Education Commentary


April 28, 1999 10 min read

Coaches or Scholars? Hiring Out of Field

To the Editor:

Your March 31, 1999, article on out-of-field teaching struck a nerve (“Out-of-Field Teaching Is Hard To Curb”). As president of the James Madison Foundation, the other side of that coin rivets me.

My foundation funds graduate study for social studies teachers to get an advanced degree in U.S. history, political science, or social studies education and then teach in secondary schools. Some of these graduates, being first-time teachers, have trouble finding a job. School districts often don’t want to pay for a teacher with a master’s degree, or would rather have a coach teaching social studies than a scholar. One state school official recommended that we not award any fellowships to first-time teachers in his state because they would not be able to get a job there. The problems are not restricted to the so-called “poor states.” We have seen employment problems in states such as Washington, Ohio, Massachusetts, and Oregon as well.

As long as school districts do not value content knowledge, statistics such as 81.5 percent of all social studies teachers in secondary schools having neither a minor nor a major in history will exist. What’s wrong with this picture, and how do we fix it?

Paul A. Yost Jr.
James Madison Foundation
Washington, D.C.

‘Different Logic’ in Teacher Accreditation

To the Editor:

It is possible, as you recently reported, that there is concern that the Teacher Education Accreditation Council might lower quality because some schools that could not meet the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education’s standards might satisfy TEAC’s requirements (“Mo. University Switches Teacher Ed. Accreditation Allegiance,” April 7, 1999). Since TEAC has grounded its accreditation decision not in the institution’s own standards (as this newspaper also reported), but in solid evidence of student learning, warranted by a valid assessment system, TEAC’s requirements are quite demanding and beyond typical accreditation practices.

No school has currently met TEAC’s requirements, although 19 of its nearly 50 members are attempting to do so. Since TEAC and NCATE are based upon a different logic, no one should be any more surprised that some NCATE schools would fail to meet TEAC’s requirements than that a number of NCATE schools have currently failed to meet recently enacted state performance standards for teacher education institutions.

Frank B. Murray
Teacher Education Accreditation Council
Washington, D.C.

Mandates in Place of Market Competition

To the Editor:

What a powerful rebuttal to the education establishment Andrew J. Coulson offers us in his Commentary, “Are Public Schools Hazardous to Public Education?,” April 7, 1999. To accept his thesis, countless educators and their fallow followers will have to abandon their Holy Grail of the status quo. I have been espousing “choice” in education for over 40 years, but never with the consummate grace and pedagogy of Mr. Coulson.

Choice options offer the way out of the maelstrom of mandates that have stifled education in America. We have mandates in place of market competition. Caveat emptor!

Charles A. Byrne
Ohio State Board of Education
Cleveland Heights, Ohio

Federal Policy Role Is Not Always Sound

To the Editor:

Over the past weeks, opinion pieces have appeared in both your publication and The New York Times challenging the wisdom of the federal government’s increased policy involvement in educational issues. Robert M. Hauser’s Commentary, “What If We Ended Social Promotion?,” April 7, 1999, strongly criticizes the Clinton administration’s proposal to “ban social promotion” without any evidence that such a policy would benefit the children who would be retained.

As a matter of fact, Mr. Hauser’s review of the literature is extremely convincing that retention is harmful to most students. And the president of Teachers College, Columbia University, Arthur Levine, questions in a Times Op-Ed piece, “Dueling Goals for Education,” April 7, 1999, whether we can simultaneously raise standards for teachers while reducing class size. “The problem is [the two goals] clash, and if we don’t plan carefully and quickly, we’re likely to achieve neither,” Mr. Levine writes.

In one case, the administration advocates a policy in spite of overwhelming research contradicting it, while in the other it recommends a policy--the hiring of 100,000 new teachers to reduce class size--with little preparatory work having been done, as Mr. Levine suggests, to assure that we will have a large, well-educated pool of teacher candidates to fill these positions. One can, I believe, advance a similar argument related to the administration’s pushing charter schools absent evidence that existing charters have achieved their goals of efficiency, creativity, and serving as change models for neighboring public schools.

Though it is politically unrealistic, education would be better served if the federal government directed its recent attention and increased expenditures to identifying a limited number of specific national education objectives, such as eliminating the teacher shortage, and developing long-term strategies for meeting them, such as financial incentives and support for local staff-development efforts.

Marc F. Bernstein
Superintendent of Schools
Bellmore-Merrick Central High School District
North Merrick, N.Y.

A Free-Agency Plan That Might Work

To the Editor:

Henry F. Cotton tells it exactly as it is (“Educational Free Agency,” March 24, 1999), and I for one am grateful. His “one size/one salary schedule cannot fit all” premise is well-stated and worthy of serious consideration by boards of education making those decisions.

California’s Public Policy Institute survey of January 1999 reported that 84 percent of the respondents want teachers paid on the basis of merit. Granted, the merit-pay issue has been visited and revisited many times over the decades, but the major question remains: Who makes the decision? My contention? Let the teachers themselves decide. I submit the following plan I think could work:

The first commitment would be the board’s. Its members must believe in the concept enough to put earnest money for it in the budget. I recommend $200 per teacher in the district, assuming for the moment that the district employs 500 full-time classroom teachers. The principal or district superintendent would announce the plan, saying that the teachers would decide how many truly outstanding teachers there were in each school and to whom the bonus money would be paid.

