Education Letter to the Editor


June 12, 2002 14 min read
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Lack of Hope Breeds Student Detachment

To the Editor:

I was happy to learn that researchers are studying the decline in student enthusiasm for learning, which they label as “detachment” (“Detachment Starts in Middle School, Study Finds,” May 29, 2002.) But I was astounded at the shallowness of their findings.

One need only read the work of Lee Jenkins, in his book Improving Student Learning, and Alfie Kohn, in any number of his books, such as Punished by Rewards, to conclude two things. First, detachment starts in kindergarten and 1st grade and continues unabated at a rate of between 5 percent and 10 percent each year. Second, it is our reinforcement of failure for most students—through our ill-advised reliance on competitive evaluative and recognition systems—that contributes most to this development.

It is sad indeed that our culture refuses to understand and accept the negative consequences of competitive grading. Each year, more and more students get the message that they can only go so far in life. And each year, fewer and fewer students hold out hope for significant achievement and acknowledgment. Very basic psychology, to which all educators are exposed, would alert us to this consequence. Why do we ignore it?

This phenomenon is the natural consequence of the factory-model education system we still cling to. It is a system designed to identify the elite handful of folks who will make the decisions for the rest. It served well U.S. society as it existed 100 years ago. It is as outdated as the pony express today.

Nevertheless, it is comforting to see that someone is studying student detachment. When generating lifelong learners is part of the vision statement of almost any school that bothers to have one, it is alarming to realize that very few schools even monitor the level of student enthusiasm for learning, which is critical to establishing any hope of lifelong learning.

Robert Barkley Jr.
Former Executive Director, Retired
Ohio Education Association
Columbus, Ohio

Not Every Teacher Can Be a Superstar

To the Editor:

As a public high school teacher in Chicago, I welcomed the dose of reality brought to us by Robert Evans (“Family Matters,” Commentary, May 22, 2002.) Just today I visited a remedial-algebra classroom in which a new teacher—competent in his subject—struggled to perform his job while the students paid him no attention whatsoever. I wondered how much longer that teacher would continue trying.

There exist, of course, superstar teachers who could take this group of students and turn them into scholars. But it is not fair to expect every teacher to be a superstar.

The teachers in my school are dedicated to their craft. They work hard to implement “best practices” in their classes: They create hands-on, authentic learning experiences for their students; they have students work in groups so that they might learn from each other; they integrate reading and writing in every subject area; they care about their students and treat them with respect.

But for a discouraging number of students, these best practices make little impression. It doesn’t matter how authentic the task is if the students won’t do it. It doesn’t help to put them in groups if they only talk about what was on TV last night. It doesn’t help to ask them thought-provoking questions if they are unwilling to think.

Robert Evans notwithstanding, almost no one ever says to teachers, “Thank you, you have done your job well; now it is up to the students.” It is not acceptable for a public school to say to a parent, “You have not prepared your child to learn in school, therefore we cannot accept him yet.”

As professionals, we walk a fine line. It is always possible to improve, and we must always strive to improve. But there are limits to what society can reasonably expect us to achieve. I thank Mr. Evans for his reminder of this.

Thomas McDougal
Chicago Secondary Math
Improvement Project
Chicago, Ill.

Keeping Idealism As School Principals

To the Editor:

Your recent front-page article on principals (“Principals: So Much to Do, So Little Time,” April 17, 2002) accurately depicts the role of these school leaders in the United States. How does a principal make the time to wear so many hats, be successful, and avoid burnout?

Successful principals must first have the support of their staffs. It may take some time, but once that support is in place, the burden will be shared among people who believe in the principal’s vision. The job is then transformed into one of empowering people to take an active role in school functions. The school becomes a community where all share one unifying principle: to provide the best education for the children there.

It is also imperative that a principal schedule some time each day to see the children whom he or she serves. This can be as short as a five-minute visit in a classroom, or as informal as saying “hello” in the hallways as the students change classes. But it also could mean spending an entire day in classrooms and leaving the paperwork for later, just as a reminder of why you’re doing what you do each day. Whatever the mode, the interaction with students must be daily. This will help maintain focus and purpose, and may invigorate and refresh the day as well.

Likewise, a principal needs to be part of a principals’ network, or as I call it, a “principals’ roundtable.” For this circle to be effective, principals must share and talk about common needs and concerns. I belong to such a group, formed two years ago, and it has been the most informative and beneficial monthly meeting I attend. We talk, share, strategize, and even complain. This incredibly supportive group of highly trained professionals has aided my school’s progress and given me a resource against isolation.

Finally, principals must make time to relax and “de-stress.” This will mean different things to different people, but it is crucial to maintaining the high level of energy required. Taking care of personal needs can help maintain focus in the professional life.

