Education Letter to the Editor


March 17, 2004 23 min read
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Grievance List Grows In Reading Protest

I want to thank Education Week for representing accurately my reasons for protesting G. Reid Lyon’s being showcased at the International Reading Association awards gala in Reno, Nev., in May (“Father of ‘Whole Language’ Rallying Against Reading-Group Speaker,” March 3, 2004). One thing that wasn’t mentioned is my outrage at Mr. Lyon’s publicly stated desire to “blow up the colleges of education.” That remark came shortly after three members of the college nursing faculty at my university were murdered as they worked, so I don’t take such threats of terrorism as jokes.

Ironically, in the same issue, you carried a story of how $1.5 million for a study to see whether America’s colleges of education teach reading and math based on scientific evidence was snuck into an unrelated bill in Congress and passed (“Congress Orders Thorough Study of Teacher Education Programs,” March 3, 2004).

Your article quotes unnamed sources as saying that this was the work of G. Reid Lyon. He is still trying to virtually blow up the teachers colleges.

The Union of Concerned Scientists recently protested how the Bush administration is shaping science for political ends. This “study” is an example, as was the National Reading Panel, of Mr. Lyon’s role in forcing a one-size-fits-all reading and math methodology on the nation’s schools in the name of science.

Ken Goodman
Tucson, Ariz.

To the Editor:

So, G. Reid Lyon, who not long ago said he believed the schools of education should be blown up, now wants to develop standards and norms and professionalize the nation’s teacher-preparation efforts.

I presume he thinks that current teacher preparation has no standards or norms, and that no one working in the colleges of education is a professional.

Top- down stupidity surrounding education has reached new highs in Washington, while those of us in the classrooms are struggling to hold things together in the face of unprecedented interference and outright attacks from people such as Mr. Lyon.

He and U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige, following the Bush agenda, have polarized our field like never before.

Shame on them.

Miles Gullingsrud
La Quinta, Calif.

Some Are Too Busy For ‘Reading Wars’

To the Editor:

There are so many people laboring every day in urban schools across the country, trying to rescue children and youths challenged by family and financial circumstances. Personally, I don’t know of anyone working in these circumstances who spends much time engaged in the bickering and polemics surrounding the so- called “reading wars.”

Truth be told, while some of our national leaders argue about how to teach reading, many schoolchildren are slipping through the widening cracks in the academic pipeline and, as a consequence, are losing hope. They cry out to adults, to educators, and to communities for leadership and help—but their voices continue to be drowned out by the cacophony of special interests.

It is in this context of the real-world circumstances of urban education reform that I write. My words should not be read as slamming the reputations of Kenneth Goodman, who I dearly appreciate for all that he contributes to reading theory and practice, or of G. Reid Lyon, who, based on speeches I have heard, remains earnest in his attempts to improve schooling in this country. What I decry is the time lost engaged in these arguments—no matter how well-intentioned.

Based on my experience working in partnership with urban school districts, it is not the reading pedagogy or the reading program used that makes a difference in the lives of students. What makes a difference is the teacher: the skills that he or she brings to the classroom that can translate theory into practice, that can integrate high standards, sound pedagogy, and good content into teaching mediations to accelerate learning. The research is clear that the teacher remains the single most important school-based factor in terms of student achievement. Borrowing from the effective catchphrase of BASF commercials, “school-based practitioners don’t make the reading programs, we just make them better.”

I might add that a few of us have had the good fortune of being trained by Dorothy Strickland (also mentioned in your article) during our doctoral studies at Teachers College, Columbia University. This is where the ideas of “balanced literacy” methods first emerged for us, and where we were challenged to maintain an unshakable belief in the capacity of all students to succeed at the highest levels.

To test the application of teaching methods with high expectations, all we had to do was walk a few blocks from campus to schools in Harlem. There we were able, using the broad principles of balanced literacy (a blend of phonics and whole language), together with other methodologies, to break the academic ceiling for inner-city children.

Rather than pointing fingers and playing education’s version of the “gotcha” game, can we not remember that, in respect to reform, we are primarily talking about the education of children of color who live in poverty? The arguments between leaders such as Mr. Goodman and Mr. Lyon never take hold in affluent communities. Why do we continue to tinker with the educational experiences of those most in need?

Eric J. Cooper
National Urban Alliance for Effective Education
Lake Success, N.Y.

