Education Letter to the Editor


February 01, 1998 9 min read

Say Again?

Howard Good’s criticism of education jargon “Say What?” [January] was wrongheaded; his criticism of educators (which I suspect was the real motivation for the essay) was malicious and unfair.

Every discipline uses jargon to promote economy and efficiency in communication, and education is no exception. However, few other branches of science have the need to communicate with those who are not familiar with the discipline’s jargon. An educator using IEP is no different from a journalist using abbreviations like SEC or NBA. To suggest that jargon is used to “scare off intruders” is absurd.

Education is in a constant state of reform, and every wave of new ideas generates a few new buzzwords. Language is a living entity, constantly changing to facilitate effective communication, although maybe not for those who take their linguistic cues from a 1948 essay and the King James version of the Bible.

Ken Motamed

Murder’s Meaning

It may come as a revelation to Matthew Dwyer that teachers are people, too, fully worthy of the respect and consideration that I’m sure he would claim he gives his students. But I’m afraid that the limits of his compassion (and reading ability) are painfully evident in “A Lesson In Life,” [January], in which he cavalierly denigrates me and my 30-year teaching career solely on the basis of my essay “Killed By Kindness,” [August/September 1997] and my reaction to the murder of his friend, Jonathan Levin.

Surely it is a super-subtle reading of my essay to see it as a justification of my “uninspired work” or a basis for calling me a “weak and cowardly” teacher, as well as “misguided” and “apathetic.” And many hard-working teachers will be surprised to learn from Dwyer that my contentment with a clearly written essay or a thoughtful, reasoned response to one of my reading assignments was an example of my “minimal expectations.”

Unintentionally, Dwyer supports one of the main points of my essay: He, too, with his too, too noble vaporing is in the dreary tradition of the ‘60s super teacher. He tells us that Levin “rejected the status quo” and “led his students in a new, positive direction” and knew that “desperate, uncommon efforts had to be made to teach many of his students.” But the angel is in the details! Where are the specifics? Instead of belaboring my hoary head, Dwyer should have tried to redeem me and other maladroits by telling how teaching should be done—in a thoughtful, reasoned essay which, after all, is only a minimal expectation.

Edmund Janko
Bayside, New York

What was most remarkable about Matthew Dwyer’s article was his furious attack not on the convicted felon who is alleged to have murdered Jonathan Levin but on Edmund Janko and Eva Ostrum, teachers who had written essays “Killed By Kindness,” [August/September 1997] about the perils of getting too close to one’s students. We are writing in response to his attacks on Janko, whom we know well and who had a long and distinguished career at Bayside High School in Queens.

Despite Dwyer’s dismissal of such goals, teaching kids from a high school like Taft to write a good essay and give coherent answers to questions would do more “to fulfill their potential” than watching sports with them and “mulling over life’s possibilities,” as Levin and Dwyer did with Levin’s alleged murderer. Indeed, if Dwyer can get the students in his classes to write an essay as good as his—even with its platitudes and ignorance of human realities—he will have been successful as a teacher.

Dwyer, however, after a few years on the job, believes he has a solution to a problem that has vexed serious educators for more than 200 years: namely, how to get the underclass sufficiently well-educated, an achievement which Dwyer, with breathtaking arrogance, no doubt finds too small-minded. It is clear why Dwyer so easily mistakes Janko’s gentlemanly modesty for failure. He also readily dismisses the effect of a teacher like Janko as a role model—a man who works, supports a family, leads a civilized life, has expectations of his students, and through the publication of about 100 articles has added to the public discussion of education. All this contrasts with Dwyer, a grown man who indulges in little more than self-gratification by being palsy-walsy with his students.

How many teachers like Jonathan Levin, who by all accounts was a wonderful person—imprudent or otherwise—have to get murdered before Dwyer will understand what a teacher’s job is really about?

Richard Sussman
Elizabeth Power
Bayside, New York

I completely agree with Matthew Dwyer and believe in Jonathan Levin’s teaching philosophy. I am one of those teachers who tries to reach out to students, whether in the special education resource room, my homeroom, or outside the classroom. Wherever I have taught over the years, I have been consistently amazed at the number of teachers who really do not address their students’ social-emotional needs. Many teachers know their academic subjects, but only a few make a difference on a daily basis in the lives of their students.

