Education Opinion


April 02, 2003 14 min read
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Robbing Teachers Of Their Voices

To the Editor:

These are dark times for education. Nothing is certain anymore, and even our common understanding of basic tenets and concepts has been rendered arbitrary. Definitions now shift on a regular basis. The terms “objective,” “scientific,” and “evidence-based,” for example, have assumed an ironically entrepreneurial cast.

Boundaries are blurring, too. In fact, it’s nearly impossible to distinguish the slick sales pitches of reading-program publishers from those of government spokespersons, or, for that matter, those of federally subsidized educational researchers.

In the present context of increasing government control over our schools, the word “teacher” no longer connotes a thoughtful, intelligent, caring professional capable of making decisions and understanding the unique needs of the children in her care. And sadly, it no longer assumes an articulate individual with a right to be. Teachers are literally being robbed of their voices by the “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001.

As Ardith D. Cole points out in her recent Commentary (“It’s the Teacher, Not the Program,” March 12, 2003), teachers’ voices are not only excluded from the research arena and the federal government’s agenda for education, but they are silenced in their own classrooms as well.

If the federal government gets its way, scripted programs will control classroom discourse and literally rob teachers of their own words. How refreshing it was then to read Ms. Cole’s Commentary and to hear the voice of a true expert on reading instruction—someone who actually taught classrooms of children to read!

Ardith Cole reminds us that children cannot and should not be standardized, reduced to manageable, quantifiable commodities. To do so redefines not only what it means to be a teacher, but even more important, what it means to be a child.

Elaine M. Garan
California State University-Fresno
Fresno, Calif.

Before Fla. Parents ‘Opt Out’ of Tests

To the Editor:

Parents of 3rd graders attending Florida public schools had better not “opt out” of state testing, as your parent-essayists propose (“State-Mandated Testing: Why We Opt Out,” Commentary, March 12, 2003). According to our state’s commissioner of education and board of education, a 3rd grade student must score a level 2 or above on the reading portion of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test to receive a regular promotion to 4th grade.

Students who score at level 1, students who “opt out,” and students arriving after FCAT testing has taken place can, at best, receive a “good cause” promotion. But to do so, they must show mastery of required reading skills, either through an alternative assessment such as the Stanford Achievement Test-9th Edition or a student portfolio. And students unable to show mastery must be retained.

Moreover, the Stanford-9 may be administered only once. The earliest the alternative assessment may be administered is following the receipt of the grade 3 student-reading FCAT scores or during the last two weeks of school, whichever occurs first.

There are very specific guidelines for the student portfolio as well. Its contents must:

  • Be selected by the student’s teacher.
  • Be an accurate picture of the student’s ability and include only work independently produced in the classroom.
  • Include evidence that the benchmarks assessed by the grade 3 reading FCAT have been met. This includes multiple-choice items and passages that are approximately 60 percent literacy text and 40 percent information text, and are between 100 and 700 words long.
  • Be an organized collection of evidence of the student’s mastery of the Sunshine State Standard Benchmarks for Language Arts, which are assessed by the grade 3 reading FCAT. For each benchmark, there must be at least five examples of mastery as demonstrated by a grade of C or above.
  • Be signed by teacher and principal as an accurate assessment of required reading skills.

The state set no standards for promotion for private schools. Parents wanting to “opt out” of state mandated testing in Florida thus have only one choice: to remove their child from public school.

Rhonda Traweek
3rd Grade Teacher
Crawfordville, Fla.

Essays That Give’ Halves as Wholes’

To the Editor:

Sometimes Commentaries pass off halves as wholes. Two recent cases in point:

In “Adequacy, Equity, And Accountability” (Commentary, Feb. 19, 2003), Ted Hershberg, Ian Rosenblum, and Virginia Adams Simon cite the global economy as the impetus for transforming education, and problem-solving, technology, and lifelong learning as the key educational responses to minister to that change. If that is what they believe it will take, then they know even less than I do about the major career and educational impacts of the global economy. Besides, how will that help all students become, as they write, “effective citizens or productive workers in the new economy”? Should they not have said effective citizens and productive workers?

Taking the high road of convergence, Robert E. Slavin warms our hearts by his statesman-like embrace of both comprehensive school reform and district coherence (“Converging Reforms,” March 5, 2003). Of course, language tilts us in favor of the latter, but that does not go to the heart of the irritation. What Mr. Slavin leaves out of his synthesis is that the difference between the two approaches is not so much pedagogical as political. Teachers favor the school and the classroom as the focus of reform because that is their community and reality. Administrators favor the district because that is the agent of their control and management.

