Education Letter to the Editor


May 01, 2004 13 min read
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Loaded Language

I delved into the March/April cover story [“Grace Under Pressure”]wondering what could possibly lead a true “unschooler” to believe compulsory education is a better choice. I was elated to learn that Grace Llewellyn has not changed her mind about compulsory education.

Brett Schaeffer did an exemplary job covering Grace’s beliefs and the unschooling movement, yet I am angered by the word choice on the cover. It leads the reader to believe that Grace has concluded that compulsory education is a better option than unschooling. I’m pleased the article revealed otherwise.

While Grace has mellowed with age in working toward unschooling as a radical movement, nowhere does she indicate that compulsory education is a better choice. Her statement, “Did anyone ask the students what they wanted to learn, what they cared about?” regarding current compulsory education practices reveals that Grace still believes in student-led learning as the best way to educate a child. Her increasing support of students who remain in a compulsory setting does not equate with a change of heart toward supporting compulsory education.

The cover wording angers me because it leads readers to believe that unschooling doesn’t work after all and that public school is best, when in fact unschooling continues to work as an excellent, viable, and often preferred means of educating children. Many readers may choose not to read the article and will not learn the truth of the matter. I am disappointed in Teacher Magazine for choosing a misleading title rather than upholding Grace and her interest in freeing children to learn with their hearts outside of compulsory education.

Sandra L. Cook
Atlanta, Georgia

Why does a good article about a really great topic have to be sensationalized with headings that mislead? In “Grace Under Pressure,” by Brett Schaeffer, your magazine does just that. Is it your intent to start controversy, or do you really not understand what your interviewee said? By using a small amount of critical reading skills, even I can understand that Ms. Llewellyn is not selling out on her previous views and that she is still serving homeschoolers in her camp, but for some reason, Mr. Schaeffer cannot. Homeschooling and unschooling are about serving the needs of students individually. And it is even about serving the needs of a group: the family.

Education should be about augmenting individuals and families, not about protecting itself as an institution. I question why people are so antagonistic toward unschooling and homeschooling. If it’s nothing, it will go away. If it is valid, it will change the world. Only time will tell. In the meantime, quit using people of good intent to try to stir up controversy. It’s immoral and shows a lack of integrity on the magazine’s part. That kind of tact belongs to the National Enquirer, not magazines for professional educators.

Nancy Lynn Dahl
Chicago, Illinois

Wedge Driver

Imagine being someone who knows enough about art cars to find them totally fascinating. Imagine being the librarian at a middle school for almost 200 students who have failed the 6th grade at least once and knowing how many of them might react to a story about automobiles boosting morale [“The Art of Driving” March/April]. Now you can stop imagining because I’m going to tell you just how it felt to see that splendid art car, read that column that tells you what Rebecca Bass’ students have been doing since 1990, and then turn the page, expecting to see picture after picture of equally splendid cars and the students who created them. Instead, I felt robbed—just like the students whose proud faces are nowhere to be seen, just like their award-winning, motivating cars.

Being a librarian, I couldn’t let this rest. I Googled Rebecca Bass, and in seven clicks I had, right in front of me, two pictures of the Volkswagen her students at Edison Middle School had decorated, plus two paragraphs about what was done to the car and the award it won. Teacher Magazine missed the boat with this one. I’m glad I’m not Rebecca Bass at this moment because I wouldn’t want teachers all over the country to think I cared more about my own art car and smiling face than I did about my students and their cars. And I’m afraid that’s just the impression Teacher has left with this reader.

Olga Hanson
Byrum, Mississippi

Parent Trap

In his “Double or Nothing” column [Perspective, March/April], Ronald A. Wolk stated that the dropout problem in this country is “a civil rights issue, given that poor and minority youngsters bear the burden of the system’s inequities and failures.” To what “system” was Mr. Wolk referring? To the system that produces today’s teachers, or to vouchers or charter schools or public schools, or to something else?

Having taught for 11 years in an inner city school district and a small village school district, I see family as the most influential factor in students’ academic success or failure. No matter what school or district you investigate, teachers are motivated and dedicated to helping their students succeed academically, and school districts are constantly willing to try new approaches. Too many students, on the other hand, put too much effort and interest into music, sex, and sports, and their parents are either unable or unwilling to instill positive values. In this situation, teachers and school districts are easy targets and scapegoats of frustrated politicians who want to appear proactive in solving this “education problem.”

