Education Letter to the Editor


January 01, 1996 12 min read

Is There A Crisis?

David Ruenzel’s article “Is the Education Crisis a Fraud?’' [November/December] is well-put-together and balanced, although I note that no one has ever felt obligated to call me or any of the other “revisionists’’ to “balance’’ negative reports by school critics. I must, however, take issue with those who claim that our “numerically driven argument’’ has an “air of oppressive irrelevance.’'

Al Shanker once wrote three consecutive columns in his Sunday paid advertisement in The New York Times that began with such statements as “American students are performing at much lower levels than students in other industrialized nations’’ (not true). When I debated Denis Doyle, he claimed (falsely), “Expenditures for public education increased in the decade of the ‘80s by 34 percent in real dollars, but test scores were static.’' Eric Hanushek claimed (falsely) that “spending for public schools increased by 100 percent in the last 20 years, but test scores were flat.’' And A Nation at Risk listed 13 indicators of why we were at risk. They were all statistics. All of these statements were parts of “numerically driven arguments’’ used to clobber the schools.

The point is this: When the school-bashers thought they could use numerically driven arguments to pummel the schools, they found numerically driven arguments satisfactory. Now that I and Berliner and Hodgkinson and Rotberg and Jaeger and the Sandia engineers and others have proven that the statistics do not support their arguments, they declare the statistics irrelevant. How disingenuous! What hogwash! Now that we “revisionists’’ have shown that the bashers’ statistics do not support the bashers’ contentions, now that we have beaten the bashers at their own game, they want to change the rules.

I do agree with Richard Gibboney that schools do not instill passion in students about civic and social issues, although his statement that being an intellectual is easy is so dumb, only an academic could have made it. It is also true that in their misguided concern for the school-to-work transition, schools have overlooked the fact that the American worker is the most productive in the world. It is the school-to-leisure transition where schools are failing. How else to explain television?

I invite readers to check out for themselves the data I present in speeches, workshops, and the annual “Bracey Report on the Condition of Public Education,’' as well as those in the Berliner-Biddle treatise. If they do, I predict they’ll come to see the Doyles, Hanusheks, and others as mere ideology peddlers.

Gerald Bracey
Alexandria, Va.

The history of public education in the United States is a history of reformers: James Gordon Carter, Horace Mann, and John Dewey to name just a few. Whatever they found was a disaster and whatever replaced it soon became yet another disaster. Somehow, our public schools have never been up to “the daunting task of preparing children for the enormous challenges of the next century,’' and every change in organization, curriculum, or philosophy fails “to transform public schools into vital and successful places of learning.’'

To even suggest that the status quo in public education is better than we prefer to believe it to be is unacceptable, a kind of approval of the disaster that is. Berliner and Biddle will probably be remembered more for the fact that they found something good and constructive in public education than for any other reason.

In the United States, public education is like weight-loss regimens: Today’s best seller is tomorrow’s failure. There is no apparent end to it, and there is always a market for what was wrong with what we did yesterday and what we are doing today. To paraphrase an aphorism (I think it’s an aphorism): The difference between a turkey and the education establishment is that the turkey can be plucked only once.

Education is full of chicken-littles who see any problem involving kids (promiscuous sex, violence, drug use, “immorality,’' smoking, drinking, sloppy dress or speech, low reading or math scores) as provocation to rush off to announce that the sky is really falling this time and that the Japanese or Germans are going to leave the United States behind. We never tire of it. And there will be the devil to pay for people like me who believe that since the sky still hasn’t fallen, maybe we have been and are doing something right. Should we stop trying to make schools better? Of course not. But what has beating up on everyone in sight done for us?

Charles Breinin
Tonawanda, N.Y.

As a former teacher and now a library aide in a technical high school, I feel that the liberals and conservatives should “get with the program’’ and recognize the true educational crisis: a lack of respect toward education, administrators, teachers, peers, and students. This diminishes the effectiveness of skilled teachers and the advanced technology at their command. Visit any high school on any given day; the number of students who display a lack of respect toward even themselves will shock you.

