Education Letter to the Editor


October 31, 2001 11 min read
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A ‘Misapplication’ Of Conant’s Ideas

To the Editor:

Unfortunately, your feature article “Breaking Up Is Hard to Do” (On Assignment, Oct. 10, 2001) perpetuates the misapplication and misunderstanding of James B. Conant’s recommendations in The American High School Today.

It is true that Mr. Conant criticized the small high school for its inability to offer a wider range of subjects to students. However, what most people forget is that he also suggested that the high school student population be about 800 students. I don’t believe Mr. Conant ever envisioned high schools of 2,000 or more students. His recommendation was higher than the 600 suggested by the National Association of Secondary School Principals’ report “Breaking Ranks: Changing an American Institution” (1996), but well below the large schools we see today.

Mr. Conant’s The American High School Today not only contained recommendations for school size, but also had suggestions for course offerings and school structure, most of which have never been implemented. Homerooms of mixed ethnicity and socioeconomic status, common courses with enrichment for all students, teachers with close knowledge of students—these were all ideas that have been suggested as cures for the anomie found in large schools of today.

As with many reforms and innovations, application often is by name, selective, and fails to recognize or honor the philosophical underpinnings. Remember John Dewey as he castigated the attendees at the 1938 Progressive Education Association for failing to follow the philosophy of progressive education.

Lynn M. Burlbaw
Associate Professor
Social Studies and Educational History
Texas A&M University
College Station, Texas

Combating Terror With Education

To the Editor:

The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks reinforce the imperative of global education as a necessity, rather than a frill (“Attacks Alter Instructional Landscape,” Sept. 26, 2001.) The global is local. Culture is the core of how we think and act and learn. There is no continental cocoon.

In light of terrorism without borders, we need education for world citizenry. As we discuss security, let us anchor it in the education of our children. After all, the word “education” comes from educare, to lead, to bring up. A civil education reduces violence and poverty, enhances health, sustains civilization.

The United Nations claims that there are 59 million teachers worldwide. May we combat terror with education. In an era that sits precariously on the brink, this is our most vital task.

Fred Mednick
President and Founder
Teachers Without Borders
Mercer Island, Wash.

Is Diversity Honored At the Cost of Unity?

To the Editor:

Thank you for Diane Ravitch’s eloquent message, “Now Is the Time to Teach Democracy,” (Commentary, Oct. 17, 2001).

I began teaching at a Los Angeles secondary school in the 1960s. We celebrated American holidays like Thanksgiving, Lincoln’s and Washington’s birthdays, and Memorial Day. Patriotism was a learning goal, and textbooks were filled with inspiring stories of America’s diverse heroes. Students sang “America the Beautiful,” “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and Stephen Foster classics.

Returning to the Los Angeles Unified School District from 1989 to 1996, I found such patriotic activities had disappeared. We did not celebrate most American holidays; we focused on Halloween, the Christmas-Hanukkah-Kwanzaa combo, Martin Luther King Day, Black History Month, and Cinco de Mayo, each with special programs.

Our student clubs were based on diversity, like Young Black Scholars and Young Latino Scholars. When Asian students complained, we formed Young Asian Scholars, and they created a program. Some believed we needed a Young Russians club; I wondered if we honored diversity at the expense of unity. Instead of patriotism, we celebrated separatism.

“Up until a certain time in history, Americans considered patriotism an essential public virtue, one that should be taught in school,” Gilbert T. Sewall, the president of the American Textbook Council, said in an earlier news article (“Education Experts Expect Resurgence of Patriotism In Nation’s Classrooms,” Sept. 26, 2001.) “It’s not gone, but certainly it’s been compromised,” he said. “A lot of educators are allergic to patriotism.”

In that same article, Ms. Ravitch commented: “We have had history written by a generation of scholars angry about the war in Vietnam and America’s role in the world, and the textbooks have shown a bias toward pacifism.” She predicts a “serious reconsideration of the kind of history that has come into schools over the last generation,” prompted by the events of Sept. 11.

I submit there are many elements in the current mixture of social studies education that deserve reconsideration. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that students cannot be forced to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, but surely they can celebrate holidays like Thanksgiving and Presidents’ Day. Surely they can learn songs that celebrate America in school music programs. We have a generation of children who cannot sing their national anthem.

Schools should encourage clubs and activities that bring students together, rather than dividing them by ethnicity. Teaching in a private school in Los Angeles during the 1980s, I sponsored the International Club. Our goal was to expand students’ knowledge of other peoples and places, to strengthen unity among our diverse membership. Our programs were popular, effective, and fun.

Our social studies courses—history, civics, world cultures—need special care. When I was in high school in the 1950s, we studied American history in two semesters, barely reaching World War II. Today’s American-history courses are taught in exactly the same two semesters. Imagine all that has occurred since 1945, and the students who never “get there” in the one history course they take.

It may be time to consider a third semester, for the post-World War II era. Textbook publishers are scrambling to include the Sept. 11 attacks, the underlying causes and potential responses and results, even as state textbook-adoption deadlines loom. They are weighing elements of this breaking story, pondering its propriety for young readers and what images to convey. Yet teachers already struggle to reach the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War in their classes.

I agree with Ms. Ravitch that schools should “teach young people the virtues and blessings of our democratic system of government.” Students must also recognize imperfections in America’s policies and personnel; they must see how challenging has been the ongoing pursuit of liberty and justice for all.

Schools must have the time, resources, and opportunity to reach these goals. We may need to seriously reconsider the educational priorities for our children.