Mr. Wolk also referred to a survey that found that “almost every high school sophomore wants to go to college.” I don’t know where these sophomores are, but they weren’t from any districts or schools with which I am familiar. The sophomores that I have known have very divergent plans (if any) for after high school. Too many can’t wait to get out of the education system at the earliest opportunity because they are going to be either rock or sports stars.

Finally, Mr. Wolk mentions that business and industry “will have to make clear what skills their workers need.” Business and industry are very clear on what they want to see in a new hire. They want employees who are dedicated and have good interpersonal skills, good communication skills, and basic mathematical number sense. Employer requirements are not vague, subjective, or inconsistent; on the contrary, they are well-defined and reasonable.

This country’s dropout rate for high school and college is a national disgrace, but I don’t believe that the education system, or business and industry, is the cause of this problem. Until parenting becomes more effective, the problems facing our education community will not substantially improve.

Rocco A. Latino
Bradford High School
Bradford, Ohio

Second Look

In your article “Size Matters” [March/April], I find it offensive that you thought it necessary to mention Betty Loren-Maltese’s pompadour hair and thick black mascara. Why would you even mention the way she looks?

Rebecca Cronk
Mount Vernon, Ohio

Fuzzy Math

Samantha Stainburn’s article “Lost in Translation” [March/April] painted a picture of New York City turning to a progressive new math program, Everyday Mathematics, with a long record of success. Ms. Stainburn notes that math test scores went up at a school that has used EM for years. She should have added that math scores rose dramatically around the city during the same period and rose more in schools using other programs. She also reported that EM increased scores in Illinois, Massachusetts, and Washington [state]. The source for this seems to be McGraw-Hill, the EM publisher. This is a Dilbert cartoon fantasy come true, using one salesman’s performance comparison to choose which company to buy from.

A scientist might be unmoved by the McGraw-Hill report since raw data are not given nor controls described. To see the role of controls, consider the voluntary training sessions in New York City for teachers using EM for the first time. These sessions probably attract the more motivated and conscientious teachers. One might expect students of these teachers to do better, even with a worse curriculum. In many cases, the gains McGraw-Hill reports under EM are barely significant in the statistical sense and insignificant in the educational sense. A good night’s sleep on test day could give gains that big.

Though New York City curriculum czar Diana Lam claims that more than 50,000 New Yorkers participated in the curriculum choice process, for most, that “participation” meant going to a large meeting, hearing a pep talk from school officials, and filling out a form. Ms. Lam refused repeated meeting requests from New York-area mathematicians. The committee that actually chose EM was secret, though we did learn the names of its members through a Freedom of Information Act request.

The article gives the impression that the New York City math controversy is just a public relations problem that can be cured by more outreach. But parents know that in these days of outsourcing, their kids need something more serious than EM fluff. New York City mathematicians know what it takes to succeed at college- level math, and EM has the wrong stuff.

There are problems with New York City public schools. Some schools are crumbling. Others are dangerous. Many kids don’t study or even show up. Many teachers (though not a majority) are untrained or even math phobic. These are hard to fix. It is easy to switch curricula in the name of progress, but not every change is for the better.

Jonathan Goodman
Professor of Mathematics
Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences
New York University
New York City

Samantha Stainburn’s reply: The source citing increased math scores in Illinois, Massachusetts, and Washington state was the Tri-State Student Achievement Study by the ARC Center, which is funded by the National Science Foundation.

Music Man

You don’t have to go as far as Thailand to find an innovative educator who helps students remember verb tenses by setting them to music [“Dispatches,” March/April]. Right next door, in Canada, we have Étienne (Steven Langlois), who has popular CDs that help students remember both verbs and vocabulary in French, Spanish, and English (as a second language). In fact, he just won Favorite Children’s Artist at the Canadian Music Week Awards.

Doris Becker
Grand Bend, Ontario, Canada

Calendar Guise

I missed the photograph that so disturbed Daniel Marston and Carrol VanMeter [“Unbarable Truth,” Letters, March/April] on its first go-around in your magazine, so based on the letters, I thought the link I clicked on would bring on a rather raunchy and questionable picture. Instead, I saw a gray-haired gent obviously enjoying the outdoors in the altogether, his unmentionables covered by a pot of gorgeous daffodils. I could not find anything offensive (though planting fully grown daffodils instead of bulbs seems an iffy strategy). In fact, in a world where nudity is almost always equated with sex and is only for those with extraordinary bodies, I would not hesitate to show this calendar to children so that they could see a healthy, happy man, seemingly content and comfortable with his imperfect body. To have pictures of nudity (or rather, “almost"—for heaven’s sake, he would have been revealing more in a bathing suit) with no sexual connotation and which reflects a healthy reality instead of a damaging fantasy—that can only be a good thing. Hurrah for Mr. March and all those involved in the calendar.

