Education Letter to the Editor

Letters to the Editor

December 03, 1997 14 min read

‘Ideological Progressive': Name-Calling or Focus?

To the Editor:

I agree with Stanley Pogrow that “we all have to stop pretending that we have the answer and start learning from each other” (“The Tyranny and Folly of Ideological Progressivism,” Nov. 12, 1997.) In his last sentence, he says, “Let’s put our personal ideologies and hangups aside and move forward together to help kids.”

Good advice, and a first step is to avoid emotion-laden, stereotypical group labels when discussing a methodology. Unfortunately, Mr. Pogrow doesn’t provide a very effective model in this regard. He repeatedly pins the “ideological progressive” tag onto opponents, Theodore R. Sizer in particular. Such name-calling is unlikely to help educators “move forward together.”

Brant Abrahamson
The Teachers’ Press
Brookfield, Ill.

To the Editor:

As someone who has devoted considerable energy to romantic notions of a new professionalism, I found Stanley Pogrow’s Commentary both unsettling and sound. Educators must return to focusing on what students, particularly disadvantaged students, are and aren’t learning.

It is a wonderful thing that teachers should have transformational professional-development experiences. But what is more important is that these experiences translate into improved instruction.

Carol Jago
Santa Monica High School
Santa Monica, Calif.

Blame for Teacher Woes Goes Beyond Ed. Schools

To the Editor:

I assume that Chester E. Finn Jr. is referring to secondary teachers when he writes that “36 percent of those now teaching core subjects (English, math, science, social studies, foreign languages) neither majored nor minored in those subjects,” since it would be a bit excessive to expect elementary teachers to have majored in all the subjects they teach (“The Real Teacher Crisis,” Oct. 29, 1997.) While I agree that the statistic he cites does indicate an unfortunate lack of seriousness about secondary education, I question his statement that those teachers didn’t major in the subjects they teach because “they studied ‘education’ instead.”

It seems much more likely that they did, indeed, major in a subject (not education), but that they now find themselves teaching other subjects. Why? Because many states allow a teacher certified in one subject to teach another subject, so long as it doesn’t constitute the majority of the teacher’s day. Since this is allowed, districts do it. The teachers would prefer to teach the subjects in which they majored. But their districts find it more convenient and economical to use them to fill empty slots.

His clear disdain for schools of education has, perhaps, prevented Mr. Finn from seeing that the real culprits in “the real teacher crisis” are the policies that continue to make it possible for districts to staff courses inappropriately, in ways that are counter to what schools of education and teachers’ unions recommend. The teacher shortage may, in fact, be one of quality rather than quantity, but it is far too simplistic to blame education schools.

Jamie Gillespie-Walser
Madison, Wis.

Learning-Disabled Athlete Found NCAA Inflexible

To the Editor:

My son is Chad Ganden, the learning-disabled swimmer who first filed the complaint against the National Collegiate Athletic Association alleging discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act. You recently reported on the outcome of the U.S. Department of Justice’s study of this matter (“Justice: NCAA Biased Against Learning-Disabled Students,” Nov. 5, 1997.)

When my son attended high school, we had to make a choice. Should we follow the NCAA guidelines, or should we listen to his counselors and experts in the field of learning disabilities? We always chose those courses that were the best for Chad’s education, not his NCAA eligibility. We incorrectly assumed that we could reason with the NCAA.

At the end of Chad’s sophomore year, the NCAA and I exchanged four letters. I was left incredulous by the association’s total lack of flexibility when it came to the learning-disabled. Chad last took a remedial class during his sophomore year. The NCAA does not certify remedial classes as “core,” regardless of their content. Ap-parently, it doesn’t make any difference what a student learns.

By Chad’s senior year, he was taking all mainstream classes, including three advanced-level English courses, his primary area of disability. He received grades of B or better in all of his senior courses except one. He made the honor roll. He was a success story.

Yet the NCAA saw fit only to make him a “partial qualifier,” after an appeal by Michigan State University. This allowed him to practice with the swim team every day, but not compete in any meets. While he was able to receive his scholarship, he also lost a year of eligibility. The Justice Department letter orders the NCAA to grant Chad his fourth year of eligibility.

Imagine my feelings when reading Chad’s scholarship-renewal form, that for his second year of participation, the NCAA standard is a 1.8 grade point average. If my son had a 1.8 GPA, he would not be participating in athletics.

Warren Ganden
Lisle, Ill.

Peer-Review Critique Shows Unions’ ‘Demagoguery’

To the Editor:

The letter from Massachusetts’ Quincy Education Association president, Paul J. Phillips, was an eloquent confirmation of what Susan Staub was saying in her companion letter on the National Education Association’s new stance regarding peer review (“Union Critic, NEA Member Cite Peer-Review Flaws,” Letters, Nov. 12, 1997.)

