Education Letter to the Editor

Letters To the Editor

November 30, 1994 10 min read

A.F.T. Supports Public Charter Schools, Not Private Ones

To the Editor:

In the Nov. 9, 1994, issue of Education Week, in an article reporting the Michigan court decision on charter schools (related story ), you incorrectly state that the American Federation of Teachers is opposed to charter schools.

In fact, the A.F.T. supports charter schools that are public, properly structured, and produce new and innovative educational programs that meet the needs of students. In Minnesota, California, and Michigan, teachers have started charter schools that are models for other schools and programs. The A.F.T. supports these teachers and their efforts to change public schools.

What the American Federation of Teachers does oppose is the use of public money to fund private schools. Where charter schools are used in that fashion, the A.F.T. will oppose them.

Had your reporter asked what the organization’s position was, he would have reported that the American Federation of Teachers supports and represents some of the most creative charter schools operating today.

Joan A. Buckley
Assistant Director
Educational Issues Department
American Federation of Teachers
Washington, D.C.

Telecommunications Can Be Network for ‘Scaling Up’

To the Editor:

The first article in your series “Scaling Up: Bringing Good Schools to Every Community” (related story) addressed a topic of great importance--the complexity of the process of change in educational reform--and made several significant statements that bear revisiting.

Your statements that “the most promising results have come from the networks of like-minded educators” and that “thousands of schools remain unserved” cause me to wonder about the role of telecommunications technology in both teacher and student education.

If reformers are trying “to reach large numbers of schools and teachers and citizens,” what better method than by using an established technology (the telephone) and “re-purposing” it to implement change?

Many prognosticators have indicated that the world of today’s children will be vastly different from ours. Some say that the amount of information in the world doubles every 2« years. Yet it takes the average high school science textbook three to four years or more to get to print.

Recently, on the Internet, I was able to view scenes of the meteor collisions on Jupiter four hours after they happened. Last month, due to a remarkable project at Branson School in Ross, Calif., middle school and high school students were able to speak with scientists aboard the space shuttle in real time. During a recent dinosaur investigation, my 1st-grade students were able to consult “Dr. Dino,” a paleontologist in Cleveland, to answer their questions, via the Internet.

These authentic sources of information are tools and experiences that no textbook could replicate and that require cross-curricular as well as technical skills to be used in accessing them.

The cover story of the October 1994 issue of Electronic Learning magazine states in bold print, “National standards will leave our children in the dark without the true integration of technology.” As the description of Piscataquis Community High School indicates, teachers (both pre-service and in-service) must be given training “in how to use technology and new forms of instruction.” They must also be permitted to explore learning in an arena of integrated study that allows for the teaching of understanding rather than the coverage of content. Assessment then must also undergo exploration and change.

Moving from skills-based curriculum and assessment to that which attempts to teach and assess conceptual understanding will require informing more than just the teachers and administration. The entire spectrum of the educational community must be involved in the discourse.

Howard Gardner’s point that this kind of fundamental change has to be understood by the larger community, including parents, is a certain cry for greater exposure and dialogue. The Internet can be this forum and a virtual wealth of free dissemination.

None of us truly understands what the future marketplace will be like for our children, yet we cannot ignore predictions that 90 percent of the jobs that today’s kindergartner will be applying for in the 21st century have yet to be invented. In this light, we must prepare ourselves and our students to be lifelong “knowledge workers,” capable of knowing what sources might be accessed to find information, sifting through the findings, then making judgments, inferences, and decisions regarding interpretation. Technology will be inexorably combined with research due to the passing of the textbook as the primary source of information.

We must recognize how technology will impact the various dis-ciplines of learning and avail ourselves of its power to affect the reformation of our schools. We must also facilitate dialogue between all concerned parties and the expression of thought. Telecommunications can be the “network” that your article refers to.

Pamela Redmond
Department of Education
College of Notre Dame
Belmont, Calif.

Public Versus Private: ‘Plant a Hundred Flowers’

To the Editor:

In her Commentary, Judith S. Glazer says that the Hartford, Conn., school district was “sold” to a private firm, Education Alternatives Inc. (related story ). Has she read the contract? It deals exclusively with business-management functions which can be streamlined to good effect. School staff members, the Hartford superintendent, and the local school board are still in full control.

Wisely, the Connecticut Department of Education has decided not to interfere. Also wisely, the department sponsors its own school-improvement programs of the more conventional sort. The “equity and excellence,” “enhancement,” and “priority schools” initiatives are recently enacted programs that have encountered some successes but some failures, too.

Ms. Glazer further complains about the amount of money E.A.I. will control--$171 million. It is a large sum, but far, far less than the amounts spent on the three state programs named above. It is high time to see if someone else can do better, or as well, for less money.

The logic of Ms. Glazer’s arguments is that all the wisdom about school improvement lies in the public sector. Private initiatives are bad, by their nature. Where test scores are low and schooling costs high, this “logic” has not proven to be compelling. In Hartford and other urban centers, education reformers are quite rightly implementing a full array of new ideas, including a few experimental privatizations. The best interest of poor children is uppermost in reformers’ minds. To say otherwise is to imply that the publicly elected officials Ms. Glazer claims to trust are really deceitful.

