Education Letter to the Editor


November 19, 2003 15 min read
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Homework-Study Recap Is Called ‘Pure Fiction’

To the Editors:

In their Commentary “Lazy Children or Misplaced Priorities?” (Oct. 29, 2003), John Buell and Etta Kralovec recommend that the media scrutinize “every aspect” of the recent study by the Brookings Institution’s Brown Center on homework. As the author of that report, I urge all your readers to take their advice. A close reading will reveal that Mr. Buell and Ms. Kralovec conjure up details that do not exist in the original report.

Each year, the Brown Center Report presents the results of three separate studies. This year, one of the studies is on the amount of time U.S. students spend on homework. Two decades of survey evidence is reviewed, including data showing that American students spend less time on homework than students abroad.

According to Mr. Buell and Ms. Kralovec, the report argues: “This is the major reason American students score consistently lower than their major foreign competitors. American parents should stop whining about homework and spend more time helping their kids to do more homework. Otherwise, they can sit back and watch their children fail in the global marketplace.”

This is pure fiction. The report does not say anything about a relationship between homework and international test scores. It does not say that American parents are whining. To the contrary, evidence is cited that parents are satisfied with the current amount of homework. The study never urges parents to spend more time helping their kids with homework. The global marketplace is never mentioned at any time in the report.

Incredibly, after these misstatements of fact, Mr. Buell and Ms. Kralovec solemnly conclude that “U.S. schools are not doing as badly as Brookings suggests.” Indeed! Instead of suggesting that U.S. schools are doing badly, the opening section of the report reviews test data showing that U.S. achievement is rising.

Ignore the fictitious accounts. The real report may be read at: www.brookings. edu/browncenter. (Requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader.)

Tom Loveless
Brown Center on Education Policy
Brookings Institution
Washington, D.C.

Schools’ Diversity Plans Must Comply With Law

To the Editor:

Whether and how the U.S. Supreme Court’s decisions last term on affirmative action in college admissions, apportioning limited benefits, will affect local school attendance plans designed to further diversity is a difficult legal issue (“City Boards Weigh Rules on Diversity,” Nov. 5, 2003). What is not difficult, though, is deciding that whatever the law is, schools need to comply with it, whether or not they are challenged.

It was shocking to read in your story that a consultant to school boards is advising boards to continue to implement what she believes may be illegal programs until someone complains. One hopes that schools do not teach their students that it is all right to break the law until someone complains. Schools ought to be held to what they preach.

Marc Stern
General Counsel
American Jewish Congress
New York, N.Y.

Emerson Is a Tonic for Our Sterile ‘Literature’

To the Editor:

“Reading Emerson” by William A. Proefriedt (Commentary, Oct. 29, 2003) offers us a tonic, as Ralph Waldo Emerson also does, but it raises two issues central to reform. Those issues could be gathered under the single rude question: “Can the reform of education be brainless?” Or, put with more restraint, “Can it be illiterate?” Or, with more politesse, “To what extent must the language of reform be literate?”

Why is it that ground Emerson covered in rich and challenging ways remains unknown to the reformers who fill the journals with thin and solemn surveys of what is referred to without irony as “the literature” of educational research? Have these reformers never read Emerson, or if they have, were they not literate enough to understand him? Were they never assigned homework in the schools from which they were graduated, or did they simply not do it?

The second question is even more fundamental. “For most teachers, the discourse of the standards people seems totally unhooked from their daily lives in the classrooms. Teachers have ... lost all confidence in the public language about the work they do.” Put simply, as any comparison with Emerson reveals, the language of educationese has supplanted the richly literate language of Emerson and Lincoln with a political jargon at once hermetic, uncritical, self-referential, opaque, and sterile. It is what Mr. Proefriedt properly calls “the linguistic desert of current educational discourse.”

George Orwell, as unattended to as Emerson in the schools of education, explained the consequences of this pretend literacy. It is dishonest in two ways: It tries to fool the reader by offering pseudo- thought. And by the same means, it fools the would-be thinker, who imagines he has done more than utter the usual platitudes about, for example, “excellence.”

Never mind Emerson. William Proefriedt’s observation— “The dry and brittle heat of the language of standards and assessments, of total quality management and accountability, of industrial metaphors and unitary expectations has evaporated a significant historical strain of American educational discourse"—speaks to us all. And it asks us to ask, “What have we become?”

Bruce E. Buxton
Falmouth Academy
Falmouth, Mass.

‘Highly Qualified’ vs. Effective Teachers

To the Editor:

Your article “States Claim Teachers Are ‘Qualified’” (Oct. 29, 2003) seemed to find the high number of teachers deemed “highly qualified” surprising. A highly qualified teacher, according to federal guidelines, is a teacher who has taken some additional college coursework, most likely in a content area. Does this necessarily mean that he or she has good classroom management, frequent parental involvement, high test scores, and the ability to nurture a love for learning that will ultimately result in students’ graduating from high school and college?

