Education Letter to the Editor


April 16, 2003 12 min read
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Rural or Urban, The Landscape is Bleak

To the Editor:

Rachel B. Tompkins’ fine Commentary (“Leaving Rural Children Behind,” March 26, 2003) should be required reading for all educrats. She writes eloquently of how the rules of accountability, so reasonable in theory, play out in reality and cause irreparable harm. While her focus is on small rural schools, her thesis applies equally well to large urban schools.

Ms. Tompkins reveals the fallacy of demanding highly qualified teachers in distressed districts where salaries and teaching conditions are poor. The situation can be brutal in inner-city schools filled with culturally disadvantaged students. Los Angeles, where I once worked as a math teacher, used to offer hardship pay to those able to teach and survive burnout in such schools. Today, with rising teacher shortages, why remain in loudly labeled failing schools?

Describing Mississippi Delta schools, Ms. Tompkins says: “Having starved them of resources for many decades, some policymakers will now blame them for failing to meet high expectations. They will accuse the teachers, leaders, parents, and community of incompetence, neglect, and failure.” And they will impose harsh penalties, like reconfiguration.

Ignored in this quest for school accountability is the truth about its beneficiaries. The U.S. Department of Education, in its March issue of “Achiever,” reports that “by FY 2004, states and other entities will have received nearly $1.2 billion of support for assessments.” That money is not going to a needy school near you—or to any school.

“Targeted federal funds are flowing into the marketplace to drive change in the U.S. education system,” McGraw-Hill Chief Executive Officer Harold McGraw III recently told investors. Publishing behemoths benefit from federally mandated and funded education programs, like yearly assessments and Reading First, to the tune of billions of dollars. The steady flow of money to publishers coincides with severe cuts to school districts.

Ohio’s situation is typical. We have low-performing urban districts like Cleveland and Columbus, and struggling rural districts like my own. Only affluent suburbs seem immune to funding and “failing schools” concerns. As the state faces huge budget deficits, it cuts funding for teachers, textbooks, and school necessities.

Everyone understands that hard times require sacrifices. But federal educrats fail to reconcile their lofty goals with hard realities. Their worst offense is to publicly label schools, teachers, and students as failures. Can they not see the road ahead strewn with the children left behind?

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

Affirmative Action And K-12 Schools

To the Editor:

The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision on whether the admissions policies at the University of Michigan’s main undergraduate program and the Michigan Law School are constitutional is sure to reverberate throughout K-12 public schools in addition to other universities across the nation (“Court Deluged With Advice on Mich. Case,” April 2, 2003). It is vitally important that it does. The devastation wrought in our K-12 public schools by the practice of racial and ethnic manipulation is far greater than that wrought in our universities.

The costs associated with social engineering have deprived school districts of funds that should have been used for educational purposes, upkeep of buildings, equipment, and other legitimate needs. Billions upon billions have been spent on litigation and special administrators and transportation.

Federal court and U.S. Department of Justice oversight has continued in hundreds of districts long after actual discriminatory practices were ended. Instead of districts’ being required to end discriminatory practices, they have been required to permanently establish discriminatory practices. Race and ancestry still must be considered in school and program assignment.

Not only has this destroyed the neighborhood school concept, a vital environment for parental involvement and community pride and support, but it has also sent a confused message to impressionable young students. It teaches by example that divisiveness and manipulation of American citizens by race and nationality are acceptable in our nation, at least under certain circumstances.

We can hope that the court will issue a clear ruling, one with no loopholes.

Joyce B. Haws
Board Member
National Association for
Neighborhood Schools
Cleveland, Ohio

Teacher-Protester Deserves Her Fate

To the Editor:

I have finished reading your article on the the Kentucky teacher who lost her job after being jailed for protesting U.S. foreign policy (“AWOL,” On Assignment, April 2, 2003). This is a very cut-and-dried case in my opinion. Janice Sevre-Duszynska clearly violated not only her contract with the school district, but also federal law. She violated federal law by crossing unnecessarily onto federal property at Fort Benning, Ga. And she did this with, presumably, full knowledge and consent. She knew she was breaking the law and chose to do so anyway, and she received her just punishment.