Your article should have discussed the breakdown of the family, family mobility, the increased responsibilities placed on the doorsteps of educational institutions, the placement of dysfunctional teenagers in

the regular classroom instead of in alternative schools, the hue and cry that civil rights have been violated if an educator takes issue with inappropriate behavior--the list could go on forever!

But please don’t insult my intelligence by publishing an article that skirts the real issues and promotes the causes of intellectuals who have nothing better to do with their time.

Charlotte Fitzpatrick
Nashoba Valley Technical High School
Westford, Mass.

The problems in American education exist because educators do not want to look at themselves honestly and because the education establishment is so worried about keeping tax dollars rolling in. They make excuses for poor performance and point the finger at everyone else, when, in fact, they could improve education at the school level so voters wouldn’t dream of vouchers. Why don’t we do that?

Scott Bonner
Alta Loma, Calif.

Rewriting History

As an educator with feet in both worlds--speech therapist in one district, board of education member in another--I am concerned by certain aspects of the article “Rewriting History,’' by Todd Gitlin [November/December]. Unfortunately, educators have come to expect attacks from “all-knowing’’ politicians, right-wing conservatives, the back-to-basics movement, and local self-interest movements. However, to have educators like Mary Hoover and Kitty Kelly Epstein sit in their university offices and decide what’s best for “us’’ smacks of the royal use of “we’’ that they have no right to appropriate.

Cheers to the Oakland School Board’s attempt to back its teachers’ decision concerning textbook choice. Raspberries to those who paint with a wide brush accusing “racism’’ when serious discussion leads to differences of opinion.

Tim Louchart
St. Charles, Mich.

The Spark Within

I disagree with the statement by Julian Freund [“Letters,’' November/December] that “what schools need more than ever today are educators, not managers.’' The two jobs should coalesce in the effective facilitator’s role to impart knowledge, enhance skills, and encourage inquiry and responsibility in lifelong learners while managing paper and time.

Freund wonders what has “killed’’ his passion and the productive atmosphere he first found when he entered teaching. He blames “a fog of fatigue’’ and “top-down management control of every aspect of the teaching process.’' Instead of whining about the constraints of given conditions, some teachers collaborate and choose staff development to achieve solutions. For 20 years as a classroom teacher, I have viewed students as my clients and teaching as a profession with goals, assessment, and accountability on both sides of the desk. Accomplished teachers are able to “orchestrate a dynamic class’’ when they are reflective and optimistic about the business and art of our profession.

I am proud to say I am among the first nationally board-certified teachers and represent hundreds of passionate educators across America. May I echo the advice James Delisle offered in his essay [“Comment’’] in the same issue, “To the many naysayers in our profession, I kindly ask a favor: Resign or retire or retrain or do whatever it takes to reignite the idealism that brought you here in the first place.’' I thank Freund for 30 years of service and for recognizing the time to leave. The spark is in the individual, not the institution.

Helene Alalouf
Yonkers, N.Y.

Designer Toolbox

“The Waldorf Way’’ [October] sounds like a fine way indeed for those whose families can afford to fork over $5,400 a year. However, given that the parents of Pine Hill children are likely to “disdain television . . . and favor such avocations as gardening and cabinetmaking . . .,’' I suspect these children would get a Waldorfian education even without Pine Hill.

For those of us who work solely with the impoverished and otherwise disadvantaged, this news of the Pine Hill Waldorf School is useless. Most of the children I work with are delayed in speech and language skills. Many have other disabilities, ranging from memory and word retrieval problems to all-encompassing physical disabilities requiring aides to accompany them through the school day. Many are victims of physical or sexual abuse or live in drug-infested homes. Some have stories to tell about a mother who stabbed an uncle, a stepfather who murdered a father, or a brother who is in prison. These are the kids who need the Waldorf Way--but can’t get there from here.

