Education Letter to the Editor


May 15, 2002 19 min read
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Must Principals ‘Go It Alone’?

To the Editor:

I am writing in the hope of connecting the dots between two articles in your April 17, 2002, issue: the front-page story about new demands on principals (“Principals: So Much to Do, So Little Time”) and the back-page Commentary on linking schools and community resources (“Community Schools”).

A plausible solution to the challenges summarized so poignantly by the six experienced principals in your news article, that of trying to fulfill a role “whose job description now has no bounds,” might well reside in the ideas advanced by Ira Harkavy and Martin Blank in their astute essay on community schools.

As they rightly note, principals and the schools they lead cannot, and need not, go it alone. Schools across the country are reaching out to, and crafting innovative partnerships with, community agencies in ways that really meet the needs of students and their families. In New York City, our organization has a full decade of experience working as long-term partners with board of education colleagues, through community schools that are co-designed to promote the educational success of students in high-poverty areas.

The principals in these schools no longer have to double as educational leaders and social workers because our agency provides social services (as well as medical, dental, and mental-health services; before- and after-school enrichment; summer programs; and parental-involvement opportunities).

There are many variations of this full-service-partnership approach around the country, and growing evidence of their success. In my view, the key to their effectiveness is joint planning between schools and community resources to develop and activate the kind of shared vision outlined by Mr. Harkavy and Mr. Blank.

Jane Quinn
Assistant Executive Director
The Children’s Aid Society
New York, N.Y.

Predicting Success In College and Life

To the Editor:

Arthur Levine’s glib but impractical observation that “What we need now is the kind of test that will predict life achievement” (“Amid Criticism, College Board Considers Revamping SAT,” April 3, 2002) brings to mind John Silber’s equally inane comment when he became the president of Boston University that, when it came to college entrance, he was “more interested in the soul quotient than the intelligence quotient.”

It would appear that these two gentlemen would prefer to put responsibility for college admissions in the hands, respectively, of fortune tellers and divinity schools.

George H. Hanford
President Emeritus
The College Board
Cambridge, Mass.

21st Century Needs New School Model

To the Editor:

In his Commentary “The Continuing Imperative for Educational Equity” (April 24, 2002), Michael A. Rebell characterizes the rise of common schools in the late 19th century as a battle between the good guys and the bad guys and ties the requirements of democracy to an educated citizenry. But some of the “good guys” were white Anglo-Saxon Protestants who looked with distaste and apprehension at the waves of immigrant “others” who were predominantly Roman Catholic. It is those crusaders who put the education of the public in the hands of the state and specifically excluded parochial schools from funding. It is worth noting that, although the common schools they established were nonsectarian, they were not nonreligious. In many states, prayers and Bible readings were part of the curriculum until 1963, when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down state laws permitting them.

Common schools then were seen by their proponents as the great unifiers, the protectors of the nation’s dominant values, and the producers of obedient, compliant workers for the Industrial Revolution. That is the way public schools were structured—top-down, industrial-era-management style. And that is the way they remain to this day; hence, the seemingly insoluble problems of trying to reform the system to fit into the 21st century and meet the demands it makes on our children.

In this context, the equalitarian dynamic that Michael A. Rebell describes as inexorable is a 20th-century anachronism that has no place at the beginning of the 21st century. We are just beginning to understand how the brain actually works and how differently children learn. We are finding scientific evidence and beginning to develop corresponding methodologies to accommodate these differences. Far from reinforcing the quest for equality beyond that established by classical liberalism—that all men are created equal before God and before the law—science is taking us down a path that recognizes how different people are.

How can our public schools, created in the 19th century for an entirely different purpose, make sure that no child is left behind? They can’t as they are currently configured: monopolistic bureaucracies requiring an act of courage to overcome the rigidities they impose.

What, then, is the solution? To take the government out of the equation except for the funding; to attach the funding to the individual child; to let parents choose the best schools for their children according to the kind of learners they are; to let teachers teach where and how their talents are most prized; and to allow as many delivery systems as there is demand for.

When Oregonians approved an initiative requiring virtually all children to attend public schools, thereby sounding the death knell for all other forms of education, the U.S. Supreme Court, in its 1925 decision in Pierce v. Society of Sisters, found the law to be unconstitutional. The court asserted that “the fundamental theory of liberty upon which all governments in this Union repose excludes any general power of the state to standardize its children by forcing them to accept instruction from public teachers only. The child is not the mere creature of the state; those who nurture him and direct his destiny have the right coupled with the high duty to recognize and prepare him for higher obligations.”

Gisèle Huff
San Francisco, Calif.

