minority and poor children could not be gifted, the phrase “effort creates ability” is an insult to all the hard-working children who nevertheless have a difficult time in school.

Mike Robison
Olivet, Michigan

Lanier’s impugning the competence of today’s professionals in identifying the gifted student—using a range of criteria and tests—is offensive. My district works assiduously at identifying the gifted and talented, with retesting and evaluation on many fronts. This helps ensure that no youngster is overlooked. Students, teachers, and parents alike are part of the process.

Each child deserves to learn to the best of his or her ability, at whatever level that may be. The author’s fear of giftedness mirrors a too-common public attitude, with her inflammatory commentary on the use of the word “bright” ringing too shrill.

Art Snyder
Dayton, Ohio

“Schoolhouse Slur” perpetuates stereotypes that already lead public schools to deny much-needed services to gifted students. Would Lanier feel the same way if her 6- year-old had been reading difficult books at 2? How would she feel if her 8-year-old was ready for high school algebra?

I suggest the author go back to school and learn about the real needs of this underserved population.

Kristine Ganes

If Lanier were to visit a school today, she would find classes in which 80 percent of the children are being challenged—80 percent who learn something new every day and who are active and involved. She would find 10 percent who struggle to keep up, who probably have extra classes and aides— help that is provided in almost every school district. Then she would find 10 percent who are struggling to stay awake, to stay focused, to find something in the lesson they do not already know. Culling the “bright” 10 percent of a class and offering them a different educational experience is not denying the rest of the students a challenging curriculum; it is providing a challenge to those who would otherwise not learning anything new. Every child has a right to learn in school, and for some children, grade-level classes do not offer them that opportunity.

Maureen Olszewski
Naperville, Illinois

As a former teacher and as a parent of one profoundly gifted child and one very normal child, I cannot disagree more with Lanier’s premise that labeling children as “bright” is wrong. Schools with attitudes like hers try to keep gifted students down, refusing to give them the appropriate work. My 7-year-old son—who read the Harry Potter books at age 6 and has since read C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series and the Tolkien trilogy—has faced horrible prejudice by teachers and school administrators because he is academically gifted. Having a child with an IQ that is four standard deviations above his classmates is a parenting nightmare, especially with the attitudes of educators such as Lanier. I only pray that my children never get such a teacher.

Marjorie Peskin
Cupertino, California

Even though every child has the right to a free and appropriate education, gifted children often do not receive instruction at their own level and pace unless they’re in a gifted and talented program. Without such programs, kindergarten students who already know how to read sit through a year of instruction for beginning readers. Perhaps Lanier also thinks it’s inequitable to identify special education students and provide them with additional funding and support.

The United States’ scores on international tests are embarrassing, and if we continue to ignore our high achievers and teach to the mean, that won’t change.

Kathy Bernstein
Kalispell, Montana

Lanier is right: The sorting of “bright” from “nonbright” children in America’s public school systems is deplorable, but not because it is wrong to teach differently to those who are more or less gifted. Rather, schools should be teaching all children to their capabilities. Those with average math skills should get a different, less challenging curriculum than those who are gifted in math. We would not ask a gifted basketball player to play only with kids of average athletic skills; we would not ask a gifted artist to receive the same art instruction as kids with average art skills. What we need in public schools is differentiation, so that every child is taught to the level of his or her capabilities in every subject.

Larry Blim
Potomac, Maryland


In the interview with author Maureen Stout [“Teacher Feel-Good,” February], you use the word “Alot” instead of “A lot.” I was shocked to see it in your pages. I hope you correct it immediately in the online edition of Teacher Magazine.

Frank Pool
Austin, Texas

Tough Talk

I want to thank your publication and David Hill for reporting on my dismissal as a teacher from Capistrano Valley High School in California [“Tough Teacher,” January].

At Capo Valley, we had no standards for homework, testing, or grades in the social sciences department. It was all laissez-faire. Some classes did not require homework, tests featured only multiple-choice questions, and comprehensive finals were not given. Also, what is commonly known as “social promotion” was a standard policy for some classes. Given such latitude and such lack of uniformity of departmental requirements for teacher conduct and student performance, is it any wonder that many students wanted to transfer out of my class and into a less challenging learning environment? As Kenneth Sayles says in the article, students “would beg and plead” for a change of teacher. What he didn’t note is that while some students wanted to transfer out of my class, others wanted to transfer in.