Betty Raskoff Kazmin
Retired Los Angeles Teacher
Board of Education Member
Willard, Ohio

Pledge of Allegiance Quote Is Shortened

To the Editor:

I found it very strange that your article about patriotism and prayer chose to truncate the opinion of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson in the court’s 1943 decision ruling against the mandatory participation of students in reciting the Pledge of Allegiance (“Patriotism and Prayer: Constitutional Questions Are Muted,” Oct. 10, 2001.) This was even more disturbing because of the article’s following paragraph, stating that "[t]he state laws generally require students who do not want to recite the pledge to stand and be silent. ... “

Had you quoted the entire opinion of Justice Jackson, which included, following the word “opinion,” the words “or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein,” it would have been obvious that the state laws referred to are clearly unconstitutional.

This omission is troublesome because it comes in a leading educational publication. Your readers are people we depend on to teach our children about the precious rights this country has bestowed upon its citizens.

Jim Collier
Shelburne, Vt.

Truth-in- Testing: A Proven System

To the Editor:

It’s reassuring to learn that, as the president and chief executive officer of one of the country’s largest testing companies, David W. Smith offers objections to our call for national truth-in-testing legislation that are largely ad hominem (“Truth-in-Testing, for a Slight Fee,” Letters, Oct. 10, 2001; “A Proctor for the Testers?,” Commentary, Sept. 12, 2001).

His attack is misguided. Test- prep companies like ours do not profit from truth-in-testing legislation: Making tests available for public scrutiny does not put them in the public domain, and we would continue to create our own practice items. In fact, the ability for the public to scrutinize test items generally reduces the need for the kinds of services we provide.

Mr. Smith is also incorrect about the costs of truth-in-testing. When state Sen. Ken LaValle first proposed legislation in New York for tests like the SAT, testing companies made similar predictions of vast increases in cost, along with the downfall of higher education as we knew it. Of course, no such increase or downfall came to pass, and those companies have long admitted that the SAT is now a better test as a result. This legislation would add pennies to the cost of the tests, less if states shared items, as is now being contemplated.

Truth-in-testing is a proven system that makes tests better, fairer, and more secure. It will add to public support for accountability at minimal cost. We hope that Mr. Smith will join us in supporting basic accountability and due process in the regime of high-stakes testing.

John Katzman
Chief Executive Officer
Steven Hodas
Executive Vice President
The Princeton Review
New York, N.Y.

High School Alternatives: Is a National Commission’s Solution the Problem?

To the Editor:

Your Commentary entitled “Alternative Education Cannot Be Left Behind,” (Oct. 10, 2001) was excellent. The essay sums up the unfortunate state of special, vocational, and alternative education. On the other hand, your news article “Every Student Seen To Need College Prep” in the same issue, points to the horrible state of regular education.

Many students would like to pursue a curriculum that would lead to a job in the trades—not necessarily college—after high school. In many school districts, many, if not all, vocational and shop classes are being eliminated so that all students can pursue the college-bound curriculum. This one-size-fits-all approach has never worked; in fact, it results in more students’ becoming dropouts and more student failures.

Gov. Paul E. Patton of Kentucky, the chairman of the National Commission on the Senior Year, has missed the mark. Given his logic, all students should be great athletes, artists, doctors, and so forth without exception. Whatever happened to multiple intelligences?

Ron Dernick
Park Ridge, Ill.

To the Editor:

Regarding the findings and recommendations of the National Commission on the Senior Year, one can only conclude that commission members spent little time with high school teachers, members of the business community surrounding any American high school, or representatives from colleges not accountable to the bursar’s office.

Any member of these groups would have told the commission members that while all of today’s high school students need a rigorous education, less than one-third of them need to be prepared for the traditional four-year college.

Perhaps, the major problem with the secondary curriculum today is that it was designed to prepare every high school student for college. Consequently, two-thirds of today’s high school graduates—let’s include high school dropouts in here, too— leave school without any marketable skills, or even a basic understanding of the behavior required of a successful employee.

The real dropout problem in America has always been, and remains, those students dropping out of college in the sophomore year. Next time a commission is formed to study some aspect of America’s high schools, why not include some commission members familiar with high schools and high school students?

James J. Moffett
Tucson, Ariz.

To the Editor:

Your front-page report “Every Student Seen to Need College Prep” points very clearly to what is wrong with the secondary education system in the United States. Paying little heed to John Dewey’s suggestion to “relate the school to life,” the National Commission on the Senior Year has proposed a solution that is, in fact, the problem with most of our current secondary schools.

Over the last 30 to 40 years, America’s secondary schools have become college-preparatory institutions. Their entire focus is on students’ achieving a college-acceptance letter. Alternatives to a college-preparatory education have been whittled away to the point that few options now exist for students other than those in college prep.

Up to the 1960s, students had an array of courses available to them. Ironically, the offerings diminished just as the percentage of high-school-age children actually in school increased. We now have a more diverse population with a much less diverse curriculum.

It is not hard to imagine why the committee underpinned its work with “the idea that students need more than a high school diploma to raise a family in a fast-changing, technologically driven economy.” They simply looked around the table and drew the conclusion that everyone there, whether a governor, educator, or business executive, got where he was by going to college.

I would suggest that a similar “common people” commission, made up of carpenters, auto technicians, computer-repair technicians, cosmetologists, and other crafts and trades people (who, incidentally, would be successfully raising families), would be far more open-minded about what would constitute a good high school program.

Joseph H. Crowley
Chariho Career & Technical Center
Wood River Junction, R.I.


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