Education Letter to the Editor

Letters to the Editor

March 30, 1987 18 min read
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Teachers in most states are required to update their knowledge and skills in order to renew their certificates. Perhaps authors (of whatever) should be required to do the same when they write letters about education and schooling.

Samuel L. Blumenfeld (“Meaningless Verbiage’ Masks ‘Humanist’ Agenda of School-Reform Plans,’' May 13, 1987) might begin with “Reflections: 1. Horses’’ in the Aug. 18, 1986, issue of The New Yorker. Here we learn a great deal about the importance of an honest (moral) relationship between the teacher and the taught. In this instance, the “taught’’ are horses who usually give up or go “crazy’’ when this relationship is less than honest and the trainer, in frustration, ultimately resorts to coercion, sometimes in the form of cruelty.

When Mr. Blumenfeld has thought through the moral relationship between trainer and horse, he might want to consider whether some of the same principles apply to the relationship between teacher and child. Here I suggest he examine the clinical experiences and writings of Bruno Bettelheim, who has the temerity to conclude that this relationship often determines whether or not children learn to read beyond the mechanics of the reading act implied by Mr. Blumenfeld.

My colleagues and I happen to believe, as do large numbers of other human beings, that parents should pay at least as much attention to the moral relationship between their children and their children’s teachers as we assume they do to the relationship between their children and their children’s babysitters. For those of us chasing our research tails, as Mr. Blumenfeld dismisses us, our effort to introduce moral imperatives into the dialogue about teacher education are frustrated by authors who believe such not to be important.

Mr. Blumenfeld managed to drag into his letter one more shopworn condemnation of John Dewey. Most serious scholars and researchers of education agree that, whatever the path they choose, they encounter Dewey on his way back.

John I. Goodlad
Professor and Director
Center for Educational Renewal
University of Washington
Seattle, Wash.

In a recent letter, Anthony Fortosis insists, against the evidence, that our public schools promote humanism (“Textbooks Do ‘Promote Humanistic Perspective,’ Says Academic Consultant,’' May 13, 1987).

Of course, some of the content of textbooks coincides with the views of humanists, as expressed in Humanist Manifestoes I (1933) and II (1973). That is not a matter of educators’ adopting humanist positions, but rather is a case of humanists explicitly agreeing with much of modern thought. But those views that distinguish humanists from mainstream Christianity and Judaism are not being promoted in the schools.

Further, the two Humanist Manifestoes are not and were never intended to be “creeds.’' They are simply consensus statements of the individuals who signed them.

Mr. Fortosis’ claim that our schools promote humanism does not square with the fact that our 16,000 local school districts are run by elected boards of local parents and taxpayers who are a cross-section of religious America. To imagine that these responsible, pluralistic boards would promote a religious point of view that few of them have ever heard of is to wander into the swamp of paranoia.

Samuel L. Blumenfeld (Letters, May 13, 1987) also errs in referring to a “humanist revolution’’ in education. Education reform, meaningful or not, involves people of all persuasions and is far more complex than merely a revival of John Dewey.

It is the Blumenfelds and Fortosises, with their empty charges of “the humanists have taken over,’' who are playing “a shell game with the American people.’'

Edd Doerr
Executive Director
Americans for Religious Liberty
Silver Spring, Md.

Kudos to Harriet A. Egertson on her superb Commentary, “Recapturing Kindergarten for 5-Year-Olds’’ (May 20, 1987).

As a strong advocate of a developmentally appropriate kindergarten, I find it increasingly difficult to put into practice not only my philosophy but also my talents. Gone is support for creativity and the ability to nurture young minds Áa la Froebel, or David Elkind, author of The Hurried Child.

Instead, there is pressure from principals and primary-school teachers for kindergarteners to outperform local counterparts, national norms, or developmental standards in order to be “ready’’ for 1st grade. And a steady diet of workbooks, worksheets, and drills on isolated “pre-reading’’ skills is demanded of these youngsters so that they can be pushed along arbitrary “reading levels’’ in robot-like fashion.

When is this absurdity going to stop? I hope that, with more people like Ms. Egertson and programs like those adopted in Nebraska, the answer will be soon. Then, and only then, will kindergarten be recaptured for 5-year-olds.

Margaret Egenhoefer
New Berlin, Wis.

My principal gave me Harriet A. Egertson’s Commentary, and I would like to thank the author for expressing so well the problems found in today’s kindergarten.

