Education Letter to the Editor

Letters to the Editor

March 06, 1991 12 min read
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To the Editor:

Upon reading Jim Steffensen’s “The Privatization of Teacher Education” (Commentary, Jan. 30, 1991), I felt compelled to clarify the goals and premise of my organization and some of the facts regarding its operations.

Teach For America, which Mr. Steffensen cites as an example of society’s desire for quick private-sector fixes in lieu of politically and fiscally costly systemic reform, is a new national teacher corps that recruits, trains, places, and supports outstanding individuals who commit two years to teach in urban and rural areas suffering from persistent teacher shortages. In our first year of operation, we selected 500 “corps members” from 2,500 applicants. They are now teaching in New York City, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Baton Rouge, La., and rural areas of Georgia and North Carolina.

We recruit individuals who want to teach in urban or rural districts and match them with schools in those areas that have a persistent need for teachers. Anyone with a bachelor’s degree can apply to the program, though for logistical reasons we currently limit our targeting efforts to 170 colleges and universities. We make a particular effort to recruit individuals for whom districts express a particular need: those who are bilingual, those who majored in math, science, and foreign languages, and people of color. Half of the corps members we placed at the secondary level this year were math or science majors, and 27 percent of the corps were people of color. While Mr. Steffensen asserts that we do not recruit at a single historically black school, we in fact recruit at 20 of them.

We believe that individuals who possess certain characteristics are more likely than others to be effective teachers in urban and rural schools, and we therefore look for these characteristics through an extensive process consisting of a written essay application, three written references, a sample teaching session, and two interviews. We look for those who demonstrate flexibility and adaptability; a high level of commitment through excellence in academics, extracurricular activities, or work experience; an engaging and effective style that would translate well in the classroom; leadership; professionalism; and an educational approach consisting of high expectations for all students and sensitivity to the diversity of student backgrounds and learning styles.

While our corps members do generally have high Scholastic Aptitude Test scores (they average 1255) we do not, as Mr. Steffensen states, use or even value high SAT’s as a selection criterion.

We believe that teachers are best made through experience. Each of our corps members completes an intensive eight-week pre-service institute that is not designed to make them into expert teachers, but rather to give them basic teaching techniques and a theoretical background before they enter the classroom. During the institute, which serves as a final step in the screening process, corps members student teach in year-round schools and receive guidance from a faculty of experienced teachers and teacher educators from each of our placement sites.

Local Teach For America offices and staff members work with unions, districts, and institutions of higher education to arrange ongoing support and professional-development activities for the corps. Principals of schools in which our corps members teach tell us that the problems they do experience are typical of first-year teachers and are not unique to Teach For America.

Teach For America is not as expensive as Mr. Steffensen claims. We spent just over $2.5 million (not $8 million) in 1990 to recruit, train, and place 500 corps members, and to establish six local support offices. One of our board members, who was the first director of the federal Teacher Corps, says that we’re operating at one-third of the cost of the federal program.

Neither is Teach For America merely a temporary “fix” or Band-Aid that will delay a more comprehensive redesign of the schools. We aim to become a permanent institution that each year recruits, trains, places, and supports up to 3,000 individuals to teach in communities across the country. In each of those communities, we will be a positive force for educational improvement.

As a private, nonpartisan organization, we can work together with districts, local corporations, local universities, unions, community organizations, states, and the media to effect system-wide changes that positively impact all first-year teachers, all teachers, and all students. Meanwhile, Teach For America will do much to mitigate shortages that persist in certain geographic and subject areas even in times of general teacher surplus. And, just as we can learn from experts in the field of teacher education, we can make a contribution to that field with our own findings.

Perhaps our most important long-term impact will be the level to which which we elevate the image of teaching. We are showing the public that outstanding individuals--people with lots of other career opportunities who were leaders on their campuses and have strong academic backgrounds--compete to enter the field of teaching and that they find it incredibly challenging once in the classroom. Only when the public views teaching as something other than downwardly mobile will salaries begin to rise significantly. Only then will high-school and college students think of teaching as a viable career option. Only then will the outstanding teachers already in the system receive the recognition they deserve.

