Education Letter to the Editor


February 14, 2001 12 min read
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Textbook Errors Are ‘Endemic’ Problem

To the Editor:

The problem you focused on in “Middle School Science Texts Full of Errors, Review Finds,” (Jan. 24, 2001) is not restricted to science textbooks. It’s endemic. One major reason is that precollege texts in many subjects are constructed by a “team of people,” as you say. The narrative is supplemented by inserts. These auxiliary elements—pictures, captions, additions, questions, and the like—often are prepared by people who, regardless of their other qualifications, have only a limited knowledge of the subject matter.

Therefore, even a prize-winning author is no guarantee that a middle school text will be suitable for classroom use. Book 1 of History of Us: The First Americans, published by Oxford University Press and revised in 1999, provides an example. I spent an hour or so examining 12 pages of this text (Chapters 2, 3, and 4) and found many problems. The narrative author, Joy Hakim, is a “master storyteller,” as the jacket information promises. Unfortunately, she didn’t control the inserts that make up somewhat more than half of the chapters I examined.

It doesn’t take two years and a foundation grant to pinpoint errors in our children’s textbooks. When people with questionable academic qualifications try to make them “come alive,” the results are predictable.

Brant Abrahamson
The Teachers’ Press
Brookfield, Ill.

Special Educator:Teacher as Lifeguard

To the Editor:

Reading Laurence M. Lieberman’s Commentary (“The Death of Special Education,” Jan. 17, 2001) was like running into a familiar face while laboring in a hostile, foreign land. “I am not alone,” I cried out as I read.

Being a special educator for the past 14 years, with the past three in public schools, I have witnessed the impact the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act Amendments of 1997 have had on the services I provide my students. Recently, I have felt more like a lifeguard keeping my students from drowning in the regular education curriculum than a teacher.

Special education students need so much help getting homework done for their science, social studies, math, or English classes that we have little time to work on skills development. Maybe we can do nothing but ride out this “trek across a vast wasteland,” as Mr. Lieberman aptly describes the current period, while we wait for legislative change. Meanwhile, I will work with each family to fulfill the intent of the IDEA, to make sure their sons or daughters are not denied an education because they can’t walk, or read, or control their outbursts.

And if I can convince those parents that their children are better off learning skills than coping with not having skills, then I will do that: one student at a time, individually.

Bruce C. Tettemer Jr.
Hailey, Idaho

Mystery Curriculum Is Part of a Series

To the Editor:

It was great to see your front-page article “Student Sleuths Tracking Down ‘Whodunit’ To Crack Core Subjects,” (Jan. 24, 2001), describing Jocelyn Crosby’s and other Pennsylvania classrooms of 8th to 10th graders. For teachers and educators around the country who were intrigued by this approach—its motivational power, strong science content, and multidisciplinary richness—I wanted to point out that the mystery curriculum detailed in the article is entitled “Mystery Festival,” and is a teacher’s guide in the Great Explorations in Math and Science, or GEMS, curriculum series.

GEMS is developed and published at the Lawrence Hall of Science, the public science, professional-development, and curriculum-innovation center of the University of California, Berkeley. The GEMS guide includes all the instructions needed for teachers (and often groups of involved parents) to prepare and present the activities.

This series has been presented all across the United States by the many thousands of teachers familiar with GEMS. In April, Great Explorations in Math and Science will publish a similar unit, “Environmental Detectives,” in which the complex mystery involves loss of water life in the “Gray Area.” Your readers should also know that GEMS guides are correlated to national and state science standards, and that GEMS has just been designated a promising science program by the expert panel in science and mathematics of the U.S. Department of Education.

The panel found the GEMS program to be “appropriate, engaging, and motivating"; said that its learning goals are “clearly based on national science education standards, yet flexible enough for states and local districts to design their own curricula"; and concluded that “GEMS shows quantitative evidence of student gains in the understanding of science.”

We invite your readers to learn more about GEMS at www.lhsgems.org and appreciate your coverage of one of our most compelling units.