Being a principal is not an easy calling. Those who choose it will have to develop various skills and support mechanisms to aid in the journey. If they do, the idealism that led them to the career can be sustained, and sustaining, in this demanding, ever-changing field.

Adelina G. Giannetti
Larc School
Bellmawr, N.J.

Conflating Abuse With MI Theory

To the Editor:

What was James R. Delisle trying to say in his Commentary about the exploited boy genius Justin Chapman (“Justin’s Genius,” May 1, 2002)?

As he rightly points out, we need ways to help Justin (and his family) cope with and develop his unique gifts. What confuses me, however, is the conflation of Justin’s abuse with multiple-intelligences theory. I am left wondering what motivated this unnecessary aside to an important and poignant story.

Mr. Delisle’s well-justified anger over Justin’s situation seems misdirected toward the notion that there is more to being smart than an IQ-test score. He tries to construct a link between the popularity of multiple- intelligences theory and Justin’s dilemma. This is in part, I suspect, defensive posturing to protect the sacred temple of IQ from the attacks of common barbarians who fail to fully respect and appreciate the unique needs of high-IQ individuals.

The anger seems an unsuccessful attempt to change the subject and save face. There is no logical defense to the obvious fact that overvaluation of an IQ score is at the core of Justin Chapman’s exploitation. Sadly, Mr. Delisle misses a wonderful opportunity to show how the Chapman case could be a powerful bridge from the 19th-century views of intelligence to the 21st century, as embodied by MI theory.

Rather than attacking scientific progress as unfair to children like Justin, he could easily have demonstrated that current neuroscience evidence about brain-mind-emotion connections can be used to actually help Justin manage his profound social-emotional and intellectual needs. There is no question that many high-IQ children have “special needs,” as do low-IQ children—just as gifted artists, inspired composers, and superior naturalists all could benefit by having their unique gifts recognized, supported, and challenged.

It is an illusion, however, and an artificial construct of Mr. Delisle’s imagination that MI theory does not support the development of high-IQ people. In fact, Howard Gardner has written extensively of the character and needs of creative and highly intelligent people. I am beginning to wonder: Has Mr. Delisle actually read any of Mr. Gardner’s books?

Branton Shearer
Multiple Intelligences Research
and Consulting Inc.
Kent, Ohio

Teacher Gender and Single-Sex Schools

To the Editor:

What about the teachers in the same-sex schools now being advanced by the Bush administration (“Department Aims to Promote Single-Sex Schools,” May 15, 2002)? So far, nothing has been said about them. Would a male teacher, for example, feel comfortable in a school with an all-girl enrollment? Would he be hesitant to enforce the dress code, say, for fear of being accused of sexual harassment?

And what about women teachers? Would they feel comfortable in a school with an all-boy enrollment? Would single-sex schools turn into schools where only one gender rules? Is it a good thing to set girls and women apart? Is it a good thing to set boys and men apart? A world without men or a world without women is not good for students. Girls learn much from being around male teachers. Boys learn much from being around female teachers.

Because many children are being reared in single- parent families, usually led by women, the only substantial contact that many may have with males is through their male teachers. How successful would the future marriages of girls be if they had never been around any males outside the dating experience?

Perhaps before schools dive off into a new education fad, they need to study all aspects of the issue and consider the total well- being of the child.

Donna Garner
Classroom Teacher
Hewitt, Texas

The Irony in Mann’s Views on Religion

To the Editor:

Peter H. Gibbon’s Commentary on Horace Mann (“A Hero of Education,” Commentary, May 29, 2002—Web rights restricted by publisher), rightly noted that Mann bitterly “rejected Calvinism” and was hostile toward orthodox Christianity in promoting his vision for public schools in America. What I found interesting, however, was Mr. Gibbon’s observation that ministers were critical of Mann’s proposals because they “feared a Godless curriculum.”

Amazingly, we find ourselves in exactly that situation today, not just because of Mann’s educational philosophy, but also because of a series of U.S. Supreme Court decisions in the last century that institutionalized his secular viewpoint. It seems ironic to me that Horace Mann believed in “molding” the minds and character of students when, in reality, he sought to remove the source of morals and character from the schoolhouse.

James L. Drexler
St. Louis, Mo.

Puppets and Politics

To the Editor:

There is no doubt that a strong public education system contributes to our success as a nation. Thomas Jefferson’s belief that “to expect a man to be ignorant and free, is to expect what wasn’t or ever will be” still holds meaning for us today. But I for one wonder what our third president, the founder of the University of Virginia, might have thought about today’s political debate over education.

