Education Opinion


November 01, 1992 14 min read

Unforgivable Events

I commend David Hill on his generally well-written and accurate article, “The Writing On The Wall” [October], about San Marino (Calif.) Unified School District teacher Georgia Gabor’s fight against anti-Semitism.

In quoting me, however, Hill may have misunderstood the main point I was trying to make regarding Gabor. His quote of me is as follows: “She’s a very intense person, and that can put a lot of people off. She tends to polarize people. She’s loved by some people, but she’s also hated by others.”

Hill’s quote is accurate but incomplete. He should have gone on to say that the point of my saying anything about her intensity and its effect on others was that anyone can have such an effect and by no means should any individual or organization, because of their dislike for a person based on such reasoning, behave in the manner witnessed in San Marino.

Thank you David Hill and Teacher Magazine for taking the time, resources, and space to expose the unforgivable events and related occurrences that have formed the tangled web that some residents and the school district of San Marino have woven. Under the circumstances as I have understood them over a long period of time, Gabor is justified in lodging her lawsuit against all concerned, if, for no other reason, than to serve notice that a truly democratic society does not tolerate such bigoted behavior.

Robert Lutes
Temple City, Calif.

A Grand Experiment

I read with interest “Designing New American Schools” [Current Events, September]. As I read through the list of award-winning designs, I recognized some schools I know. The article then states that, although the methods proposed in the designs are widely recognized as effective, “all the concepts together have not been put into practice in one school before—and particularly not in an entire school system.”

I beg to differ. Multi-age classrooms that enable students to progress at their own pace; small groupings of students and teachers who stay together for several years; individual learning contracts; cooperative learning; hands-on and project-oriented activities; a strong focus on character development and community service; and blurred lines between in-school and out-of-school learning: All of these are used daily in thousands of home-schools across America. No wonder homeschooling is mushrooming!

Although homeschools exist autonomously and differ widely in curriculum, they constitute a very large, nebulous school system, with approximately 500,000 students nationwide. Perhaps the education community has missed a grand experiment that quietly exists right in its midst.

Jacque Williamson
Charlottesville, Va.

I read with great interest the news brief about the New American Schools winners. These schools do not appear to meet the “break-the-mold” criteria asked for in the requests for new school designs.

Our small computer consulting firm actually produced a proposal for the New American School Development Corp. based on the concept of providing the “engine for change.” Through our research, we had concluded that there was no shortage of good ideas but rather a missing mechanism for allowing change to occur. After reading synopses of the winners, we still conclude that the issue of how to cause change has not been addressed.

While we congratulate the winners and truly wish them the very best of luck, we wish that the “same old names” (James Comer, Theodore Sizer, Marc Tucker, etc.) were not always the only ones whose voices are supported.

Marty Gale
Product Manager
Future Tense
Mercer Island, Wash.

Turning The Tables

The Harkness method, as described in David Ruenzel’s article “Table Talk” [September], can promote animated discussion, critical thinking, and stimulate motivated, prepared students. It can also degenerate into boring, uncomfortable silences and aimless conversations and cause many students to feel nothing was accomplished in class. I am uncomfortable with the fact that the teacher abdicates authority and minimizes expertise. Do adolescents really learn that much from each other? Do our instructors have nothing to offer but a sage nod? I am concerned that students do not get facts and information. Critical thinking is only one educational goal and follows only after a careful accumulation of information.

Personally, I find it very boring to listen to adolescents fumble for four periods; it is particularly excruciating when they are unprepared, which is often. I like to talk, to challenge and provoke, to give of my knowledge and experience; and I think some of my remarks lodge in young and unformed minds. I do learn from my students. But they learn more from me. That is normal in any healthy society where teachers are respected as role models, experts, and conveyors of wisdom and not just seen as “facilitators.”

As a conservative in a very liberal profession, I assert that critical thinking is not a reasonable goal for all students, and in every human society there have been leaders and followers. I also take issue with Ruenzel’s contention that the “gift of gab” makes a leader.

The Harkness method is not revolutionary, and it is only one weapon in the teacher’s arsenal. It is not nearly so useful for math, science, and languages. Ruenzel is provocative in reminding teachers of this weapon; but to imply that it can revolutionize education and to assert that most American teachers are drill sergeants with memorization as a goal is nonsense.

Peter Gibbon
Hackley School
Tarrytown, N.Y.