Atlanta Superintendent Notes Error in Essay

To the Editor:

A grievous error appeared in the Commentary section of Education Week‘s March 3, 2004, edition. The Commentary written by Steve Rees, the president and publisher of School Wise Press (“Accountability-Reporting Hurdles”), falsely accused the Atlanta Public Schools of “cooking the books” and went on to compare the system with the Houston Independent School District.

At no time has the Atlanta public school system been charged with, or investigated for, distorting or misreporting school or student data of any kind. Mr. Rees’ Commentary makes this implication, which is patently false.

As the chief official of a company that purports to “help educators and parents make sense of school facts,” it is unfortunate that Mr. Rees made statements that were not thoroughly researched. And it is just as unfortunate that a respected newspaper like Education Week would publish such an unsubstantiated report.

As an urban school system, our students, teachers, principals, staff members, and administrators deal with myriad challenges. In spite of this fact, the Atlanta public school system and its students have made verifiable steady, incremental progress in all facets of school life—from student academic achievement, to the improvement of school system facilities, technology, and operations.

With all the challenges that we face, we should not also have the added burden of looking out for fictitious reports published by a leading education publication. This is a professional embarrassment that should not be taken lightly by the education community.

Beverly L. Hall
Atlanta Public Schools
Atlanta, Ga.

School Social Workers Provide Depression Aid

To the Editor:

In my role as a secondary-level school social worker, I want to thank Education Week for bringing attention to the impact of child and adolescent depression on the school environment (“Lifelong Battle,” On Assignment, Feb. 11, 2004). Depression is most certainly a major problem affecting students with poor coping skills. I support your assertion that “many students could benefit from school-based mental-health programs,” and can attest to the barriers that block the provision of these services.

One glaring omission to this article, however, is the exclusion of school social-work professionals as members on school-based mental-health teams. After all, social workers provide the majority of mental-health services in various settings nationwide. School social-work professionals work collaboratively with school counselors and school psychologists in many school districts as members of multidisciplinary mental-health teams. Much of the time, a school social worker’s main responsibility is to provide assessment and intervention to students for emotional, social, psychiatric, and family issues.

Evan Shussett
East Amherst, N.Y.

Teaching Shortcuts Mean ‘Dumbing Down’

To the Editor:

Shame on the state of Georgia, which will soon permit people to teach after passing just three written tests and earning a college major in a subject they want to teach (“Georgia Panel Eases Path to Becoming a Teacher,” Feb. 25, 2004).

What’s next in this race to “dumb down” teacher-certification programs under the guise of getting “qualified” teachers into the classroom? There’s a shortage of nurses in America, too; maybe we can get more nurses into operating rooms more quickly by having them pass three written tests and earn, say, an undergraduate major in botany. Lawyers? Architects? We’ll think up a shortcut for them, too.

But the more that I, a trainer of teachers for 30 years, think about this, the more I see that there is plenty of blame to go around: outdated, irrelevant university teacher-training programs; national education accreditation agencies that continue to overlook recent trends, but have burdened educators with enormous amounts of useless paperwork; and state and local governments that do not sufficiently support education.

Is it any wonder why the No Child Left Behind Act’s “highly qualified teacher” requirement was conceived by politicos in Washington? Is it any wonder that alternative-route teachers quit faster than conventionally trained classroom teachers?

Peter Incardone
Department of Literacy Education
New Jersey City University
Jersey City, N.J.

Training Won’t Do for ‘Noblest of Professions’

To the Editor:

As I read Ellen Condliffe Lagemann’s thoughtful Commentary “Toward a Strong Profession,” (Feb. 25, 2004), several questions about our profession’s demeanor came to mind. Among them were the following:

  • Why have we shirked our duty to establish a theoretical and practical knowledge base?
  • Why haven’t the differentiated purposes, characteristics, ways of thinking, and behaviors inherent in each of the four distinctive schooling acts called teaching, instructing, educating, and training been identified and instilled in our professionals?
  • Why have we failed to develop our own special, incorruptible professional language and lexicon for communicating professional ideas, directing action, promoting psychosocial interaction, and strengthening our community of scholars and practitioners?
  • Why have we avoided establishing a guild—a dedicated brotherhood of men and women that honors its noble vocation (calling), behaves as a benevolent craft of art and science with standards and norms, fulfills its duties with dignity, and fixes the criteria for admission, evaluation, and dismissal?
  • Why do we, the “noblest of professions,” willingly give away our intrinsic powers and prerogatives to politicians, religious leaders, lawyers, entrepreneurs, textbook and media executives, technologists, test makers, and individual parents?
  • Why have we, a human-services profession, evaded a universal code of ethics that would clearly state our raison d'être and accountabilities, control member behavior, oblige us to “do no harm,” establish reparations if harm occurs, and require our signatures as agreement and adherence?
  • Why haven’t we demanded consistent leadership that inspires our nobility, defends us against enemies, and warns us of our errors of commission and omission?

