Education Opinion


May 29, 2002 13 min read
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‘Edu-Speak,’ or Knowledge Base?

To the Editor:

Your recent essayist Daniel Wolff (“Edu- Speak,” Commentary, May 1, 2002) is clearly a committed and knowledgeable parent who has spent enough time involved in education reform to be familiar with the terrain. As an educator, I admire the efforts of his New York parents’ group, Nyack Partners in Education, to force schools to address some of the important issues he mentions.

Mr. Wolff has also done a service for us in pointing out one of the great tragedies of the so-called education reform movement. He speaks eloquently of a basic distrust of the very people best equipped to reform education (if reform is truly what is needed): educators.

But in discussing what he terms “edu- speak,” he states that “the implication is that teaching is neither a craft nor an art, but a science—comprehensible to experts only.” Perhaps it would be best for Mr. Wolff and all who seek reform in education to realize that teaching is neither craft, nor art, nor science, but a profession. And as a profession, teaching has as one of its requirements a specialized body of knowledge and training.

As much as the jokes about the law and lawyers would make it seem otherwise, few question that being a member of that profession requires special knowledge and training. The same is true for medicine ... and teaching. Without knowledge of how children learn, crafting plans for what and how to teach children is futile. Without an understanding of child development, being the keen and perceptive observers of behavior that characterizes most teachers would be impossible.

Too often and for far too long the reformers have sought to blame the teachers for what they perceive to be wrong in education, while trying to create reforms without the guidance and wisdom of the very professionals who would be responsible for implementing them.

The solution to whatever problems plague our schools and our school systems lies in using the knowledge and wisdom of the professionals who teach our children in partnership with others, parents among them, who are dedicated to improving learning opportunities and results for all children.

Randy Kleinman
Head of Middle School
The Montclair Kimberley Academy
Montclair, N.J.

Open Discourse Aids Diverse Communities

To the Editor:

In “School Choice Trade-Offs” (Commentary, May 15, 2002), R. Kenneth Godwin and Frank R. Kemerer capture not only the essential conflicts in school choice, but also in many educational decisions made by school districts and legislative bodies. Core to every educational program design, curriculum decision, selection of materials, and policy decision of school districts are value judgments of what is important to the decisionmakers in that district.

Often, these decisionmakers are of upper-middle-class or higher socioeconomic status and may or may not be representative of the cultural groups in the community. Districts and administrators that take time to consider the role that their values and beliefs about education and diversity have in their decisionmaking will make great strides in developing more inclusive and reflective practices.

When administrators make an additional effort to step into the shoes of those in different racial, cultural, religious, and socioeconomic groups, they will have gone even further. Involving these groups in a discourse on what is important and valued in the community will be a true representation of democracy at its best.

This requires the administrators to ask and then pursue groups who may not know the language; who may face the barriers of a lack of child care and transportation, making them unable to participate in school activities; and who may not have knowledge of the way decisionmaking processes work or the role they should play.

It may be much safer for decisionmakers to ignore these groups. It is easier for them to make their own decisions in isolation, without the scrutiny of various groups. But creating a culture of academic success in diverse communities requires an open discourse among all groups, not just those who complain the loudest or those with the biggest homes. Not to begin the discourse runs the risk of denying equal access to quality education for some students, and also of denying the most well-off the opportunity to grow from interacting with a diverse group of community members. These are dangers we can no longer risk in this country.

Margaret Adams
Dedham, Mass.

Wary of Programs For Gifted Students

To the Editor:

I searched hard to find something redeemable in James R. Delisle’s “Justin’s Genius” (Commentary, May 1, 2002). Except for the name in the Commentary, which is my 7-year-old’s name, I could find nothing worthwhile. Especially disturbing was the highlighted quote, “When gifted children are dismissed as being just like everyone else, they are bright enough to know this is wrong, but fragile enough to hurt from the insult to their intelligence.”

I have worked with so- called “gifted and talented” children, heading up a large-city gifted program for three years and working with other gifted children in a private school. These experiences and those of working with gifted educators and researchers such as Joseph Renzulli, Howard Gardner, Reuven Feuerstein, Maxine Greene, Eliot Eisner, Harry Passow, Abe Tannenbaum, Fritz Ianni, and Leland Jacobs have taught me to understand that it is not the gift or talent a learner brings to life that is ultimately important. It is the motivation, diligence, resilience, vision, relentless pursuit, and hard work that ultimately lead to greatness.

