Democracy Needs Critical Thinkers
To the Editor:
Barbara Landau (“Educating for Citizenship,” Commentary, March 6, 2002) raises a critical point as she highlights the fear of some educators (or their dreadful lack of ability) to do the very thing they need to do to prepare a responsible and contributing citizenry: provide students with the tools and encouragement they need to think for themselves.
In our ongoing effort to make sense of, and make better, our democracy and our world, it is not blindly obedient citizens we need. All of us, adults and students, need as much information, as much understanding, and as many different perspectives as we can have in order to make logical and reasonable decisions about what we support and do not support, and how we act and should act.
Ms. Landau reminds us of the critical nature of civic education. How many citizens understand the core meaning of democracy? What does it mean to be a responsible citizen in a democracy? What does democracy mean in terms of rights and freedoms? And what does it mean in terms of responses to national and world events?
Besides the fearful and frozen teachers to whom Ms. Landau refers, there are those who go to the opposite pole. Graduate students with whom I have worked seem consistently to have little sense or understanding of what democracy means; and, almost without exception, when they try to model a democratic form of government in their classrooms, they flip into an extreme mode of what I call “rights above all.” In a democratic classroom, their thinking goes, students can do whatever they want and learn whatever they choose to learn.
It takes much effort to revisit what a democracy is and isn’t, to clarify that it doesn’t mean unlimited freedom, and to re-explain that democracy involves laws and leaders and procedures and representative government and citizen participation and a lot more.
Do students at all levels need to learn what rights and democracy mean and require? Of course. But although we cannot afford to let ourselves be—or our students become—complacent about who we are and what our government needs and stands for and against, “teaching” democracy does not in any way mean that anyone will “learn” what it means or should mean to work, live, and serve in a democracy, or how one can assist in sustaining and making better the democracy.
Teaching and learning are not synonymous, and often not even connected. All of our students—our next generation—need not only to learn about the history, components, beliefs, practices, rights, and responsibilities of democratic citizenship, but also need to experience and learn responsible decisionmaking.
By itself, the knowledge of what democracy is and of what our constitutional rights are cannot save or improve our democracy. If students don’t become analytical, independent, and in-depth thinkers and solid problem-solvers, they become the opposite: dependent, shallow, or nonthinkers who become part of the problem.
We don’t have to be fearful of students who learn what their rights are or of students who can think for themselves, raise difficult questions, and move outside the box. They are the citizens who will tweak, sustain, and improve our democracy and keep us from complacency.
What we should fear are students who timidly follow and obey and who are epitomized by a doctoral student, a former teacher, who recently confessed to me: “I don’t know what critical thinking is; I have never done it; I have never learned about it.”
Curriculum and Instruction
Pennsylvania State University
University Park, Pa.
Nursery Rhymes Boost Literacy
To the Editor:
I appreciated your balanced coverage of President Bush’s reading initiatives (“Some Educators See Reading Rules as Too Restrictive,” Feb. 20, 2002), and was especially interested in the article on early reading (“Bush’s Program Turning the Pages to Emphasize Early Reading Help,” Feb. 20, 2002).
I take issue, however, with Susan B. Neuman’s comment about the content of preschool curricula: “If we’re just doing senseless rhymes, that’s not going to get us anywhere.” Perhaps Ms. Neuman, a former curriculum writer who is now an assistant U.S. secretary of education, was quoted out of context. She seems to be pointing an accusatory finger at Mother Goose and other nursery rhymes.
In fact, those “senseless rhymes” are excellent vehicles for building early literacy skills. Their persistence throughout the centuries and among many cultures attests to their power to help young children learn language skills and structures. Their predictable rhymes and highly structured verse forms assist in developing phonemic awareness, awareness of prosody, and literary appreciation, all in the most delightful way.
In short, it’s easy to demonstrate that Mother Goose supports “scientifically based reading instruction,” while also fostering an enjoyment of literature.
Director of Educational Services
Add ‘Demonstration’ To Assessments
To the Editor:
Hooray for Marc F. Bernstein’s Commentary, “Student ‘Demonstrations’ Also Test Student Knowledge” (March 6, 2002)! He seems to be one of the few people talking about other types of learning assessments. In the mad rush to make schools, principals, and teachers accountable, few have considered the idea that a one-size-fits-all test really is in opposition to such concepts as multiple intelligences. It’s about time someone spoke up for students who don’t perform well on standardized tests. One test alone should not be the measurement of a student’s learning.
