Education Letter to the Editor

Letters to the Editor

September 24, 1997 8 min read

In Working or Learning, Definitions Are Crucial

To the Editor:

As one who for almost 30 years has promoted the concept that school is a form of work, I read Alfie Kohn’s Commentary with great interest (“Students Don’t Work--They Learn,” Sept. 3, 1997). Having done so, I must write this short rejoinder.

Because Mr. Kohn never defines the word “work,” it is difficult to refute his claim that “students don’t work.” The closest thing to a definition I could find in his essay was the statement that "[i]n effect, we are equating what children do to figure things out with what adults do in offices and factories to earn money.”

This statement leads me to suspect that Mr. Kohn defines work as “paid employment.” If that is the true meaning of the word, he is absolutely right in his contention that “students don’t work.” According to that definition, neither do full-time homemakers, community volunteers, people on welfare, or retired people.

I, for one, cannot accept the contention that the word “work” be defined only as “paid employment.” Work is a far too important an aspect of total lifestyle for us to allow that definition to be accepted. In 1975, while serving as the director of the office of career education in what was then the U.S. Office of Education, I defined the word “career” as “the totality of work one does in his or her lifetime.” This obligated me to define “work.” The definition I formulated was this: Work is conscious effort, other than that whose primary purpose is either coping or relaxation, aimed at producing benefits for oneself and/or for oneself and others.

The key words in that definition are: “conscious,” which means the individual elected to do it; “effort,” which means some difficulty is involved; “benefits,” which means work is expected to help, not hurt; and “oneself,” which means the worker always receives some benefits from working, even when work is unpaid rather than paid efforts.

With this definition, work can and should be a positive part of one’s total lifestyle--something to be enjoyed and valued, not drudgery, which is distasteful and to be avoided whenever and wherever possible.

With work defined in this way, it is very easy to conceptualize the classroom as a “workplace” and both pupils and teachers as “workers.” It also becomes possible to define and discuss both “work habits” and “work values” as things to be developed beginning early in life that affect one’s productivity in the workplace as an adult.

If the classroom is regarded as a workplace and both pupils and teachers are workers, it follows that the same generic things that lead to greater productivity in industry can also lead to greater productivity in education.

Mr. Kohn makes a second conceptual error when he asks “whether students view themselves as workers or as learners.” To those of us who view work as a vehicle for learning, this question has no operational meaning. The “bottom line” for educators involves studying how much subject matter pupils learn, motivating pupils to learn the subject matter, and helping pupils learn how to use the subject matter now and in the future. The concept of work, as defined here, fits neatly in all three of these parts of the teaching and learning process.

Kenneth B. Hoyt
University Distinguished Professor of Education
Kansas State University
Manhattan, Kan.

Capturing ‘America Reads’ for a Larger Agenda?

To the Editor:

Douglas Carnine and Hans Meeder have put the nation and the educational community on notice that, having captured literacy education in California, they intend to use the same blueprint to capture the nation by taking over the America Reads initiative (“Reading Research Into Practice,” Commentary, Sept. 3, 1997).

In California, Mr. Carnine and others have succeeded in convincing key decisionmakers that there is only one kind of reading research. It is the kind that tests published programs on learners and it has shown beyond a doubt that commercial programs based on direct instruction of explicit synthetic phonics are the necessary and only way to teach reading. Each of the proposals in Mr. Carnine’s Commentary is already law in California.

It is certainly a bold push that Mr. Carnine and his co-author propose. They would hijack America Reads and all its funding in the service of “a research-based approach.” Then they would, by early 1998, have a national “expert panel” announce a synthesis of research knowledge about reading (direct synthetic phonics). Reid Lyon, the head of the National Institute for Child Health and Human Development, would become the reading czar with authority to order two Cabinet members, the U.S. secretaries of education and of health and human services, to disseminate the knowledge about reading research by imposing it on Head Start, Even Start, and Title I.

The secretary of education would impose “scientifically based research on reading” on the Department of Education’s office of educational research and improvement, particularly the regional education labs, which would not only disseminate the scientific truth but issue “a product recall” of previously disseminated information not “scientifically validated.”