If you look at how each state has been given the freedom to come up with its own interpretation of the federal guidelines, to create alternative routes for teachers to earn the “highly qualified” label, you can see why the “highly qualified” numbers are so high. In many states, teachers can take the option of earning 100 points to receive the label. For example, in some states, 10 points per year, up to 50 points, can be awarded for experience alone.

So an ineffective teacher who has been in the classroom for five years already has half of the points needed. Add to that sum points for attending mandatory in-service training sessions and doing committee work, and the points quickly add up to make the teacher highly qualified.

The opportunity the states missed was to create a rubric that would give credit to research-based indicators that might have resulted in more-effective teachers.

Susannah Buckley
Phoenix, Ariz.

Taking on Thernstroms Over ‘Racial Gap’ Views

To the Editor:

Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom contend in their new book, No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning, that the inherent deficits in the African-American and Hispanic cultures are that they do not value education (“Book Cites Role of Culture in Achievement Gap,” Oct. 29, 2003).

As a Hispanic-American for whom nothing less than an A on a report card was acceptable, I am outraged by such assertions. Contrary to the authors’ ill-formed opinions, education is strongly valued by these two groups. Many Hispanic immigrant parents make the most difficult decisions of their lives, often risking the little they have, to leave their homelands to seek better opportunities both economically and educationally for their children. African-Americans have struggled for decades in cities and towns across this country for access to high-quality educational programs for their children. These actions are not indicative of cultural values that would undermine the role of education.

Yet the Thernstroms prefer to blame the parents and the cultural values of these groups, while downplaying the real factors that affect their children’s academic achievement and are truer causes of the racial achievement gap.

Both groups suffer from a lack of access to quality early-childhood education, which is a major indicator of later academic success. Both groups have disproportionately higher rates of poverty, a factor in access to health care, housing, education, and even proper nutrition. Poor students are more likely to attend schools that lack sufficient resources and to be taught by an unqualified teachers. And when a family is struggling to feed and house itself, the primary focus is on survival, rather than learning needs.

The issues surrounding the racial achievement gap require a thoughtful response that views cultural background as an asset and attempts to address problems endemic in our society. The Thernstroms clearly have failed to provide that.

Margaret Adams
Dedham, Mass.

To the Editor:

What a wonderful surprise it would have been had Abigail Thernstrom, a member of the Massachusetts state board of education, and Stephan Thernstrom, a Harvard University history professor, denounced the budget cuts that are presently undermining our public schools. Instead, they chose to put their neoconservative agenda first.

For the Thernstroms, it’s all about standardized tests, and they blame inept teachers for the “race gap” in exam scores. They decry the notion that class size matters, yet laud the smaller charter schools, despite their mixed results. This is because the charters advance their pet idea for dismantling the public school system, which they are supposed to champion, but actually despise.

The Thernstroms don’t like public school teachers. They hate unions. They don’t support raising taxes, as they believe that school funding levels are irrelevant. But the Thernstroms love charters, and they have never met a standardized test they didn’t like.

If the neoconservatives could see past their ideological blinders, they might consider the relationship between a class system they defend and the “race gap” they use to push their political agenda. Great opponents of “political correctness,” they nevertheless imply that those who oppose their schemes are racists.

The Thernstroms should consider leading by example. Apparently, we have many inner-city schools in Massachusetts that could use their expertise. Let them open the classroom door and show us how to do it.

Bill Schechter
History Department
Lincoln- Sudbury Regional High School
Sudbury, Mass.

Education Professors And ‘Real’ Teaching

To the Editor:

When I finished reading “Educating Billy Wang for the World of Tomorrow” (Commentary, Oct. 22, 2003), by Harvard University professors Marcelo Suárez-Orozco and Howard Gardner, what sprang to mind was one of the most popular reform proposals heard in teachers’ rooms across the country: Shoot every 10th professor of education in America and put the rest to work in the real world teaching 7th grade.

William J. Eccleston
7th Grade English Teacher
Burrillville Middle School
Burrillville, R.I.

The English-Only Battle: Three Firsthand Views

To the Editor:

As the mother of a Latino child, I have just encountered the English-only problem (“Classroom Ban on Spanish Protested,” Oct. 29, 2003). My son was given a geography quiz with the question: “What is the body of water that is between Chile and Tierra del Fuego?” My son used the Rand McNally Children’s Atlas of the World to look up the answer. He wrote “Estrecho de Magallenes,” which he copied off a map from the atlas. His social studies teacher, however, marked the answer wrong.

When I had my son ask the teacher why she marked his answer incorrect, her written reply was as follows: “The question was asked in English. Since we speak English, all answers should be in English.”

As I subsequently reminded the principal, Tierra del Fuego itself is not English, it is Spanish. If the teacher had wanted only English words, why didn’t she use “Land of Fire,” instead of the inhabitants’ preferred Tierra del Fuego, when posing the question?

When people do not respect other languages and cultures and become “U.S.-centric,” our society becomes a hierarchy of cultures and the “you are not part of my group and we’re better than you” attitude is fostered. This should not be what America strives for. Unfortunately, it is what a lot of American society is today, and what teachers are sometimes aiding and abetting.

Susan Jacobs
Bothell, Wash.