I have no fixed view as to whether E.A.I. will improve Hartford schools in the final analysis. But I do say this: In education reform, let us plant a hundred flowers. Let us judge not by the source of the seed but by the beauty of the blooms.

Thomas H. Jones
Professor of Education
University of Connecticut
Storrs, Conn.

Intergenerational Learning: How About Some Examples?

To the Editor:

Your recent Commentary on linking senior citizens with the schools was ridiculous (related story ). The authors, Jane Angelis and Lisa Wathen, pine for “involving older adults,” but never suggest what the old folks can do to help teachers. Then they subtly chide teachers for seeing a possible “intergenerational infrastructure” as an “added burden” rather than the “natural component” that it should be.

Now, you probably couldn’t find a single person on the entire continent to tell you that the young shouldn’t be exposed to the old. It’s a good idea, everyone agrees, to expose the young to the old and vice versa. But can it be done in the schools? If so, how? Will old people teach classes? Will they work as teachers’ aides? Will they wander around in the cafeteria, randomly grabbing kids by the arm and lecturing them on the Great Depression and the invention of the television? What will they do?

How absurd, all this talk about “intergenerational infrastructure” is without a single example of an “intergenerational” classroom interaction. More than absurd, it’s insulting that the essay--ever-so-gently, of course--faults teachers for failing at the same tasks it has obviously failed at: Finding a practical way to make community elders useful to both teachers and students, and entice these elders to wade into public classrooms.

David R. Murray
Curriculum Review
Chicago, Ill.

Besides Money, Reform Needs ‘Change Process’ Knowledge

To the Editor:

You have had two articles on Making Schools Work: Improving Performance and Controlling Costs, the recent 195-page Brookings Institution report (related story ; related story ).

In one of these articles, you report that both the Brookings book and a study with opposite conclusions carried in the April 1994 issue of the journal Educational Researcher focused on the expenditure of funds and student achievement in schools. Unfortunately, the more basic concepts and ideas regarding organizational innovation, documented for nearly a quarter-century, have been largely overlooked by the opposing factions.

An innovation is any new idea, practice, or material artifact perceived to be new by the adopting organization. Every change in a school or district is an innovation that must be developed, implemented, and incorporated into the organization.

In their 1971 study, Implementing Organizational Innovations, Neal Gross, Joseph B. Ciacquinta, and Marilyn Bernstein identified five conditions that must be present during the implementation phase of an innovation:

  • A clear understanding of the innovation by organizational members.
  • The adequate skill of organizational members to make the changes demanded of them by the innovation.
  • The materials and resources required to implement the change.
  • The compatibility and flexibility of the organization’s existing structure with the innovation.
  • The willingness of the staff to expend the time and effort to implement the innovation.

Clear support and understanding of the innovation by management also must be demonstrated if the innovation is to be ultimately incorporated into the organizational structure, the researchers showed.

Over 20 years later, my own analysis of “quality circles” in suburban Long Island school districts again highlighted the need for the same specific conditions to be present during the implementation of an innovation. The research demonstrated that there was a lack of clarity among quality-circle members about quality circles (the techniques used and how circles functioned) at some sites. Where there was clarity, the circles survived. Where there was confusion, they eventually ceased to exist. The lack of adequate training in the quality-circle philosophy and techniques led to extensive problems at the various sites and eventually to the demise of some of the circles.

In addition, some circles found the larger school organization to be inflexible to the needs and functioning of the circle. Over time, many of the initial members of the circle movement left the circle, exhausted and concerned that the effort was not appreciated by management. Ultimately, quality circles ceased to function at three of the four sites. The one site where they survived had management support, adequate staff training, a clarity of purpose, and an organization that supported the circle movement.

Programs and procedures developed to improve student achievement (whether it be reduced class size, a Reading Recovery program, or an improved portfolio-evaluation process) must meet the conditions identified by Neal Gross and his colleagues in 1971. Your Oct. 12, 1994, article stated that the Brookings Institution views the improper handling of students by the teacher in a smaller-sized class to be ineffective. I agree. However, without determining which of the aforementioned conditions identified in 1971 have been met or not met, the discussion of the expenditure of funds is a moot point.

The calls for more experimentation on the part of schools by factions on both sides of the expenditure issue also fail to address the more fundamental issue of educators’ understanding the change process and using it to alter the educational milieu in which they function. The history of education reform is full of partial successes and wholesale failures. Close scrutiny of those reform movements at the implementation level will lead the researcher back to the facilitators and barriers identified in 1971.

Sadly, school reform will continue to be partial successes and wholesale failures until the basic concepts of change and the change process are made to be the heart and soul of all reform movements.

Brian M. De Sorbe
Wyandanch Union Free School District
Wyandanch, N.Y.

A version of this article appeared in the November 30, 1994 edition of Education Week as Letters To the Editor