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January 17, 2001 7 min read
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Colleges Have Evaded K-12 Responsibilities

To the Editor:

One has to wonder if the folks in higher education realize how far they are out of the picture in much of what is happening in education reform—not just today, but for the last 30 years (“The Learning Connection,” Commentary, Dec. 13, 2000).

As a new teacher in New York City during the period of turbulence and stunted change in the late 1960s, I was struck by the failure of higher education to offer any meaningful leadership to the field. Certainly, one would expect vision and engagement to be the benchmark of institutions whose job it is to prepare practitioners in the art and science of education.

It did not occur then and is hardly occurring now. Higher education has been marginalized, as school districts look elsewhere for guidance and staff development in dealing with the issues of the day. As a district, we employ a private consulting group, the local teachers’ center, a retired supervisor, and, occasionally, an individual faculty member from a university to assist us.

The idea that a college might be of some assistance in this endeavor is not very realistic. Too many college faculty members either have their own agendas or are simply not competent or up to date in the work that needs to be done. Many don’t want to spend a good deal of their time actually being in schools, particularly difficult ones.

This is sad in many ways. While many colleges sell their credits to teacher centers and even correspondence courses, they provide no professional-level standards to go with these credits. As the private sector expands its presence in education, it seems likely that private companies will see the lucrative possibilities in teacher training and staff development. The creation of consulting groups that form long-term relationships with districts, as they endeavor to cope with the new standards, cannot be far behind.

This will further sever the ties that do exist, however limited, between K-12 and higher education. If the change to a business-directed model occurs, it will be due largely to the fact that colleges have evaded their responsibility for too long.

Barnett Sturm
Superintendent
Lakeland Schools
Shrub Oak, N.Y.


England’s Reforms: Accentuate Positive

To the Editor:

I was surprised to read such a totally negative response to the reforms in England (“The English Reforms Are Not For Us,”, Commentary, Dec. 13, 2000). I’m not sure that “stories of fabulous wealth and exotic treasures” is an accurate description of what Michael Barber actually said in his earlier essay (“Large-Scale Reform Is Possible,” Commentary, Nov. 15, 2000). But in England, certainly, he does not duck very close questioning.

Any government elected on an “education, education, education” platform would be bound to want to make an immediate impact on educational standards, particularly in basic skills. In terms of the focus on standards of literacy and numeracy, the government set out very precise targets, particularly for primary schools.

Central to the government’s commitment to achieve the required increase in standards was the introduction of a national literacy strategy and a national numeracy strategy that was indeed far more detailed and prescriptive than anything seen in England before.

The impact of these literacy and numeracy strategies has recently been reviewed by OFSTED, the office for standards in education (the inspection service in England), until very recently led by a chief inspector famous for his independent style and forthright reporting.

The report on literacy states: “The teaching of reading in primary schools has undergone a transformation. ... This has had a very positive effect on standards of pupils’ reading, both of girls and boys.”

The report on numeracy says that the three- part daily math lesson is having a profound (positive) effect on the way that math is taught in primary schools.

Of course, there are still major challenges facing the education service in England in terms of teacher recruitment (a major issue on both sides of the Atlantic) and the need to offer all pupils a broad and balanced curriculum, as Michael Barber’s critics point out. However, a government that has “transformed” the teaching of reading and “profoundly affected” the teaching of math in only three years can justifiably be upbeat about raising standards.

The task for all of us is to work cooperatively to achieve “large-scale, meaningful, and sustained educational change.” A key to achieving this is for all the partners— politicians, educationists, and academics alike—to “accentuate the positive.”

I accept the need for “realistic long-range objectives ... [and] ... well-designed investigations of innovations.” However, we cannot ignore the political reality of a government that will be judged by the electorate on its achievements over a period of no more than three or four years.

Chris Waterman
General Secretary
Society of Education Officers
Manchester, England


Paige Commended For Security Stance

To the Editor:

President-elect Bush’s appointment of Rod Paige as the next U.S. secretary of education has been praised as a positive move for a number of reasons, primarily centered on academic achievement in the Houston Independent School District, which Mr. Paige heads (“Paige’s Nomination Applauded by Unions, Conservatives Alike,” Jan. 10, 2001)

But it should also be noted that school crime has seen dramatic reductions under Mr. Paige’s leadership, and teachers’ representatives have applauded his positions on discipline and safety.

In Houston, Rod Paige has demonstrated a clear and important understanding that is often missed by politicians and even many educators: In order for academic achievement to occur, reasonable steps must be taken to improve school safety.

Fortunately, Mr. Paige is known for balancing traditional violence- prevention strategies with realistic measures for professionalizing school policing, security, and crisis preparedness. His common-sense approach should be highlighted in the Bush administration’s education strategies.

Kenneth S. Trump
President and CEO
National School Safety and
Security Services
Cleveland, Ohio


‘Battered Teachers’
A Small Sliver of Hope

To the Editor:

“Battered-Teacher Syndrome” by Marilyn Page and Bruce Marlowe (Commentary, Dec. 13, 2000) is a dead-on critique of the top-down approach to education reform, not just as it relates to standards, but to any other kind of reform. Ms. Page and Mr. Marlowe’s description of teachers’ responses to this kind of centralist reform—"hostility, frustration, misplaced aggression, acquiescence, silence, mental resignation, and programmed responses"—is as apt as any I’ve seen. At the end of their essay, they call for teachers to empower themselves, “so they can stop being victims.”

All well and good. I’ve been hoping for 40 years to see teachers rise up and throw off their chains—instead of what many do, which is to escape the battering by getting out of the profession.

But teacher empowerment is a monumental change to seek. It goes against the power structure of the entire education establishment, including teachers’ unions. Most educators stationed outside of classrooms have little to gain and a fair amount to lose through teacher empowerment. It goes against the vast army of experts in universities and departments of education who know best what poor little Miss Smith needs to run a proper and effective classroom. It even goes against what most teachers want, which is to just teach.

Top-down reform delivers clear messages to teachers: “What you think doesn’t count for much.” “Your experiences are not as valuable as our research.” “We don’t trust you to make the improvements needed.’' Hearing such messages, what sane person would act any other way than in the disengaged manner Ms. Page and Mr. Marlowe describe?

Before the era of state-mandated testing programs began a few years ago, teachers could take refuge behind their classroom doors from top-down reform. Now, even that haven is increasingly under attack. This invasion of teachers’ last bastion of control and authority bodes ill for public education. It will not accomplish what the princes of the establishment claim to seek—higher achievement for all students—and it will create even greater numbers of teachers “who feel angry, confused, tense, stressed out, and impotent.”

There is a small sliver of hope for countering teachers’ further disempowerment, and that is through processes that deconstruct the establishment. The Education Commission of the States’ recent recommendations for decentralization of school districts, for example, might lead (though not automatically) to teachers’ gaining more control of their worklife. Charter schools might come to be seen—like the alternative schools of a generation ago—as a means of empowering not just parents and students, but teachers as well.

Although teachers’ unions have successfully spooked many teachers about charters, some have still taken on the charter challenge. As things get worse under top-down management, more may decide that starting their own charter schools, headache though that may be, is not such a bad idea.

Barry McGhan
Director
Center for Public School Renewal
Ann Arbor, Mich.

A version of this article appeared in the January 17, 2001 edition of Education Week as Letters


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