A child-development major in college, I’ve been working with 5-year-olds for 30 years. I honestly believe that 5-year-olds still have the basic needs of their age group whether or not they have been in nursery school for years, know how to read, or watch “Sesame Street’’ every day.

Furthermore, there are several things Ms. Egertson neglected to mention in her realistic appraisal of the kindergarten in 1987:
Most kindergarten programs used to be half-day; few are today. If you have a full- day program, you must not only fill the day meaningfully, but also show the taxpayers why it’s worth the investment. Play, which used to be viewed as child’s work, isn’t viewed as valuable now (they can do that at home), but learning something tangible is; for example, writing on lines, reciting the alphabet, reading and using numerals.

The bottom line these days is test scores. Legislators, administrators, and parents can see results for money spent in “good’’ test scores. It’s all part of that catchword “accountability.’' Pre-K testing is the least of it.

While there is nothing I disagree with in the grade-level objectives I am given to work with, there is pressure to go far beyond the skills stated: pressure from parents, and also pressure from 1st-grade teachers who have an awful lot of skills to cover and grade-level objectives to meet, and want your help in moving children vertically through skills as soon as possible.

Every educational-book company offers workbooks and the ever-present “Teacher’s Edition’’ as part of its school package in the basic skills and content area. It’s a standard format, it’s sequential, and teachers are urged to use them, as written, to get the greatest benefit. To have a workbook in progress is to prove you’re teaching.

Can the same be said of Cuisinaire Rods or Unifix Cubes in math? for bulletin boards covered with letters and pictures? murals? language-experience charts? for activity centers that feature easels, water table, carpentry bench, doll corner, and blocks?

“Hands on,’' manipulative-based programs not only take extra teacher time and effort, they’re impossible to run well with large class sizes. You can hardly individualize a student’s program with 32 or 33 children in your group, even with an aide. And what about noise? A quiet classroom where small children sit at desks and work at paper-and-pencil tasks demonstrates that you’re a “good’’ (in control) teacher.

It can get pretty lonely out there when you don’t like workbook-based programs for kindergarten, and truly believe that the 30-minute “activity time,’' (formerly called playtime) is the highlight of the day--along with the social-studies, science, and health units that put all your basic skills to use.

I jokingly refer to myself as a member of the “early-childhood underground.’' But as I wait for the pendulum to swing back, I can take heart that people like Ms. Egertson are speaking out. Thank you again.

Nancy K. Webster
Miami, Fla.

The May 20 Commentary by Harriet A. Egertson made a number of very important points with which I strongly agree. However, in making her case for reducing the strong academic, paper-and-pencil emphasis now found in kindergartens (and 1st and 2nd grades) across the nation, she made some incorrect statements that are not supported by the most recent research findings.

My own work in this field over the past six years includes an extensive study done in Nebraska, involving the entire population of grades K-6 for a county-seat school district. Both current test data and retrospective data from student files were used.

I found that the early attenders were far more likely to have had to repeat a grade because of academic failure, and scored slightly lower or the same on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, even though such early attenders were, on average, 15 I.Q. points brighter (girls) or 7 I.Q. points brighter (boys) than those who had delayed entering school. The research Ms. Egertson looked at may have failed to take into account the level of brightness of the respective groups, and thus was unable to address the questions of overachievement and underachievement.

Ms. Egertson contended that repeating a year of school did not result in academic gains. Again, most of the research done in the past looked at pupils with significant academic problems, which has been the main reason for repeating a grade. The practice of “re-placing’’ a child into a more appropriate grade for his level of development often does not include failing grades as a significant factor. The early research on this type of “gift of time’’ is showing very positive results in social, emotional, physical, and academic aspects.

Ms. Egertson also argues against pre-assessment of kindergarten children and the growing number of developmental-kindergarten programs, which are typically a one-year program after which the students enter regular kindergarten and progress in the usual ladder system from then on. She fails to include data that show that school districts have raised their district test averages by large amounts once this program has been in place for several years.

Rather then being a negative tracking system into which these usually younger children have been placed, as she contends, data from one study show that, by 3rd grade, the gap between blacks and whites on ability to read at or above grade level was reduced from 47 points to only 18, and that blacks rose from the 6th to the 78th percentile.

Ms. Egertson is right in saying that what we are now doing to our very young children is wrong. She just fails to include as viable, co sic comma solutions that are proving to be very useful.

