Education Letter to the Editor

Letters to the Editor

November 01, 1993 17 min read

Rebel Mom

Peg Luksik certainly “walloped’’ Pennsylvania’s outcome-based education plan [“Rebel Mom,’' October], but Harrisburg’s worst enemy was Harrisburg itself. The state board of education completely failed to arm its own natural allies.

I attended a state-sponsored workshop on outcome-based education and heard no fewer than four “noted experts’’ present completely different plans. Nobody seems to be able to articulate what the damn thing is!

Never mind the problems that creates for those of us who will have to implement it. In the state’s battle with the conservative opposition, those of us who might have been grass-roots troops on the front lines were left to offer such useful observations as, “Well, uh, I don’t know, uh, exactly what it is, but it is sort of....’'

Peg Luksik may have punted the ball out of the park, but the bureaucrats in Harrisburg are the ones who dropped it in the first place.

Peter Greene
Cochranton, Pa.

I feel sure that “Rebel Mom’’ will strike most readers as a glorification of Peg Luksik. The frontcover picture, the three other pictures, and a generally sympathetic article by Lonnie Harp (with a hooray-for-her headline and subhead) all add up to praise and support. The commendable editor’s note, “Less Heat, More Light’’ [“Connections’’], notwithstanding, most readers will probably come away prepared to scold Pennsylvania, dismiss William Spady (who is, in my view, a great educator on a great mission) as some kind of threat to children and families, and continue to applaud the right-wing (and other) conservatives as they seek to bring the schools back to the “right’’ (i.e., their) values.

t is sad that so many apparently decent people, such as Luksik, go off the wall when topquality educators are attempting to get urgently needed changes into the schools. Tellingly, she got started by fighting sex education, although you would think that her praiseworthy efforts to help single mothers would have raised her consciousness about the need for sex education. Then she goes after the Pennsylvania reform plan (which Harp portrays as a “plan hatched within the education bureaucracy of Pennsylvania’’). We are told that Luksik “walloped the state pretty good’’ and that school reformers who seek to guarantee “that every child will master each subject and in the process learn an appreciation of certain state-defined values’’ will find Luksik in the thick of the fight.

Leaving the values issues to more qualified philosophers and observers, I am uncomfortable with the notion that schools should not seek to clarify what they are trying to accomplish with American kids and that goals such as higher-order thinking, independent and collaborative learning, adaptation to change, ethics, appreciating others, and self-worth are somehow Orwellian or Satanic. When it is pointed out that conservative Christian groups seem to be especially agitated about “reforms’’ such as outcome-based education, I am really puzzled because in my own long life within the Christian tradition, I have always assumed that God wanted me and those around me to possess and then put to good use the skills that outcome-based education and related educational “causes’’ have sought to promote.

Let me ask you, your readers, and rebellious parents such as Luksik a few questions. Is it not the kinds of schooling that you advocate--predominant over the past 150 years--that have brought America into its sorry state? Are you not blowing smoke when you talk about all of the “reforms’’ that have failed in the past? (From my vantage point, none of them made much of a dent in the traditional educational system.) If outcome-based education and other systems were given a reasonable try, particularly within the current political and cultural climate that recognizes the need for some huge improvements, is it not possible that at long last, American kids would start getting a better education?

If Luksik and her fellow critics want to do some real good for the world, they ought to go after the racism, sexism, bigotry, religious imperialism, greed, corruption, mismanagement, resource-raping, and intolerance that seem so abundant in daily life. Schools may well be among the least contaminated and in some ways most caring institutions that we have left in our society. They obviously need some help, and perhaps a little scolding, but these orchestrated attacks are uncalled for.

Why not, as an option, go after the clergy for their social impotency, or the business and industrial world for its wasteful and inefficient practices, or the health world for its inability to harness costs? Why not ask landlords why slums are not cleaned up or politicians why inner cities have been so often left to rot? Why not do something really significant to counteract the increasing vulgarization of “entertainment’’ in our country?