I believe these questions must be unabashedly answered and our acts of will acknowledged, confronted, and resolved. Then, and only then, can rectification be made, true reform follow, and Ms. Lagemann’s concerns be addressed.

Anthony F. Gregorc
Columbia, Conn.

To the Editor:

Yes, Dean Lagemann, we do want a strong profession, but I am not so sure I want to be guided by physicians or lawyers or business executives in this pursuit. I would rather we look to Donald Schon’s work on reflective practice (The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action, 1983) to identify the kind of thinking and action that teachers engage in.

I do not know about Harvard University’s graduate school of education, but here at the City University of New York, we are already being guided by a set of standards and norms, as defined by the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education and our process to become nationally certified.

If teacher-educators continue to define what we do as “training,” as you do, then I cannot imagine that we will ever attain a genuinely strong professional status. Animals are trained. Teachers think in and reflect on action.

Nancy Lester

Professor of Literacy Education
Medgar Evers College
City University of New York
New York, N.Y.

Writer on Small Schools ‘Disappointed’ by Finn

To the Editor:

I’m disappointed with Chester E. Finn Jr. (“Small-Schools Bipartisanship,” Letters, Jan. 7, 2004). There has always been a take-no-prisoners quality to his often- incisive critiques of public education. But I have never known him to resort to attacking an analysis by accusing the author of fabrications. Alas, in his response to my Dec. 3, 2003, Commentary on the small-schools movement (“Small Schools, Big Ideas”), Mr. Finn repeatedly charged that I “concocted” my suggestion that leading conservative school reformers aren’t pleased with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s investment of hundreds of millions of dollars in the so-called small-schools movement.

His charge is misplaced. There were several sources for my observation, including a long conversation on the subject that I had last summer with Frederick M. Hess, the director of educational policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative-leaning Washington-based think tank. Mr. Hess is also an executive editor of Education Next, a conservative education journal funded in part by Mr. Finn’s organization. Mr. Finn is the magazine’s senior editor.

Mr. Hess made a point I have heard a number of conservative reformers make when he declared that “it is naive and utopian to think that creating small schools alone, without attending to questions like hiring, staffing, leadership, choice, and accountability, will produce systemic improvement.”

“Unless it addresses these issues, the Gates effort isn’t going to amount to much” he said. “Any school reformer who thinks that school size is a cure-all resides in a zone of wishful thinking.”

I’m pleased that Mr. Finn saw fit in his letter to endorse the central premise of the small-schools movement: that “vast, anonymous educational institutions don’t work for many children,” that there’s a human side to school reform. But character assassination is an unbecoming form of discourse, and Mr. Finn is far too talented to engage in it.

Thomas Toch
Washington, D.C.

The ‘Terrorist’ Charge

Reactions to Secretary Paige’s Remarks About the NEA

To the Editor:

The comments by U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige likening the National Education Association to a “terrorist organization” reveal his real attitudes about (and disdain for) teachers and the educational community (“Furor Lingers Over Paige’s Union Remark,” March 3, 2004.)

The many attempts by the U.S. Department of Education to discredit public education via the unrealistic and unattainable goals of the No Child Left Behind Act continue to take a toll nationally. That federal legislation’s demoralizing and degrading effect upon the efforts of hundreds of thousands of underpaid and overworked educators will lead to a national disaster. There appears to be a hidden agenda at work, and we have Secretary Paige to thank for shedding some light on this by sharing his inner thoughts with us.

When the leader of the Department of Education fails to inspire the educational professionals who serve this nation, it is only sensible that he reconsider his role. When he insults those professionals, it is time to step down. Secretary Paige should and must resign. Maybe one of the “terrorists” at the NEA could do a better job?

Charles Maranzano
Virginia Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development
Charlottesville, Va.

To the Editor:

I have been called many things in my life. First, I was called daughter, then sister. Later, I became wife, then mother, and now, grandmother. For 30 years, I have been blessed to be called “teacher.” I am proud of all my titles, and I have worked hard to make my family and my profession proud. I take my responsibility to the community in which I teach very seriously, and I want the best for every child and family I serve.