James K. Uphoff
Professor of Education
and Human Services
Wright State University
Dayton, Ohio

Your front-page story on data I presented at the annual convention of the National Catholic Educational Association (“Catholic Educators Surprised by Data on Student Values,’' April 29, 1987) sensationalized the drug and alcohol findings at the expense of other significant and more extensive differences in social values, and distorted the scientifically based explanations for the drug and alcohol findings.

To set the record straight, I repeat these underreported but essential points:
In all areas having to do with social values, students in Catholic high schools exhibit more positive values than students in public high schools. These are: commitment to marriage and family; rejection of materialism; commitment to making a contribution to society; seeking a vocation that promotes social good; concern for human welfare nationally and internationally; involvement in community volunteer work; concern about racial prejudice; and awareness of sexism.

These values, while important to the mission of Catholic schools, are values that all social institutions, including public schools, affirm as positive.
In addition, Catholic-high-school students are more likely to evidence commitment to religion and commitment to church than their public-school counterparts. These findings, in combination with the social values described above, suggest that Catholic-high-school graduates hold values consistent with the mission of Catholic high schools. This is positive news about such schools, which, when combined with other research demonstrating that Catholic high schools promote greater academic achievement than public schools, suggests that Catholic high schools are effective at educating both the mind and the heart.
The pattern is different in the area of alcohol and drug use. There is a slight tendency for Catholic-high-school seniors to report alcohol, marijuana, and cocaine use slightly more than public high-school seniors. It is premature to draw any definite conclusions about this. Forthcoming data analyses will investigate several possibilities.

One strong possibility is that the differences are due to the kinds of students who enroll in Catholic high schools. Adolescent chemical use is known to be higher where population density is higher, and a higher percentage of Catholic high schools are in high population-density areas than are public high schools.

Many forms of chemical use tend to be correlated with family economic status. Catholic high schools tend, to a small degree, to serve students with higher economic status than do public high schools. And Catholics in the United States tend to hold a more lenient attitude toward alcohol use than other demographic groups, so that Catholic adolescents may face fewer sanctions by parents and peers than do other youths.

In combination, these kinds of pre-existing differences in student populations served by the public and Catholic sectors would suggest that Catholic high schools draw students somewhat more prone to chemical experimentation than do public schools.

Because the sample of Catholic high schools in this study is extremely small, it is possible that the resulting Catholic-high-school sample of students does not fully represent the national population of Catholic-school students. We are in the process of checking for this potential bias.

Your article did not do justice to these points. Instead, it expresses a kind of naÃive incredulity that Catholic-school students are not more saintly than their public-school counterparts. Furthermore, it inappropriately hints that Catholic schools are not doing their job. At the same time, I suspect you are guilty of a mythology that assumes Catholic schools serve the kind of elite youths who are supposed to be immune to chemical experimentation.

The truth is that Catholic-school students are much like their public-school peers on most social-demographic dimensions, including racial and economic distribution. And because it is now normative in this society for adolescents to use alcohol and experiment at least once with an illicit drug, no school--whether public, Catholic, or private--is immune to these proclivities. The fact that all schools enroll some alcohol- or drug-experimenting students reflects what is going on in the culture more than what schools are or are not doing.

Peter L. Benson
Search Institute
Minneapolis, Minn.

Editor’s Note: After reviewing the data Mr. Benson presented at the National Catholic Educational Association meeting in April, we believe Education Week’s report is an accurate and fair account of his presentation.

I was surprised to find that making out a lesson plan is still being considered as one of the skills to be measured in assessing teaching ability (“Carnegie-Funded Project Strives To Improve Teacher Assessments,’' April 8, 1987).

I recall vividly my experience in evaluating an experimental program some years ago, in which teachers were required to provide the evaluation team with lesson plans and journal reports on their daily progress.

On reading these over before visiting the schools, I found that one teacher had given only a minimal list of topics to be covered, and had written a somewhat rambling and slightly incoherent diary of daily events and progress. A second teacher had prepared beautifully detailed lesson plans, replete with minimal-competency objectives, and had written superbly specific daily reports keyed to the objectives.

On visiting the classroom of the first teacher, I was filled with considerable trepidation (strengthened by the somewhat uninviting appearance of the school), and was surprised and a little perplexed to find a rich series of highly participative activities going on, using a great variety of teacher-made instructional aids, and children actually performing beyond the level that was indicated in the journal reports.