Teachers engage students; districts, data. That is why they are apart in the first place, and why Robert Slavin’s sleight of hand cannot effect harmony. It would have been more convincing and persuasive if he had forsaken his premature role as matchmaker for that of marriage counselor, to structure dialogue between the two.

Irving H. Buchen
Fort Myers, Fla.

One More Honor For Mr. Rogers

To the Editor:

On behalf of the National Education Association’s Foundation for the Improvement of Education, may I add one more honor to those listed for Fred Rogers in his obituary (“News in Brief,” March 5, 2003)? In addition to winning many other prestigious awards, Mr. Rogers received the NEA Foundation Award for Outstanding Service to Public Education in 2001.

The foundation staff felt privileged to have been present when Mr. Rogers accepted this award during the ceremony at our 8th Annual Salute to Excellence in Education Gala and wishes to express its great sadness at the loss of this beloved television host. Everyone in education is grateful for Mr. Rogers’ profound influence on bringing out the best in all of us.

Judith Rényi
President and CEO
NEA Foundation for the
Improvement of Education (NFIE)
Washington, D.C.

Arizona Is Wrong On Bilingual Rules

To the Editor:

While Arizona’s state schools superintendent, Tom Horne, may be just following voters’ orders on the implementation of bilingual education programs (“New Arizona Chief Clamps Down on Bilingual Rules,” Feb. 26, 2003), he, and they, are wrong.

Excellent bilingual education programs teach English while also teaching content in the native language. The goal is that quality bilingual education students in the process of learning a second (or third, or fourth) language don’t fall behind in their content learning. In this way, English skills and content knowledge grow at the same time.

If educators wait for students to acquire cognitive academic language proficiency so that they can study in-depth content in English, English-language learners will fall many years behind their grade-level peers in content learning. Perhaps that is the goal of the Arizona voters: to create a permanent underclass of English speakers who know nothing. Then they won’t cause any problems.

Sean Fleming
St. Paul, Minn.

Learning to Teach From the Movies

To the Editor:

Henry B. Maloney’s “Films About Teachers: My ’10 Best’ List” (Commentary, Feb. 26, 2003.) was an excellent entrée into the educational use of movies about teachers. These productions have an unlimited potential for helping us understand our profession.

The following are a few thoughts and applications from my years of using Hollywood’s best as a teaching tool, presented in Mentoring Through the Movies:

  • “Conrack” offers insight into the isolation of new teachers and the challenge of matching idealism with reality.
  • Comparing the endings of “The Browning Version” and “Mr. Holland’s Opus” provides veteran teachers with an opportunity for reflection.
  • “October Sky” could be placed on a school’s Web site and used as a way to invite parents’ input on the school’s mission.
  • “Stand and Deliver” and “Renaissance Man” are stories about midlife career changes that may be of value to those considering a move to our profession.
  • A professional-development presentation could be enhanced by the Jack-in-the- Beanstalk segment of “Blackboard Jungle.”
  • “Hoosiers” and “Remember the Titans” provide excellent demonstrations of team-building for coaches and educational leaders.
  • “Tom Brown’s School Days” and “The Corn Is Green” demonstrate that bullying and bilingual education are not recent educational concerns.

Movies also have given us a bountiful collection of thoughtful quotes about education.

“Goodbye, Mr. Chips": It takes time to become a good teacher, and you keep becoming. “Sister Act II": Don’t think about how you feel, think about how you will make them feel. “Teachers": They aren’t here for us, we’re here for them. “The Getting of Wisdom": What cannot be cured can be endured.

From time-honored favorites like “Up the Down Staircase” and “Lean on Me,” to hidden gems like “One Eighty-Seven” or “Billy Jack,” I found more than 60 teacher movies for my mentoring book that cover every imaginable topic and enhance the understanding of teaching.

See you at the movies.

Michael R. Hattman
Belpre High School
Belpre, Ohio

Cuban Questions: ‘Revolutionary Education’ or Coerced Indoctrination?

To the Editor:

After reading “A Revolutionary Education,” (On Assignment, March 5, 2003), I was left with the impression that “American Education’s Newspaper of Record” was holding out Cuba’s education system, which is rife with indoctrination and affords no room for free thought, as an example to be emulated.

One of the underlying themes of your report was the challenge the Cuban people face daily, due to a lack of basic supplies. The article couches Cuba’s struggles in the context of the “1991 fall of the Soviet Union—and the four-decade-old U.S. trade embargo.”

“Many schools are dilapidated, and materials often are in short supply,” you write, while inferring that the Castro regime is making a monumental effort to educate its population in the face of the American embargo. One example of this came in the form of a quote from Minister Luis I. Gómez Gutiérrez: “This country, blockaded by the most powerful force in history, was able to bring the program to more than half a million families.”

