Education Letter to the Editor


May 07, 1997 9 min read

On Teaching, Aristotle, And the ‘Narrative Thread’

To the Editor:

Congratulations to James M. Banner Jr. and Harold C. Cannon for highlighting the ''mystery’’ of teaching as something over and above knowledge of subject and technique (“The ‘Who’ of Teaching,” April 16, 1997).

After 25 years of teaching and observing teachers, I whole-heartedly agree with the authors that “it is the qualities of our selves and characters that are immediately on display when we try to instruct people ... and it is these qualities ... that are likely to count in determining our effectiveness with any students.”

Education is a particularly human venture and at its best is oriented toward forming the outline of souls (or “magnanimity,” as the ancients called it) so that a person can enjoy the fullness of life. Information, while important, can always be acquired later, but the expansion of soul cannot be delayed without cost.

This expansion of soul, I think, can be identified with a narrative sense of one’s life; that life is warfare like the Iliad or a journey like the Odyssey or one of the other great metaphors from literature. It is true that a story is not good when it is like life, but life is good when it is like a story, and it is clear that many people engage in self-destructive behavior when they lose the narrative thread of their lives.

Students make intuitive judgments about teachers regarding how well they are handling life. It is amazing how often students’ impersonations of teachers not only capture quirks and eccentricities but also the innermost qualities of a person (although I must say that students generally do impersonations of those whom they recognize as having positive qualities). They do not judge whether they are perfect human specimens but whether they have certain self-knowledge and whether they are struggling to live some sort of ideal of what it means to be a human being. That is, whether they have a story for their own lives.

The authors suggest that “the components of self that make up all teaching can be--and ought to be--identified, specified, discussed, and analyzed.” I suggest that this is precisely what Aristotle did in his Nicomachean Ethics and that his analysis of character is as valid today as it was then, especially when studied in the context of his Politics, Poetics, and Rhetoric. Aristotle’s philosophical approach would provide a solid basis for reinvigorating schools of education.

Joseph W. McPherson
The Heights School
Potomac, Md.

Child-Care Accreditation Shown Beneficial in Study

To the Editor:

Though not apparent in your story’s headline, the overall findings of the recent study of National Association for the Education of Young Children accreditation are quite positive (“Accreditation of Child Care No Guarantee, Study Asserts,” April 16, 1997). NAEYC-accredited programs were six times more likely than nonaccredited programs to provide good to excellent quality--61 percent vs. 10 percent. No accredited programs rated as “low quality,” as compared with 21 percent of nonaccredited programs. We know of no other accrediting body that can boast of such positive findings from independent research.

At the same time, we are concerned if any NAEYC-accredited programs fall below our standard of excellence. The naeyc continually strives to improve the quality and efficiency of our accreditation system. Currently, we are examining a number of strategies to improve validator training and better monitor quality, and we are in the process of revising the accreditation criteria.

We make no claims that accreditation should ever be considered a guarantee of quality. Nevertheless, as the data from this study suggest, NAEYC accreditation greatly increases the likelihood that a program will be of high quality while lack of accreditation is more likely to guarantee nothing.

Marilyn M. Smith
Executive Director
National Association for the Education of Young Children
Washington, D.C.

Proficiency-Test ‘Nightmare’ Recalled From 1970s Reform

To the Editor:

James Delisle’s essay on the shortcomings of proficiency tests (“How Proficiency Tests Fall Short (Let Me Count the Ways),” April 2, 1997) brought to mind for me the absurdities of the proficiency tests instituted in Richmond, Va., during the late 1970s. Enduring that era was one of many academic nightmares in my career.

I was a 9th and 10th grade English teacher, although our titles were changed to “communicative arts” teachers during that time. Some committee decided that communicative arts had seven different areas, and so seven proficiency tests were designed. We were mandated to pretest all students within the first three weeks of school. Those who failed--virtually everyone, since the tests were administered without any prior teaching--had until April 15 to be remediated and retested.

On the surface, this approach may appear to have a certain logic. In actuality, logic is the last word one would use to describe it.

There was the speech test, which required a three-minute speech introducing a guest speaker. Of the 10 possible points, only two could be lost, even by non-English-speakers. I know this because my first Vietnamese student had eye contact, posture, volume, and gestures sufficient to earn eight of the possible 10 points. He lost the two points allotted for enunciation because I could not understand a thing he said. A score of seven was required to pass.

The district provided us with two pink plastic toy telephones. We sat in closets listening to one student at a time ordering yellow push-button wall phones to be installed in their kitchens. The other 34 students were unsupervised while this part of the oral-proficiency test was administered.