You do public educators a grave disservice by teasing them with five pages on the wonders of a Waldorf education while only mentioning in passing that Milwaukee has a public Waldorf school. If the Waldorf Way is to mean anything to the rest of us, we need to know the details of how it works with children who, as the story points out, “have witnessed and endured so much suffering and violence that they have been compelled to grow up far too quickly.’' And how shall we incorporate the child who cannot clap or stomp her feet while chanting the multiplication tables?

If ever children needed a “toolbox for life,’' my kids do! But so long as the Waldorf Way is presented as a “designer’’ toolbox, it does not offer hope--it inspires anger that adults are still dividing the next generation into the haves and have-nots.

Cara Sroges
Hammond, La.

Class Size

Smaller is better [“Research,’' October]. You bet it is. Every classroom teacher will attest to that. This year for the first time, I have one incredibly small section. Only 13 students (don’t tell anyone). My other four sections range from 25 to 30 students. What a difference.

With 30 or more kids in five different sections, it is impossible to reach each one. With 13 in a class, I can not only know exactly who needs to work on what, but I can also actually spend class time working with them; I can catch them before they fall. More important, the class became an intimate group within a few weeks. After six weeks, no one was failing. In fact, everyone had A’s or B’s, except for two who had C’s, which they had to work hard to get. In a large class, these two would very likely have failed.

So why, when everyone, especially proponents of charter schools, knows that small has to be better for kids, do we not do that? The answer, of course, is that money is the bottom line. As the article points out, it has to be cheaper to pay for more teachers than to pay the incredibly high cost to society of having large numbers of citizens unable to adapt to the work world because they never learned to read and do math.

Chris Swanson
Lawton, Mich.

A Misreading?

Of all the books I’ve read on Japanese early education, Catherine Lewis’ Educating Hearts and Minds [“Books,’' September] is the one I would recommend most highly. It is written with a clarity and honesty that I feel your reviewer, David Ruenzel, was perhaps predisposed to miss.

I have spent a good deal of time visiting and observing in Japanese preschools and give credit to Lewis for an unusually objective and even-handed approach to her subject. For her, the goal is to see what works and what doesn’t and what might be of great use here in our own country. I had the feeling reading your review that Ruenzel had been too influenced by media attention to Japanese education, too inclined to believe the gross generalizations that have been in the news, usually about problems at the junior high level or wrong-headed assumptions that all children in Japan are brought up from the beginning to be robots.

The beauty of Educating Hearts and Minds is that it gets to the heart of Japanese early education at its best and shows us how a great educator of our very own, John Dewey, was the inspiration for it all.

Susan Grilli
Grand View, N.Y.

Corporal Punishment

I couldn’t believe my eyes when I read that policymakers in a number of states are taking a renewed interest in the merits of corporal punishment in schools [“Current Events,’' October]. I don’t believe in coddling students, but I also don’t believe in causing them pain, either. Research clearly points out that corporal punishment does more harm than good. Students who are hit experience lower self-esteem and fear of the one who strikes them. I don’t think good teachers want their students to fear them (respect, yes, but never fear).

As a teacher, I am constantly aware of how I touch students. Our educational system is in a sad state when we cannot hug our students, but we can hit them!

David Scharfenberg
Portland, Ore.

School Or Prison?

It is a sad day when a school opens without the proper funding and the technology needed in today’s fast-paced modern world. So one should be happy with the $41 million spent on Townview Magnet Center, Dallas’ newest high school--but not with this list: “37 surveillance cameras. Six metal detectors. Five full-time police officers. Intruder-resistant gates.’' Critics are right to call this a prison! [“Under Surveillance,’' October.]

I don’t deny the terrible situations that many of our nation’s schools are in. And I don’t think that it’s right for any student to go to school in fear; that cannot contribute to a positive education. But neither is going to a school with the above “safety features.’' What can be gained from rounding our students up for eight hours a day and treating them like prisoners--even if they are able to go home at the end of the day?

Michael Taylor
Vassar College
Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

A version of this article appeared in the January 01, 1996 edition of Teacher as Letters