Education Opinion


March 01, 2003 13 min read
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Practically Perfect

Thank you for a wonderful article about MicroSociety schools [“The Real Deal,” February]. As a parent and an education professional, I sent my youngest son to Clement G. McDonough Elementary for many reasons. No other school in our urban setting was able to instill the values of ethics, respect, and responsibility to the same extent. The ability to understand the practical societal applications of education, especially of mathematical concepts, is greatly enhanced in this setting.

My son most enjoyed his work in the school’s courts and joined their mock trial team, competing against high schools. He continued throughout high school and into college. As a college junior, he has been instrumental in founding a political organization, a new student government organization, and an organization dedicated to promoting greater understanding among the diverse cultures that attend his university. I credit his experience in the MicroSociety program for this.

There surely are problems at MicroSociety schools; most have them. But if a raison d'être of education is to prepare individuals to function in and be a contributing member of society, I know of no better background than a MicroSociety school.

Walter Yaffa
Lowell, Massachusetts

A Different World

Why would Teacher Magazine print as uninspiring a piece of writing as “Worlds Apart” [February]? The shallow analysis of the problem of motivation in schools is followed by no solution at all. Everyone in education knows that student motivation is a problem. Everyone knows that we need to make education more “real world.” Why do we need to take up space by regurgitating the obvious and providing no solution, much less anything new? As teachers, we look for articles that will give us new ideas and inspiration. This one did neither.

William Sterling
Pasadena, California

In response to “Worlds Apart,” I respectfully disagree with the idea of bringing “the real world into the world of schooling.” Asking one student why students in general are unmotivated cannot be construed as a consensus of students everywhere. For that, it’s necessary to ask many students their opinions; what’s more, it’s necessary to ask the right questions.

After reading the column, I decided to informally ask my 7th grade students what their world is—to put their world into perspective for me. As I expected, these students described their world predominantly in terms of school-related life. They referred to their excitement about sports and cheerleading; hanging out at the mall and chatting with school friends; dances; and a variety of other things that were similarly school-related. As far as I can tell, and contrary to the opinion in “Worlds Apart,” school and real life for a 7th grader are one and the same.

I do agree with the problem of motivation. Successful motivation of students is driven by two factors: passionate teachers and passionate families. Those teachers who have a passion for teaching and for their subjects will motivate students. Those who embrace their art will continue to find new ways and ideas to enhance and enliven their own learning and growth as well as the learning and growth of their students. There are many teachers like this in schools today; however, there are also many who are not. Maybe this is one of the problems with unmotivated students.

The tougher question lies with the second motivating factor, home and parents. Whose parents do we meet at every parent-teacher night? Is it not the already motivated students’ parents? These particular kids see, day in and day out, what an education will do for them. Parents who work hard, no matter what the job, display what motivation will do for a student. Parents who take an interest in school life display motivation toward that child’s world. On the other hand, parents who take little or no interest in their children’s grades or performance at school display a complacent perspective and a lack of motivation, and those children undoubtedly take on that mindset of “unmotivation.”

Maybe the question is not “How do we bring the real world to our school?” but rather “How do we take unmotivated students into the real world and show them what a lack of motivation will earn them?” Maybe we need to ask tougher questions about what these students really want in life, find some answers, and then show them what it will take to get there. We need to find a way to impress the idea that through motivation (hence education), anything is possible.

After reading about such a marginal idea, I fear that we may be headed toward yet another fad rather than truly helping the kids we teach.

Joel C. Barrett
Fairmont, West Virginia


Your magazine published a letter [“Standard Objection,” February] in which many sweeping accusations against teaching standards were launched. Yet no empirical evidence was stated and no studies cited to support the wide-ranging and possibly groundless arguments. What the letter did contain was a lot of feeling and no substantive factual support. My favorite line was “Many reformers are now admitting that standards have not worked....” I did a substantial search and could not locate these “reformers.” As a teacher who teaches to the standards and appreciates having a target at which to aim, I would love to see actual facts to support these contentions instead of emotional but unfounded statements.