These problems, unfortunately, can’t be solved easily. A few “nosy mothers’’ can’t get very far on those fronts, it would seem. But attacking improvement- oriented educators (who, ironically, may be the best friends that beleaguered parents have left) is really quite simple. Let’s go hang a few, such as the evil-incarnate William Spady, and the rest will get the message. Hey, Nero: Is your violin ready?

Robert Anderson
Tampa, Fla.

Ronald Wolk’s October “Connections’’ column [“Less Heat, More Light’’] is disingenuous in describing the resistance to outcomebased education as a resistance to the common-sensical notion of measuring success by outcomes, something sane people have always done.

Outcome-based education is far from a simple shift in social technologies but marks the surfacing of a century-long movement to transfer control of hu- man behavior from nature or family or culture into the hands of engineers who serve as agents for the political state.

It is flatly wrong to say state officials “got into trouble’’ for trying to set standards. What they have been doing is trying to manipulate children’s minds and feelings, not only in Pennsylvania but also in Kansas, Michigan, and other test states. The “rebellion,’' as Wolk calls it, is not a rebellion at all but the beginning of a fullscale war. I’ve been privileged to visit, speak, and conduct workshops before 155 groups such as Peg Luksik’s in 42 states over the past 18 months, and I can tell you the quality and determination of the forces gathering to preserve this nation’s uniqueness run the gamut from freethinking MIT professors like Noam Chomsky to housewives like Peg Luksik.

William Spady is right that there is no way to keep values out of the educational process, but a lot of us have made up our minds that the values aren’t going to be his. I hope this clarifies a bit of what “rebel mom’’ is up to.

John Gatto
New York State Teacher of the Year, 1991
New York

Assigning Blame

Your article “The High Price Of Failure’’ [October], about Adele Jones, hit a raw nerve in me, for I, too, experienced some of the same feelings and events, although under different circumstances. I am writing this letter to let Jones know that I am thinking of her and empathize with her.

Administrators often have the mistaken idea that inflated grades give students a sense of success. In reality, it is a hollow success when students become part of the adult world and do not have the skills needed to be successful at their jobs.

Administrators, parents, and students often are quick to believe that students fail because of their teachers. In reality, students cause themselves to fail when they do not accept the responsibility to do their homework or to actively seek help. All students can learn, given the time, by using a variety of study techniques and by actively engaging with the material.

Until it becomes vogue to have students take responsibility for their own learning by reclaiming the work ethic that was the core of our ancestors’ very being, impressive strides in educational improvement will not happen. We teachers already know this.

Administrators and school boards need to know that the best way to befriend our young people and help them be successful is to create an environment in which students are required to take responsibility for their learning. Learning must be of intrinsic importance to students, or the minds and potential of our youth will continue to be wasted and the future of our society placed in great peril.

Virginia Wilcox
Walton, N.Y.

The school year has begun, and the jeremiads bemoaning the parlous state of American public education have been flowing from those who take surveys and gauge knowledge on the basis of criterion-referenced tests.

We have been swamped with much writing about “accountability,’' including the October issue of Teacher Magazine. One solon, who probably has not been inside a classroom for a decade or two, suggests that district funding be based on “achievement’’ rather than by attendance, as presently constituted. This, he claims, will emphasize teacher accountability and provide a basis for judging student progress.

We wonder where criteria for “accountability’’ will be decided. Will it be on the realistic basis of teachers having students for 40 hours of a 168-hour week? Or will teachers also be held “accountable’’ for the time students are out of the classroom and off the school premises?

Shouldn’t accountability be a process shared by in-school and out-of-school environments? Shouldn’t there be some parental accountability for the 128 offcampus hours? Parents could, and should, be at least partially accountable for assignments turned in late or not completed. Some of the “points’’ deducted for late work should be marked up to parental disregard for a lack of serious and concerned attitudes toward the learning process.

Let the pundits pontificate, and let publishers make hay from literature denigrating teacher efforts; then, let them ask themselves how many of the last 128 hours they have devoted to shared accountability. Let them look at their neglect of these hours as carefully as they scrutinize a teacher’s work and grading. If accountability is to be a factor in the judgment of educational progress, let’s share the time and responsibility in an honest search for student growth and progress.