The first step in each school then would be the teachers’ decision on how many teachers were outstanding, possibly using an arbitrary 10 percent to 15 percent. A list of all full-time teachers would be distributed, with the teachers asked to rank them in order, from the top down. The principal, with the assistance of two other certificated staff members, would then merely tabulate the results.

Assuming a school of 50 teachers, with five “winners,” each outstanding teacher would receive in June a one-time bonus check of $2,000 and a letter of congratulations from the superintendent or board president. The names of the merit-award winners would not be released (by anyone other than the recipient), and the bonus would not become part of the salary schedule for the awardees. Everyone would begin fresh each year.

There is a risk involved, of course. Parents would want their children in the award winners’ classes, and the public could demand to know their identities through the Freedom of Information Act, since public monies were being spent. Would the results be worth it? Who is to know? As long as the public seeks to reward “the best,” we could be faced with worse plans. This one might work.

John F. Dean
Superintendent of Schools
Orange County Department of Education
Costa Mesa, Calif.

Context Is Needed for Teacher Quote

To the Editor:

While I would like to thank Education Week for taking the time to come and observe my classroom at Arundel Elementary School in Baltimore (“A Direct Challenge,” March 17, 1999), I would also like to note that one quotation attributed to me is used out of context.

A group of colleagues and I were asked if Direct Instruction was appropriate for suburban and rural districts as well as for urban districts. Everyone present responded that they were uncertain, as they have only taught in an urban setting. I went on to say that for the class I have this year, the structure of Direct Instruction was a positive attribute. When quoted as saying “this group,” I was referring to the class that the reporter had observed. In context, the quotation was not in reference to any specific socioeconomic or racial group.

When taken out of context, as in the caption for the accompanying photograph, my reference to “this group” could easily be misconstrued as a generalization. In no way, shape, or form was it intended as such; rather, it was specific to my class this year.

Matthew T. Carpenter
Baltimore, Md.

Direct Instruction Offers Practice, Not Drill

To the Editor:

Alfie Kohn’s letter, headlined “Direct Drilling: Children as Machines To Be Programmed” (“Letters,” April 7, 1999), is the sort of evidence-less appeal to emotion whose illogic is painfully apparent to readers of Education Week. Instead of reasoned argument, instead of evidence, instead of anything worthy of a moment’s consideration, Mr. Kohn resorts to a variety of thinly disguised rhetorical devices.

For example, he uses the method of egregious caricature when he refers to Direct Instruction as “drilling children in basic skills” and as “low-level, mechanical instruction.” If Mr. Kohn took the time actually to examine a Direct Instruction curriculum, such as Language for Learning or Reading Mastery, or to read Siegfried Engelmann & Douglas Carnine’s Theory of Instruction, he would know that Direct Instruction focuses almost entirely on higher-order cognitive strategies, and not on basic skills.

He would know that Direct Instruction fosters a true learning community among students and teachers--a learning community characterized by shared symbols, moral principles, mutual assistance, respect, and mission (“Everyone can learn everything”).

He would also know that Direct Instruction does not involve “drill"; it involves a few repetitions in which, for example, children read a new sentence until they are “firm.” Practice to achieve firm, fluent action is what all persons who achieve mastery (dancers, martial artists, writers, musicians) know, do, and trust. But perhaps Mr. Kohn knows better than they do.

Mr. Kohn continues with the device of egregious caricature when he labels Direct Instruction an “application of behaviorism.” Again, if he will take time away from his pursuit of mystification to read Direct Instruction materials, he will find that Direct Instruction is not at all an example of behaviorism. In contrast, Direct Instruction is almost entirely cognitive.

Mr. Kohn’s letter reveals an interesting irony when he writes that Direct Instruction does not foster “long-term retention of those facts and skills; real understanding of ideas, along with critical thinking, creativity, the capacity to apply skills to different kinds of tasks, and other more sophisticated intellectual outcomes.”

The irony is that three of Direct Instruction’s greatest strengths are children’s “long-term retention,” “application” (or generalization), and “critical thinking.” (See Research on Direct Instruction: Twenty-Five Years Beyond distar, by G.L. Adams and S. Engelmann, 1996. Educational Achievement Systems, Seattle, Wash.)

Indeed, instruction in critical thinking is part of virtually all curricula and accounts for half of the curriculum called “Corrective Reading.”

Another of Mr. Kohn’s rhetorical devices is the empty innuendo, also known as the “rubber check.” He refers, for example, to a “raft of research” on instruction that is alleged to be more effective than Direct Instruction. Unfortunately, readers are left waiting for even one citation from the “raft.” Perhaps there were no survivors.

Notably absent from Mr. Kohn’s letter is the advocacy of any form of instruction that might be better than Direct Instruction. All he is able to offer are fuzzy phrases such as “real understanding” (in contrast to what? false understanding?), “meaning and understanding” (are these different?), and “alternative practices.” No doubt your readers will find this level of specificity very helpful.

Martin Kozloff
University of North Carolina at Wilmington
Wilmington, N.C.

A version of this article appeared in the April 28, 1999 edition of Education Week as Letters