Education Opinion


March 12, 2003 23 min read
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On Including Islam in School Textbooks

To the Editor:

As a former certified teacher of history, I read with interest your article “Review of Islam in Texts Causes Furor” (Feb. 19, 2003). (Feb. 19, 2003). But to fully appreciate the significance of the American Textbook Council’s report, I need to know the sources of its funding.

You say that the council “receives financial support from several private foundations,” but fail to name them. Later, you cite Chester E. Finn Jr., the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, in praise of this effort by Gilbert T. Sewall, the author of the report.

Since Mr. Finn has previously written on “The Limits of Peer Review” (Commentary, May 8, 2002), and made clear his advocacy role by saying that Fordham “sees its research mission as engaging in rather than refereeing arguments about education policy,” I need to be apprised of conflicts of interest before I judge the merits of Mr. Sewall’s work.

In commerce and medicine, the marketplace of ideas is increasingly occupied by advocacy perspectives, which are bought and paid for while posing as fair inquiry. Since education is a public trust, we should be especially vigilant about the introduction of tainted material. For this reason, I ask that sources of funding be identified whenever possible when reporting research.

Paul Shaker
Kremen School of Education and Human Development
California State University-Fresno
Fresno, Calif.

To the Editor:

Thank you for your extended article “Review of Islam in Texts Causes Furor.” Some of us have tried repeatedly to point out how fundamentalist beliefs have infiltrated the world history texts of major publishers.

This being said, I sympathize with Shabbir Mansuri of the Council on Islamic Education. When texts are written as if sectarian Jewish and Christian beliefs may be true—as many texts currently are written—what is the rationale for excluding Islamic mythology?

The answer, we think, is to keep the texts free from all particularistic beliefs—in keeping with the constitutional requirement that church and state remain separate.

Brant Abrahamson
The Teachers’ Press
Brookfield, Ill.

Accountability: How Does It Work?

To the Editor:

The Commentary “Adequacy, Equity, And Accountability,” (Feb. 19, 2003) stresses the importance of three areas of change in education, as indicated in the title. I have no quarrel with adequacy and equity, but in their discussion of accountability, the authors need to answer three questions for me:

(1) How will we attract teachers to underperforming schools while we are holding over them the threat of lower pay if they fail?

(2) What will be done about the lack of independent testers and evaluators? School personnel, whose very livelihoods depend on performance, should not be permitted to administer or evaluate tests.

(3) Since there are reportedly some 178 variables involved in teaching children, according to researchers, how will we account for these? It’s a lot more complicated than judging a baseball player’s 300 batting average or 40 home-run total.

Finally, a just accountability system that could be applied to students, administrators, and teachers would necessarily strain equity, because the cost to truly make the accountability valuable—even if fairness was not an issue—would be astronomical.

Elliot Kotler
Ossining, N.Y.

Adding to the’Digital Toolbox’

To the Editor:

Computers are still only “tools” to be used by educators to “enhance” their lesson plans and the curriculum, and are not to be used as a replacement for the pedagogical experience (“E-Rate Audits Expose Abuses in the Program,” Feb. 12, 2003). A real issue of concern is that schools don’t make the “toolbox” complete by giving a full set of tools to their teachers.

Specifically, schools need to be able to get the information out of the computer and into a format that will provide the necessary visual impact for students. This is commonly done through the use of televisions in the classroom that, when connected to a PC, present whatever the teacher has on his screen. This method is marginal at best, because the screens are too small to be effective for the whole classroom.

In general, it is not feasible to put a PC in front of every student, so we must find a way for the whole class to view the materials. The student in the back deserves the same level of effective instruction as the student in the front, and this can only be accomplished by fitting each classroom with the proper audiovisual tools. Classrooms need to be equipped with data projectors so that the presented materials appear on a big screen, viewable to the whole room.

Most schools balk at the idea of spending money on what is considered to be an expensive luxury. But what they have right now is a tool without its accessories: a drill without drill bits, or a saw without a blade. This equipment is just as important to the process as the computer itself.

We know that the use of visual media raises test scores, but only if implemented correctly. If we accept the argument that there is still a “digital divide,” we must first ensure that we are using our digitized materials in an effective way.

Only when we establish for each classroom the complete digital toolbox, can we determine whether there is an actual divide—and only then can we determine the steps that need to be taken to solve the problem.

Mark W. Kopp
Circulation Coordinator
Instructional Materials Services
Appalachia Intermediate Unit 8
Duncansville, Pa.