Dawn Currie-Adams
Nova Scotia, Canada

Dollar Daze

In Ohio, many teachers who could retire have continuing contracts [“Pension Tension,” Current Events, March/April]. They are teaching at the top of the scale in their schools and have no plans to retire with the economy so uncertain and health care for their families out of reach if they do retire. State Teachers Retirement System [of Ohio] is giving them lots of reasons to stay for 35-plus years. In the meantime, Ohio schools are sinking financially with new state laws that protect businesses and underfund—or do not fund—new mandates. Allowing these people to retire and return at a lower salary costs the schools nothing and hurts no one. It is the easiest way for a school system to save money. No one gets cut, no one has to be “bought out,” programs remain intact, and the school saves thousands of dollars. It is not financially responsible for a school system to deny itself such a savings. In my own case, I see it this way: My school can pay me $50,000 or $35,000. Either way, I’m not going anywhere.

Lynn Young
Old Fort High School
Old Fort, Ohio

Lost Faith

Every now and then, an educated person will make a statement that just floors me. In the interview with Joan DelFattore regarding The Fourth R [Books, March/April], she flatly states that “there’s no such thing as Judeo-Christianity” and goes on to claim that this term has come from Christians who “don’t want to be accused of anti-Semitism and want to be seen as inclusive.”

While she rightly states that there are mutually exclusive tenets between Christianity and Judaism, I certainly hold that one of the basics of my faith is that Jesus came not to abolish the law and the prophets [of the Old Testament] but to fulfill them. Christians have long held that the New Testament is the fulfillment and fuller revelation of the Old. It has nothing to do with wanting to be “politically correct.”

As for a Judeo-Christian influence on our culture, one does not have to look far to see the influence of the whole Bible on life and law. Where [does she] think things like blue laws came from, if not from the influence of both the Old and New Testaments?

No such thing as Judeo-Christianity? Maybe in terms of a formalized religion, no such thing exists. But in terms of cultural and historical influences, it is a perfectly legitimate term.

Mark Knox
Englewood, Florida


I am a history graduate student [and] absolutely love your magazine. It is stimulating and informative. Keep up the good work!

Alicia Rivera
Visalia, California

Sub Support

I enjoyed the January/February Comment piece “Day by Day.” As one who also has been on both sides of the teaching fence, her comments were right on target. I especially noted and gave a big nod about the treatment in the faculty lounge, the general attitudes about substitutes’ qualifications, and the many times I hunt and decipher lesson plans. Most schools consider substitutes a necessary evil and (except for the secretaries) are very unappreciative of the skills and qualifications that most substitutes bring to the job and their classroom.

Dolores Scheuerman
Yucaipa, California

Cut Lines

As soon as I saw the hyperbolic title “Death March” (like at Bataan?) and the explanation (“Most of the closed schools [in St. Louis] are in black neighborhoods”) under your Current Events photograph (scroll down) [November/December], I thought, One, are most of the schools in St. Louis in black neighborhoods (in which case, other ethnic areas—Jewish, Anglo, Hispanic, Irish—might have been proportionally harder hit); two, were countywide criteria (age, facilities, propinquity of other schools, enrollment level) used; three, are students being sent to newer, better equipped schools with, perhaps, smaller class sizes; and four, what were the alternatives? In short, as far as the lower-left corner of Page 10 is concerned, “under” should precede “reported,” “yellow,” and “journalism.”

Richard Handelsman
Lithia Springs High School
Douglas County, Georgia

PC Point

Thank you for the review of The Flickering Mind, by Todd Oppenheimer [Books, November/December]. The review was complete enough to affirm the concerns I have had about computers available for student use in the classroom.

Bebe Ottinger
Seattle, Washington

Tune In

Thanks for the article on bluegrass as a teaching tool [“String Theory,” August/September 2003]. I am a geography teacher, and I use Appalachian songs to teach my 7th graders about the isolation and self-reliance of mountain people. Every year, Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, and others have 120 more young fans. They groan at first, but the next day they beg to “hear that song again.”

Mandarin Middle School
Jacksonville, Florida


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