Education Letter to the Editor


March 19, 2003 11 min read
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The College Board: Ahead of Its Time

To the Editor:

The coincident appearance of the articles “Oregon Study Outlines Standards for College Preparedness” and “Task Force Casts Doubt on Nation at Risk Accomplishments” in the same issue (March 5, 2003) raised my eyebrows. It seems the lessons of history need constantly to be relearned.

Neither article took account of the fact that in 1983, shortly after ANation at Risk appeared, the College Board, mentioned prominently in the Oregon story, published Academic Preparation for College: What Students Need to Know and Be Able to Do—a document with a wider circulation than ANation at Risk—one which, rather than bemoaning the sorry state of education in this country, made specific recommendations for doing something about it.

Ironically, for example, or perhaps quite naturally, the report of the Oregon effort, “Understanding University Success,” according to your article, “is divided into six academic content areas"—areas that mirror those set forth in Academic Preparation for College. But then, almost a third of a century later, it is reassuring to realize that we were 30 years ahead of the game.

George H. Hanford
President Emeritus
The College Board
Cambridge, Mass.

Background Checks Are Here to Stay

To the Editor:

As the creator of a volunteer-based tutoring program for at-risk readers in Cherokee County, Ga., I was interested to see you address the issue of background checks for volunteers (“Volunteers Meet With Background Checks by Schools,” Feb. 26, 2003). I am familiar with the pros and cons, and I would echo comments in the article favoring approaches that stress convenience.

In our district, we’ve been able to streamline the process by getting collaborators, such as universities whose students participate in our program, to notarize the background checks for their students. Our biggest frustration is the amount of time that passes between the potential volunteer’s initial identification of interest (and filling out the paperwork) and his or her clearance. Sometimes, local school systems’ concern for “control” makes the process more difficult.

In our case, we have a university feeding over 50 students a semester into experiences that allow them to practice the theory they learn in class. We cannot, however, allow their university to clear the background checks for us; that must go through our school police department. That seems to me to be counterproductive, when the university has a dedicated person willing to take on the task.

Background checks are here to stay. Those of us involved in education as volunteers just have to find ways to make the process easier and quicker, while still assuring that the checks are effective and protect children.

Cathy Miller
Canton, Ga.

Good Grades and Extracurriculars

To the Editor:

Carol Camerino does an admirable job of setting up false premises and then knocking them down. But her specious reasoning adds nothing to a thoughtful consideration of the tensions between the academic curriculum and extracurricular activities (“Pay to Play?,” Commentary, Feb. 19, 2003).

She seems to think that her question “Who judges whether it is more important for a student to memorize the chart of basic elements or to be a persuasive advocate for a point of view in the debate club?” doesn’t require discussion, and that it effectively ends the debate about whether academic learning is more important than extracurricular activity. If she took a moment to consider possible answers—society, boards of education, district superintendents, parents, teachers, among others—she might see the superficiality of her argument.

Ms. Camerino arbitrarily decides that a grade requirement for extracurricular participation is punishment, and does not bother to consider that it might be a minimum entrance requirement. She takes a phrase—athletics “may enhance academic performance"—from a single research article and misleadingly declares that “research tends to support” her position.

If we follow her reasoning, we will soon be pulling poor- performing football players out of math class so they can do tackling drills.

Ken Kopicki
Chicago, Ill.

How to Measure A ‘Safe Haven’?

To the Editor:

I have been a director of a 21st Century Community Learning Center for three years. Our grant ends this May and will be missed in a way that your article on these centers barely touches upon (“Study Critiques Federal After-School Program,” Feb. 12, 2003).

I have a student who has attended our after-school program almost every day for the last three years. His parents have substance-abuse problems, and his brother beats him regularly. Our after-school program has been a safe, happy place for this boy. He has gained some sense of self-esteem, has had adult mentors caring for him, has learned some new skills, and has had one-on-one tutoring help from excellent high school tutors. And no, his grades haven’t shown a significant increase.

This boy’s story is one of many similar stories I could tell. But how, in our educational system, do we measure his situation? How do we quantify the fact that he has been safe, during after-school and summer hours? How do we put a measurement on the fact that, in his chaotic life, this program has given him a little haven of self-worth and love?

Not everything is measurable by percentages, bar graphs, rubrics, and standardized tests. Let’s not throw out the heart and soul in our educational systems just because there’s not “measurable” progress.

Peg Waterman
21st Century Community
Learning Center
Newport School District
Newport, Wash.

One-Size-Fits-All Formulas Cannot Determine ‘Adequacy’

To the Editor:

In a recent Commentary, Ted Hershberg, Ian Rosenblum, and Virginia Adams Simon promote “Adequacy, Equity, and Accountability” as parts of a modernizing strategy for public schools (Feb. 19, 2003). While the ideas espoused by these authors are promising, we urge caution. The process of defining adequate education funding must not restrict a school’s ability to make the decisions necessary to improve student performance. In short, reformers must not hamstring schools’ actions while holding them strictly accountable for student achievement.

The authors note that states can achieve adequacy by “starting with a blank slate and adding up all the costs that go into education.” Decisions about educational expenditures can have the most impact when made at the school level, not the state level. If we encourage state lawmakers to create a list of educational costs, we must also preserve schools’ abilities to use resources creatively to best meet student needs.

Consider Houston. As schools there gained control over their resources, many requested waivers of the state’s class-size policy. Why? In one instance, a principal realized that one expert teacher could handle more students than the class-size requirement allowed. By shifting resources in this way, the principal was able to reduce class size dramatically in a classroom that was struggling. In Cincinnati, another city with decentralized decisionmaking, certain schools traded librarians for reading specialists in order to jump-start students’ poor reading performance. In both cases, school- level resource decisions addressed important learning needs.