Reformers ‘Gutted’ K-12 Mathematics

To the Editor:

Your reporting on studies of new mathematics curricula contrasts those promoting “conceptual understanding” with those aiming only for “rudimentary skills” (“Adding It All Up,” Feb. 19, 2003).

University mathematicians who oppose the nouveau fuzzy curricula (a vast majority) are hardly averse to conceptual understanding. We are the ones who plead with students not to memorize the long list of trigonometric identities rather than learning the few principles from which they all follow.

Students who use the Interactive Mathematics Program in high school are unlikely to understand trigonometry conceptually or otherwise, because it is not there. The reformers have gutted the content of traditional K-12 mathematics, replacing it with time-wasting busywork.

Jonathan Goodman
New York, N.Y.

In Activities Rules, Academics Matter

To the Editor:

I read with interest the Commentary by Carol Camerino (“Pay to Play?,” Feb. 19, 2003), which lambastes the concept of extracurricular participation being contingent on academic performance. I could not disagree with her more.

Having been a member of two school districts’ committees to adopt co-curricular eligibility requirements (both composed of parents, students, and school personnel), I am pleased—and not surprised—to report that the institution of academic policies significantly improved student performance.

By way of example, students failing multiple courses at the end of each quarter are identified and required to enter a reinstatement process; their passing/failing status is assessed every two weeks. In this scenario, failing multiple courses does not render students ineligible for a 10-week quarter; rather, eligibility is determined every two weeks.

Committees in both districts strongly agreed that a policy such as this is not only necessary, but also fair to students, since it provides regular opportunities for reinstatement. Likewise, it is not a “scare tactic,” as Ms. Camerino implies. In reality, such a policy puts needed and appropriate emphasis on academics, while also allowing students the opportunity to participate in school-related activities.

Vin Carella
Nanuet Senior High School
Nanuet, N.Y.

‘Virtual’ Schooling Pleases This Parent

To the Editor:

A number of stereotypes are brought out in Gene I. Maeroff’s essay on online schooling (“The Virtual Schoolhouse,” Feb. 26, 2003). As a parent who recently removed his child from a difficult situation in a public school and placed him in a virtual charter school, I’ve had to face questions about motivation and socialization and have come to different conclusions.

Let me state emphatically that I believe, first and foremost, the role of school is to educate children in academics. Socialization is important, but it occurs in the neighborhood, at church, in sports, Scouts, and other activities, and through daily life experiences outside the classroom.

And there also is no room for bullies in the classroom, whether in the students’ seats, at the lectern, or in the administrator’s office. This type of “socialization” is what drove my family from the public schools. There is far too tolerant an attitude toward individual expression in schools and not enough concentration on academics. In a typical elementary school day, over half the time in school is not spent on academics. Socialization is not, in my mind, the primary role of schools.

Home schoolers are different from those students in virtual charters. Virtual charters have instructors, have a set, defined curriculum, and despite the stereotype, students spend less than 25 percent of their time on the computer. They read, they do worksheets, and they interact with other students through networking groups, gathering often at museums, libraries, and other experiential-learning locations. What virtual- charter students do have in common with home schoolers is self-motivation.

Children who pursue independent learning learn one of life’s core values: self-determination. A child who takes responsibility for his actions at an early age will be more successful in life than one who simply moves along with the system. We have been astonished at how our child has taken responsibility for his education using the independent learning of the virtual charter. Add to that his sheer joy of pursuing an academic tangent, such as reading a book from cover-to-cover in one sitting, and his comfort with learning at an accelerated pace, and this looks to me like one of the best decisions I’ve made as a parent.

Virtual charters are not a solution for everyone, and our family situation might be special, but the choice offered us via charter school law has given our family success in reaching and motivating our student.

Mark Shay
Chester, Pa.

Federal Influence on the Curriculum

To the Editor:

The federal government is becoming very involved in the curriculum for pre-K through grade 12, even choosing various programs for use around the country (“Federal Influence Over Curriculum Exhibits Growth,” Feb. 5, 2003).

In Michigan, for example, our Head Start program chose High/Scope as its curriculum. Head Start uses an ongoing assessment, the Child Observation Record, or COR. But now, the federal government wants us to use a national assessment for all 4-year-olds. Why is our current system, which is good enough for “outcome measures,” not adequate enough for the assessment of 4-year-olds leaving our program to attend kindergarten in the fall?

Michele Lopez
Guidance Center Head Start
Southgate, Mich.

To the Editor:

Letter writer Harvey Chiles (“Federal Influence,” Letters, Feb. 26, 2003) has hit upon the function that has been and should continue to be the federal role in K-12 schools: ensuring opportunity.