Mr. Phillips complains about not being treated as a professional while in the same sentence chanting the mantra that, “workers organize to protect themselves"--a staple of organized labor’s “factory model,” which his own union has fought throughout the past two decades to install in every state with collective-bargaining laws.

Union officials already have, in far too many states, what Mr. Phillips calls “the power to determine who is a teacher.” Monopoly bargaining contracts restrict school policy and management decisions to the whim of negotiated contracts and force all teachers either to join or pay union dues just to get or keep their jobs.

As a retired teacher, I resent this kind of political demagoguery that’s been allowed for too long to demean the role of competent, dedicated, true professionals who care more about helping their kids reach their potential than they do about the union’s accruing more power.

Jo Seker
Shiremanstown, Pa.

Reading-Wars Casualty May Be Sound Research

To the Editor:

As the reading wars heat up, involving both state and federal legislatures, I appreciate your balanced reporting in (“Dealing With Dyslexia,” Nov. 12, 1997.)

I am concerned that the political haggling over reading will produce laws that enforce a “winning side’s” curricular or research point of view. Then we all lose. We will close off access to new academic research in what should be the free marketplace of divergent ideas.

Betsy Ketsdever
Nashville, Tenn.

Math-Reform Critic: ‘The Rebellion Is Real’

To the Editor:

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to respond to the letters criticizing my Oct. 15, 1997, Commentary, “The Second Great Math Rebellion” (‘Math Rebellion’ Essay Amuses, Disappoints, Tires,” Nov. 5, 1997 and “Math Reform Backlash Misguided, Ill-Informed,” Letters, Nov. 12, 1997.)

My research focuses on the policies and politics of educational reform. As a former public school teacher, I am particularly interested in reforms affecting the daily life of students, teachers, and parents. Scott P. Roberts, the director of the Annenberg/CPB Math and Science Project, is unaware of any unhappiness with the 1989 curriculum standards released by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, calling the idea of widespread discontent “a fiction.” Since 1995, Education Week has run at least five stories on public complaints with the math standards. Of recent stories in other periodicals, Time magazine’s aptly titled article of Aug. 25, 1997, “This Is Math?”, provides a full account of the critics’ objections. In addition, eminent mathematicians have criticized the standards in professional journals and in public hearings. The rebellion is real.

The letter writers speak of change and characterize those who disagree with the math-reform movement as afraid of change. Mr. Roberts fancies himself a revolutionary. Teacher Paul Juarez compares himself to Galileo. Margaret DeArmond, the president of the California Mathematics Council, says that opposition arises any time the status quo is threatened. These comments are blatantly ahistorical. There is nothing new or innovative about the progressive education espoused in the NCTM standards. The call for student-centered instruction, the belief that students learn best from hands-on activities instead of pencil-and-paper problems, the de-emphasis of basic skills, the fondness for learning through projects--these ideas can be found in books and journals dating back to the 1920s (for their intellectual history, see E.D. Hirsch’s The Schools We Need). The only innovation is the use of public policy, under the name of state curriculum standards, to impose this ideology on classroom teachers.

Contrary to the letter writers’ assumptions, reliable research does not support either progressive or (as they’re known today) constructivist models of teaching and learning, the guiding lights of contemporary math reform. Teacher-led direct instruction, presented in well-organized lessons and followed up by timely and corrective feedback, remains the instructional approach most convincingly substantiated by research. And earlier this year, a team of distinguished cognitive psychologists at Carnegie Mellon University, led by John R. Anderson and including Herbert A. Simon, a Nobel Prize winner, rejected constructivism’s basic principles as unsupported by evidence. Memorization and sustained practice, anathema to constructivists, are foundational to learning and cannot be wished away.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Gerald Kulm, writing in the Nov. 12, 1997, issue, wants a discussion based on facts and evidence, but it’s unclear what to conclude from the data he adduces. He reports that scores for high school seniors on the National Assessment of Educational Progress have been rising since 1990, apparently to suggest that the NCTM reforms are working. He then urges us to embrace the NCTM recommendations because “reform has not taken place,” noting that data from the Third International Mathematics and Science Study show 8th grade teachers emphasizing low-level skills in the classroom. Mr. Kulm can’t have it both ways. How can reforms never implemented take credit for improvement? Moreover, the upturn in NAEP scores for high school seniors began in 1982, seven years before the NCTM standards were written. The scores of students in California--the state that embraced math reform the earliest and has promoted it the most aggressively--have lagged the rest of the country’s in the 1990s. And the poor performance of California students extends across socioeconomic levels.

Andrew A. Zucker’s letter illustrates reformers’ ambivalence about basic skills. I wrote that the NCTM standards support de-emphasizing basic skills. Mr. Zucker cites the standards’ vague statement that students “should develop reasonable proficiency with basic facts and algorithms.” This quotation sheds no light on whether the standards endorse a de-emphasis of basic skills. But consider the following. His quotation comes from the document’s section on “Whole Number Computation,” the eighth standard presented for the K-4 curriculum. That’s right, eighth. This topic would have been first in a text believing, as I do, that computation with whole numbers is the most important mathematical skill learned by students in kindergarten through 4th grade.

