Education Letter to the Editor

Letters To The Editor

April 15, 1987 9 min read

The picture on page three of your March 18 edition, “Miss Brooks and Mr. Kotter, Move Aside,’' is an unwitting and ironic commentary on the unhappy state of the mathematics curriculum. The picture shows a teacher finding the product of 3,719 and 405 on the chalkboard while being televised for students to watch on “Homework Hot Line,’' a call-in television program. Everywhere in America, except in school, this answer would be found with a calculator or some other electronic computing device.

The irony is in the use of sophisticated technological equipment to produce a television show to teach an antiquated process that is better done with an inexpensive technological tool--that doesn’t require a homework hot line to teach its use. The extravagance of such a television production is hard to justify. It also illustrates education’s difficulty in dealing with technology--how we educators adapt technology to teach an outdated curriculum rather than adapting the curriculum to fit the existing technology.

As far as mathematics is concerned, a large part of the problem is the improper identification of “basic mathematical skills.’' A basic mathematical skill is a skill that is necessary to function mathematically, especially in the non-school parts of the world. Paper-and-pencil processes for doing multi-digit arithmetic do not fit that criterion. One does not need to know them for computational purposes; as a matter of fact, compared with calculators, paper and pencil are cumbersome and inefficient.

Also, knowing these processes adds nothing of consequence to one’s conceptual knowledge or mathematical insight. One can know how to multiply 3,719 by 405 on the chalkboard and not know anything about the concept of multiplication: its interpretation as repeated addition, the number of objects in an array or the area of a region, or circumstances in which it is an applicable operation.

It is true that one needs to know paper- and-pencil algorithms to perform satisfactorily in most school-mathematics programs. But that doesn’t make them basic- mathematical skills. That only means they are school-survival skills.

There are educators who are struggling to provide a meaningful and appropriate mathematics curriculum that accepts and uses the computational tools of our day, and recognizes the distinction between basic conceptual knowledge and skills and algorithmic processes of the chalkboard.

I support their efforts and encourage your readers to join them. We cannot afford to waste our educational resources teaching a mathematics curriculum that stresses paper-and-pencil computational procedures. There is no individual or societal need, and absolutely no market, for long-division expertise.

Eugene Maier
Professor of Mathematical Sciences
Portland State University
Portland, Ore.

In regard to the report on necessary changes in training school administrators (“Sweeping Overhaul of Licensing, Training of Administrators Urged,’' March 18, 1987), I would like to congratulate both Judith E. Lanier and Albert Shanker for opting not to endorse a report that suggests primarily altering the form, and not the substance, of current educational-administration programs.

As a former school-district administrator and a current classroom-based researcher, I should like to suggest that programs in educational administration are unnecessarily segregated from departments that focus on teaching, learning, and curricular expertise. Thus, I would suggest that the recommended increase in the size of educational-administration faculties is simply the wrong direction to head.

What most practicing and potential school administrators need is not simply better training in school management, budgetary concerns, or even legal issues; instead, they need substantially enhanced expertise in the areas of effective instruction, broad knowledge of core curricula, human learning, and assessment practices. Such content would substantially inform the administration decisionmaking process.

Unless we want to continue the trend of reducing school-administration jobs to simple plant managers and public-relations buffers, the substance of training programs must be revised.

Richard L. Allington
Department of Reading
State University of New York at Albany

Poor Louisiana! At a time when the state educational system is at its lowest ebb, William J. Bennett and his cronies are prescribing more of the snake oil that caused the ailment in the first place.

The recent Louisiana Association of Business and Industry report recommending vouchers comes as no surprise (“Louisiana Businesses Urge Vouchers,’' March 25, 1987). LABI was chosen by Mr. Bennett’s office to conduct its “research’’ precisely because of the group’s known support of such measures to aid parochial and private education. Thus, some $89,913 in U.S. Education Department research funds have been spent to reach a foregone conclusion.

This waste of tax money is especially abhorrent when one considers that the state government in economically strapped Louisiana is expected to fall some $340 million short of needed revenues to meet its budget this year. State education programs inevitably will be axed, as will other needed programs.

Allocating $1,200 vouchers for elementary-school students and $1,500 vouchers for high-school students would mean a new expenditure of approximately $140 million of public funds for private-school students alone! And that’s only for the current private-school population. If other students took the bait and switched to private schools, the cost would soar. Where would this money come from?