Imagine my surprise when U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige called the members of my professional organization a terrorist group. He later amended that to refer only to the National Education Association leadership, but as the president of the Kansas NEA, I guess that still makes me a terrorist. My husband laughed at the thought of me—a middle-aged elementary school teacher—actually scaring anyone, but I suppose that after 32 years of marriage he’s just used to me.

I would have thought that Secretary Paige, as head of the U.S. Department of Education and a one-time superintendent, would be used to dealing with teachers. He should know that teachers will talk and talk and talk about the needs of their students and their classrooms. Sometimes, teachers just won’t be quiet.

If the secretary wants to promote federal legislation that changes how each and every classroom in America will operate, then we teachers—the people who do that work—expect to be consulted. If he puts together over 1,000 pages of federal rules and regulations with no input from the states and the classrooms, then he shouldn’t be surprised if teachers have a lot to say about it.

But Secretary Paige, in his retraction, tells us he is guilty only of a “poor choice of words” in his quest for an honest discussion.

Mr. Secretary, I would love to have an honest discussion. But I think an honest discussion will only happen when the administration stops calling those who disagree “whiners,” “obstructionists,” and “terrorists.”

Christy Levings
Kansas National Education Association
Osawatomie, Kan.

To the Editor:

U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige’s comments are extremely distressing, particularly when they seem to reflect the administration’s overall attitude of “if you’re not with us, you’re against us.”

From an educational viewpoint, one would have to surmise that the administration really doesn’t want us to be educating children for critical- thinking, problem-solving, and analytical skills. Indeed, the administration seems to be endeavoring to squelch precisely these attributes when adults apply them to real-world issues.

Linda De Grand
Raleigh, N.C.

To the Editor:

First, citizens who disagreed with government policies following 9/11 were labeled unpatriotic by some members of the Bush administration. Now, teachers who disagree with the president’s burdensome No Child Left Behind Act are similarly accused.

U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige, who “sexed up” his own “Texas miracle” performance in Houston with faulty intelligence, must be confusing my yellow No. 2 pencils with that yellowcake stuff from Africa. As a teacher and as an American, I am deeply offended and somewhat frightened by his remark. To which terrorist organization does Secretary Paige think I belong? Al Gradea?

Arthur C. Norman
Springfield Middle School
Providence, R.I.

To the Editor:

I’m an educator but am not in a union. I agree with U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige. I believe that all unions have only their own selfish interests at heart, drive prices up, and fight quality in every business in which they exist.

History shows that, early on, unions were worthwhile organizations that worked hard to improve working conditions for employees. Today, they are bully organizations that go beyond the scope of their original purpose. It seems, for example, that some teachers’ unions aim to protect tenured teachers who are “sailing along” until retirement and doing little in the way of teaching. Teachers’ unions are also protecting their own interests by lobbying to force a leftist agenda (such as teaching homosexuality in schools, providing contraceptives for students, and other agenda items that belong in the home and with the parents).

The National Education Association is wrong: We do owe the American public accountability. We’ve had it in Texas for years now, and have seen vast academic improvement for all students, particularly those from low- socioeconomic households, where schools make the most difference for children. And, yes, Texas teachers fought such accountability at first because it was “change.” We were afraid we would have to work harder (we do, but the payoff is nice).

No one likes change, but our accountability system has forced educators here to pay attention to all children, and thus provide a more equitable education. Teachers in Texas have been working hard to close gaps in student achievement, and we are getting there. This improvement would never have happened, though, without the government’s push.

Teachers’ unions need to get on board and work with the changes enacted in the federal legislation, rather than fight them. The overall purpose is the education of all children at the highest levels. How can any educator with a good conscience fight that concept?

Pam Ziolkowski
Plano, Texas

To the Editor:

I couldn’t help but imagine how the teachers in New York City must have felt after hearing U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige’s remarks. How sad that, when a major figure in public education wants to make a point, he chooses to use language that causes so much pain and distress to the members of the teaching profession as well as to the general public. Explaining after the fact that he should have chosen a better way to express himself is “too little, too late” in my book.

Ann Saneholtz
Highline Public School District
Seattle, Wash.

To the Editor:

Get over it. ... I’m sick of politics and petty semantics. What’s important here is the welfare of the students of this country, not some regrettable remark made by a public figure. I’ve made many remarks in my life that I now regret. So I won’t be throwing any stones at Secretary Paige. But I guess that some in our profession are more righteous than I.

Sharon Murton
Lakewood High School
Lakewood, Ohio

To the Editor:

In his remarks, U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige denigrated America’s teachers at a time of great struggle. Teachers are working hard to overcome reduced budgets, increased class sizes, growing lists of mandates, and reduced funding.

