Education Letter to the Editor


December 05, 2001 9 min read
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Can Patriotism Live Without Discussion?

Your recent stories and letters on school issues surrounding patriotism, prayer, and the Pledge of Allegiance (“Patriotism and Prayer: Constitutional Questions Are Muted,” Oct. 10, 2001; “Good Alternatives to ‘Pledge’ Abound,” Letters, Nov. 14, 2001), as well as your Nov. 14, 2001, column devoted to Britain’s concern over the words of “Land of Hope and Glory” (“Settling a Score,” International), relate to our concerns about how schools are addressing terrorism and U.S. involvement in Afghanistan.

I have spent most of the last 10 years working with educators in the post- totalitarian countries of Central and Eastern Europe, developing new curricula in the areas of citizenship and human-rights education. Because, in the previous governments, Communism was the central ideology promoted in schools, I and others have a heightened sensitivity to the political messages transmitted by teachers to students through symbols, songs, and language.

Although political socialization is a necessary part of developing a child’s national identity, it is also the case that there are age-appropriate mechanisms for infusing attachment to democratic culture that involve the art of discussion. In the absence of such discussion, I become very uncomfortable.

The discomfort was brought home recently when I visited my daughter’s elementary school and was greeted by a healthy abundance of red-white-and-blue, as well as news of other teacher-sponsored activities involving the U.S. flag. My feeling was that the school had gone a bit overboard, and I wrote the principal about my concerns. The letter also included a list of constructive suggestions for how schools might take the challenging events of today and use them to foster the kinds of attitudes and behaviors that could be considered truly democratic.

The principal who received this letter called me immediately to say that on the following day there was to be a schoolwide assembly in which all the children would be performing patriotic songs and which would be covered by the local media. Would I like to consider not having my daughter participate? Thus has my daughter, at the tender age of 5½, already had the privilege of boycotting a school event.

I implore educators to consider the implicit messages that a focus on “patriotism” carries in the current climate. And I ask them to make special efforts to shield our youngest children not only from the troubling events of war and terrorism, but also from a “patriotism without discussion” that does little to encourage the engagement with democratic thinking that we want our children to have in their mature years.

Felisa Tibbitts
Executive Director
Human Rights
Education Associates Inc.
Sudbury, Mass.

New Science Center Clarifies Its Mission

To the Editor:

Thank you for your article on the National Science Foundation’s new “centers for learning and teaching” initiative (“NSF Plots New Education Strategy,” Nov. 7, 2001). I would like to correct, however, three statements it contained about the Center for Informal Learning and Schools, which is based at the Exploratorium in San Francisco.

The center is a coequal collaboration of the Exploratorium, the University of California, Santa Cruz, and King’s College, London. King’s College, which was omitted from your article, has a preeminent science education department, long experienced in the epistemology of science teaching, the nature of science, and formative assessment.

Second, the Center for Informal Learning and Schools, also known as CILS, will focus on more than simply bringing “exhibits and real-life demonstrations” to the science curriculum. Its charge is to examine how the system of informal education can support the system of formal education. At present, there is little research that looks at how these two systems connect and work together to enhance K-12 science education. CILS will examine the nature of learning in informal settings, and how it pertains to teacher professional development, curriculum development and enhancement, and classroom instruction.

Finally, over the course of five years, CILS will produce not only 19 M.A. students, as stated in the article, but also 33 Ph.D.s and seven postdoctoral students. The center will also work with 140 museum educators. Programs will start in the fall of 2002 and 2003.

We greatly appreciate your inclusion of us in the article and are grateful to be able to clarify the record.

Bronwyn Bevan
Center for Informal Learning
and Schools
The Exploratorium
San Francisco, Calif.

Critical Notes on Writing the News

To the Editor:

Three observations about your Nov. 14, 2001, issue:

1. The phrase “failing schools” occurs in at least three articles. This is an oft-used, meaningless phrase/cliché. It does have its uses, though. When uttered by would-be education reformers, it shows that they know nothing and aren’t serious. When used by journalists, it means they aren’t serious about their craft.

2. The article on Harry Potter (“Charmed and Challenged”) quotes Eliza T. Dresang as saying, “From a scholar’s point of view, there are many literary illusions in the Harry Potter books. ...” I doubt that Ms. Dresang said “illusion” for “allusion,” and I fear this is merely another dreary instance of the media’s declining literacy and sophistication.

3. In a column, you announce that a new literacy study of 15-year-olds is forthcoming (“Literacy Checkup,” Testing). What is there about a study that doesn’t yet exist that makes it newsworthy?

You mention that, in the last adult-literacy survey, Americans were average. Why talk about adult literacy (persons between the ages of 16 and 65) in the context of a study of 15-year-olds (the new study)? And why not mention that in a more relevant study, one of 9- and 14-year-olds, Americans were second in the world? After all, Education Week scooped the nation’s press in reporting this study, which then-U.S. Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander and Assistant Secretary Diane Ravitch, hyping the negative and ignoring the positive about American schools (to push vouchers), tried desperately to ignore.