Teaching ‘Earthly Aspects’ Of Religion

To the Editor:

The kind of problem that student-teacher Stephen Kent Jones faced at the Old Town High School in Maine (“Student-Teacher Says Islam Lessons Cost Him Internship,” April 24, 2002) is likely to continue because we lack consistent standards for separating church and state in our public schools. Another problem relates to many educators’ profound ignorance of the earthly aspects of the origins of Western holy books.

Few teachers run into trouble when they mix Jewish or Christian religious beliefs with academic history (as long as they are not teaching creationism). All commercial world-history textbooks of which we are aware merge the two. For example, biblical individuals such as Moses are presented as communicating with God. There is little tolerance, however, when someone such as Mr. Jones presents a somewhat similar jumble from a different religious perspective (if that is what he did).

You say that Mr. Jones “believed he could present the topic objectively by having students read and compare passages from the Koran, the Torah, and the Bible.” Without knowing all the details of the case, I would venture to guess that Mr. Jones probably knew his holy-book history better than others at the school. Our experience has been that most educators know so little about the earthly aspects of the origins of the Bible and the Koran that any knowledgeable teacher who tries to provide a comparison is at risk.

Brant Abrahamson
The Teachers’ Press
Brookfield, Ill.

Defending a Young Teacher-Educator

To the Editor:

I am writing in response to Professor Emeritus Alfred Lightfoot’s letter to the editor (“‘Why Must I Learn This?’ ‘Because!’” April 10, 2002), in which he criticizes Marcus L. Herzberg’s Commentary “Why Must They Learn That?” (March 27, 2002). I found Mr. Lightfoot’s letter shortsighted, cynical, and offensive.

Mr. Herzberg’s Commentary is a list of possible responses to the question, “Why do I have to learn this?” The list, developed in response to a comment by a student in an introductory social foundations course, is meant to help a college freshman think about ways to motivate his middle school tutee.

Mr. Lightfoot is offended that Mr. Herzberg would spend time on this issue in a social foundations course. Instead, he suggests that the only legitimate response is “Because I want you to learn this.”

He seems to forget that one of the major issues in philosophy of education is the exploration of the purpose of education. Had he read the list carefully, he would have realized that most of the responses are based on various philosophies of education that typically are introduced in social foundations courses. They are not “bombastic” responses, as Mr. Lightfoot asserts, but rather thoughtful attempts by Mr. Herzberg to help his students connect his course content to teaching practice. We have created a field-experience component to the course precisely to help students make these kinds of connections.

Based on his reading of the essay, Mr. Lightfoot labels Mr. Herzberg as someone who is corrupting education by promoting the idea that “everyone must have a good self-image and feel good to learn.” He goes on to say that Mr. Herzberg’s list lends credence to E.D. Hirsch Jr.'s critique of the U.S. education system’s lack of a core curriculum. Finally, he says that Mr. Herzberg has somehow belittled the field of social foundations of education.

The problem, I think, is that Mr. Lightfoot seems to have developed a narrow framework through which he views education issues. This framework skews his professional judgments about teaching and about Mr. Herzberg.

Mr. Herzberg is one of the most promising young teacher-educators I have met in the last 20 years. His success as a teacher comes from his solid grasp of content and his willingness to take time to understand his students. He is writing his dissertation using a framework from analytic philosophy to explore issues of privatization in education. Ironically, he supports the call for increasing rigor in education, as presented by Mr. Hirsch and others.

The issues that Mr. Herzberg and Mr. Lightfoot have written about are important. Mr. Lightfoot seems to think that the quality of teacher education is declining. If there is any hope for the future, it lies in people like Mr. Herzberg. The only hope I get from reading Mr. Lightfoot’s letter, with its cynicism, faulty implications, and demeaning comments, comes from the knowledge that he has retired.

Gary DeCoker
Professor and Chairperson
Education Department
Ohio Wesleyan University
Delaware, Ohio

Emotional Literacy’s Benefits, Sources

To the Editor:

Richard E. Boyatzis’ essay on the importance of emotional intelligence in the learning process was exciting and refreshing to read (“Positive Resonance,” Commentary, April 24, 2002). I am the director of a pre-K through 8th grade school in Stamford, Conn., that not only provides emotional-literacy workshops to its teachers, but also includes emotional learning as an integral part of the curriculum for children from ages 2 to 14.

The payoff for the children is enormous. When knowledgeable teachers create well-designed and authentic emotional-literacy curricula for their students, the result is children who know themselves well, are inner-directed learners, understand and take responsibility for their social interactions, and are determined to work hard to achieve a personally meaningful life. They become lifelong learners, seeking understanding and knowledge for its own sake and for the personal power it gives them. Needless to say, this is an extraordinary gift.