I agree with Mr. Steffensen that we as a nation need to rethink and restructure the educational system. Yet effective restructuring will not result from an infusion of public dollars, but rather from the creativity and energy of individuals who commit themselves to developing and implementing new approaches. I firmly believe that the future of our schools depends in large part on two things: (1) on the creativity and intellect and drive of the individuals who staff the schools; and (2) on the extent to which the nation’s leaders have experience in and a commitment to the nation’s schools.

We have learned a great deal in this first year of operation. We are fine-tuning every component of our process, developing a new institute curriculum, and restructuring our support offices.

We have also found during this first semester that our corps members bring an extraordinary amount of energy and creativity to their classrooms. One spent her winter break visiting the homes of each of her students. Another took the entire 7th grade of his New York City school to visit Tuskegee, his alma mater. Another won a $10,000 grant to conduct an oral-history project with her entire school. Still another is growing a tropical rain forest in his classroom to demonstrate the stages of forests. I could go on and on.

Many of our corps members will continue in teaching and in education. In an initial survey, some 50 percent said they intended to continue teaching after Teach For America, and an additional 30 percent were undecided. Some will move on to business or government or medicine or law, but they will see the world through a new lens. All will have the experience and commitment to be effective advocates for teacher professionalism and educational improvement. As they witness the state of our schools first hand, they become more and more committed to joining the efforts of those who are already dedicated to reforming them.

Wendy Kopp
Founder and Director
Teach for America
New York, N.Y.

To the Editor:

At the end of Jean Sibelius’s life it is said that he was approached by a protege with the following question: “After all your wonderful composing, how do you put up with the critics who have panned your work?” Sibelius said in response, “Have you ever seen a statue erected to a critic?”

Your article on Japanese philanthropy (“Japanese Philanthropy Explodes in U.S., But Some Are Questioning Donors’ Motives,” Jan. 30, 1991) may conjure up the same question.

As an educator whose work has been the fortunate beneficiary of support from the Hitachi Foundation and who has had the good fortune to spend time working with Sophie Sa of the Panasonic Foundation, I must add a word of balance to the question of motivation.

There are two reasons for this.

First, foundations centered in Japanese corporations have yielded abundant opportunity to American education. No foundation can be expected to “carry the load” for worthy educational enterprises, but a foundation can create opportunity where it simply did not exist before.

In the case of the Hitachi Foundation and its officer Judy Armstrong, a collaborative program in mathematics and science undertaken by Choate Rosemary Hall and the Connecticut Association of Urban Superintendents could never have advanced as aggressively without one grant that was generously offered. Several years later, urban-school students replicate experiments that won the Nobel Prize because of that support.

Second, Japanese foundations with which I have had the luck to work are unique in their capacity to demand high outcomes and to offer more than financial support to attain them.

The Harvard University business professor Michael Porter tells us (in the July 22, 1990, New York Times) that we cannot rely on the argument that the Japanese play (unfairly) by different rules: “When a nation becomes preoccupied with complaining about other nations’ ‘unfair’ practices, its days of economic dynamism are numbered. “

There is no small amount of irony in arguments that Japanese-based foundations, which so remarkably advance the interests of American education, do so with suspect motivation. First-hand personal and professional observations demonstrate otherwise. And, after all, have you ever seen a statue erected to a critic?

William Bagley
Director, Public Private Collaboration
Choate Rosemary Hall
Wallingford, Conn.

To the Editor:

In his Commentary, “Don’t All Children Have Gifts?” (Jan. 16, 1991), David G. Myers accurately ridicules shortcomings that exist in some poorly conceived and poorly implemented programs for academically precocious students. Unfortunately, he extends his observations regarding poor practices to present what is, in my opinion, an inaccurate and potentially dangerous philosophy of education.