If in defining an adequate funding level we settle on a one-size-fits-all structure for school spending, such strategic trade-offs are not an option. Essentially, we rob schools of their ability to make the very decisions for which we want to hold them accountable.

Marguerite Roza
Claudine Swartz
Center on Reinventing Public Education
University of Washington
Seattle, Wash.

Teachers on Film: Atticus Finch Is Ready For His Close-Up

To the Editor:

It’s interesting to think about the ways teachers have been represented in the movies, and some of Henry B. Maloney’s choices (“Films About Teachers: My ’10 Best’ List,” Commentary, Feb. 26, 2003) jibe with the direction of Patrick F. Bassett’s Commentary in the same issue (“Searching for Great Teachers”). The question of what constitutes a Great Teacher remains a little cloudy, but that’s as it should be, though I did find some of Mr. Maloney’s movie teachers truly objectionable in their self-centeredness and sense of superiority to other teachers.

As a teacher and administrator in schools and one college for about 40 years, I’d like to see the emphasis put not on finding the Great Teachers, or on inspiring or training others to be Great Teachers, but on assisting and inspiring the more ordinary teachers to develop further. The process of building the great teachers—or trying to find them—is very uncertain, and cannot possibly provide enough greats to fill the ranks and do the enormous job necessary.

We need to concentrate on the perhaps less remarkable but at least competent, dedicated, and hard-working teachers who could discover some of the new and wonderful things about the profession and themselves—and perhaps in doing so could even achieve the rank of Great Teacher.

The emphasis on the “star” is misleading: The public looks at, say, Robin Williams in “Dead Poets Society,” and thinks (I’ve heard people say this), “What we need is more teachers like him.” In fact, stars like that are too often not only unhelpful, but destructive in other ways.

Movies might give such an approach a real boost if the notion of the “great teacher” could be expanded.

Leonard E. Opdycke
Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

To the Editor:

Patrick F. Bassett’s Commentary “Searching for Great Teachers” rejects influences that should be qualities of great teachers, such as experience and certification, in favor of factors that actually do help fashion great teachers. These include a deep knowledge of the subject and an impassioned attitude toward it, verbal ability, and a personal high performance in school and college. I can easily recognize worth in these attributes.

He also cites role models as contributors to quality teaching, naming his own 11th grade history teacher and William Hundert, the central character in the recent film “The Emperor’s Club.” If Mr. Hundert is a model teacher, the profession is in deep trouble.

Significantly, Mr. Bassett admires “The Emperor’s Club,” a movie that was disparaged by more than half the professional critics who reviewed it, citing such shortcomings as “cinematic schmaltz,” “turgid pacing and a dreary subplot,” and “simpering, ineffective, ersatz drama.”

An example of how a hokey scene can demean the image of the main character is seen when Mr. Hundert, a tweedy loner who teaches history at the elite St. Benedict’s School for Boys, is walking across campus when a group of boys urges him to join them in a pickup baseball game. Mr. Hundert aims his bat toward a distant point in the outfield, a la Babe Ruth, and then slugs a massive hit that goes beyond the field and shatters a window in the headmaster’s car. When the headmaster strides toward the field, Mr. Hundert runs to hide with the boys. Neither his extraordinary prowess with a baseball bat, nor his puerile behavior in running away contributes much to his image as a role model.

His worst flaw, however, is that in trying to help Sedgewick Bell, the ne’er-do-well son of a bombastic senator, he changes test grades to allow Sedgewick to participate in a gala, three-person oral quiz, although this means dropping from the competition a boy who, rightfully, should have taken part in it. Sedgewick cheats on the quiz, but Mr. Hundert, who becomes aware of the cheating, fails to report it.

The few classroom scenes show that in spite of mouthing a few pious ideals, Mr. Hundert instructs by getting the boys to parrot back memorized facts.

Mr. Bassett might better have named Atticus Finch in “To Kill a Mockingbird” as his cinematic role model for teachers. Although Atticus was a lawyer, he taught his motherless children hospitality, charity, and civility. Moreover, he staked his own image and reputation on defending a black man who was falsely accused in a bigoted white community. In short, he tried to teach a town the difference between good and evil. In spite of his monstrous home run, Mr. Hundert doesn’t play in the same league with Atticus Finch.

Henry B. Maloney
Troy, Mich.

To the Editor:

The portrayal of teaching in the film “The Emperor’s Club” disturbed me very much. I agree with Patrick F. Bassett that teachers teach who they are, passion and inspiration for subject matter included. But that’s not all that matters.

The movie highlighted “Jeopardy"-like scenes where students were rewarded for their ability to memorize and recall isolated bits of information. In my book, that’s not learning. Real learning occurred in one scene, where viewers could observe students working on essay questions. There, students could engage in higher-order thinking—analysis and synthesis of information—rather than the low-level memorization and recall. That scene, though, took a back seat to the more performance-oriented quiz show scenes.

Yes, William Hundert left a lasting mark on his students. I can only hope that viewers understood that this occurred because of more than the quiz shows. I left the theater disappointed and disheartened that teaching and learning were portrayed in the movie as memorization. As long as those who are not teachers think that’s what is supposed to happen in a classroom, our classrooms will continue to be targeted for high-stakes testing; teachers will continue to be questioned about their methods; and our children will be the losers.

Helen Sitler
Indiana University of Pennsylvania
Indiana, Pa.


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