Hats off to Richard Boyatzis, Daniel Goleman, and Annie McKee for raising, in their new book, our collective consciousness about the importance of emotions in the learning process for adults and children.

Norman Baron
The Mead School
Stamford, Conn.

To the Editor:

Richard E. Boyatzis suggests a five-step process to bring about a neuro-behavioral change in leaders or potential leaders not naturally gifted with an ability to create “positive resonance” within groups. He seems to be on to something that might bring about a true personal transformation, one that could benefit both the individual and those in close proximity. However, there are two points I would like to raise.

My own experience shows that getting the support of even a small group of people is difficult. At times, even those close to us seem not to want to see us change. They like us where we are, and they prefer what is familiar, predictable, and, perhaps, controllable. Were someone to have Mr. Boyatzis’ “motivation to change,” he or she might soon discover that those close by are not so enthusiastic. Our friends may say one thing, but act very differently.

How is it, then, that we see certain people working at this conversion of self, an exercising of their “neural plasticity,” as Mr. Boyatzis would have it, to achieve their goal? How is it that one can even come to the awareness that a neural workover, or workout, is necessary?

While science may show that neural plasticity is available to us, and though we may even have the support of those around us to expand our capacities, can this really account for what happens between and among people? Can science fully articulate the spirit that presented itself in the classroom example Mr. Boyatzis offers, where a teacher’s students become excited about learning after coming into contact with the teacher’s positive energy? Is this just science, just skill, just an art? I think it is more.

In appreciation of your Commentary, and in keeping with the wisdom and faith through the centuries, I would love to see Richard Boyatzis and his colleagues incorporate the spiritual dimension into their work. It is there in Primal Leadership, the book he co-authored with Daniel Goleman and Annie McKee, but only in passing. While I understand that including the spiritual may not be marketable, I believe there comes a time when we cannot fully write about a subject without including all the relevant data.

Alan Fogarty
Montreal, Quebec

Mathematical Balance: Does Saxon Math Fail in the Conceptual, Problem-Solving Areas?

To the Editor:

After working with classroom teachers for more than 40 years in school districts and in a university partnership, I have learned that the mathematics that is taught in schools depends on the goal (“Math the Saxon Way Is Catching On,” May 1, 2002). If performance on standardized tests is the sole focus of teaching mathematics, Saxon Publishers may well have the right program. However, if mathematical understanding and the ability to apply the mathematics learned are the goals, then basic-skills instruction must be balanced by conceptual development and problem-solving.

While scripts may be helpful to substitute teachers, the improvisational nature of most children makes it difficult to follow the script. Where do interesting questions get answered—or asked?

As an observer in California of our 2000 state textbook-adoption process, I noticed that the same committee which advised the state board of education to select Saxon texts for grades 1-3 also influenced the board to reject books with balanced programs, despite the fact that the teacher adoption panel approved them, and that the programs had successful track records in districts that piloted them. If we were truly looking for “evidence based” research, it would have been interesting to compare student achievement from the two vastly different sets of books.

In the long run, there is no substitute for a competent, caring teacher who has a strong mathematical background. She could probably teach mathematics from a phone book. But it is important that students have in their hands balanced materials designed to be accessible, because not all children learn in the same way. The California Curriculum Commission and the state board still have not caught on to that fact.

Jack Price
Professor Emeritus
Mathematics Education
Newport Beach, Calif.

To the Editor:

I am a 1990 graduate of Cheyenne Mountain High School in Colorado Springs, Colo., where I was a member of one of the first classes to use the Saxon math curricula for algebra, trigonometry, and calculus.

At the time, I felt that Saxon math was instrumental in my high math achievement, as I scored well enough on the SAT to be admitted to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and scored a 5 on the Advanced Placement calculus exam, giving me a semester’s worth of credit for calculus. Once I arrived at MIT, however, I quickly discovered that Saxon math had failed me: I had zero intuitive understanding of even the most basic concepts, and no ability to translate the drills I had memorized into real-world problem-solving. As a result, I struggled tremendously with calculus and failed physics my first semester, which caused great self-doubt and could have been a recipe for disaster at a place like MIT.

Luckily, my adviser helped me recognize that my troubles were not due to intellectual weaknesses on my part, but were the fault of my poor foundation for college-level math. I went on to major in physical chemistry, despite never feeling fully comfortable with my mathematical-reasoning abilities. Saxon math did a great disservice to me as a student at a technical institution.