In approaching the second classroom, in a better-supported school, I felt that I would be observing a teacher who really “had it all together.’' Instead, I found that instructional content was sparse, despite the almost unlimited availability of instructional aids; student participation was poor; and control was somewhat erratic and authoritarian. Worst of all, the students were actually six weeks behind those in the first class, and even further behind the points specified in the lesson plans and reports. Evidently, the teacher had been well trained in preparing lesson plans, and had put most of her energies into that, and in fabricating a phantom picture of student achievement.

While this is not to suggest that some teachers, particularly in their early years, might not benefit from being able to write coherent lesson plans, my experience should provide a caveat to researchers and evaluators that adeptness at this skill should not be mistaken for skill in teaching, and could in some cases detract from it, particularly if competence in writing lesson plans were to become a major criterion for determining teacher qualification.

Rudolph C. Troike
University of Illinois
at Urbana-Champaign
Champaign, Ill.

Margaret D. LeCompte’s Commentary, “The Cultural Context of Dropping Out’’ (May 13, 1987), is a sensitive and thoughtful treatment of serious problems in American education. But, unfortunately, the essay attributes our problems to the “system,’' rather than to the reality our politicians and media refuse to acknowledge.

As one who has spent 40 years in both ghetto schools and middle-class schools in the New York City school system, I see the real problems as follows:

  • The reluctance of educational leaders to speak the truth for fear that their remarks will be called insulting or racist.

A pupil’s achievement in school is predicated on the child’s home background, no matter what the color or ethnic origin of the family may be. Children who achieve come from close-knit families with conscientious, hard-working, insistent, and persistent parents, regardless of the educational level or beliefs of the family.

  • The refusal on the part of school authorities to accept that schools cannot overcome the harm inflicted on children by their environments and parents.

We never inform parents of the key role they play in shaping children for future schooling. We maintain the myth that no matter what a family or culture does to a child, a school with a special program will overcome these problems. We persist in putting the blame on the teachers, schools, and related institutions.

We also persist in demanding more guidance counselors, more psychological assistance, more social workers--all to little avail. Ask your school’s guidance counselors or psychologists to name the children they have changed. Their answer will be resounding silence.

  • Our educational establishment will not acknowledge the huge number of children in school with severe learning disabilities or minimal brain dysfunction. This condition seems to be increasing. According to some of my colleagues, in some New York City schools, as much as one-third of the population shows some neurological problem.

Ms. LeCompte writes that “we already know how to teach children well.’' But we do not, and there is a paucity of real, classroom research in this regard. We kid ourselves if we accept Ms. LeCompte’s view.

All the so-called reform proposals--the report of the Carnegie Forum on Education and the Economy and other proposals to give teachers greater power and raise standards for both children and teachers--will be of no avail unless we speak the truth: Your family, your culture, your up-bringing, and your attitude affect your achievement. This, then, is where the emphasis must be.

Alex L. Savitz
Public School 54
New York, N.Y.

The “unveiling’’ of the makeup of the Carnegie Forum’s National Board for Professional Teachers Inc. (May 20, 1987) should arouse the nation as no other recent education announcement.

The alarm sounded as Mary Hatwood Futrell’s statements on the new board emphasized the National Education Association’s long-held goal to control “who shall enter, who shall remain, and who shall leave’’ the profession. A past president of the N.E.A., George Fischer, first said it in 1970; Ms. Futrell gave us the blueprint. “You have to control the gate,’' she said. “You have to govern who comes [into the profession], as opposed to saying [national certification] is just for people who are already in.’'

And how do union officials control those “already in’’? They began more than 15 years ago by having teachers fired who refused to pay union dues for the privilege of teaching.

Prevented by the courts from having teachers fired, they now--in alliance with school-board members--simply have union dues deducted automatically in a number of states.

The president of the American Association of School Administrators, June Gabler, put it best in an article you published the week after the announcement of the new board: The board is “an attempted takeover of America’s schools by the teacher unions’’ (“Certification Panel Gets Cool Reception From Some Administrators,’' May 27, 1987).

When will the rest of the education community and the nation wake up? Will it be when all the independent educators committed to individual freedom have been expunged? Will it be when the students of America, taught only by teachers who have passed the unions’ official litmus test, no longer recognize the abuse of liberty? Or will it be even sooner, when the educator’s right to make an individual professional choice is no longer valued and no longer defended?

It takes time to institutionalize tyranny. For hundreds of thousands of independent, non-union teachers across this nation, time is running out.

Jo Seker
Concerned Educators Against
Forced Unionism
Springfield, Va.


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