Alisa Griffis
Blue Jay, California

Fractious Fracas

I read with dismay the story of newspaper adviser Janet Ewell [“Paper Cuts,” January]. Did no one tell her about the Student Press Law Center, which provides legal advice to advisers and students in journalism controversies? Also, she should certainly contact or join the Journalism Education Association, a national association for advisers at all school levels. Additionally, there should be a state advisers organization that could offer help.

The challenges, troubles, and victories of journalism advisers is an area Teacher Magazine should explore more often. Advisers are frequently isolated at their schools, being the only one or two who do what they do, who face problems from so many sides, and who often are forced to give up what they love and are good at because no one is there for them.

The outstanding work done by advisers is often lost in the celebrations of victories on the playing fields or boasting about test scores; yet what good advisers do often touches more students’ lives more permanently than the outcomes of games or the numbers on a standardized test. Please consider more articles on these unsung heroes of the classroom.

Linda M. Mercer
Former State Director
Virginia Association of Journalism Teachers and Advisers
South Boston, Virginia

I read the article “Paper Cuts” with interest. As a government and economics teacher with advanced degrees in school law and the Constitution, I think I have the bona fides to discuss this issue.

First of all, this is no “free-speech fracas,” as described on the contents page. Apparently all of the parties involved—and I do mean all of them, including the academics—need to read the U.S. Supreme Court decision on Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier. It specifically stated that schools may regulate the content of school-sponsored newspapers.

Because I live and work in North Carolina, I am curious how a case from California was heard by the 4th Circuit, which covers North Carolina, Virginia, and other states. Why did the 9th Circuit not hear the previous court case referenced in the article? I do not think the circuits were renumbered in the intervening time.

Apparently the article in question angered quite a few of Janet Ewell’s colleagues. Kuhlmeier notwithstanding, remarks by one teacher who described the article as “slanderous” and the general tone of other faculty members leads one to conclude that the faculty was disrupted by its publication—grounds for removal under the relevant California code, as quoted by the author. Two students “accosting” the principal—Ms. Ewell’s words, not mine—certainly does not help her case.

Wayne Overbeck implied that he and Ms. Ewell are still considering suing. With all due respect, he is a professor of journalism, not of law. If he were, he would realize that educational institutions win about 70 percent of the litigation brought against them. It takes a fairly blatant and egregious act for a school district to lose. When combined with historic reluctance by the Supreme Court to get involved with education-related matters, it creates an uphill fight for Ms. Ewell and her supporters. I for one do not understand remarks, attributed to Mr. Overbeck, about an “inappropriate” focus on content. Huh? What else is there to concentrate on in a serious disagreement over a school newspaper? Are not articles in the newspaper “content”?

Finally, if push did come to shove and the federal courts became involved, the California Education Code would be moot. Article VI of the U.S. Constitution contains the Supremacy Clause, which stipulates that state law in conflict with federal law must favor the federal law—also buttressed by the 1819 decision in McCulloch v. Maryland. To win, Ms. Ewell and her supporters sooner or later would have to find the principal in violation of federal law.

Coaches and advisers (I have been both) get fired or replaced all of the time. Ms. Ewell is not unique; it appears she simply lost control of events. That happens, and a good principal would have realized it.

Howard F. Campbell
Dallas, North Carolina

Editor’s Note

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals compromises North Carolina and Virginia as well as Maryland, South Carolina, and West Virginia. The 4th District Court of Appeal, the California appellate court cited in the article, includes Orange County, where Rancho Alamitos High School is located.

Guiding Slight

I was interested to read “Gigabyte Guidance” [January] about Milwaukee Public Schools. I was one of the teacher mentors who lost their jobs when the district decided to cut the new-teacher mentoring program. Imagine my shock to learn how ineffective we had been!

