Public Vs. Private
Ron Wolk’s “Perspectives” column in October (“Voucher Baloney”) was an impassioned essay. Like Wolk, I am skeptical of those who declare school vouchers the answer to today’s education woes. Unfortunately, Wolk makes his arguments at the expense of independent schools. He proclaims that such schools are self-selecting, relying on admissions departments to cull only from middle and upper-middle-class families. What he fails to recognize is that public schools also have admissions officers: real estate agents. These de facto gatekeepers steer prospective families away from the “bad schools” toward the “good schools.” Indeed, I would wager that some of the schools Wolk would praise as being “cutting edge” are in the affluent suburbs and act for all practical purpose much as private schools do.
As to his claim that private schools could not serve inner-city children, I challenge him to examine the impact of inner-city Catholic schools. These schools are making an impact in the education of urban youth. Their achievements stand on their own merit.
The McCallie School
How surprised I was to see my high school government teacher, Bob Jacobs, in “Scandal In The Classroom” [November/December], the article about the educational value of President Clinton’s troubles. I teach 1st grade, and not a day goes by that my class doesn’t “vote” (thumbs up or down) on a matter of importance--schedule changes, PE games, books to read, and the like. We shouldn’t forget to teach the lessons of history every day. Recently, we’ve become so consumed with teaching children to read and calculate that we’ve forgotten why we do this--to enable them to make the knowledgeable and reasonable decisions that will affect all of our lives.
Lisa Heath Palmer
Wichita Falls, Texas
You mention civics and American government as two academic subjects in which President Clinton’s scandal can be used in lessons. But there are others. I am a health educator at the middle school level, and health educators are often asked questions about such sensitive topics. At our school, we teach a 7th grade unit on sexual harassment, and during this, I discussed Paula Jones’ sexual harassment lawsuit and how it sparked the Monica Lewinsky investigation.
I agree that the discussion of human sexuality is inappropriate at this age; we should not go into great detail or discuss personal opinions regarding the investigation. The teachable moment here is that we can explain to students the lesson of being ultimately responsible for our actions.
North Attleboro Middle School
North Attleboro, Massachusetts
I read with amusement your October story (“Hot Market For Teachers”) about how states such as Texas are paying bonuses to recruit teachers to their states. Such, I found, is not the case in California.
I recently resigned from a school district in the Southwest to teach in San Diego. After some research, I assumed that I would be eligible for a state waiver of my credentials. I was quite wrong. California requires applicants to pass a competency test, a subject-aptitude test, and a whole host of college courses.
California, wake up! Most teachers don’t have the luxury of recreating their professional studies. To make matters worse, the state charges out-of-state applicants to take these tests.
Upon my arrival in California, I was told by an administrator that I had virtually no chance of teaching or even substituting without a coveted state license. With a master’s degree and seven years of experience, I thought that I had at least some chance of being considered for employment. I was flatly denied. California, I don’t ever again want to hear that you are short of teachers. Take a look why.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
I seldom agree with the medical profession when it meddles in educational pedagogy and presumes to know what’s best for students. However, I must concede that Dr. Lawrence Diller’s “Driven To Distraction,” October 1998, was quite insightful and straight on the mark.
In the last decade or so of my 30-year career as an elementary school teacher, I have seen a gradual and significant rise in the number of students who cannot pay attention for any length of time. They disrupt others, fidget, or become buried in a disorganized mess of papers and lost assignments. I firmly believe the vast majority of such children are simply manifesting stress from environmental situations they can’t understand or control.
Razzle-dazzle technology, classroom seating that gives kids no individual space, fragmentation of the school day, and an endless array of “enrichment” opportunities create an emotional scatterfield for students. Children who need structure, routine, and uninterrupted quiet worktime suffer. Much of what we’re seeing as attention deficit disorder is an outcome of this.
Cooperative learning, social skills, and technology are all important. But when the activity’s over, it’s time to move the desks back into rows and get quiet.
Nashua, New Hampshire
The issues discussed in “Dramatic License,” October 1998, are important to parents and anyone who works with children. Striking a balance between opening the minds of youngsters and preserving their right to remain “innocent” can seem impossible in this sometimes too-sophisticated world.
However, something seems amiss in this particular circumstance. Margaret Boring was not doing a school play; she was preparing four students for a competition. How can she, then, be held culpable for usurping the board’s right to set curriculum?
Though I would love to believe that our teenagers are sheltered from the controversial topics of the play that Boring put on with her kids, they are not. How can they be when the evening news on television contains topics that some would consider X-rated. Rather than pretend that our youngsters are oblivious to this, should we not help them--in an appropriate way--to think about these realities?
Traditionally, the arts have been the means for all of us, young and old, to safely view various interpretations of life and its many complex situations. In this light, Boring’s play could have begun moral dialogues in homes and churches--without personal attacks against the teacher.
Perhaps all involved overreacted in this case. Controversy cannot be avoided in education. But in education, of all places, surely reason and dialogue should prevail.
I enjoyed the profile of Oakland teacher Ben Schmookler in “A War Of Attrition,” (August/September 1998). The public schools have failed all our children, especially minorities. To get and keep good teachers, we need a two-pronged approach: Teacher candidates must have good training, and districts must develop effective evaluation and coaching systems to nurture novices and counsel out the incompetent.
Beacon, New York
I was excited to read Denise Gelberg’s essay, “Giving Schools The Business” [November/December], as I have long been bothered by educators’ overly enthusiastic concern for the “needs” of business. But I was somewhat disappointed when she concluded by dichotomizing schooling as being either for business or for “doing the right thing for children.”
American public schools have always been complex. Schools are not, and should not be, unilateral in purpose. Business executives stress that schools should prepare the young to take a role in agriculture and industry. And as Gelberg points out, schools should also provide a means for individual self- realization.
But schools have the even more critical and more difficult responsibility of serving society as a whole. They must produce citizens who will support the nation’s stability and structure, yet they must simultaneously train the young to be critical thinkers. Our democracy, after all, needs questioning and rebellion.
The tragedy of the modern school is not that business interests are heard, but that they are emphasized to the exclusion of the other objectives of public education. Conversely, it would be equally detrimental to place the child’s needs in such high regard that we ignore those of society. Gelberg’s writing should be a red flag to educators. Keeping all of education’s objectives in balance is the challenge of America’s public school educators.
I award Denise Gelberg an A+. She’s right on target when she writes that corporate-modeled education reform “has little to do with educating and nurturing our nation’s children.” And how tragically poignant to note that teachers have been relegated to turning out drones for the workplace rather than nourishing “each child’s special gift.”
The tragedy here, however, isn’t just about businesses enlisting schools in their efforts to keep the United States on top of the world economy. It’s about businesses trying to make a quick buck, fostering all sorts of unholy alliances between corporations, school boards, teachers’ unions, public officials, legal firms, and the media. No wonder teachers and parents feel left out of the equation.
A version of this article appeared in the January 01, 1999 edition of Teacher as Letters