Paul Pflueger
Laguna Beach, California

While I commiserate with Paul Pflueger, your article paints the picture of a man who is in need of what he professes to give others—an education. Pflueger may be an excellent teacher, but he could desperately use some interpersonal-skills training. Pflueger reminds me of callow students whose lack of tact and couth prevents them from positive interaction with others. Your report seems to indicate that Pflueger wasn’t fired for poor teaching performance but rather for being a jerk.

Richard Wulterkens
Stanley-Boyd High School
Stanley, Wisconsin

I am one of those “tough teachers.” I am now retired, but I empathize with Paul Pflueger. The old joke about me was: “Mr. Regan was the teacher that your mother warned you about!” I was a tough but fair grader, I expected homework to be neat and turned in on time, and I didn’t waste kids’ time in class. My students learned, but I upset many parents because I failed their children when they did not do the work.

Fred Regan
Sterling Heights, Michigan Pflueger plans to call his book California Teacher: The Socratic Saga of Paul Pflueger, or How Excellence Can Get You Fired. A more appropriate title might be: The Didactic Saga of Paul Pflueger, or How Arrogance Can Get You Fired. Pflueger says that he uses the Socratic method. Has this man ever been trained in the Socratic method? The teacher’s role in a Socratic seminar is to help his students construct their own meaning from the text. When students perceive a teacher hewing to a single interpretation of a text, they cease to construct meaning for themselves. This man made clear that his liberal opinions on history and the Pledge of Allegiance were the only views permitted in his classroom.

Teachers are entitled to think what they wish regarding the subjects and the society in which they teach. They are not entitled to unravel the values and lessons taught to our children by their parents.

Pam Fischer

Paul Pflueger was not a good teacher. He is a strong debater, an intelligent man, and a dominating personality, yet he falls terribly short as a teacher. As a proud graduate of Capistrano Valley High School (Class of ‘91) and a fourth-year middle school teacher, I have no sympathy for Pflueger; he did little to change his thinking, attitudes, and methods to improve himself, his classroom, and his school. He is the antithesis of the many outstanding teachers at Capo, such as Ken Sayles, who have dedicated themselves to influencing young people’s lives in a positive manner. I am pleased that principal Dan Burch stood up to this bully.

Erik Richards
Legg Middle School
Coldwater, Michigan

It is pretty terrible that the California Teachers Association chose not to represent Pflueger and blamed it on the costs. No wonder young adults aren’t going into the educational field.

Sue Davis
Victor, Montana

I read your article on Paul Pflueger with great interest, as I left education after witnessing a similar situation. In my case, I had an assistant principal tell me that a teacher had defied her and that she was going to “get him, crush him, and make him wish that he had never lived.” She and the principal began observing the teacher two and sometimes three periods a day, two or three times every week. Every change he made was wrong, and none of the evaluations said anything positive. After two years, the teacher started vomiting on his way to school, lost 30 pounds in a single month, and shook so that he could hardly hold a coffee mug. Then he had a complete physical and mental breakdown. When he returned to school the following year, the process began again until he was about to be dismissed. But like Pflueger, he was offered a last minute chance to retire with insurance benefits. And as in Pflueger’s case, while all this happened, the local teachers’ union stood idly by.

Margaret Sullivan
Chesterfield, Missouri


Let’s consider Peter Hewson of the University of Wisconsin, who wants to rid the lexicon of the spurious word “misconception” because it implies students are at fault for their erroneous notions [“Children’s Fiction,” January]. Here we are, sacrificing academics for that feelings stuff again. Perhaps it could be said that Hewson’s conception about the word “misconception” is misconceived.

Thom Prentice
Assistant Professor of Education
Southwest Texas State University
San Marcos, Texas

Teacher Magazine welcomes the opinions and comments of its readers. Letters should be 300 words or fewer and may be edited for clarity and length. Articles for the “Comment” section fall under two general headings: Viewpoint and First Person. Essays should run approximately 1,000 to 1,750 words (four to five double-spaced pages) in length. All letters and submissions should include an address and phone number. Mail them to Teacher Magazine, 6935 Arlington Road, Suite 100, Bethesda, MD 20814. Letters also may be sent to tmletter@epe.org.

A version of this article appeared in the March 01, 2000 edition of Teacher as Letters