Jacqueline Barber
Great Explorations in Math and Science
Associate Director
Lawrence Hall of Science
University of California, Berkeley
Berkeley, Calif.

Ashcroft View Called’Opposite of Racism’

To the Editor:

The law regarding desegregation of public schools is clear in the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Desegregation is the assignment to schools and within such schools without regard to race. The equal-protection clause of the 14th Amendment is equally clear. If former Sen. John D. Ashcroft of Missouri, now the U.S. attorney general, agrees with the definition of desegregation in the Civil Rights Act and agrees to uphold the Constitution of the United States, which includes equal protection of the law, then the criticism of his opposition to desegregation is both absurd and meaningless (“Ashcroft’s Desegregation Record Questioned,” Jan. 24, 2001).

Critics say Mr. Ashcroft was persistent in challenging what was called a “voluntary desegregation plan” in St. Louis.

First, it was not desegregation that Mr. Ashcroft opposed. It was a racial-balancing plan, not desegregation, that was imposed both in St. Louis and in Kansas City, Mo. Second, it was not a voluntary plan in St. Louis, despite being called so. The districts around St. Louis were given a time period in which they had to volunteer to participate or face ordered consolidation of all the districts. The districts, therefore, were forced to participate.

Mr. Ashcroft opposed U.S. District Judge Russell Clark’s order to impose taxes to provide the funds for the grandiose magnet programs Judge Clark ordered as “remedies” in the Kansas City “desegregation” case, and which resulted in the district’s spending as much as $11,700 per pupil. Judge Clark ordered a near doubling of local property taxes to pay for these programs—a move the U.S. Supreme Court upheld despite opposition.

Recognition that court orders to impose taxation must not be allowed is spreading rapidly. Twenty-one states have passed resolutions calling for Congress to limit federal courts from ordering the imposition of taxes. Missouri is one of the states that have passed the resolution. These resolutions indicate wide support for Mr. Ashcroft’s criticism of Judge Clark’s order.

The state of Missouri and the Kansas City district spent nearly $2 billion between 1985 and 1997 to fund Judge Clark’s orders. Missouri was spending between 6 percent and 8 percent of its entire state budget on desegregation “aid” to St. Louis and Kansas City.

Judge Clark’s “remedies” so devastated the Kansas City district and its ability to properly educate its students that the state has voted to strip it of accreditation. The Missouri state board of education has given the district until June 30, 2002, to raise test scores and improve attendance to regain accreditation. If that doesn’t happen, state officials will take over the district, split it into smaller districts, or divide up the students and send them to other districts.

Students in St. Louis also have fallen short of state requirements on standardized tests and other accreditation measures. St. Louis has retained accreditation only because of a “desegregation” settlement, which required the state to delay action.

Upholding the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the 14th Amendment and defending Missouri citizens against the ravages of judicial taxation is not racism.

Opposition to racial and ethnic manipulation of student school assignment is the opposite of racism. Increasingly, as a result of challenges to the practice, federal courts are ruling that race-based assignment practices are unconstitutional.

Knowledgeable people with no agenda of mischief agree with Mr. Ashcroft’s position, which is not now racist, nor has it ever been.

Joyce Haws
Cleveland, Ohio

Lessons Lost With ‘Fingerprint Food’

To the Editor:

I am not thrilled to see that a 6,500-student Philadelphia suburban school district is going to participate in a pilot study whereby students will be able to pay for their lunch using a fingerprint mechanical device, rather than pay for lunch the old-fashioned way, with over-the-counter, paper-money-and-coins transactions (“Fingerprint Food,” Jan. 24, 2001).

If such a substitute payment system is adopted by this district or others across the country, elementary and middle school students will be denied the opportunity of learning about “money changing” as a basic tool for learning arithmetic. Of course, they may be better prepared some day to sell chicken or hamburgers at some neighborhood fast-food eatery with push-button cash registers.