Louisiana has serious educational problems. It has the dubious distinction of ranking last among the 50 states in the percentage of its population finishing high school. In other criteria of educational accomplishment, it also ranks near the bottom.

A major part of the problem is a decades-old policy of dividing the state’s educational resources between public and private--mostly religious--schools. Ever since former Gov. Huey Long agreed to pay for textbooks for both public and private school systems in the 1930’s, state politicians have missed no opportunity to funnel money into private schools--where the state’s elite send their children. The state’s well-organized parochial-school community stands ready to reward politicians who toe the line--and to punish those who don’t.

The state constitution’s strong church-state separation provisions--which would have helped prevent some of the private-school subsidies--were gutted in 1974 due to a successful political campaign by the parochial lobby.

Mr. Bennett has long prescribed vouchers, tuition tax credits, and other forms of public aid for parochial and other private schools on the grounds that competition between private and public schools will remedy education’s ills. His medication has been tried in Louisiana for years and the result is plain: Public education is being “cured’’ to death. Isn’t it time somebody asked for a second opinion?

Mr. Bennett and company are not physicians for public schools; they’re undertakers.

Joseph L. Conn
Americans United for Separation
of Church and State
Silver Spring, Md.

Educators should recognize some disturbing aspects in the article “Broader Approach to Dropouts Urged’’ (March 18, 1987). The proposals made by the Institute for Educational Leadership for solving the school-dropout problem could lead to greater difficulties than we currently face.

The major thrust of the group’s report is a multidimensional approach to decreasing the dropout rate, suggesting that multiple services from the school and society work cooperatively. But at least one voice of reason, Michael A. Bailin, disagreed, citing the problem of “turfs’’ as a “critical barrier to achieving integration and coordination.’'

Anyone who has spent time in a classroom can attest to that. It sounds as though the idea of “all hold hands and circle round’’ should work, but those with any educational experience recognize that this works with square dancing, but little else.

The more disturbing solution is the idea of developing a “special unit’’ in the elementary schools to identify high-risk children, and possibly producing a statewide registry of such students.

Unfortunately, labeling by any other name is still labeling. The potential is frightening. Shall we put stars on their records, or tag them with identification bracelets? And what is their “crime:'' being a member of a single-parent family, being a recipient of welfare benefits, or failing to achieve in kindergarten? If we have an inkling of understanding about student expectations, we know that to label children as “hard to educate’’ is to create a self-fulfilling prophecy. And it wouldn’t be long before the “convenience’’ of putting these children together to educate would surface and we would be guilty of “tracking.’'

Frankly, I’m quite surprised the authors of this report failed to tackle a key factor in the dropout problem, namely the lock-step nature of our curriculum structure. The insidious nature of our system that says, “Get it or get out’’ (and upwards of 25 percent of the children in our urban systems do leave), must make us consider if what we are doing is wrong. I suggest we are causing our own problems: These children are not “dropouts,’' but rather, “dropped out.’'

Not only do we prejudge, but we have been burdened as educators with the task of monitoring the turnstile into adulthood, whereby we sift through youngsters, passing some, and sending the others out as “unfit.’' We then have the audacity to blame the students! Perhaps this is a useful method in a less-democratic system, but this simply is not good enough for American children. We are educators, not judges to identify the unworthy and protect the curriculum.

Patricia Surber
Linwood Fundamental Academy
Cincinnati, Ohio

I read the article “Teacher Recruitment, Selection Procedures Outdated, Study Says’’ (March 18, 1987) with interest.. I then felt compelled to write and let you know that a group in Ohio is doing something new and unique about the growing problem of finding minorities to recruit.

Last year, the Ohio Association of School Personnel Administrators’ minority consortium, Kent State Unversity’s center for educational development and strategic services, the Ohio Department of Education, and the Ohio Association of School, College, and University Staffing joined forces to hold the first “All-Ohio Educational Recruitment Fair.’'

The specific purpose of the two-day event was to bring together potential minority and female teaching and administrative candidates and school personnel from districts around the state for the purpose of hiring. Because of its success we will repeat the project this year.

As far as we know, it is the only recruitment fair of its kind.

Linda Simmonds
Program Officer, Community Affairs
KEDS Desegregation Assistance Center
Kent State University
Kent, Ohio

A version of this article appeared in the April 15, 1987 edition of Education Week as Letters To The Editor