Harry Lawrence
Homer Hanna High School
Brownsville, Texas


David Ruenzel’s review of Stephen Bates’ book Battleground [“Books,’' October] shows that both Ruenzel and Bates haven’t thought deeply enough about inclusion of religious texts in a literature series such as Holt’s.

I’ll accept that the Hawkins County school system mishandled parts of the court case and that there are no easy answers to the whole situation. But Ruenzel seems to find it discriminatory against Christians that “folk tales abounded’’ in the text in question, but “there wasn’t one story from the Bible.’'

Imagine what the people who find secular humanism in Goldilocks would say about having a Bible story in a literature book that includes folk tales.

Many of those who argue for the religious inclusion of Christianity are not worried about our cultural history; they see Bible stories as divine truth. Their “concerns’’ have to be viewed in this context.

Robert King
Center for Teaching and Learning
University of North Dakota
Grand Forks, N.D.

On A Mission

The article “Guiding Light’’ [October], about support groups for Roman Catholic public school teachers, was interesting and informative. As a college instructor of preservice teachers, I have found that the conviction that the role of a teacher is to make a difference in all aspects of a child’s life is a strong component of success and future happiness in the field of education. Knowing that one is making a difference increases motivation, satisfaction, and general job success. A supportive group that begins from this point of view could be invaluable.

The idea that teaching is a form of ministry has long been a part of my thinking and a source of strength when the “going gets tough.’'

We have been given a role in life that involves improving the quality of life for all children. In no other field is this role more evident than in education. Feeding the hungry is completed when we provide information to those who do not have it. The food of knowledge that we give enables students to have the strength and power to positively influence the world in which they live. What greater ministry?

I would be very interested in becoming more familiar with the Teacher Teams described in your article and would appreciate an address I could write to receive more information.

Kathleen Tominc
Associate Professor of Education
Western Wyoming Community College
Rock Springs, Wyo.

Editor’s Note: Teachers wishing to learn more about U.S. Teacher Teams can contact Sharon White- head, National Coordinator, 2215 W. Emelita Ave., Mesa, AZ 85202; (602) 833-2094.

Beyond Saxon

Cheers and applause for giving mathematics education a plug in your September issue [“Math’s Angry Man’’]. It is certainly true that John Saxon has made a contribution to mathematics education. His incremental-development approach has been proven to be successful in raising the skill level of students. However, mathematics in today’s world is much more than learning a skill. Saxon gives mathematics a very narrow framework.

If your magazine would like to give math education a boost, why not write about the University of Chicago School Mathematics Project, headed by Zalman Usisken? This project, which has sought the help of teachers, mathematicians, and business- people, covers the broad scope of mathematics necessary for today’s students to be prepared for tomorrow’s world.

Mary Riehle
Roncalli High School

Soul Searching

I’ve just finished reading the article “Soul Searching’’ [September], by David Ruenzel, and have been reflecting on it. I, too, agree that the issue under discussion is not only school prayer but also society’s morals and values.

As a teacher for the past 18 years, I have learned that the decline of morals and values in society has spread to our schools. Over the years, however, I’ve also seen that my values do make an impact on my students. Day in and day out, my lifestyle teaches my values.

My students have no doubt that I believe in God, have high morals, and attend church regularly. They know these things about me not because I initiate these topics but because I answer their questions on these matters just as I answer their questions on math or geography.

It is possible to teach values and religion to children without breaking the law. Our values and lifestyles, as well as the Constitution, as suggested by Ruenzel, provide an excellent place to begin to bridge the gap between the church and the state.

R.J. Hinton
Beaverton, Ore.

Thank you for the respectful coverage of the “religious right’’ in “Soul Searching.’' I hope such good reporting will help educators figure out why religious peoples and mainstream American parents are so disillusioned with public schools.

Marianne Hering
Associate Editor
Teachers in Focus
Focus on the Family
Colorado Springs, Colo.

Three cheers for “Soul Searching.’' I thought you dealt with the subject fairly.