Sylvester Kohut Jr.
Professor of Education
Seton Hall University
South Orange, N.J.

Flashcards Can Be Detriment to Literacy

To the Editor:

I read your article “Study: Early Head Start Raises Parenting Skills, Children’s Learning,” (Jan. 24, 2001) with interest. However, I viewed your accompanying photo with dismay.

The caption under the picture stated that the teacher was reviewing the alphabet with several of her young students. In the teacher’s hand was a flashcard. Literacy development with toddlers should involve adults reading to children, having conversations with them, and providing hands-on activities. Flashcards are not only inappropriate, they can be detrimental.

As Lillian Katz, a respected expert in the field of early childhood, has said, “When we teach skills to children too early, too formally, and out of context, they will learn them without the desire to ever use them again.” If Early Head Start programs are to make long-lasting gains in the literacy development of young children, the education staff must be given training on appropriate practices.

Linda McDonough
Meyersdale, Pa.

Teaching Must Operate on a Professional Model

James W. Fraser advocates severing teacher preparation from certification (“Time To Cut the Link Between Teacher Preparation and Certification?,” Commentary, Jan. 31, 2001). There’s some virtue to this. States are moving away from courses and credit hours for licensure and toward competencies based on national standards. If these are enforced, there’s no need for state approval of preparation programs. The licensure process assures program accountability by rejecting substandard applicants. Licensure, not program approval, drives preparation.

The new standards have another effect: They raise teaching to the status of a profession. The prerequisite for any profession is a body of knowledge uniquely its own. Teaching has never had such a body of knowledge. It has poached on other disciplines, most recently psychology. The result has been a lack of legitimacy for preparation programs and for teaching as a profession. The new standards are the profession’s knowledge base.

Previous standards were created by professors, with help from the Carnegie Forum on Education and the Economy. The licensure system in every state corresponds exactly to the department structure of colleges of liberal arts. This helps explain why teacher-preparation programs lack legitimacy and why states have been creating autonomous standards boards whose majority is made up of licensed practitioners.

The new standards are based on “what teachers need to know and be able to do,” divorcing education from the liberal arts, “the best that has been known and felt.” This promotes a graduate model for preparation. Such a model increases public confidence by increasing preparation; makes teaching a fully legitimated profession, as it has for all senior professions; and raises the status of practitioners and those who prepare them. Preparation programs are adopting new standards, such as those of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, because they are graduate standards.

To be a profession equal to others, teaching must operate on a professional model. Mr. Fraser would “let the schools and school districts hire whom they will, certify whom they will.” This is not a professional model. It allows the employer to usurp the prerogatives of the profession. Licensure exists to prevent employers from lowering standards.

Minimum standards, set through the agency of state law, protect the public, ensure ethical practice, guarantee equal access to a public entitlement, and prevent the ignorant from harming children. We don’t, for example, allow hospitals to hire people without a license to do brain surgery, even though operating on a brain is easier than growing one. In North Dakota, schools can hire anyone to be a substitute teacher. What legitimacy is possible where the requirement to be a teacher is lower than for driving a school bus?

Mr. Fraser assumes that free markets supply the same sort and degree of self-regulation as a profession. Businesses and schools are different. Business takes more than it gives; schools give more than they take. A nonprofit enterprise without a source of revenue in the marketplace reduces standards to save resources. It is subject-matter groups and professional organizations that petition licensing boards to raise standards; schools petition to lower them.

If profession- based standards are enforced through licensure, I’d support eliminating state program approval. I can’t support allowing preparation programs to operate without national accreditation. Would Mr. Fraser eliminate this, too? Then who holds central administration accountable for failure to support teacher education? Besides, accreditation is a formal characteristic of a profession, as is licensure. Without them, teaching can never be a profession, and teachers can never be more than personnel.

James Sutton
Organizational- Development Specialist
for Professional Issues
Iowa State Education Association
Des Moines, Iowa

A version of this article appeared in the February 14, 2001 edition of Education Week as Letters


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