Education Letter to the Editor


October 09, 2002 14 min read
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Head Start: There’s More To the Story

To the Editor:

John Merrow’s Commentary regarding his solutions to Head Start was very informative (“The ‘Failure’ of Head Start,” Sept. 25, 2002). Mainly, it informed me that he has never taught in a preschool. I am not an elitist, but I do know that children of the poorer families come to school with a set of needs different from those of the wealthy.

Driving around Luxembourg, seeing signs for preschools, is meaningless. Driving around rural Georgia and seeing youngsters occupied in reading would be worth examining. How about writing about programs that work, instead of berating those that don’t?

Bob Lilienthal
Wakefield, R.I.

To the Editor:

I am a Head Start director in Ohio and have been involved in Head Start for 18 years. I believe the headline on John Merrow’s recent Commentary, “The ‘Failure’ of Head Start,” was a sensationalistic attempt to get readers’ attention at the expense of a great national program for economically disadvantaged families.

The essay itself had few specific negative references to Head Start. But presenting arguments about the need for more preschool emphasis in this fashion did a disservice to the program. Yes, there are some less-than-perfect Head Start programs in the nation, but they are few and far between.

I find it hard to accept at face value Mr. Merrow’s comment that there are Head Start programs where children who start out knowing the letter A are lucky to get to B by the end of the year. Where are these programs? Were their children from families of migrant workers? Were they children with special needs? I would have liked Mr. Merrow’s source for this information, so that I could have addressed the issue properly.

In short, I believe this Commentary misrepresents the Head Start program. We have not failed. We have done precisely what the federal government has required of the program. The majority of Head Start programs do well on peer reviews, which occur every three years. Many more strategies for providing literacy opportunities in our classrooms are now being employed. There is no reason to tear down a successful program in order to propose a better one.

Carole Erdman
Wilmington, Ohio

Private Schools and Public School Critics

To the Editor:

I was saddened as I read “The Holes in the War Against Public Education” by Elizabeth Randall (Commentary, Sept. 25, 2002). I admit to having been in independent schools all my life (although my children did spend some years in public school). I agree with Ms. Randall’s belief that public schools are the victims of a “smear job.” Her explanation of some of the real successes of public schools is effective. However, I must take issue with her strategy of improving the perception of public schools by attacking independent schools. I have always felt that for our society to thrive, our children need to have access to as many good schools as possible. We should work together to make that happen.

Ms. Randall’s allegations that private schools do not bother with professional development or drug and alcohol programs is patently untrue in my school and in most of the independent schools with which I am acquainted. I have been involved in many conferences where public and independent school teachers share ideas that work for the children in their classrooms.

I have always attempted to support and sing the praises of public schools, because they are responsible for the vast majority of American children and their work is at the heart of the future of our nation. I only wish Ms. Randall would look to build bridges toward a common destination of success for all children, as opposed to praising the public schools by denigrating the efforts of independent schools.

John M. Waters
The Pike School
Andover, Mass.

View Bilingualism As Gift, Not Barrier

To the Editor:

Your article “Born in the U.S.A.” (On Assignment, Sept. 4, 2002) was very disturbing because the introductory message is likely to lead to poor practices in the education of language- minority children. The implication of the opening paragraphs is that the children of immigrants in California don’t learn English because Spanish is spoken at home. This supports the myth that it is impossible to learn English while retaining one’s first language and culture.

The article goes on to cite poverty, a lack of education on the part of parents, poor school programs, and unqualified teachers. Those indeed are the causes of academic failure, not the fact that children and parents speak Spanish at home. Many immigrants, Latinos among them, are very successful in schools and professionally while maintaining their ability to speak two languages. In fact, all the research shows that the more skills children have in their first language, the more readily they learn English.

My fear is that teachers and other policymakers will read your article and assume that they should advise parents not to speak their native language at home. Such a policy leads to communication breakdowns between parents and children, and actually hinders children’s ability to do well in school. We should see being bilingual as a gift that serves us well, personally and professionally, and not view it as the cause for school failure.

Ann Mabbott
Center for Second Language Teaching and Learning
Hamline University
St. Paul, Minn.

Wealth, Markets, And Failing Schools

To the Editor:

As your letter-writer Bill Harshbarger would have it, we cannot blame failing public schools for not fulfilling the ideal of equal opportunity for all children (“Markets Without Equal Choices,” Letters, Sept. 25, 2002). The fault is squarely on the shoulders of the “wealthy” who desert poor school districts to seek a better education for their children by exercising their right to move from one place to the other.