One comment: The Declaration of Independence states, “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights....’' It is clear that those who established the philosophical foundation for our unique form of government and the rights we enjoy recognized a Creator as granting these rights. When we remove any acknowledgment of this “Giver of Rights’’ from our schools, we undermine the very cornerstone of our democratic society.

Don’t we end up on a slippery slope when in effect we teach our students that the nation’s human and civil rights rest solely on the results of next year’s election or on the next court appointment?

Tony Rossell
Springfield, Va.

Praising Portfolios

I found your recent article on the Vermont Portfolio Project [“Putting Portfolios to the Test,’' September] refreshingly candid and fair. There have been a number of articles, many by Vermonters themselves, lauding the project and neglecting to give the full story. Indeed, all is not well educationally in the Green Mountain State.

Using a scoring system for portfolios is simply leading us in a circle to another kind of test, which can be used to compare school with school. As the article highlights, the strength of the portfolio system is that it has allowed teachers, many for the first time, to really focus on how individual students learn, rather than on their own teaching.

When learning needs are considered first, teaching changes to meet those needs. Some marvelous transformations are occurring in Vermont’s classrooms because of the insights raised through conversations by kids and teachers and parents talking about the learning documented in portfolios.

Teachers are rightly concerned by efforts to quantify portfolios to serve a statewide public accountability function. What “high stakes’’ decisions will be made with the results of this assessment project? When assessment has a regulatory, budgetary, or public relations purpose, it develops a disproportionate influence, and the focus on student learning is lost.

If we cannot find a solution to this dilemma, I predict eventually that teachers in large numbers across the state will refuse to participate in the state’s scoring system. They will remain steadfast in their use of portfolios to focus on student learning but resist the measuring mania demanded by the state. To meet some real or imagined statewide public accountability need, Vermont can--if it must--retain its standardized testing. At the school, classroom, and individual student level, expanding conversations about learning will continue around portfolios. The richness of these conversations will convince parents and other community members of the quality of learning taking place in their local schools. They, too, will see the potential harm of pitting school against school, teacher against teacher, through a contrived scoring system that reduces the complexity of learning to numbers.

The assumption that the citizenry and the legislature are demanding this statewide ranking of schools and districts may be a false one. As people become engaged in discussions about the quality of learning in their local schools, they will satisfy their need for accountability and perhaps discover ways to think about promoting excellent teaching and learning other than the “stick’’ approach.

In Vermont, we know that others are watching this portfolio experiment. It would be unneighborly not to share all that we are learning--our debates as well as our agreements.

When Vermont Commissioner of Education Richard Mills arrived a few years ago, he listened carefully to educators and others about the inadequacy of standardized tests before he decided to initiate the portfolio project. I believe it is time for the policy- makers to put the scoring craze on hold and to return to the listening mode to resolve this current tension. I hope your article will become additional “grist’’ for that debate.

Kenneth Bergstrom
Core Faculty in Teacher Education
Goddard College
Plainfield, Vt.

The Top Trend

I recently subscribed to your magazine and was quite impressed by the commentary “Something Of Value’’ [September], by Mark Kann.

Considering the sad state of affairs in our society, I believe character education will surpass other educational trends. We in education seem to expend our energies on children’s minds, constantly improving curriculum and instruction in reading, writing, mathematics, etc. Unfortunately, developing character (values) in our children is a hit-andmiss proposition. If character education were to assume its rightful role, we would have a systematic curriculum.

Also, the piece on Peg Luksik [“Rebel Mom,’' October] was equally incisive. I nominate this gutsy woman for the “Giraffe of the Year Award.’' She certainly sticks her neck out and has the courage of her convictions.

These are the kinds of articles that are sorely needed in the world of educational publishing. Keep up the good work!

Edward Earley
Professor of Education
Kutztown (Pa.) University

Teacher Magazine welcomes letters. They must include your address and daytime phone number and may be edited for length and clarity. Mail them to: “Letters,’' Teacher Magazine, 4301 Connecticut Ave., N.W., Suite 250, Washington, DC 20008.

A version of this article appeared in the November 01, 1993 edition of Teacher as Letters to the Editor