Once, we were on our way to making great strides in education through reform. But regrettably, progress is now being turned back by an administration that would prefer publicly subsidized private education. Public education needs more capital to do the important work we do each day for all our students. Instead, we see that the nation of Iraq and the executives of Halliburton will benefit from an incredible $87 billion in aid. Where is our investment in America’s public schools?

Philip Conrad
Hamilton Wenham Regional High School
Hamilton, Mass.

To the Editor:

While I am not a strong advocate of teachers’ unions, because of the many impediments they put in place to block progress in moving teaching forward as a true profession, U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige’s comments were extreme, and very detrimental to the morale of educators, especially considering the death and destruction resulting from the actions of real terrorists.

Sherry Samples
North Kansas City School District
Kansas City, Mo.

To the Editor:

“Terrorist” is an inapt term to apply to the National Education Association. However, like terrorist organizations, the NEA likes to hide its finances from others, most notably its own members.

Phil Pearson
Fulton Middle School
Van Nuys, Calif.

To the Editor:

We should be able to distinguish between the thousands of hardworking teachers who raise good questions about the No Child Left Behind Act and U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige’s criticism of the tactics of the National Education Association. It seemed obvious, even before Secretary Paige’s clarification, that he was not referring to teachers as “terrorists.”

I am ashamed of the NEA (not the teachers in it) and lament the inevitable connection between my profession and this union. I detect little concern in the organization for the needs of students. It only seems concerned with maintaining the status quo of failing schools and guaranteeing the employment of failing teachers. Every political position taken by the union is colored by these concerns and therefore is suspect, since the NEA agenda determines the organization’s answer to any question.

I applaud education’s movement toward accountability, even if a perfect solution has not yet been developed, either in state testing or in the federal No Child Left Behind Act. These efforts must be refined and improved, but they are steps in the right direction. I only wish there were ways to demand (and enforce) parental accountability as well.

Sandra Johnson
Chemistry Teacher
The Covenant School
Charlottesville, Va.

To the Editor:

Perhaps U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige’s remarks were overstating the case. But the problem from where I sit is that the teachers’ unions seem to want to ignore any positive aspects of the No Child Left Behind Act. And they want teachers to share their agenda.

Educators, however, have greater perspective. For instance, superintendents are tackling very real problems in the area of rural education. At the same time, some union leaders are urging teachers to sue to stop the formation of online education that meets the needs of rural students. This is very unfair to the rural communities of our nation.

All the unions want is to sue for a halt to any positive or proactive approaches to teaching sets of students who until now have not been receiving an adequate education.

Most teachers are pretty darn smart when it comes to solving educational problems. All too often, it is because of unions’ traditional approaches to problem-solving that teachers’ own ideas are forced under the rug.

To ask Secretary Paige to resign is silly. The problems of our beleaguered education system are already out of the bag.

Mary Neal Hudgins
Capella University
Minneapolis, Minn.

To the Editor:

U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige’s comments were a cheap shot. Personally, I see the No Child Left Behind Act as a failed political initiative, and I think many other educators share my opinion.

Teachers’ unions represent those educators who are living with this federal education reform in the classroom and know firsthand what works and what doesn’t. I think it would be wiser for the secretary to listen to and work with the unions than to resort to name-calling.

Besides, I’m not ready to give up my career in education to take up arms with the terrorists—even though they probably do have better funding.

Dolly Rickerman
NEA Member
Fayetteville State University
Fayetteville, N.C.

To the Editor:

Many readers of my local newspaper agreed wholeheartedly with U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige’s remarks. In fact, they offered him their prayers to keep “telling it like it is.” But as a teacher who is currently being seriously “abused” by an arbitrary and capricious principal, with the support of the district administrators and school board members, I can only say, “Thank God for unions.”

No, unions are not perfect, but they offer the only recourse for victims of “teacher abuse,” by curtailing what would be the unbridled power of administrators and boards. For all of those teachers who are having or have had trouble with their unions, I have this suggestion: Think about the alternatives, more job insecurity, for one.

Even though my union has fought very hard for me, with its efforts resulting in an arbitration victory, my district has decided to waste precious resources by challenging the arbitrator’s decision in court. We await the judge’s decision.

But whatever the judge’s final decision is, I can say with certainty—no, I will shout it— that my union deserves nothing but praise and thanks for its support. Long live all teachers’ unions.

Vernetta Northcutt
Vallejo, Calif.


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