That Ms. Sevre-Duszynska wants a free pass, however, as far as the school district is concerned, is offensive to me. As a former middle school teacher, I can say that, honestly, I never made a serious decision without first reflecting on how that decision would affect my students, my school, and my career.

This is not an excessive expectation for a teacher, indeed for any professional. That Ms. Sevre- Duszynska clearly did not reflect on how her actions would affect her students and her school demonstrates a complete lack of professionalism and belies her claim that she gives “her heart to these children.”

This teacher unfortunately seems to be the typical liberal activist, expecting everyone to be affected and changed by her positions and protests, while also expecting that she will never have to shoulder responsibility for her own actions. The fact that she clearly and happily broke federal law, and now expects, nay demands, the school to violate state law on her behalf clearly demonstrates this lack of responsibility.

The First Amendment guarantees that the government will not punish citizens for peaceful protests that do not violate the law. The Army did not take any legal action against the majority of protesters at Fort Benning: It arrested only the 86 people who broke the law by trespassing. Protests and dissent are not the question here; rather the violation of federal law is.

In any event, the First Amendment does not protect people from having to bear responsibility for their actions, as so many seem to believe. She was fired by the school district, and rightly and justly so, not for protesting, but for violating the terms of her contract.

That she broke the contract is directly related to her free choice to break the law, believing that there would be no consequences. Well, guess what. She was wrong.

Clint Green
Grand Rapids, Mich.

Innovative Schools And Teacher Quality

To the Editor:

After teaching and administrating in the “traditional” public school system for 22 years and then birthing a successful public charter high school seven years ago (where we hired both certified and noncertified or “untrained” teachers), I can attest and relate to Patrick F. Bassett’s belief—that it is passion, experience, and commitment to kids that lay the foundation for successful quality teaching (“Searching for Great Teachers,” Commentary, March 26, 2003).

Our charter’s noncertified and untrained teachers were just as successful with our students, if not more so, as our certified, formally trained ones. And please note we were extremely picky about whom we hired, and we enjoyed the flexibility that charter schools are allowed in selecting the right teachers for the job, minus much of the bureaucracy.

Your essay asks, “How best can high-quality teaching be replicated?” The question might rather be, “Can high-quality teaching be replicated?” or “Are there school quality elements or conditions in place that promote high-quality teaching?” There is a need to take a closer look at some of the current, creative education reform initiatives that support innovation, smaller schools, and professional learning communities.

Based on the latter, and my own experiences, I offer the following five points:

  • Small schools work, as they provide a positive, highly energized team atmosphere, which fosters working with one another vs. an atmosphere of isolation. All team decisions focus on the mission of the school and students; teachers have a strong say regarding curriculum, methodology, and school improvement planning.

  • Districts and schools need to trust, support, and encourage outstanding, creative teacher ideas that will work in the classroom in order to increase student success. Trusting teachers’ judgments as educational experts by possibly changing current methods of instruction or school learning environments is a must.

  • Let teachers lead the efforts in creating new schools.

  • Keep an open mind regarding what truly constitutes quality teaching. Does a piece of paper ensure quality teaching? Both my traditional public school and charter public school experiences say no.

  • Strong school leadership is critical in fostering school and community entrepreneurship.

Remember: High-quality teachers are often supported by excellent school leadership.

Karen Butterfield
Charter School Founder
1993 Arizona Teacher of the Year
Flagstaff, Ariz.

War Lessons: A Mix of Self-Expression Historical Context, and Civility

To the Editor:

Regarding your front-page article “War Lessons Call for Delicate Balance,” (March 26, 2003): This real-time, 24/7 historical event provides a huge opportunity for teachers to create opportunities for meaningful learning.

Use the war to reinforce the Declaration of Independence. The Great Seal of the United States, since it appears on every dollar bill, teaches the historical underpinnings of the attitude and approach of the United States.

Teach about the post-World War I and post-World War II periods, the creation and demise of the League of Nations, the birth and underlying meaning of the United Nations, and more.