Please consider the following points for clarification:

The “5 percent” to which Mr. Myers refers is generally used for the purpose of administering the distribution of state funds to school districts, not as a definition of “giftedness” in students. For years, educators have recognized that within the school population there are students with many types of intelligence and talent.

In addition, educators recognize that a student may be (1) gifted in one area and not in other areas or (2) gifted and have a handicapping condition. Mr. Myers has created and attacked a very old straw man.

There is a difference between the personal gifts of each child and “giftedness” in terms of academic precocity. All students (including academically precocious students) should be encouraged to develop their gifts. Sometimes, special programming is needed to facilitate this encouragement. While certain accommodations for special services can and should be made within the regular classroom, Mr. Myers’s suggestions regarding grade-skipping and individualized instruction are too simplistic to provide for a well-planned program.

There are no “gifted” materials, “gifted” field trips, or even “gifted” curricula. Giftedness should be thought of in terms of student potential, not in terms of activities. All students should have opportunities to participate in learning experiences that offer “challenge and enrichment,” and I encourage Mr. Myers to discuss this issue with the school board in his community. Eliciting a “gifted” response is the goal of a well-conceived educational program. School districts that base services on the use of toys, kits, and games deserve to be criticized.

Asserting that individuals in our society are equal under the law is not incongruous with recognizing that individuals in our society vary in terms of abilities, interests, perceptions, and needs. Mr. Myers points out that this is true even within his own family. Our society should celebrate and honor individuality, not discourage it. No one is trying to establish an “intellectual aristocracy” or a “new segregation” within an “increasingly multicultural society.”

Having an academic gift makes an individual different in terms of specific curricular needs, not “better.” Programs should be designed to respond to needs, not to labels. The label is not “pernicious,” poor practices are pernicious. Mr. Meyers’s criticism is misplaced.

Gifted students come from all racial, ethnic, economic, and demographic groups, not just the “privileged and influential.” The terms and the references used by Mr. Myers suggest that he believes programs for gifted students are racist and/or elitist. This is clearly not so. I recommend that he research the facts. There has been and continues to be a national emphasis on developing and using appropriate and effective strategies for identifying and programming for gifted students from all parts of our pluralistic society.

If rigid grouping is bad (and it is) it does not follow that no grouping is good. Students should be grouped and re-grouped as appropriate for instruction. Also, a rigid curriculum that is prescribed for all students renders mediocrity, not equity, and certainly not excellence. (Please read Excellence by John Gardner for a discussion on excellence and equity in a democracy.)

I invite David Myers to reconsider the implications of his Commentary. He has done us a favor in pointing out poor practices, but he has done a great harm in misleading readers about the meaning of “gifted.”

James Curry
National Association for Gifted Children
Associate Professor of Education
University of Southern Maine
Portland, Me.

To the Editor

In regard to your brief article, “Bursting their Balloons?” (“Across the Nation,” Feb. 6, 1991):

My students conducted research on mass balloon releases and tried to get them banned in California. A measure doing so was only defeated when the well-oiled balloon lobby waited until summer to ambush the bill after it had passed out of committee due largely to my students’ efforts.

These are the facts: Balloons have been found in a variety of sea animals. They don’t belong there. Mass balloon launches also pollute the environment and litter other people’s property.

I hope every school considers banning all mass balloon releases. If you want to choke on something, read Balloon City U.S.A.'s “A Lesson About Latex.” Every teacher in America should buy a balloon and record for himself how long it takes to break down biologically.

In the research at my school, we received letters indicating that Disneyland and Disney World no longer have mass balloon releases--and that the Guinness Book of World Records no longer carries the record for that event.

We are not against balloons; we are against the release of them into our environment on purpose.

Alan Haslvitz
Alta Loma, Calif.

A version of this article appeared in the March 06, 1991 edition of Education Week as Letters to the Editor


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