In truth, you got several facts wrong. There were 17 of us mentors working with at least 10 mentees each. Many of us had more teachers than our assigned caseload. When we testified before our school board trying to save the programour mentees also came to inform the board of the work we had donewe included the data that we had reached 190-plus teachers in more than 200 schools that year and had affected the lives of more than 6,000 students. That is many more than the 80 you indicated in your article. It was the personal touch that kept most of those teachers employed within the district at the end of the year.

As for so-called electronic mentoring: We could not get our mentees to sign on for it. Out of all of the mentees we interfaced with, only about 22 remained in the “portal project” at the end of the year. There were many reasons, but the most frequently cited were lack of time (how many first-year teachers can afford to be online hours a week?), lack of personal contact (a cold, hard computer is NOT the same as a real, live person), and lack of real support. We were reassured that our in- person mentoring program would not be replaced by the online community, which we had testified was a failure at retaining first-year teachers in our district. But as usual, the powers that be didn’t take us at our word or take into account our years of experience. They had received a grant that they were going to use, to the detriment of the children in our district.

Ask the mentees we worked with during the 11 years of the program how many of them would have left if a mentor had not come in to rescue them. Ask them how much interaction they get online with a proctor. Ask how many materials they receive from the online community. Ask how much modeling and demonstration they get from that community. Ask how many real participants there are in the portal project and how many people have dropped out.

I refused to be a part of the project because, like many of my colleagues, I did not see the value of it. I still don’t. Technology is great in its place, but it cannot take the place of a real, live human person with open arms full of ideas and materials. Ask my mentees from last year—they’ll tell you.

Gretchen Farrar- Foley

I read “Gigabyte Guidance” with some consternation. Although there is certainly a place for online professional support for educators, and though Bob Nelson and Kathy Onarheim should both be applauded for their foresight in the development of the Milwaukee portal project, there is a definite slant implying that online mentoring is an adequate substitute for a face-to-face mentor.

The new-teacher mentoring program that the Milwaukee school board killed last year served 200 new teachers, not the 80 you cited. This number compares quite favorably with the current teachers who are serviced through the portal. The 18 mentors who worked with new teachers in the now-defunct program were highly qualified master teachers with special training. They spent countless hours in the classroom with their mentees and were involved in observation, modeling, and consultation. To compare them with the facilitators used in the portal project does not give recognition to what makes a quality mentoring program.

While it is true that the portal program is far less costly than a true mentoring program, and while there is most definitely a valuable role that the portal program can play in supporting new teachers, to believe that such a program can replace the human aspect of a real mentoring program clearly indicates a lack of understanding of the challenges facing classroom teachers today.

Bob Lehmann
Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association

Designer Genes

As a science teacher for 50 years, I am fascinated by the recent success of the third wave of creationism in Ohio [“Overheard,” January]. In the first wave, the Scopes Trial of 1925, the creationists actually won, in that textbook publishers were intimidated into downplaying evolution at the very time that American universities and museums led the world in research in that area. This changed with educational reforms triggered by the Sputnik panic during the Cold War. The creationist response was to form so-called research societies of credentialed authorities, to generate an alternative “science” for classroom use. They were undone by their commitment to a literal six days of creation, Noah’s flood and the descent of woman from Adam’s rib.

The third wave is called intelligent design. Phenomena not wholly explained are credited to an unnamed “designer.” This creationist community includes six-day literalists, those of a more sophisticated theological bent, and nontheists like flying saucer enthusiasts, whose designers are extraterrestrials. Although academically based, the rhetoric and political connections of this group are more impressive than its research, which is simply a surge of 18th century “natural theology” gussied up with equations and assertions. They are ambitious. Their most notable spokesman wants to remove “naturalism” (that is, science) from science education. Their success is remarkable, coming as it does just as genomics and a better fossil record validate what some call “Darwinism.”

That harried science teachers anywhere will have to deal with this stuff is depressing. That this could become a national movement is horrific.

John Davis
Jackson, Mississippi

Loyal Subject

One comment regarding LouAnne Johnson’s Comment piece [“Royal Treatment,” November/December]: ALL HAIL THE QUEEN!!!

Judy Sly
Atlanta, 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.


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