These brilliant educators also taught me to avoid reliance on IQ as an indicator of intelligence. A few quoted Jerome Bruner in their work, his observation that “intelligence should not be defined as what you know but what you do when you don’t know what to do.”

The nature of programs for the gifted in most school systems is driven by the assumption that some students have gifts and talents that differentiate them from others. What if we accept at face value Mr. Delisle’s thesis? What then? All too often a close scrutiny of the programs and curricula serving the so-called gifted and talented child can be equally applied to all children with similar successes. And more often than not, gifted-and-talented programs are formed under pressure from parents who take the attitude that meeting the needs of their children, vs. those of other people’s children, is of the highest priority.

Ironically, many of those who have been identified as gifted due to their adult work did not perform well in school: Charles Darwin, Thomas Edison, Walt Disney, Maria Montessori, and Estee Lauder, among others.

Experience teaches that no science can forecast with certainty at an early age how much success an individual will attain. Nor can science invariably predict the late bloomer. It is vital that we not allow pseudoscience, or a blind belief that some individuals just can’t perform at the level of the so-called gifted and talented child, to consign many students to lives of low expectations.

Eric J. Cooper
Stamford, Conn.

Saxon Math Users Are Ready for MIT

To the Editor:

I read with great interest Anneliese Dickman’s letter to the editor in your May 15, 2002, issue (“Mathematical Balance”). Her letter was in response to your May 1, 2002, front-page story “Math the Saxon Way Is Catching On.”

Ms. Dickman asserts that the Saxon program ill-prepared her for the challenges at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she did her undergraduate work. No doubt MIT is a challenging school for undergraduates. I should know, as I taught calculus to MIT undergraduates the same spring that Ms. Dickman graduated from high school.

At that time, many students from a variety of backgrounds and different high school experiences were frustrated by the inaccessibility of the courses, since undergraduate courses, especially the introductory ones, were often taught by eminent professors with great marquee value but with little sympathy for the struggles of the students. I know this also, because I was on a committee of freshman course instructors convened for the expressed purpose of improving the quality of the undergraduate learning experience.

I do not believe that the Saxon high school curriculum can be to blame for Ms. Dickman’s difficulty with the MIT coursework. In fact, I believe that a Saxon-like approach would have made Ms. Dickman’s experience at MIT a much more rewarding experience.

I designed my MIT course using the Saxon philosophy of continual review and practice, with an emphasis on the mastery of fundamental concepts and skills. I taught problem-solving by explicitly solving a lot of problems and not by trying to teach the nebulous “art of problem- solving.”

When teaching the course, I discovered that the students, supposedly the “best and the brightest” from across America, did not have problems with the calculus concepts, but lacked the requisite knowledge and skills from algebra, geometry, and trigonometry to do things like set up “real world” problems in preparation for the application of the calculus.

In the end, my students did splendidly, with only two students failing (as they did not show up for class or do any of the work). My course was rated highly by students who took it. For this, I credit not myself but the Saxon approach I applied to teaching.

Now, 12 years later, I serve on the visiting committee for the MIT math department. At our last meeting, I asked a young Algerian-born and French-educated graduate student at MIT how American undergraduates compared with French undergraduates. He quickly responded that the American students lacked the necessary “basic skills.”

Though Ms. Dickman and I have a difference of opinion about how math should be taught, I think most high school students applying to college would feel that high school math scores that get them into MIT (achieved using a pedagogy Ms. Dickman finds undesirable) are far better than the alternative.

Frank Y.H. Wang
Saxon Publishers Inc.
Norman, Okla.

Induction Programs Vs. Signing Bonuses

To the Editor:

So the New Orleans Parish school system is reaching out to local businesses for help in funding “signing bonuses” to hire new certified teachers (“New Orleans Soliciting Businesses for Bonuses,” May 1, 2002.) I would be most happy to donate. I am from New Orleans and taught in Baton Rouge before moving to California, where I have a successful business.