Public school teachers are arguably the second-highest stakeholders in the nation’s education system, after students and their parents. When laws are passed at the federal and state levels of government, we must be their implementers. But despite our important position in the enterprise, teachers have been relegated to a back-seat role in charting its direction. I have recent personal experience that sheds light on how little national leaders care about teachers’ views when it comes to formulating public school policy.

Since last December, I have been trying to gain the right to testify before the various congressional committees responsible for creating and revising education policy. Letters I sent six months ago to members of my state’s delegation, Sens. Christopher S. Bond and Jean Carnahan of Missouri, as well as Reps. Kenny Hulshof and Todd Akin, remain unanswered.

Yet, while thumbing through a recent issue of Education Week, I came across a photograph I could hardly believe. There, in all his bright orange splendor, was Elmo, the famous “Sesame Street” character with whom we’re all so familiar from TV (“Puppet Government?” News in Brief, May 1, 2002.) Elmo was providing testimony before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education. And although he looked dapper in his suit with matching orange tie, I paused to consider why a puppet was giving congressional testimony.

Do our elected representatives expect to be taken seriously when these types of sideshow antics are substituted for professional feedback? Why do they seem so uninterested in hearing from those inside the classroom? Are they afraid they might hear something that would actually affect their votes?

At present, both the House and the Senate are working on the revision of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. I spent several days this spring speaking with staff members of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts in an effort to find a place on the roster for hearings on the discipline provisions of this legislation. After several calls and a fax, I realized my approach was ineffective. So I turned to the Missouri chapter of the National Education Association for help.

A Missouri NEA member later contacted me to say that the Senate education committee was interested only in administrators’ providing testimony. How many of those superintendents and college-level professors, I wondered, had implemented an individualized education plan? When was the last time they’d dealt with a child who could not be disciplined, yet was disrupting a class and detracting from the education of other students? Most important, in what school district was Elmo serving as either principal or superintendent?

True innovation and improvement in education can take place only when all those participating are given an equal opportunity for input. The continued top- down view being espoused on Capitol Hill only frustrates, and in some cases infuriates, our nation’s educators. It could be argued that our leaders lack the political courage to bring about a positive change in public education that considers all stakeholders and benefits all students.

Michael R. Clynch
South Middle School
Fort Zumwalt School District
O’Fallon, Mo.

Resisting Abuse

To the Editor:

It would be easy to ridicule the high school vice principal in San Diego County, Calif., who asked female students seeking admission to a school dance to lift their skirts—in public and in mixed company—to show that they weren’t wearing thong underwear (“Calif. Vice Principal on Leave for Student-Underwear Check,” News in Brief, May 8, 2002.) Any reasonable person would wonder about administrators who think their authority extends to monitoring their students’ undergarments, especially when those aren’t visible.

In addition to that, however, I’m stunned that this particular administrator apparently was unaware that her conduct was in violation of federal civil rights law (Title IX) and that her district could be liable for her actions. If she didn’t require the boys to undergo a similar underwear check, there may be a sex-discrimination case in the making, on top of any sexual-harassment complaints that may emanate from her conduct.

But in an age of “zero tolerance,” the vice principal’s behavior may not be an anomaly. She is hardly alone in having an inflated sense of the power school officials have over students. In March, for instance, two Kansas City, Mo., teachers strip- searched 23 of their 3rd graders in search of $5 in missing lunch money (“K.C. Students Strip Searched Over Missing Lunch Money,” News in Brief, April 3, 2002.)

In fact, the public performance of body checks at school dances may not be qualitatively different from now-common practices at the nation’s airports, where to fight terrorism, security personnel are routinely groping women’s breasts in public because the underwire construction of many bras sets off metal detectors. Those who resist can be denied a seat on the plane, or be led away by security police.

Challenging authority can be dangerous, yet there were young women at the California school dance who said no. They refused to lift their skirts, and were denied admission to the dance. Whether they said no out of embarrassment or out of a sense that the request violated their legal rights, they nonetheless defied an administrator who held power over them.

During an era when such defiance of authority could have resulted in suspension or expulsion and permanently tarnished their educational careers, these women acted on some inner guide that told them what was being demanded was unreasonable, intrusive, and wrong. Luckily, in their case, there were others who shared their indignation, and the vice principal was placed on leave.

Coinciding with the United Nations’ special session on the rights of children (“Education Issues High On the U.N.'s Agenda for Session on Children,” May 15, 2002), this episode should remind us that we still need to teach young people that resistance to abusive authority is healthy, at times warranted, and within their legal rights. For reinforcing this lesson and acting with such courage, these young women have become my new heroes.

Nan Stein
Senior Research Scientist
Wellesley College Center for Research on Women
Co- Director
National Violence Against Women
Prevention Research Center
Wellesley, Mass.

A version of this article appeared in the June 12, 2002 edition of Education Week as Letters


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