I have been criticized by colleagues for “getting too close” to students. Of course, you have to be careful what you say or do with your students, especially if you are one of those teachers who “connects” with them. Teachers, even indifferent ones, should realize that they have an amazing effect on their charges. I feel that colleagues who criticize teachers like myself are, as Dwyer suggests, “weak and cowardly” cynics who are insecure with their teaching styles or themselves. Teachers like me tend to stand out and become the focus of attention, gossip, and innuendo at times. But you should see the number of Christmas cards and e-mail I have received from former students. Some are intense or personal and full of thanks and praise for something I said or did.

If teachers can’t connect or relate to their students beyond academics at least once in awhile, they should get out of the classroom and do something else for society.

Paul Paleczny
Martino Junior High School
New Lenox, Illinois

New Math

I doubt that math teacher Carolyn Ferris “Is This The Future Of Education In America?” [January] told your writer David Ruenzel, “I use rulers, contractors, paper—old-fashioned tools that can still be put to good use.” The angle-measuring, semicircular tool I remember using when I was a high school student in the 1960s was called a “protractor.” My guess is that your writer inadvertently combined the words “compass” and “protractor” to make “contractor.”

Richard Siegelman
Oyster Bay, New York

Standards Issue

I was very disappointed with Drew Lindsay’s article on the Texas Alternative Document “Double Standards,” [November/December 1997]. It attributed actions to me, but this reporter never bothered to talk to me about the curriculum writing teams in particular or even the curriculum-standards adoption process in general. I am surprised that in an article as lengthy as this one, you managed to use only two sentences from a Texas Education Agency staff person. I had come to expect a more balanced approach from your publication.

Mike Moses
Texas Commissioner of Education
Austin, Texas

On The Rack

Professor David Labaree’s bold and most informative essay “Looking Out For No. 1,” [November/December 1997] is a succinct description of the political-philosophical rack upon which the body of contemporary public education is being torn. If his personal preference in this issue is at all typical of education academia, however, it clearly portends the imminent demise of that institution.

Labaree points out that the “most enduring and familiar characteristics” of our current system of education were historically formed in order to place the needs of our collective society above the selfish aspirations of the individual. Among the goals of this vision: All citizens should have equal status in a social democracy, and workers must be trained to contribute to the collective good according to their ability groups (which, I presume, he considers to be genetically determined).

Labaree correctly, and approvingly, points out that social promotions, inclusion, tracking, and explicitly vocational programs within the high school and college curriculum were designed to “express these public purposes.” He is alarmed, however, at the emergence of the view that the aspirations of the parents of schoolchildren should take precedence over training to serve the needs of the collective state. He is concerned that the ascendancy of the “viewpoint of the individual education consumer” is leading to an unhealthy environment, where achieving individual “social advantage” intrudes onto the education scene and where students “see no point in studying anything that doesn’t really count.”

Labaree has indeed described the political impasse that cripples efforts at education reform. He wishes individuals to sacrifice their personal aspirations for what he feels is the common good. Americans, however, believe that there cannot be any good in our collective society unless each individual is systematically given the knowledge that all people need in order to enjoy the just rewards and the status earned by their respective contributions to society.

Is reform possible in a world where education professors commonly adhere to Labaree’s philosophy rather than that of the American people?

Robert Rose
Kennesaw, Georgia

Title I Undone

The answer to your headlined question “Why Doesn’t Title I Work?” [November/December 1997] is obvious to those who have experience with the program. Strangely, there is no benefit to a school if students’ reading ability improves dramatically because of Title I. Let me explain. Some years ago, I taught in another state and had a number of Title I students in my classroom. That year, I tried out a number of ideas I had for improving reading skills and really worked hard at it. The children were also pulled out and taught in the Title I lab. At the end of the year, most of the children scored so high on their achievement tests that they were not eligible for Title I the following year. The Title I teacher came to me and complained about what I had done: “You’re putting people out of a job.” I thought at first she was kidding. She was not.

Mary Walter
Charlottesville, Virginia

Grammar Check

When I saw the August/September 1997 issue, I could not believe my eyes. The “s” and “c” in the headline “State Of Contentment” and the “d” and the “r” in the byline “David Ruenzel” were lowercase. Also, the first letter of the first word after a textbreak was lowercase, as well.

No excuse from you for this gross indifference to correctness of grammatical form in written English would suffice. English teachers around the nation are working hard to teach students good English and to enhance their writing skills by paying attention to punctuation and capitalization. What, if any, is the intrinsic value of “style” at the risk of ignoring grammatical form and exactitude of presentation? Be a trendsetter and present material that exhibits a mastery of language and an adroitness in the handling of the finer aspects of writing style.

Samuel Fenn

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