The writing-proficiency test required a two-paragraph composition. My experience had prepared me for one-, three-, and five-paragraph essays, but the two-paragraph variety confused me a bit. I need not have worried. With a total of 25 possible penalty points for punctuation, capitalization, and spelling errors, it was virtually impossible to score below the 70 percent required for passing, even if every word was misspelled and no punctuation or capitalization was used. The rest of the points were awarded for “ideas.” Nearly everyone wrote about admiring his or her mother. Who is prepared to critique that idea?

April 15 finally arrived, and from then until mid-June we were allowed to teach again. By early May, the local press had very positive headlines about the impressive proficiency-test results in the Richmond public schools.

I know we educators need to do better than we are doing. Far too many students graduate without basic literacy skills. The correlation between illiteracy and crime is well-documented. Surely everyone knows by now that our current approach is not working. If proficiency tests could deliver widespread literacy, I would be their biggest fan. Unfortunately, like James Delisle, I have been there and done that. I surely hope I am never part of such an outrage again.

Donna W. Murphy
Bethel, Alaska

Domenech, Too, Offers L.A. Spanish Fluency in a Chief

To the Editor:

Your article on the finalists for the Los Angeles superintendency (“Deputy Among 3 Finalists for L.A. Superintendent’s Job,” April 16, 1997) is an example of journalists not doing their homework. You discuss Ruben Zacharias, the current deputy superintendent, as being potentially the “first superintendent who speaks fluent Spanish.” You merely mention the names and titles of the other two finalists, William E.B. Siart and Dan Domenech.

I have known Dan Domenech for many years and have used his inspiring example of achievement in all of my multicultural presentations. Mr. Domenech was born in Cuba, and when he entered elementary school did not speak a word of English.

His career has been an excellent example for any person, native-born or immigrant, to emulate. He has risen to one of the most prestigious positions as the superintendent of the regional board that oversees 18 Suffolk County, N.Y., districts and was recently elected president of the American Association of School Administrators.

I believe that Dan Domenech should be interviewed on his merits. His inclusive attitudes will satisfy any caring citizen, without regard to religious, racial, or ethnic background.

Robert Ricken
Superintendent of Schools
North Bellmore Union Free School District
North Bellmore, N.Y.

Idaho Superintendent Rejects Portrait in ‘Quality Counts’

To the Editor:

After finally having a chance to catch my breath after a very busy legislative session, I have taken a closer look at our state’s summary in your state-by-state report card (“Quality Counts,” Jan. 22, 1997) and feel compelled to respond with some concerns.

The information on Idaho seemed to come from another state. It did not report any of the state’s recent legislative and departmental successes, even though I had six months earlier clearly illuminated those successes in an interview. In addition to containing many errors, the article continually implied that I alone, as state superintendent, was responsible for a lack of progress in the state.

What you failed to do was explain that Idaho no longer uses the National Assessment of Educational Progress testing measurement and that the scores in your report for Idaho were from 1992, which was before I was elected superintendent in 1994.

In fact, one of the major reasons I ran for office was that the citizens of Idaho were demanding that basic skills, including reading with phonics and math computation, be taught to every public school child, something that was not occurring in the majority of school districts in our state prior to my election.

A major reform movement was well under way then that had strong support from the federal government. This effort promoted national standards in math that were deplorable. In reading, students were not held accountable for spelling accuracy or for grammar. The focus instead was on promoting the philosophies of outcomes-based education, or OBE, which advocated a grading system that dumbed down public education by allowing students to take tests over and over again and, as a result, failed to teach young people how to be responsible learners.

These reform efforts’ goal was that students feel good about themselves. As a result, test scores were rarely considered as a measure of achievement. In fact, most districts were not even looking at ways to measure achievement.

So, when I got in office in 1995, I led a movement to end OBE promotions. The efforts I advanced focused instead on best practices--such as teacher behaviors that lead to high academic achievement and cost-effective ways to deliver academic services to students and increase accountability through testing.

The school improvement committee that was in place in our state was disbanded. I put a hold on the state curriculum frameworks that contained philosophies promoting OBE practices.

During my first year in office, we successfully got funding to promote accountability through our statewide testing program and to provide in-service for K-3 teachers in reading with phonics.

Your assessment of our state’s progress did not mention those successes. Why? The only people interviewed were those whose philosophies I oppose. I have been trying to put an end to their agenda, so of course they aren’t going to support what I am doing for the public school children in our state.

Meanwhile, the good news is that our test scores have gone up by 22 percentile points in grades 3-11.

Education trends are based on history. I did not create the controversy over education that currently exists in our state. I merely brought what the parents wanted to the forefront. I am a change agent trying to support parents, who want accountability and high academic standards.

Anne C. Fox
State Superintendent of Public Instruction
Department of Education
Boise, Idaho

A version of this article appeared in the May 07, 1997 edition of Education Week