Would geniuses such as Einstein, da Vinci, and Mozart have been considered failures if they had been given a standardized assessment? As Mr. Bernstein says, “What is the wisdom in basing major decisions such as grade promotion or graduation solely on one particular test?”
There is no wisdom involved in our rush to national standardized testing. For one thing, student-test-takers’ self-esteem is not being considered at all. Maybe we should give these tests to politicians to see if they measure up.
In our rush to test, we are sending students the wrong message: Tests are everything, and if you cannot pass them, you are a failure. Yet pencil-and-paper tests cannot measure a student’s creativity and ingenuity, nor do they reveal imagination, persistence, and adaptability.
It is time we stopped and considered the great variety in personal traits and talents to be found among the children in our schools. If it takes more time to measure their learning by adding a demonstration component to an assessment, then so be it. We have to do what’s in the best interest of all our children.
Institute for Catholic Educational Leadership
University of San Francisco
San Francisco, Calif.
‘10 Steps’ Work For Rural Schools, Too
To the Editor:
In their recent essay, Arthur E. Wise and Marsha Levine focus on the need for partnerships between universities and public schools in teacher education (“The 10-Step Solution,” Commentary, Feb. 27, 2002). Although they specifically challenge urban schools and universities to form such partnerships and create professional-development schools, their model works well for small rural and suburban schools as well.
The Lisbon Central School is a small, 620-student pre-K-8 elementary school in rural eastern Connecticut. Its administrators and the local board of education have established two university partnerships over the past 16 years, and numerous area school districts now participate in full-time, graduate-level teacher and administrative internships offered by these universities.
Sacred Heart University offers K-12 certification programs in teaching and administration, while Southern Connecticut State University’s satellite program provides graduate students internships in special education. Eastern Connecticut school districts pay graduate tuition and stipends for prospective teachers as they learn and practice their craft under the supervision of mentor teachers and university faculty members.
This is truly a symbiotic relationship between higher education and the public schools, and it benefits both children and taxpayers. Test scores in the majority of participating districts have increased significantly as the quality of new teacher candidates has improved.
Mr. Wise and Ms. Levine were conceptually right on, but their target needs to be expanded to include rural and suburban schools.
Lawrence M. Fenn
Lisbon Public Schools
Whole Language And Its Platitudes
To the Editor:
The letter by emeritus professor Stephen Krashen that claims (as its headline reads) “Science Supports Whole Language” (March 13, 2002) is typical of the unsatisfactory manner in which supporters of whole-language literacy instruction now deal with this issue.
At first, the whole-language movement averred that scientific study of literacy development was ipso facto bogus. At least this was a logical position to take, since none of the unique principles or novel practices of whole-language literacy instruction are corroborated by relevant empirical evidence.
Professor Krashen attempts to skirt around that fact by contending that the “core hypothesis” of whole language is that “literacy is developed by understanding texts.” In truth, of course, literacy is the ability to understand the meanings in texts intended by their authors. Thus, all that Mr. Krashen actually offers is the unavoidable platitude that being literate acts to make one more literate.
Finally, Mr. Krashen falsely complains that the report of the National Reading Panel did not conclude that students who “read better” also “write better, have larger vocabularies, and have more control over complex grammatical constructions.” That has been common knowledge among teachers since long before either whole language or the National Reading Panel.
Professor Emeritus of Education
San Diego State University
San Diego, Calif.
To the Editor:
“The Blueberry Story” by ice-cream-company executive Jamie Robert Vollmer (Commentary, March 6, 2002), is a well-told tale. But not of enlightenment, as Mr. Vollmer contends. It’s a story of entrapment. Entrapment by faulty analogical reasoning.
In his story, Mr. Vollmer, whose company was famed for its blueberry ice cream, insulted an assemblage of teachers, principals, and other school personnel: “If I ran my business the way you people operate your schools ... “
He was enlightened by a “razor-edged veteran English teacher” who asked him, “When you are standing on the receiving dock and you see an inferior shipment of blueberries arrive, what do you do?”
“I send them back,” he replied.
“That’s right!” she barked, “and we can never send back our blueberries.” Thus began the executive’s realization that “a school is not a business.”
But there is a problem. Children are not analogous to ingredients (blueberries, in this case) that ice cream makers use to make a product customers accept or reject. A fitting analogy to the blueberries used to make blueberry ice cream are the textbooks teachers use to provide an education.