Realistically, though, how many high school students go on to MIT or similar places? Saxon math must help many more students who go on to live less math-focused lives, right? Unfortunately, I believe Saxon has failed there, too. It is somewhat embarrassing to admit that as a scientist, I have to use pen and paper to determine the server’s tip when dining out or the sale price of an item when shopping. Unlike my husband, who received more traditional math instruction, I cannot visualize 15 percent of anything, nor figure and compare in my head the unit price of two items at the grocery store.

I have been cautioning everyone who will listen about the fallacies of Saxon math for over a decade now. I hope none of the 2nd graders in the class you wrote about are telling the same tale when they enter college in the year (let’s see now, if they are in 2nd grade in 2002, then they will be in 12th grade in, what would it be ... 2002 plus 10 years ... let me find my pencil ...) 2012.

Anneliese Dickman
The Public Policy Forum
Milwaukee, Wis.

Defining Intelligence: ‘Mystical’ Tales of Genius May Do Harm

To the Editor:

Many observers, including me, were shocked to learn of the case of Justin Chapman, the purported child genius, whose performances on intelligence tests were fraudulent and who experienced a breakdown. There were several villains in this pathetic case: the mother who coached her son on tests and a whole other gamut of public performances; the psychologists who failed to ask hard questions outside of the testing context; the media, which sensationalized the story; a public that is only too eager to read about such freaks and their unmasking. There was, alas, a victim: Young Justin had a severe psychological reaction to being paraded about and to his exposure as a fraud. Thanks to the above-named villains, he is likely to bear a scar for the rest of his life.

I can only be astonished by James R. Delisle’s Commentary (“Justin’s Genius,” May 1, 2002). Rather than admitting that he and his colleagues were deceived, Mr. Delisle uses the case as a means to launch a bizarre argument. In a line that sounds more like magic than like science, he says, “Justin Chapman sends messages to all of us about the lives of gifted children.” And then he goes on to argue that gifted children are special kinds of beings, maintaining for example that “gifted children think and feel more deeply than others their age.” I would like to know on what basis such an argument can be made.

When Mr. Delisle attempts to cite the literature on intelligence, he shows complete ignorance. He maintains that I claim that all children are gifted in one or another way, when I have never made that claim. He claims that my list of intelligences is “ever growing,” when in fact I have added one intelligence to my original list of seven in 20 years. And he absurdly suggests that I would attribute Justin’s difficulties to a decline in linguistic panache or to the label of “genius child” rather than to the four villains listed above.

When I criticized the psychologist who had termed Justin Chapman “unique” in history, I was called on the carpet by a colleague who said that I should apologize. Those who would sacrifice children to dubious theories of intellect and to mystical accounts of genius owe a profound apology to victims like Justin.

Howard Gardner
Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education
Harvard Graduate School of Education
Cambridge, Mass.

To the Editor:

In his passionate and compassionate defense of intellectually gifted children, James R. Delisle unfortunately buttresses the very paradigms that create the system within which children are treated with less dignity and respect than they deserve. It is the birthright of all children to be appreciated for who they are, with their own unique mix of strengths and challenges. All the children I have ever worked with wanted, as Justin did, “nothing more than to be accepted as the intelligent beings that they are.”

The narrow definition of intelligence defended by Mr. Delisle creates the educational climate in which children are not valued. Even intellectually gifted children are only valued for their test scores, without which they are no longer considered gifted, rather than for themselves. Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences is built on a fundamentally different definition of intelligence. Mr. Gardner has recognized that valuing the diverse kinds of thinking which lead to the diverse creative products and services valued by a culture is key to understanding and nurturing “smarts.”

Mr. Delisle’s IQ-smart children “excel in relation to their agemates” in a context, one which uses IQ as the only measure of smarts. Mr. Gardner’s theory does nothing to eliminate the idea of intellectually gifted children. It simply broadens the notion of “intelligent,” creating a new context in which it is possible to appreciate the potential of all children and each child for being a whole child.

Using Mr. Gardner’s theory as one tool to understand children leads logically to a school system in which children are valued as whole human beings. The school is challenged to meet the needs of intellectually gifted children, socially gifted children, mechanically gifted children, and physically gifted children. They are all out there in our schools, just as surely as the children with whom Mr. Delisle works.

Each and every child should be seen through “a different set of lenses,” assuring that no child will be left behind. In this climate of acceptance and nurture, it is hard to imagine a loving mother feeling the need to fake her child’s test scores.

Robyn Kermes
Member Board of Education
Mansfield, Conn.

A version of this article appeared in the May 15, 2002 edition of Education Week as Letters


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