Since the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954, the federal government has increasingly stepped in to try to level the playing field for disadvantaged groups of students. First it helped those disadvantaged because of race, then those with disabilities (PL 94-142), then women (Title IX). The next step would be to require states to do a better job of offering equal educational opportunity to all socioeconomic classes of students. Too many states do a poor job at that, which has caused the very situation the feds claim they want to remedy (achievement gaps).

I get the feeling there is more political gain to be made by writing rules for educators than by confronting states about unequal opportunity. Where is the political courage? Or is that a contradiction in terms?

Casey Hurley
Western Carolina University
Cullowhee, N.C.

Films on Teachers: A ’10 Best’ Add-On

To the Editor:

Along with Henry B. Maloney, I love movies, and we are all entitled to our personal “10 Best” list when it comes to those depicting teachers (“Films About Teachers: My ’10 Best’ List,” Feb. 26, 2003).

I don’t know how Mr. Maloney could have forgotten “The Corn Is Green.” Ethel Barrymore starred in the Broadway play, and Bette Davis in the movie. I think I saw it first in the early l940s. In the small town in Michigan where I lived, movies changed three times a week, and I saw them all. “The Corn Is Green” inspired me to be a teacher. And, of course, I see Bette Davis (as she was in the movie) every time I look into the mirror.

Dorothy Rich
The Home and School Institute
Washington, D.C.

Foundations’ Role in Local Funding

To the Editor:

Thank you for the article “Parents Buy In to Paying for the Basics,” (Feb. 12, 2003). In the context of shrinking funds for public education and parents’ response to that dilemma, it opens the discussion on an element that has not received much publicity: the role of the education foundation.

The article failed, however, to distinguish between ongoing fund raising for specific items that are or have been in a school’s regular budget, and strategically raising, through an education foundation, long-term funds for programs and projects that are enhancements. This is a critical distinction.

By some estimates, there are more than 4,000 education foundations in this country. Some use the model of raising funds that are allocated annually for a variety of school items, including those that are in the school budget and which administration, teachers, and parents feel are important to the educational experience. Whether or not this is an appropriate way to fund educational opportunities for all children has been the subject of debate.

The most successful education foundations follow a different model. At the Foundation for Madison’s Public Schools, one of the foundations discussed in your article, we have made very conscious decisions regarding the model we use. Developed after a thorough assessment of our community, it stresses the following:

  • Development of endowment funds to be used only for elements of education clearly outside the regular school budget. We in no way want to send government sources a signal that private funds can, or should, supplant the state’s responsibility to educate its children. Our endowment funds, which currently total more than $1 million, rather than the $350,000 stated in your article, build to provide educational enhancements in perpetuity.

• Careful consideration for the concept of equity among the schools in our district. This includes a plan for developing an individual endowment fund for each of the district’s 47 schools.

The plan, which we believe is unprecedented nationally, is about much more than raising funds. It involves people throughout the community in an effort to assist schools to which they may feel particularly close. It also involves many people other than parents—alumni, neighbors, grandparents, and members of the community who understand that great schools are part of what makes Madison such a delightful place to live.

Some of the schools with less ability to raise funds from parent groups have been given challenge grants, so that they have less to raise. More important, they are being linked with community groups that will help them raise funds and will provide much-needed nonfinancial resources in the process.

For example, one school with a large percentage of disadvantaged students and a parent-teacher organization whose reserves are the district’s smallest has been linked to a group of retirees from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. This wonderful group is not only raising funds from its membership, but also providing tutors and mentors and serving as teacher aides. Imagine the impact of having a retired college dean sitting in the hall of a school, explaining a math problem to a 3rd grader. This is a vision we hope to expand and replicate throughout the district.

There are many other ways to enhance educational opportunities for children in these times of strapped state budgets. We need an open discussion, and models that address sustainability and equity. But the bottom line is that, throughout the country, education foundations are working to strategically provide that something extra that will improve the learning experiences of our children—now and long into the future.

Jodi Bender Sweeney
Executive Director
Foundation for Madison’s Public Schools
Madison, Wis.

New Unionism? We Should Be Strengthening Teachers’ Bargaining Clout

To the Editor:

The Commentary by Julia E. Koppich and Charles Taylor Kerchner on collective bargaining is a good example of why union pipe fitters don’t let university professors represent them at the bargaining table (“Negotiating What Matters Most,” Feb. 12, 2003). They don’t know the job; they don’t know the working conditions; and they don’t know what it takes to settle a contract that meets the needs of those who do the work. Why would it be any different for classroom teachers?