Apparently, Mr. Harshbarger is not aware of the number of (underpaid) public school teachers who choose to send their own children to private schools, or the number of elected officials who avail themselves of the same option. Nor does he take into account the number of “working poor” who sacrifice a great deal to send their children to choice schools rather than to public schools that continue to fall woefully short of educating them. And that, in spite of the fact that in many inner-city districts, the per-pupil expenditure funded by the state and the federal government is higher than in many other districts.

I don’t know what Mr. Harshbarger means by “the Enron effects of competition.” It is not true that competition leads to many losers and “one or two exceptionally excellent winners.” Anyone familiar with the American way knows that our marketplace is awash with choices, that we are the beneficiaries of ever-increasing technological advances at ever-decreasing prices, and that suppliers respond to consumers by improving their products and fulfilling demand. We also know that monopolies stifle innovation and are unconcerned with satisfying customers, since they are the only game in town.

The “investing class” (which, I assume, includes the majority of American households who are shareholders in the stock market) is already exercising choice, as Mr. Harshbarger decries, but it is not clear how “wealth allows them to dictate choices for everyone else.” Those who believe in the market solution to bring about education reform want all parents to be able to make a choice rather than be compelled to send their children to abysmal schools. All parents, and not just the privileged few, should have a right to determine how best to educate their children.

Every American should support the education of the public with tax dollars, and the education delivery system should be structured to provide the best possible education for every single child.

Gisèle Huff
San Francisco, Calif.

Counselors Were ‘Quiet Heroes’ Too

To the Editor:

The article titled “Teachers, Principals Were The ‘Quiet Heroes’ of Sept. 11, Paige Says,” (Sept. 18, 2002) failed to include the school counselors and student-assistance personnel who are on the front line for any crisis situation. These individuals teach teachers and administrators how to cope with student and parent issues, contact mental- health agencies for additional help when needed, hold discussion groups for students and parents, and generally troubleshoot the issues that come up. Teachers and principals deserve credit, but please don’t forget the school counselors and student-assistance personnel who work in the buildings.

Diana Fellows
Vermont Student Assistance Corp.
Winooski, Vt.

Lessons for 9/11

To the Editor:

As a former history teacher who currently directs a professional-development program for American and world history teachers, I was disturbed at the incomplete context provided in your Sept. 11, 2002, reprinting of three essays from the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation’s electronic compilation, “September 11: What Our Children Need to Know” (“9/11: Hard Lessons,” Commentary).

Your introduction to the Commentaries by William A. Galston, Lynne Cheney, and Richard Rodriguez claims that the Fordham collection as a whole represents a wide range of views. However, the writers with the greatest name recognition among its 23 contributors are well-known conservatives, such as Ms. Cheney and William J. Bennett, the authors of the first two essays. Many of the contributors work for conservative think tanks. Well-known liberal institutes are conspicuous by their absence. While conservative institutes have every right to their views, the implication that all perspectives are represented is not accurate.

The academics included in the Fordham collection are defenders of traditional approaches to teaching U.S. history and Western civilization. While their views are certainly important and worth reading, academics with a more critical and inclusive view of U.S. history, as well as academic defenders of a more comprehensive world history, are nowhere to be found. Wouldn’t a balanced anthology have included their perspectives?

A more significant problem with the presentation of these Commentaries is the lack of reference to their purpose, as stated in the Fordham publication by Chester E. Finn Jr.'s introduction. His remarks represent an attack on the “education establishment,” as represented by the National Education Association, the National Council for the Social Studies, and schools of education.

Had Mr. Finn’s introduction not questioned the intelligence and patriotism of many teachers, as well as their professional organizations, the arguments in these essays would have a more receptive audience among educators. While some teachers are patriotic and know how to teach about America, Mr. Finn maintains, “others are uncertain. They depend on textbooks, supplementary materials, and lesson plans prepared by others.” And even patriotic teachers with the impulse to teach about American notions of freedom and virtue may, he writes, “have second thoughts about what to teach concerning Sept. 11, when they encounter contrary advice from their peers, associations, professors, journals, and favorite Web sites,” especially those of the NEA and the NCSS.

Mr. Finn accuses the NEA and the NCSS of ignoring in their curricular suggestions the values of the Founding Fathers, civic virtue, and the need for a strong military to combat terrorism. Yet, these organizations’ Web sites include links to the U.S. departments of State and Defense, as well as the CIA and the FBI. There are also links to the inspiring words of many famous expressions of the American, including the words of Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., and Franklin D. Roosevelt.