Before I donate, though, I have a simple question to ask the New Orleans schools: What are you doing to keep the teachers after you hire them? If nothing, then I am just throwing money into a bottomless pit. If you think giving a new teacher a buddy or a mentor, or providing some mediocre evening classes is the answer, that will not work.

The answer to how to retain teachers is known, and has been practiced by many schools and districts for years. Successful districts have an induction program for new teachers, which simply is an organized training program. Having a one-day orientation meeting or giving a teacher a mentor is not induction. Hundreds of school districts have comprehensive, sustained, multiyear induction programs and are able to retain well over 90 percent of their new teachers.

A signing bonus is only a carrot to be devoured. When it’s gone, so will the teacher be gone—disillusioned—in search of better sustenance and support.

Rosemary T. Wong
Chief Executive Officer
Harry K. Wong Publications Inc.
Mountain View, Calif.

Testing History: Does NAEP Ask the Wrong Questions?

To the Editor:

Your story on the National Assessment of Educational Progress’ test in U.S. history leaves a lot out of the story (“U.S. History Again Stumps Senior Class,” May 15, 2002.)

The sample multiple-choice questions as well as the sample Civil War essay question tested students’ memorization skills instead of their thinking and problem-solving skills. It is much cheaper to test recall items on a standardized test than it is to assess thinking and problem- solving. The state of Illinois has adopted standards for all subject areas. These standards are to be used by every teacher and school in the state to guide their curriculum and their teaching. None of the Illinois history standards calls for recall and memorization.

The naep test asks the following question: The opening of diplomatic relations between the United States and China’s Communist government occurred during the presidential administration of: (A.) Harry Truman, (B.) John Kennedy, (C.) Lyndon Johnson, (D.) Richard Nixon. According to naep, only 37 percent of the seniors who took the test got the answer correct.

In your article, Diane Ravitch expressed alarm that these students will soon be voters, and that they will not know how to vote. Even if the student knew Nixon was the correct answer, Nixon will not be on the ballot.

A better question, and one that we in Illinois feel would be more in line with the Illinois learning standards, would be as follows: Was the opening of diplomatic relations with Communist China good or bad for the U.S. economy? Write an essay defending both points of view. You must be able to explain your reasons for each response.

These are two different kinds of questions. Our suggested question, and the teaching that our question would necessitate, would do more to prepare a student to be a future voter than the naep question. Our question calls for the student to think and to analyze. This kind of question calls for the history teacher to do more than teach names, dates, and places.

There is an old adage that says, “What gets inspected is what gets respected.” We in Illinois are trying to make sure that what gets respected are the skills and knowledge called for in the Illinois Learning Standards. Naep is inspecting memorization.

When the media and our U.S. Department of Education highlight naep’s results, it makes teachers and schools rethink how we are teaching history. Education Week is doing education and teaching a disservice by not printing the true nature of the naep test. The story ought to be that naep, as it is currently designed, is not testing what the teachers and schools are teaching. Naep is certainly not testing the Illinois standards.

A second key part of this discussion deals with information. In our society, the amount of information currently doubles every two years. It is impossible for schools to teach all there is to possibly know. Instead of asking a memorization-style question of who was the president when, we should be asking, “How would you find out who was president when?” I believe you would find most students quickly turning to the Internet and looking up the answer to whatever history question we might ask.

History teachers need to be teaching students to learn history and how to analyze history. In the course of doing this, students will learn names, dates, and places; however, this should not be the goal. Naep tests for recall because it is the easiest and cheapest way to test. The makers of naep must still believe that the way to teach history is to pour a bunch of facts into the heads of students and ask them to regurgitate it on a recall test.

In Illinois, we want our teachers to teach students to:

  • Recognize and investigate problems; formulate and propose solutions supported by reason and evidence.
  • Express and interpret information and ideas and study and draw conclusions about social science issues.
  • Use appropriate instruments, electronic equipment, computers, and networks to access information, process ideas, and communicate results.
  • Recognize and apply connections of important information and ideas within and among learning areas.

The naep history test tells us a couple of things: (1.) History teachers are not emphasizing memorization and recall, and (2.) Naep does not test what our history teachers are teaching.

Kenneth H. Maurer
Superintendent, Metamora Township
High School District #122
Metamora, Ill.

A version of this article appeared in the May 29, 2002 edition of Education Week as Letters

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