Standardized Testing

Elizabeth Schulz’s article “Enemy Of Innovation” [September] is a good example of why education is not considered a full-fledged profession by many. Every profession has a commonly recognized system of determining accountability. Standardized testing is one of the means that we have to determine outcomes in education.

Her thesis that standardized testing is the enemy of innovation is certainly not supported by any objective data. Suppose I propose a contrary hypothesis: Standardized tests encourage innovation by laying the foundation for high-order thinking. How would we go about responsibly determining which of these formulations are closer to the truth?

Certainly not by the kind of anecdotal evidence that dominated most of Schulz’s article. We would need some common standard between us for determining the superiority of one hypothesis over the other, or perhaps we might determine that neither hypothesis has much impact on innovation.

What may well be true is that both the school and the society do not respond appropriately or promptly enough with remediation efforts to the insights that standardized tests now do provide. We may need to computerize standardized tests to lower their cost and to limit the amount of time they take in the classroom. And we certainly need far greater research efforts to determine the various variables—individual, school, community, etc.—that affect the scores. What also may be true is that we need better standardized tests than the ones now available, but certainly it makes no sense to do away with them entirely.

I don’t believe that it would be helpful for us to get ourselves in the position that Olympic diving judges find themselves, where ratings of diving competence may be dependent on individual idiosyncrasies, national preference, or how many drinks the judge had at lunch.

Current standardized tests are not the evil Schulz’s article claims they are. But even if they were, as long as we cannot produce a better means of measurement and accountability, we had better not abandon them. As long as this type of “Schulzian” reasoning is in education, and unfortunately it is very common, education will continue to flounder.

Robert Primack
Associate Professor
University of Florida
Gainesville, Fla.

I very much enjoyed the article “Enemy Of Innovation.” It provides an excellent overview of the problems associated with standardized modes of assessment. I applaud Elizabeth Schulz for her fine research on this subject.

I was disappointed to learn of the plight of the Saturn School in Minneapolis. In many ways, I think it was destined to come to this test-score gunfight, but it provided a fine model for break-the-mold education.

As a principal of a suburban elementary school, I take some exception to Peter Johnston’s assertion in the story that testing is most benign in the suburbs, where, by and large, the students do pretty well. Believe me, testing is high-stakes stuff in many suburbs.

At Crow Island School in Winnetka, Ill., we have been exploring portfolios and other forms of alternative assessment over the past five years. Probably, the major lesson I’ve learned from this project is that portfolios will not address the unresolved issues of standardized testing. I fear that my colleagues across the country who are struggling to grade or quantify student portfolios are following a dangerous path that will quickly lead us right back to the standardization we are hoping to move beyond. Portfolios need to belong to the kids, and that is their strongest value.

Elizabeth Hebert
Winnetka Public Schools
Winnetka, Ill.

The excellent article on how standardized testing damages education reform did not stress one key point: Those who seek assessment reform must educate parents and the community. If the parents whose children attend the Saturn School understood how irrelevant the multiple-choice tests are to real learning, they would not worry if the scores dropped.

To accomplish this end, teachers and administrators must also become organizers. Yes, it is tooting our own horn, but FairTest has published a booklet, Standardized Tests and Our Children: A Guide to Testing Reform, that explains the pitfalls of testing in language accessible to parents and the community. It also discusses alternatives, as well as how to organize for change. Copies are available for $4 each from: FairTest, 342 Broadway, Cambridge, MA 02139.

Monty Neill
Associate Director
Veda Wright Field Organizer
FairTest Cambridge, Mass.

Thanks For The Ride

The article “Back Home In Indiana” [September] opened the memory floodgates for me. As a former special education teacher, I saw myself and my students in the stunning vignettes Mary Koepke presented. It was so easy to note not only the kind of students they were, but also the kind of teacher she was—sensitive, open, optimistic. How lucky her students were to have her.

Mary, thank you so much for going back home to Indiana. In doing so, you brought along many emotional hitchhikers, like me.

James Delisle
Associate Professor
Kent State University
Kent, Ohio

I am writing to tell you how much I enjoyed “Back Home In Indiana.” The message the article sends is one of great importance to whole language teachers and the future of education.

One of the principles of whole language is that no one becomes literate without personal involvement in literacy. Whole language teachers take this principle to mean that priority must be given to finding out in what ways the children they work with are already literate and build curriculum from this base. Your article documents not only how difficult it is to put this principle into practice but also what an education it is for both students and teachers to do so.

Jerome Harste
Professor of Language Education
Indiana University
Bloomington, Ind.