Ms. Koppich and Mr. Kerchner’s Commentary rests on two flimsy assumptions. First, they assume that union collective bargaining is hostile to school improvement. But that corporate red herring has been pulled across the road too many times. It has no credibility among those who bargain and do the work. The truth has always been that union teachers want to leave the bargaining table believing that they have a reasonable chance of doing their jobs without fear of capricious, irresponsible management, and that they will earn a fair wage.

In spite of extraordinary public criticism, most unionized teachers have a strong, personal, professional concern that they can do good work with their students. Unions were formed partly because it was management, not labor, that created the conditions making good teaching difficult. Ms. Koppich and Mr. Kerchner need to see that any school reform that depends on making a teacher miserable in her job, or overworked to the point of burnout, is not going to improve student learning. And the only people who can accurately measure that stress and bargain to stop it are the teachers.

The authors’ second, reed- thin assumption is that management, parents, students, and apparently college professors and researchers should have some say over the conditions under which union teachers bargain. Again, they show an unwarranted faith in the goodness and fairness of all other groups to speak for the interests and concerns of those who do the work. Unions fought for recognition and still support collective bargaining so that classroom educators have legitimate standing at the bargaining table and some control over their jobs. This came about not because aggressive union individuals decided they wanted to run things, but because those who were running things were doing it so poorly.

Good bargaining means reducing harm to teachers and to students. It was not union teachers who insisted on creating large classes as a cost-control measure. Teachers did not promote discouragingly low salaries and overloaded schedules bulging with committee meetings and paperwork. It was management and the elected representatives of the community. They had to balance the budget.

The budget has always been balanced on the backs of teachers and students. If Julia Koppich and Charles Kerchner don’t know this, they have no right to speak for teachers anywhere. Their noble notion about bargaining for student achievement is either Pollyanna wishful thinking that ignores workplace reality, or it is a deliberately devious way to circumvent collective bargaining.

We need to strengthen the bargaining clout of the teachers, so they can effectively confront corporate America with the shocking ideas that the laboring people of society are entitled to a fair share of the wealth they create, and that college-educated people should be paid a living wage for their educational investment in teaching skills and expertise.

It’s time to restore respect for teachers and for the work they do. We don’t need to embrace old, union-breaking tactics or adopt “new unionism” and new laws, or promote a bargaining system that makes it easier for reformers to exploit and demean these valuable employees for another 20 years.

Bill Harshbarger
High School History Teacher
Arcola, Ill.

Great Teachers Some Thoughts on What ‘Quality’ and ‘Qualified’ Mean

To the Editor:

Kudos to Patrick F. Bassett for sharing what seems to be more and more a minority opinion (“Searching for Great Teachers,” Commentary, Feb. 26, 2003). The professional literature is full of articles about “teacher quality,” and yet, all they talk about are “teacher qualifications.”

In my former position as a human-resources director for a school district, I interviewed thousands of teacher-candidates and hired hundreds. Certification, grade point average, and the like are threshold requirements for our profession. But I am convinced that great teaching is not about IQ—it’s about EQ (emotional intelligence). It’s the belief that all children will learn; it’s having passion; it’s the ability to build meaningful relationships, and other similar virtues that separate the good (or mediocre) teachers from the great teachers.

The window of opportunity is wide open for us to redefine the paradigm of “teacher quality.” Let’s make certain that in doing so we focus on the right things—not just the things that are easily measured. Study the writings of Stephen R. Covey, Daniel Goleman, and others. The evidence is there—all we need to do is to really “see” it.

Judith Daniels
Ventures for Excellence
Westerville, Ohio

To the Editor:

In our diverse schools of today, a quality teacher must possess an empathy for students that enables her to understand in depth who each student is and where he’s coming from. Empathy and the ability to care sincerely for children and their futures are all-important aspects of a quality teacher, who, by her nature, will have a positive impact on the lives of students.

It is not enough to earn teaching certifications. It is not enough to be excited by the challenge of teaching children. As educators, we are part of a very important field charged with helping children develop into productive, successful adults. It is our obligation to instill in ourselves and our colleagues a deep love of children—all children—that will nurture empathy and the desire to help.

Maribel McAdory
Clark County School District
Edison Schools Partnership
Las Vegas, Nev.

To the Editor:

Parker J. Palmer writes in The Courage to Teach, “We teach who we are.” Someone else has said that “we can’t teach what we don’t know, and we can’t lead where we don’t go.”