Children go to school for an education. Consumers buy ice cream for the taste. Mr. Vollmer sends back bad blueberries to keep customers happy. Good teachers send back bad textbooks to keep education’s consumers—children and their families—happy.
In purpose and operation, a school has far more in common with an ice cream business, albeit a monopoly ice cream business, than a child has with a blueberry.
Public School Teacher, Retired
To the Editor:
Jamie Robert Vollmer correctly exposes the fallacy of calling on government schools to operate in a more businesslike fashion. But the reasoning that apparently persuaded him of this is wrong, and the mistake has broader implications.
An audience of teachers apparently told Mr. Vollmer that while his private ice cream company was able to reject a delivery of inferior blueberries, schools must accept and attempt to educate every child in the community, no matter how challenged. But children are not, as Mr. Vollmer writes, “raw material” in a production process. They and their parents are customers with legitimate expectations of being properly served. The real inputs are teachers, books and supplies, and facilities, and a good principal should indeed reject those that are of low quality or have an inflated price.
Asking government schools to operate in a more businesslike fashion while they still depend on “the vagaries of politics for a reliable revenue stream” is indeed asking for the impossible. This is why advocates of market-based reforms call for an end to the political allocation of funding for schools. Until then, teachers and principals are at the mercy of politicians and bureaucracies.
The current system of public school finance explains why schools find the task of appeasing “disparate, competing customer groups” so difficult. Mr. Vollmer’s ice cream company did not suffer because different customers wanted different flavors of ice cream; in fact, it thrived by catering to those differences. If schooling, like ice cream, were delivered by a competitive education marketplace, schools would specialize in meeting the needs of children with certain needs, rather than provide one-size-fits-all curricula that satisfy no one (and raise costs substantially).
It is the public school monopoly on public funds and attempted prohibition on competition, not the inherent nature of schooling, that turns conscientious parents into what Mr. Vollmer uncharitably calls a “howling horde.”
The real lesson from his story is that school finance ought to be changed so that schools, like ice cream companies, can operate in a businesslike fashion.
Joseph L. Bast
The Heartland Institute
To the Editor:
Richard D. Kahlenberg does us all a service in “Remembering Al Shanker” (Commentary, Feb. 27, 2002) by reminding us of the late union leader’s embracing and enduring commitment to the unity of Americans. From this principle radiates the call to ensure that all Americans have the same chances to participate in the social, political, and economic life of the nation. Foremost among those that must heed that call are the public schools and the communities that support them.
Lois Weiner’s Commentary in the same issue (“A Legacy Deferred”) builds on similar principles by recognizing what is required for systemic reform to take hold in all of the nation’s urban communities, namely, the desire and the resources needed to expose poor children to the same quality of instruction usually reserved for the more affluent and dominant groups in the society.
While principled Americans may disagree with the specifics of one or another of Mr. Shanker’s and Ms. Weiner’s arguments, all would agree with their position that honesty about real conditions and actual behavior is essential for professional and public progress. Inaugurating the American Federation of Teachers’ campaign “Lessons for Life: Responsibility, Respect, Results,” Mr. Shanker admonished union locals that not to press for these lessons and a related “bill of rights and responsibilities” was to engage in “union malpractice.” (“The End of an Era,” March 5, 1997.)
To celebrate the larger legacy of Albert Shanker, and those like Lois Weiner who heed this call, all of us must shoulder the responsibility to respect the students and the social mission of public schools, and to respect ourselves as professional educators. This means that we must demand of systems and of ourselves that gaps in the achievement of various groups in our society be eliminated, and that all individuals be given the same fair opportunity to be all that they can be.
Only with this “neutral” system that serves every individual—a system that will take determined and targeted actions to achieve— can America be truly unified. As we move as a nation to embrace the challenges of the “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001, we must not forget what Albert Shanker recognized as a concerned education leader: The skills of teachers account for a larger portion of the variation in student test scores than most other factors, and all Americans must, therefore, be given equal access to high teacher quality.
The Shanker legacy stands as a beacon reminding us of our responsibility to nurture and develop all of America’s students. And Ms. Weiner’s essay reminds us that Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream will remain “deferred” so long as we do not attend to simple tenets of social justice in the allocation of resources for learning. What kind of future do we want to pass on to our children?
Eric J. Cooper
National Urban Alliance
Council of the Great City Schools
University of Georgia
A version of this article appeared in the March 27, 2002 edition of Education Week as Letters