A single authority, presumably under Reid Lyon, would coordinate all federal agencies to make sure that parents, grandparents, and caregivers would know “what a research-based reading program looks like.” As in California, that program would look like Distarr, which Mr. Carnine has helped author.

The Carnine-Meeder plan even provides us with a scapegoat: “It is confounding why, even in an area as well researched as early reading, there has been such enormous difficulty in turning that research into widely replicated practice. On the contrary, poorly researched programs, such as an extreme whole-language approach, have been quickly and widely adopted across many states, most notably California.” Early reading is indeed well researched, but most of it would be in line for “product recall” in the Carnine-Meeder plan.

As Mr. Carnine and his associates have shown in California, there is no middle ground: You’re either for “research based” scientific programs or you’re a whole-language lover.

Lest anyone think this plan is too preposterous to be taken seriously, consider that two key parts are well under way. Messrs. Carnine and Meeder know that a report, under the financial sponsorship of Reid Lyon, using NICHD money, will soon be issued which has been produced by a group who largely share the Carnine view of science and research. And the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Education and the Workforce, which Mr. Meeder fomerly served as director of planning and policy development, has been holding hearings all over the country and recently in Washington with carefully selected testimony supporting just the view of reading research and practice that is the keystone of the Carnine-Meeder plan. (“House Panel May Put New Spin on Clinton Reading Plan,” Sept. 10, 1997.)

No wonder that in their Commentary, Messrs. Carnine and Meeder have the audacity to threaten President Clinton and Congress. Yesterday California, today the nation, tomorrow the world? What a plan.

Kenneth S. Goodman
Professor of Language and Literacy
University of Arizona
Tucson, Ariz.

Capital’s Schools May Need Help From the Oval Office

To the Editor:

I was appalled to read John Merrow’s Commentary about the unsympathetic actions of those charged with ensuring quality education in the nation’s capital (“Elementary Confusion,” Sept. 10, 1997).

Washington’s Richardson Elementary School, ordered to be closed in recent decisions by the city’s emergency board of school trustees, is precisely the type of school that many systems are striving to create. As a student-teacher at Georgia State University in Atlanta, I am inspired when I hear of the goals this urban school attained in the face of adversity. When I hear of the displacement so many caring parents, children, and educators will face this fall, my heart is deeply saddened.

How can such an atrocity happen right under the nose of our “education president”?

Cynthia Bohannon
Atlanta, Ga.

Charter Schools Already Do What Research Recommends

To the Editor:

Two articles in your Sept. 10, 1997, issue caught my attention.

In “Shaking Things Up,” the featured research article on page 29, you report that in the “most comprehensive analysis to date” of the effects of decentralization on student achievement, researchers from four universities studying six major cities have found that current efforts by the districts don’t go far enough. The researchers made three major recommendations: School-level educators must control the checkbook; schools should be free to select help from a range of public and private sources; and real consequences should be felt by schools that fail to educate children.

My first thought in reading this was that we already have charter schools sprouting up all over the country that do this. Then I read, on page 23, the Washington-datelined article “Proposal Would Link School Dollars, Proven Models,” which chronicled the congressional debate over requiring that Title I grants be channeled to schools implementing proven strategies for restructuring.

While the final verdict is not yet in on the effectiveness of charter schools, the preliminary results would certainly indicate that they should be considered for these grants. They appear at this point to be at least as effective as the programs mentioned.

Rebecca Shore
Westminster, Calif.

Teach For America Gets This Vote of Confidence

To the Editor:

As a principal for five years in the South Bronx in New York City, I found Teach For America candidates more than capable of handling urban kids (“Teacher Corps’ Tough Regimen Tasks Recruits,” Aug. 6, 1997). They were more motivated and tuned in to the kids than some experienced teachers.

Now I’m a principal in New Jersey, and I’m sorry that TFA is not working in my district. I found TFA candidates to be far better prepared than regular teachers coming out of a traditional teaching college.

Verdi Avila
Dumont, N.J.

A version of this article appeared in the September 24, 1997 edition of Education Week