How we ever came to think that having a four-year degree qualified someone to shape the minds, hearts, and souls of other people, especially children, is beyond me, and I’ve been in this field for 30 years now.

What makes a highly qualified teacher?

First, we have to realize that teaching, when it occurs properly, is a very complex mix of art, science, self-knowledge, life experience, and even magic.

Teaching has not occurred until learning—an observable and measurable change in someone else’s behavior, attitude, and so forth—has occurred.

To be a highly qualified teacher means, first, that one knows oneself and is on the path to becoming one’s authentic self. One also has to be a “teacher as learner,” because the process of becoming an effective teacher is a lifelong pursuit. Each group of learners is different, and thus requires different things of a teacher. The highly effective teacher is one able to meet the learning needs of different groups of learners, all of the time. This, in itself, requires lifelong learning.

A highly effective teacher also knows that when someone asks, “What do you teach?” the correct answer is always, “People!” People, not subjects. Not textbooks. But people.

Here are some additional attributes of the highly effective teacher:

  • Passion for people and for what that teacher knows best (how to write, how to play music, how to see the world mathematically, scientifically, historically, as a reader and writer).
  • The ability to ask the right questions, not knowing all the right answers, for which there are very few in real life.
  • The ability to connect learners with what needs to be learned, so that they will be able to “do their own lives better.”
  • Significant life experiences, including interaction with a variety of people from all kinds of backgrounds, ethnic groups, learning styles, and ways of being in the world.
  • A keen zest for learning and for life.
  • Skillful training, coaching, and mentoring before and throughout one’s career.
  • Access to, and the ability to use, a varied array of learning resources.
  • Self-respect, which can be translated into a respect for other people as they are, not as we would like them to be. Teachers must put people in touch with gifts and talents they may not know they have, and help them use these gifts wisely.
  • Substantial knowledge not only of content, but also of processes—the ability to think, to communicate in various ways, to collaborate with others, make solid decisions, and so forth.

The ability to model for learners the kind of behaviors, attitudes, emotions, and perceptions that will help them meet high standards for being and behaving in the world.

Clearly, these are only some of the attributes that “qualify” a quality teacher. The act of good teaching is always in a state of becoming, never of being. There is always more to learn.

Cynthia A. Barnes
Center for Community College Policy
Denver, Colo.

To the Editor:

Students, nowadays, need someone to show them passion as well as firmness. They need to be understood and guided to the safety of the shore of life.

Quala Secondary School
Sidon, Lebanon

To the Editor:

Would Patrick F. Bassett make the same comments he did in “Searching for Great Teachers” about a medical doctor or a lawyer? Teachers are trained professionals. Character and passion do make a difference, but those traits alone do not a “great teacher” make.

Gregory Rossing
Yokohama International School
Yokohama, Japan

To the Editor:

Ah, but to ask the question “Is ‘high quality’ the same as ‘highly qualified?’,” we must first agree on how we are defining “effective” and “high quality,” mustn’t we? What is the end result of teaching that we desire? Only when we have decided this can we talk about how to best achieve it.

If we are defining “effective, high-quality” teaching as teaching that readies students to pass standardized tests that will make the school appear to be doing a whiz-bang job, keeping the administration and community pacified via test scores—well, then, probably teacher training can be lauded as pivotal. You can fairly easily train teachers to churn out test- takers.

If, however, we are defining “effective, high-quality” teaching as the kind of teaching that excites students to become lifelong learners, invokes curiosity, sparks creative thinking and problem-solving, and builds the great minds of a new generation—well, that can’t be measured on a standardized test. And it isn’t the kind of teaching that comes from books and coursework. Not that it can’t be cultivated. But that kind of teaching does demand a passion and verve that may, indeed, be as much nature as nurture.

Frankly, I believe that most policymakers and community members will say that they want the latter kind of teaching, but are more than content if we give them the test- takers.

Lisa Renard
Stafford, Va.

To the Editor:

A high-quality teacher must hold a passion for learning and an ability to communicate that passion to children and adults alike. Great teachers must be willing and able to work collaboratively to build their professional community, and they must be ready to take a stand for the best interests of their students and their schools.

One of the most important qualities for an effective teacher is to demonstrate leadership, and one of the most important traits of a strong leader is the ability to listen carefully.

These qualities can be developed and nurtured in a good teacher education and induction program, but they must be present to some degree, perhaps deep within a person, before they can emerge in the process of developing as a teacher.

John B. Ashbaugh
California Polytechnic State University
San Luis Obispo, Calif.


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