Keep both “content” and “context” in mind, the context being all of human history. Seek out student opinion and share your own opinion (be honest), making it clear to your students that it is an opinion and telling them why you hold it.

Conduct a five-W’s exercise on this war and war in general (who, what, where, when, why).

Since the region involved is the “cradle of civilization,” use the war in language arts and mathematics classes to reinforce learning and the importance of numbers and language in the development of cultures. Recall the origins of the plow in this part of the world and discuss what that invention led to: surplus food, villages, record keeping, engineering and math (irrigation), calendars (seasons), weapons (to protect crops), law enforcement, and empires.

Every subject taught can use this event as a platform for further learning. As Shakespeare advised, “All experience is an arch unto further learning.” It will also help our students work out their own understanding of what is going on.

Chuck Fellows
South Lyon, Mich.

To the Editor:

Since beginning my social studies teaching career in the Vietnam War era, I have dealt with controversial issues in the classroom. Rather than try to mold or suppress the opinions of my high school students, I have wanted to engage them as a way of motivating students to learn more about the beliefs behind the headlines. They have found that opinions, in their diversity, are the foundation of government.

I began by having students take a survey I designed to explore their perspectives on a wide variety of issues— race, gender, class, civil liberties, government regulation, war, and so on. I used essential questions such as, “To what degree are wealth and poverty a product of individual effort?” Once these surveys were completed, we reviewed each question and invited students to express their opinions in a positive manner. Students were not compelled to discuss their answers, and the surveys were never collected.

We then examined data on the opinions held by the American public. Students looked for examples of this in political cartoons and newspaper editorials. We discovered how various positions on issues were the basis for political parties and the foundation for laws and social movements in American political history.

Discussions about controversial topics, such as the war in Iraq, have thus become more manageable. Students have had experience voicing their opinions, listening to those of others, and they know how to share their beliefs with others in a positive way.

Most important, the students have seen the connection between their feelings and the larger context of American political culture.

Peter Pappas
East Irondequoit Central School District
Rochester, N.Y.

To the Editor:

As a teacher of grades 6, 7, and 8, I involve students in current events every day. So, of course, Operation Iraqi Freedom has been a daily focal point.

We have Internet access in our classroom, and I help students find a new news Web site each day. We have already explored the fact that the news is reported differently in different areas, by different media, and so forth, and the students realize that they must listen to and watch many news reports in order to have an objective view of the day’s events. After watching a newscast or viewing a news Web site, the students write in their journals about two “updates” they witnessed.

One of our students is Muslim, and we always address her feelings and thoughts about her relatives living in Yemen. She has shared some of her fears with the class and says she feels safe to do so. The students are free to write about their own beliefs about war and peace.

Terry Rogers
Ripon Elementary School
Ripon, Calif.

To the Editor:

Teachers should not set out their own views of the war in class. Students are in school, after all, to learn how to think for themselves. Teachers ought to allow students to express their opinions. They should help students learn how to back up those opinions with facts by asking them questions about why they think what they think.

And teachers ought to instruct students on how to debate and to do research. They should not express their personal opinions in the classroom. To do so shortcuts the students’ thinking and violates the intent of the First Amendment to keep “church” (the teacher’s belief systems and politics) separate from the “state” (the public school).

Joan Jaeckel
Studio City, Calif.

To the Editor:

I am from South Africa, but am currently teaching in Robeson County, N.C.

Concerning the war in Iraq, I feel that middle school students can think for themselves but, like all humans, they need proper guidance. Guidance means listening to teachers’ and students’ viewpoints without saying whether those beliefs are right or wrong. It means teaching students to pay attention to how individuals say things when they make points or create arguments in class.

Let students experience the joy of independent thinking. But, at the same time, make sure that they know that both they and their teachers must be sensitive to the feelings of other classmates.

Just as there are restrictions for movies, driving, cooking, and eating, there should be restrictions on how far to carry a discussion.

Kiran Beharie
Red Springs Middle School
Red Springs, N.C.


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