To the Editor:

Fifteen years ago, I let some students speak Spanish with a foreign-exchange student at the very end of my math class each day. I thought to myself, “How nice.” I do not speak Spanish, and later I learned from another student that they were swearing in Spanish. Because of this encounter, I no longer allow a foreign language to be spoken in my classroom.

Liz Shauver
New Castle, Ind.

To the Editor:

As a Mexican immigrant living in Omaha, Neb., who raised three daughters in southern Arizona, all of whom are now in college, I was aghast the day I opened our local paper to read about Sarpy County District Judge Ronald E. Reagan’s order that a father in a custody fight not speak “Hispanic” to his 5-year-old daughter.

We had several rules in our house regarding language when our daughters were young. They would speak English (mostly with me) or Spanish (mostly with their mother) but never mix the two. The use of “Spanglish,” that horrible mix of both languages so prevalent in the area, was strictly prohibited. My daughters speak both English and Spanish perfectly.

To those who complain that people should not speak Spanish in the presence of others who can’t understand it, I often say: “Didn’t your mother teach you that it is bad manners to listen to other people’s conversations?”

I often wonder why it is that people who use French, German, Japanese, or Chinese do not get the same “look” as those of us who speak Spanish in the presence of monolingual Americans.

Silvestre Chávez
Omaha, Neb.

Laptops in the Schools: Cheers for Maine, Jeers for ‘Spiraling Upgrades’

I am disappointed with your laptop-computer article (“Budget Crisis May Undercut Laptop Efforts,” Nov. 5, 2003). It overstates the problems with Maine’s statewide laptop program and offers none of the benefits that have resulted from this program. The article quotes only one educator from Maine—Gary Lanoie, the technology coordinator for Cape Elizabeth schools—and his major concern is that the laptops, which have been made available to the state’s 7th and 8th grade students, will no longer be available to them as 9th graders.

The reality is that many schools and teachers at the middle school level in Maine have embraced this program and have incorporated laptops into their learning “toolbox.” The result has been increased enthusiasm by students and reduced student absenteeism. Many community groups are also supportive of the program. A local Kiwanis Club in Scarborough recently donated four digital cameras to be used with the the middle school’s laptops. This technology is being used by students to produce all kinds of creative projects, which would not have been possible without the laptop program.

It is a program that has helped spur community investment in the curriculum and brought laptops to children in rural areas where computers in the home are less common.

Jim Damicis
Jim Damicis Associates
Scarborough, Maine

To the Editor:

Why stop at laptops? Why not purchase palm computers, digital- recording phones, global-positioning units, and holographic-projection devices for every student as well? The lengths to which we enslave ourselves to the technology of today determine the levels of our own dependency on its spiraling upgrades tomorrow. Schools should be aided by technology, not directed by it.

Microsoft and Apple will never re-create the magic of the teacher-student relationship because it exists in the purely human realms of inspiration and motivation. All attempts to reproduce these essential qualities of a child’s pedagogy are costly bits and pieces.

Larry Morwick
Pike High School
Indianapolis, Ind.

To the Editor:

As a teacher in Maine, I’d like to let readers know that the Maine Learning Technology Initiative is very successful. The students feel it’s a valuable part of their education and want the program to extend to high school. Parents and other community members are coming on board as well, having seen how much kids learn as a result of having access to technology when and where they need it.

The skills students learn from the one-to-one access with teachers, a feature of using laptops, far surpass what they could possibly gain on a weekly rotation through a school’s computer lab with 200 other kids. Inflexibile school schedules don’t meet the needs of students, especially middle school students, to achieve what’s expected of them.

Professional development is the key to such a program’s success, and Maine has done it right from the beginning, with free, initial two-day training for teachers, followed by additional training (also free) to focus on strategies for integrating technology into core curriculum areas.

Funding for education is always in a crunch, regardless of the era, so it’s just a matter of believing in what you’re doing and sticking with it because it’s the best thing to do.

If we want to strengthen children’s education and support the future economy, we really need to look seriously at the tools we are providing kids in this digital age. Otherwise, they will be left behind. And they will be surpassed in the global marketplace by students from countries such as India, where technological skills are taught and prized.

Valorie Bemis
Lincolnville Central School
Lincolnville, Maine

To the Editor:

As a technology coordinator at my high school for the past two years, I find I am strongly against any laptop program. Students do not need laptops to be strong academic students, especially since good research goes far beyond the Internet.

Laptops are too expensive and too fragile to be practical for most classroom uses, with the possible exception of use by the classroom teacher at home and at school. (I myself prefer to use my desktop computer at home for extensive research and planning.) Most students are not going to use their laptops for anything but instant messaging or e-mail.

Our technological imperative needs to be desktop labs, controlled by a network, open for students to use throughout the day. Desktops are much cheaper than laptops (a school can get three to four desktops for every one laptop). They are also easier to maintain, and would serve students much better than laptops, even in poor districts.

If administrators are concerned about access, open evening labs at schools, which could double as tutoring centers.

Cary L. Tyler
Manzano High School
Albuquerque, N.M.


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