Gerald W. Bracey
Alexandria, Va.

Ron Unz in Mass.:'Ridiculous’ Rhetoric

To the Editor:

My congratulations to you for exposing the ridiculousness of California businessman and activist Ron Unz by reporting how, at a Harvard University forum, he likened those working to safeguard bilingual education to “educational terrorists” (“Debate Heats Up,” English Learners and Immigrants, Nov. 21, 2001).

As Mr. Unz brings his “English for the Children” campaign to Massachusetts, he has belittled the nation’s struggle against real terrorism by using metaphorical references to Osama bin Laden and other terrorists to draw battlelines over bilingual education.

Lincoln Tamayo, the leader of the state campaign, is also ridiculous to think that, absent Mr. Unz’s financial backing, Massachusetts residents would rise to support an “English for the Children” campaign. On the contrary, a group of committed teachers, citizens, students, and parents throughout the state is now struggling to finance a campaign against Mr. Unz.

Again, the people with real power to affect not only our political systems but also educational policy are those with money, not those who work with students every day.

This is another example of how educational decisions are not made based on a thoughtful reading of research and professional opinion but on snapshots provided by the media, with each side arguing a case based on its own limited experiences. The most important voices—those of parent, student, and teacher—are missing.

While most of the country supports the strengthening of foreign-language learning, bilingualism is still not supported for Hispanic children. Even in the text of Mr. Unz’s proposed referendum, immersion programs in another language for English- speakers would remain unaffected. In this time of great patriotism, how un- American is that double standard?

This California millionaire may have great power to divide our state, but our greatest strength is our diversity—in race, religion, ethnicity, and language.

Margaret Adams
Dedham, Mass.

Whole School Failure: Isn’t It Time We Admit That Some Reform Models Don’t Work

To the Editor:

After 10 years of unabashed and unquestioning support for various “whole-school reform models,” your article raising questions about the success of Success For All and other models promoted by New American Schools was welcome and long overdue (“Whole School Project Shows Mixed Results,” Nov. 7, 2001).

These reform models have dominated Title I policy and monopolized research-and-development funding for a decade. Unfortunately, however, your article did not go far enough. The models not only have failed as a reform, but they never had any valid supporting data.

In fact, in the initial studies in Baltimore supposedly documenting the success of Success For All, the reality was that after five years of SFA, students arrived at the 6th grade reading three to four years below grade level. This awful performance was the basis for reform policy in the 1990s.

You also ignore in the article potential conflicts of interest for those reporting positive results. For example, you do not disclose that Steve Ross, the major provider of research supposedly documenting success in Memphis, headed a unit that was the Southeast distributor of SFA. Mr. Ross’ explanation of how he found gains where others did not was that the others were at fault for analyzing whole schools instead of students. Huh? The supposed advantage of these reforms, as their very name implies, is that they improve the whole school. Yet improvement happened neither for the school nor the disadvantaged students.

Success For All is the most widely used whole-school reform model and is supposedly the most effective (according to published reviews of research conducted by the developers of SFA). In an article to be published in the February 2002 issue of Phi Delta Kappan, I offer documentation for the contention that all independently conducted studies find SFA to be ineffective. Such studies encompass more than 260 schools in a wide variety of districts.

The excuses advocates offer for such failure are pathetic. Defenders are “just now” discovering the existence of high rates of mobility. Yet the mobility problem has been known for 40 years. The last thing you do in highly mobile, changing situations is implement large, expensive, and inflexible one-size-fits-all programs that require enormous amounts of training. What was the profession thinking by listening to these folks?

We are assured in your article that more will be known in five years, at the waste of another $21 million dollars in federal funding (30 percent of which is going to the SFA developers who brought us most of the existing invalid research), and the loss of another generation of students.

We have lost 10 years of searching for other approaches that would possibly work better. Even worse, by encouraging schools to use Title I monies meant for helping the disadvantaged to instead improve the school as a whole, most of the specialized help provided to these students has been withdrawn. Advantaged students who were already doing well benefited, while those who needed help floundered even more. As a result, the latest test results show gaps widening again in the 1990s, for the first time in decades. Amid all the reform effort and hype, we went backwards in the 1990s.

Enough is enough. It’s time to admit the failure of these models and their general approach and move on.

Stanley Pogrow
Associate Professor of Education
University of Arizona
Tucson, Ariz.

The writer is the developer of a program for Title I and learning- disabled students, the Higher Order Thinking Skills, or HOTS, program. He can be reached at stanpogrow@worldnet.att.net.

A version of this article appeared in the December 05, 2001 edition of Education Week as Letters


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