Mad And Hurt

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to subscribe to your magazine, but unfortunately I am currently too mad, frustrated, and discouraged to even contemplate the expense.

You see, I work for the Los Angeles Unified School District, where the board of education wants to cut teacher salaries by a total of 20 percent! This figure is made up of salary cuts, benefit cuts, furlough days, minutes added to the school day, and many more things that will directly impact the teachers and students.

I am a relatively new teacher. I started my third year this fall, but I will be working more and being paid $500 less a month than during my first year. That is like working for free one day a week. I have no extra money to improve my teaching with magazine subscriptions; I’ll be lucky to pay my rent every month without working a second job.

I am ashamed of this profession. I am hurt that the powers that employ me and my outstanding colleagues could even think of asking teachers to volunteer in this way. You can bet that I will not be in this profession for much longer if it continues to be so unprofessional.

JoAnne Ruvoli
Long Beach, Calif.

Please Change Back

I’ve been wanting to write this letter to you ever since you changed formats. I was drawn to Teacher Magazine from the very first issue. It had a depth that other Teacher Magazines lacked. It addressed issues that were of great concern to me and on a level that I found intellectually satisfying. I found myself reading it from cover to cover; a beautiful love affair had begun. But then it happened … the ultimate nightmare; you changed formats.

When I got the first copy with the current format, I felt disappointed and even cheated. After all, I had paid for a magazine that had excellent content and came in a high-quality, professional, and convenient format; then, in the middle of my subscription, that format was changed to one that is much poorer in quality, unsightly, and awkward.

Please, don’t misunderstand me; I think content is the most important thing. Yours is the only magazine for teachers that really captures my interest and deals with the issues that are important to me. However, content is not the only thing, and your new format has made the magazine less desirable to read and to keep as a resource for reference.

I would much rather pay a little more money for a format that is more practical and pleasing than save money by lowering the quality of the magazine. Aren’t there other ways to cut costs without sacrificing so much? I am interested in knowing if other readers feel the same way I do.

My subscription is up for renewal, and I am very tempted not to renew. I seem to be reading the magazine less and less, but perhaps I’ve just been too busy. I don’t want to lose a good magazine, and I’m sure you don’t want to lose a subscriber, so please, please change back to the regular-size, glossy format.

James Vaughn
Remnant Christian School
Whittier, Calif.

Editor’s Note: Because of this lousy recession, the only alternative to changing formats last January was to cease publishing. We chose to change and survive in the hope that the economy will eventually recover and allow us to move steadily back toward the magazine you loved and miss. Meanwhile, we will continue to provide substantive and interesting content that you won’t find in any other magazine for teachers. We hope you will hang in there with us.

Don’t Forget Foxfire

Your recent reform-oriented cover story, “Reinventing America’s Schools: A guide to the ideas and programs that are driving education reform” [May/June], overlooked the strong and growing group of teachers that make up the 13 Foxfire networks nationwide.

The Foxfire teachers’ networks exist to equip teachers to use the Foxfire approach in their classrooms and to support them in so doing. The Foxfire approach to teaching was conceived more than 25 years ago by Eliot Wigginton through his work with high school classes in Rabun Gap, Ga. It is described in his book, Sometimes a Shining Moment. The approach continues to be refined and expanded by close to 2,000 practitioners nationwide. In Wigginton’s words: “Students take learning to heart when they are given a genuine voice in planning what happens in their classrooms, when learning prepares them for the real world, and when they produce a product that will be valued by a real audience outside the classroom. The Foxfire approach to teaching brings life to the classroom through thought-provoking projects that have meaning to students.”

The goal of our organization is to encourage individual development through schooling so that we can achieve a more effective and humane democratic society.

Kentucky teachers are finding that the Foxfire approach is a way to fulfill the goals of the Kentucky Education Reform Act. Both suggest concrete ways to help children learn; both provide means for teachers to advance professionally; both are concerned with empowering teachers and their students; both are interested in involving more of the community in the day-to-day life of the schools; and both are interested in developing students willing and able to participate in a democratic society.

We welcome the opportunity to provide further information on the Foxfire approach and our networks. Please contact Fallsfire, the Louisville, Ky.-area Foxfire network, at (502) 339-9050 or the Foxfire Teacher Outreach Office at (706) 746-5318.

Linda Carden, Mona Jones, Dottie Olson, and Dotty Turnbull
Louisville, Ky.

A version of this article appeared in the September 19, 1984 edition of Education Week as Letters