To the Editor
The fact that more than 15 of the country’s largest urban school systems are having trouble finding superintendents is not due to a shortage of qualified candidates. It’s because those who are qualified know they may not survive the political storms that have enveloped many of the districts with open positions (“School-Chief Woes Spur Call for Change in Big-City Boards,” Jan. 30, 1991).
Beyond the politics, the key question is: How do we best prepare school administrators to take on the daunting task of running a large urban district?
Harvard University has announced a new doctoral program to train urban school superintendents. While I applaud Harvard’s involvement in this critical area of training, I do not regard as sufficient its approach of requiring a six- to nine-month internship and the writing of a thesis following completion of coursework.
For administrators to become truly effective superintendents, and to be worthy of the advanced degree, they must study educational leadership while on the job, not just in an academic setting. In addition, a thesis completed and merely set upon a shelf will not help superintendents survive in today’s urban centers, nor will it help the children in a single school district.
What will produce an able superintendent is a program in which doctoral candidates conduct an on-the-job practicum that allows them to select a real-world problem in the school system and actually develop and implement a solution. Nova University incorporated this format into its educational-leaders program in 1972.
This approach goes far beyond the intellectual excercise of a dissertation and gives future urban superintendents the abilities to deal with the myriad problems they will surely face on the job.
The approach seems to be working. Today, 6 of the nation’s 47 largest school districts are headed by Nova University Ph.D.'s, including Joseph A. Fernandez, chancellor of the New York City system.
Some of the most talented people in the country have the qualifications, energy, and vision to be effective leaders in this often difficult public-policy arena. No matter how well they are trained, however, they won’t be able to do their jobs to the best of their ability unless the political webs hanging over the school districts are removed.
Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.
To the Editor
Susan Ohanian, in her Feb. 14, 1991, Commentary (“Against ‘Collaboration': Reading and Writing Are Not Social Acts”) views writing and learning as an intensely lonely experience. It is to be done in the quiet of a library, or a study, and could not possibly take place in a noisy classroom. She suggests that her 3rd-grade students learned to love reading because she insisted at all costs on opening up her day with 15 minutes of silent reading. Her hidden agenda is that love of learning is acquired through pain and self-discipline.
Ms. Ohanian objects to the sharing of one’s writing in progress. No amount of anyone seeing her unfinished work will ever inform her writing, and she assumes that students are no different. It is the act of transforming a heretofore personal activity, writing, into a public activity, sharing, that is most frightening. I feel sorry for any writer so jealous of his or her work in process that they are not willing to share and to take risks. What damage must have been done to such writers, who grew up in an environment of fear.
I would suggest that Ms. Ohanian’s writing experience as an intensely lonely process is one that our students will avoid at all costs. They tend to be more like the Nabokov character who would die if left alone in a library for half a day, than Franz Kafka, who craved loneliness and silence, or Charles Darwin, who worked alone for years studying worms.
I have a confession to make. I do not teach the Franz Kafkas, Charles Darwins, and Susan Ohanians; they are going to learn anyway. My job is to teach the other 95 percent of all students who walk through my door. They are people conditioned to fail, unwilling to trust their own ideas, and too terrorized to revise. What they need is an environment where they are encouraged to write, activities that allow them to be listened to with respect, and a system to inform them about their writing.
What the collaborative-learning model does is to change the structure of the classroom. It removes the teacher as the sole source of information, the center of the classroom, and tries to enlist students to help each other, and through that to inform themselves. This takes a great deal of thought on the part of the teacher, and reconditioning on the part of most students. It will never work unless teachers are willing to reexamine their role in the classroom. If we start with students’ willingness to socialize, and use that as an element in the learning process, to inform them about their writing, then we have added to our repertoire of teaching tools.
I was educated primarily in a classroom where the teacher was the principal source of information. Writing was something one did at home or in a test setting, something that went up to the teacher’s desk and came back torn to shreds by a red pen. The collaborative-learning model humanizes this experience, and takes the fear out of writing and thinking. That the reading and writing class does not change more quickly probably reflects the inherent conservative nature of English teachers unwilling to give up their roles as final arbitrators.
I agree with Ms. Ohanian about one point. Collaborative learning could be oversold. If it becomes a fad, it may not be taken seriously by educators unwilling to change. The danger is that not enough thinking goes into how, what, or why we teach. I am upset by writers like Susan Ohanian who seem to be unwilling to try different approaches to teaching. She can insist on teaching a painful lesson, like having 3rd graders read silently for long stretches at a time, and dismiss collaborative learning as just another warm, fuzzy experience.
Michael M. Miller
To the Editor
My favorite part of Education Week is the Commentary section.
Due to placing the main Commentary on the last page of the paper, though, it is always torn, wrinkled, or dirty. Mostly it is all three!
The Feb. 27, 1991, issue placed Commentary safely inside on page 30 rather than page 44. I am delighted.
William N. DiBenedetto Jr.
Aliquippa School District
To the Editor:
I have this reaction to the Bush Administration’s serious consideration of a national standardized test for students (“Advisory Panel Presents National-Test Plan to Bush,” Jan. 23, 1991): A standardized test is not a practical or efficient instrument to help improve the quality of learning.
As a teacher and counselor in a small, rural Minnesota school with a participatory-management philosophy, I need something that will make education relevant. I do not need another paper-and-pencil test that is trying to tell me what I already know about our students.
Our school needs time with students, teachers, and community members to plan and act on educational experiences that encourage higher-level thinking. Students need opportunities to connect with the community and develop their sense of self-confidence and self-esteem.
At my school, we have just spent considerable time, both staff and community, evaluating our standarized-testing program. The recommendation was for less testing and more time for high-quality learning. We don’t need another test, unless the students write it.
Hill City, Minn.
A version of this article appeared in the April 03, 1991 edition of Education Week as Letters to the Editor