Why did you not contrast the Cuban people’s hardships—those faced, for example, by teachers and students who have to make do with equipment like a 1950s-era Braille printer—with conditions in the tourist areas, where opulence reigns and tourists have access to plenty of food, air conditioning, electricity, Internet access, and other modern amenities? It also would have been interesting to note that Cuba’s ordinary citizens are not allowed to enter these tourist areas.

How is it that the “American blockade” does not affect the media resorts or the Hotel Nacional, which was restored in the 1990s? In reality, the only real blockade that exists in Cuba is the one imposed by the Castro regime on the Cuban people.

While the Cuban population is forced to make do and, in the words of Delfina Carballo Gonzalez in your article, “respond with intelligence ... to find alternatives” for basic needs, Castro negotiates with U.S. farmers and companies to buy food and other products.

You write that “a 2001 study by an international task force reported that Cuban 3rd and 4th graders, based on UNESCO research, easily outscored all their Latin American peers in language and mathematics.” While this may literally be true, why did you not follow up on the statements by Roberto Miranda, who spoke about the Cuban government’s manipulation?

Does Education Week consider it appropriate that a teacher be fired for his or her political beliefs? Why did you not investigate the reasons for which teachers, such as those who appeared in Roberto Miranda’s apartment, were fired? Why did you not interview some of the teachers who have defected from the regime and now pursue their careers in other countries? I have personally spoken with many who share accounts similar to the one that Mr. Miranda began to tell. They detail how the government forces teachers to falsify test scores and manipulate testing data. Certainly, Mr. Miranda’s statements regarding the lack of proficiency of Cuban students in math and Spanish begged the question.

I also found it interesting that you glossed over the fact that a 12-year-old boy in your story was separated from his family for five months, allegedly to teach a rural family how to read and write. This you used as an example of the monumental efforts made by the Cuban government to educate its people. I felt, on the contrary, that it raised serious questions about the program, regardless of intended results. If this had happened in the United States, I dare say humanitarian groups would have been up in arms.

Furthermore, why did you not examine the indoctrination programs that the Cuban government carries out as part of its education system?

I found your article to be one-sided. While it attempted to provide an account of dissident teachers, this amounted to little more than a blurb. Out of 80 or more paragraphs, a mere 11 expressed a contrary opinion. Only one person you interviewed presented an opposing view, while many extolled the Castro regime. I hope in the future you will take greater care to be objective about this dictatorship.

Demetrio Perez Jr.
Miami, Fla.

To the Editor:

Often are our days riddled with ironies that have made their way through one aspect of our lives into the newsprint of another. So it was for me, when I picked up a recent issue of Education Week and found myself staring at a front-page picture of young Cuban children waving flags patriotically beneath the gruesome image of the revolutionary Che Guevara. You see, some 35 years ago, I was myself enrolled in what you refer to as “A Revolutionary Education.”

While the article was well-written as it hovered above the issues of reading, writing, and arithmetic, it was disheartening to find that the existence of a totalitarian regime behind that system of education was merely mentioned in passing.

For all that your article praises the “idea of integration,” where “academics and labor are interwoven,” it fails to present the view of what this concept really means. I spent two years in the 7th grade, not for lack of accomplishment, but because I refused to labor in the civil service of a dictatorial government, picking tomatoes under the hot sun of the countryside. This idea of “integration” is put in practice from the 7th grade onward, when children are made to leave their families and travel to the country to provide the manual labor the government deems necessary at that moment. From what I could tell, this “revolutionary idea” of which you write is the very same practice for which I was detained as a student. “Integration,” then, can pertain to so much more than literacy rates.

Looking at the images pictured among your spread of text, I took immediate notice of the red bandanas so proudly worn by the school-age pioneros, or pioneers. My eyes then reverted to the photograph of a tutoring group beneath a bedroom loft. These students, for the most part, did not wear this bandana. Neither did I, for to have knotted it beneath my chin would have classified me as supportive of Cuba’s tyrannical government. I, like a great many of these children I imagine, was called a gusano, or worm, and treated accordingly.

As an educator in one of the largest public school districts in this nation, I know that the curriculum itself is as valuable a guide to evaluating an educational program as any literacy percentage on record. Cuba’s despot uses the noble idea of education for the purpose of indoctrination. The sentences that 1st graders are taught to read, the word problems that a 6th grader labors diligently to solve, are as much a part of their education as the completion of the task. When reading passages center around the belief in Communist ideology and when pencils are manipulated to reveal careful scrolling of tyrannical recopying, the education received is only “revolutionary” in its bloody reference to the destructive Che Guevara.

With this knowledge, I must respectfully refute your claim that Cuba’s standard of education is a prototypical model for success. It does not breed the kind of success we should be seeking.

Jorge Balmori
Davie, Fla.

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