While thoughtful people will disagree on what to teach adolescents, raising questions about the intelligence and patriotism of teachers, without any evidence, as well as distorting the content of very eclectic and comprehensive Web sites, undermines the common civic culture that Mr. Finn and others claim is currently being ignored.

Dennis Lubeck
International Education Consortium of St. Louis
St. Louis, Mo.

Blaming Teachers: All Alone in a Team Sport

To the Editor:

It seems as though we always return to the same theme when reviewing the status of educational improvement: the importance of the individual teacher (“Mediocrity in the Classroom”, Commentary, Sept. 11, 2002). Researcher after researcher seems to come to the same amazing conclusion: The skill of the teacher is the single most important ingredient predicting student success. (That is, after, of course, the student’s family surroundings or lack thereof.)

If there was ever an appropriate place to insert a “Well, duhhh!” it is following such a conclusion.

Given the way schools are organized, there is virtually no chance that student learning could be affected by any other factor that even approached the importance of the skills and practices of the classroom teacher. The question really is: Should it be that way? The answer, I think, is no.

Where else do we ask anyone to serve all of his or her clients simultaneously? Does a doctor invite all her patients to show up at 8 a.m. and sit in a common examination room while she then tries to deal with each of their separate problems and complaints? Of course not. Does a cleric invite all his troubled parishioners to the office at the same time and discuss each one’s problems with everyone else witnessing the exchange? No.

What about the use of specialists? What about matching the styles of the servant with those to be served? Nowhere but in teaching do we expect one person to treat all clients, simultaneously, without regard to the unique characteristics and skills of either the client or the professional. Sure, there are differences between and among the professions, but not as much as one might think. What is absurd for one profession is pretty much absurd for another.

Teaching is only partially about transferring content from teacher or textbook to the student. And while many believe that is the primary duty of teachers, some of us think differently. This is why the recent inclination in some quarters to reduce the requirements for certifying teachers is troublesome. It is even more troublesome when it is fostered by the U.S. secretary of education, on behalf of the federal government.

Surely teachers should know content. But knowing content—no matter how deeply—is a grossly insufficient requirement for teaching it.

Harvard University’s Howard Gardner convincingly suggests that there are at least nine different “intelligences.” In other words, there are nine different ways of knowing and learning. Most of our education is structured as if there were only one.

Psychologists from Carl Jung onward have suggested that there are many different personality types. Most of us are at least remotely aware of the Myers-Briggs personality types, which include 16 different styles—each impacting how students will learn and behave.

In a more recent work called Human Dynamics, Sandra Seagal lays out nine fundamental distinctions in the way people function as whole systems— distinctions in how people innately process information, learn, communicate, problem-solve, contribute to teams, become stressed, maintain health, and advance along the path of development. This is new and fascinating theory. Few teachers know of it, and few colleges of education are exposing prospective teachers to it.

The point is that teaching is at least as much about understanding and exploiting the unique attributes of each learner as it is about transferring any particular content. Moreover, no single teacher, given all the other pressures and dynamics of classrooms, schools, and communities, can hope to be successful alone.

And yet, that is what we do. We send a group of emotionally charged youngsters, possessing all the varying styles and intelligences, into a classroom with (usually) only one teacher. At the elementary level, we compound this by expecting that one teacher also to be an expert in virtually all content areas. It’s dumb.

Teaching is a team sport. It must be approached as such, but usually isn’t. Teachers usually don’t even get to plan together, much less teach or implement programs together. And few schools try to match teaching styles with learning styles.

We currently organize schools so that the burden almost always falls on the shoulders of one teacher. How could the outcomes not be connected solely to the performance of that lone teacher?

It has been said that all institutions are designed perfectly to get the outcomes they achieve. Schools are perfectly designed to have individual teachers be the only significant variant in the academic success of students. With such a structure, nothing short of master teachers in every classroom, all of the time, is required. And they must be brilliant in multiple content areas to boot. Who are we kidding?

We’re getting vastly better than we deserve out of our schools and our teachers. Both they and their students are the victims of a poorly structured system.

Yes, there’s more to it than what I’ve laid out here. But it’s time the general public and policymakers became more informed about the complexities of teaching. It’s also time that the profession started to restructure itself to be more aligned with what we know about brain function, intelligences, learning and personality styles, and curriculum integration.

It’s about time, too, that we had national and state policy that corresponds with the complexity of education and teaching. We surely don’t now, and it appears we won’t under the current administration.

But that’s just my opinion. I could be wrong.

Bob Barkley
Worthington, Ohio


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