No one believes in confining math instruction to computation alone, but I can’t imagine pointing toward a 10-year-old who can’t add, subtract, multiply, or divide with whole numbers and saying, “Now, there’s a good math student.” Compare that notion with the NCTM’s admonition, offered later in the same section, that “teachers must reduce the time and the emphasis they devote to computation and focus instead on the other mathematical topics and perspectives that are proposed.” I repeat the original point: The NCTM standards de-emphasize basic skills.

The letter writers miss the most important argument in my Commentary. As misguided as state standards have become by following the NCTM’s prescriptions, I do not advocate replacing one instructional orthodoxy with another. Curriculum standards should specify what students will learn and when they will learn it. They should spell out, for example, when multiplying decimals will be taught, whether calculating percents will be presented in 5th grade or 6th grade, and when students will tackle single-variable problems involving the use of fractions. Standards should describe the math curriculum in detail on a grade-by-grade basis, and then teachers should be judged on whether their students learn this content, not on whether their instruction is sufficiently student-centered or if students are spending enough time working in small groups.

Let’s remove the ideology from curriculum standards and keep state regulation out of the business of selecting instruction. Fortunately, because of the vigorous dissent of parents and teachers, the real reform project has begun: writing standards that declare the mathematics children will learn.

Tom Loveless
Associate Professor
John F. Kennedy School of Government
Harvard University
Cambridge, Mass.

University of Chicago Merits More Accurate Depiction

To the Editor:

Concerning your hilarious “One Teacher’s Opinion” in which one Jonathan Bassett celebrates the closing of the University of Chicago’s department of education (“The University of Chicago’s Department of Education Will Not Be Missed,” Nov. 12, 1997):

Mr. Bassett, of course, is entitled to his opinion, however benighted. But his observation that “Chicago’s department of education has not graduated a teacher in nearly 20 years” will come as a surprise to the many teachers who received their degrees from the department’s two distinguished M.A.T. programs in mathematics and English and who teach in public schools all over the country.

And this from a teacher of history? No wonder there is a national frenzy over standards.

Robert Dreeben
Department of Education
University of Chicago
Chicago, Ill.

To the Editor:

As the principal of a high school that has employed a number of graduates from the University of Chicago, I must disagree with your Commentary by Jonathan Bassett. My experiences have been uniformly positive. Although I hate to generalize, I have found teachers from Chicago’s M.A.T. programs to be thoughtful, knowledgeable about their field of study, and, most important, seasoned as the result of an internship program that skillfully mixes theory with practice. While I am not familiar with all aspects of Chicago’s graduate program in education, based on my interviews with graduates and observations of their classroom performance, I believe that something special is going on in those graduate classrooms.

My objection to Mr. Bassett’s comments, however, are not solely concerned with defending the University of Chicago’s graduate program in education. What disturbed me more was his low opinion of educational research and the role it should play in teacher education. In his words, such research is “arcane, irrelevant, and sometimes downright silly.” I concur with Mr. Bassett’s observation that “teachers don’t like it or read it” and that often the research “contradicts the knowledge they have gained from practice.” But disillusionment with the lack of connection between research and practice in education has a long history. Despite this, however, researchers in the last 10 years have made real progress in developing strategies and approaches that will support teachers in their classrooms.

In my own district, I am interviewing teachers who are much more aware of the research that guides their practice. The research community and those of us in the trenches still have a long journey ahead, but this does not mean we should end the journey.

What separates professionals from other workers is their capacity to take effective action in some domain governed by a body of knowledge, based on current research in that domain. I would not feel comfortable in the office of any professional who was not knowledgeable about the research in his or her field, nor should any parent feel comfortable with a teacher who is unaware of the theory that guides practice. W. Edwards Deming often made the comment that “without theory, we can only copy; without theory there is nothing to modify or learn.”

The University of Chicago’s own John Dewey always made a distinction between training and education. For him, the goal of training was to know “how.” The goal of education was to know “why.” What the current research into cognition appears to be telling us is that one cannot become an expert at a task or, in this case, in a profession without a deep understanding of the “why.” It is clear what goal Dewey believed schools should be pursuing and what goal would sustain a democracy. My hope is that other schools of education will provide a home for his ideas.

Alan C. Jones
Community High School District 94
West Chicago, Ill.

To the Editor:

I was one of six students who graduated from the the University of Chicago’s M.A.T. mathematics program in 1987. I am currently teaching math in a Chicago public high school. I know of 11 students who graduated from the same program three years later.

Jonathan Bassett--and Education Week‘s editors--were irresponsible in not checking this basic fact.

Thomas McDougal
Chicago, Ill.