Education Opinion


December 03, 2003 14 min read
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Working in the Schools And Working for Them

To the Editor:

It may be legal to work as an administrator in a public school district while your own children attend private schools, but it certainly isn’t ethical (“Justices Decline Case on Employee’s School Choice,” Nov. 19, 2003).

Barring extenuating circumstances, part of working in public education is working for public education. That means believing in the value of the program enough to enroll your children. If the system is not good enough for your children—if you don’t “walk the talk"—then what example do you set for the rest of the community?

When we educators go to our communities seeking financial support through the annual property-tax levy and capital referendums, we should be ready when they ask if we’ve prepared our own houses first.

Christine Hedstrom
Public Communication and
Human Resources Coordinator
Greendale School District
Greendale, Wis.

Firms’ Fund Raising: Two Sides to the Story

To the Editor:

I believe there are two sides to the story you tell about local businesses in Oregon pitching in to help raise funds for the public schools (“Cash-Strapped Oregon Schools Get Help From Businesses,” Nov. 19, 2003).

On the one hand, businesses that haven’t involved themselves with the schools now have an incentive to do so (in my opinion, they need only the incentive of qualified future employees).

Valuable partnerships could be created between small to midsize companies, which can’t donate millions of dollars, and schools. Community ties could be strengthened between consumers and businesses, if parents give their allegiance to those companies supporting the schools.

On the other hand, however, I do feel that the funding should come from our government, to whom we pay taxes. This is particularly true of the funds that have been promised but not delivered.

Melissa Holt
Philadelphia, Pa.

Testing Hurdles Mount For Would-Be Teachers

To the Editor:

There is a problem facing future teachers: Because of the repercussions of the No Child Left Behind Act, education students working toward general science and social studies degrees find themselves without marketable certifications (“Teacher Quality Might Be More Elusive Than Cited,” Nov. 12, 2003).

I’ll use my own state of Michigan as an example, recognizing that each state differs slightly. Here, the only way to turn a social studies degree into something useful—a teaching credential—is to take additional state tests to prove subject competency. On the surface, this doesn’t sound too bad. But a look at several related issues reveals a larger problem.

First, the Michigan Test for Teacher Certification is a poorly designed test. It seems to be better designed to make money than to determine competency. I know of people who have taken, and easily passed, the subject certification without even enrolling in half of their field’s core classes. So there is no way that this test is “rigorous” by any stretch of the imagination.

On another front, the $74 testing fee for each test (usually two or more are taken) is an outrageous price for a student to pay, just to be able to qualify for certification (of which, more fees are paid to obtain the final certification). Social studies majors are, under the No Child Left Behind law, going to have to take an additional four or more tests. Wasn’t the whole idea of a social studies test to prevent one’s having to take so many tests to certify for a subject that closely intertwines its themes?

What are we trying to say about education? Is a bubble sheet the only measure of a person’s competence or ability to teach? Apparently, lawmakers see it that way, because the use of testing as a medium of evaluation is going through the roof. We have not moved much past 1950s thinking, only dumped more money into a program that hasn’t shown tangible improvements to the education system.

Kevin Fitton
Marquette, Mich.

A Swiftian ‘Mocking’ of Those Who Do the Work

To the Editor:

Sadly, John Merrow, in his Commentary “A Modest Proposal for New School Leadership” (Nov. 12, 2003), continues the fading, 20-year sport of maligning school administrators and teachers. But instead of using the solemn “belief” statements of educational vendors, or the pale research of the more straightforward, name-calling critics, Mr. Merrow tips his hat to Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” and adds the new twist of mocking those who do the work.

After asserting that a few ordinary people like a fire chief, bandleader, swim coach, or highway engineer could fix the schools, he says that they wouldn’t take the job. His solution then is to keep the mediocre administrators and teachers who currently run things, but “change their attitudes,” help them “learn to think,” and show them how to act like ordinary people who know how to do things right.

After 20 years of cruel criticism, we can hope that his satire may be the last vestige of a failed reform strategy of blaming the teachers and administrators for all school issues.

It’s pointless to try to persuade those with Mr. Merrow’s mind-set. But it might be useful for others to look at his reasoning. Let’s take his attack on teachers. He says they should be like swim coaches because the coach would make sure that every child could swim. Really?

Let’s imagine for a moment that the swim coach is faced with the reality confronting schools: Throw every child into the water. Don’t just throw in those who show up because they like swimming and are already good at it. Don’t just throw in those who volunteered or signed up or paid to be taught. No. Throw them all in.

Include those who hate the water, those who never wanted to swim, and those who think swimming is boring. Throw in children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and those with other disabilities. Throw in all who are special and have lawyers perched on the edge of the pool prepared to sue.

Then ask your swim coach to make them all swim. It won’t take long before he or she will start sorting the children out and sending the failures home. In fact, swim coaches do just that. They don’t try to make all kids swim. They quickly remove those who can’t or won’t swim and encourage them to become journalists.

John Merrow comes right to the edge of the reality pool by acknowledging that teachers and administrators have a tough job. But then he steps back and blames their personal shortcomings anyway.

Sure, it’s good satire to suggest that teachers only want to teach and don’t care whether students learn. But that kind of ad hominem smear lost its punch 10 years ago, when more-serious analysts finally found their courage and ethics and reminded the public that student learning is a dependent variable. Learning is influenced by—is a function of—many variables, of which teaching is only one.

Teachers want students to learn. The problem is how to overcome the serious barriers to learning. Mr. Merrow adds absolutely nothing to our understanding. His simplistic suggestion that student failures are the result of bad attitudes of teachers and administrators who need to learn how to think won’t wash.

Bill Harshbarger
History Teacher
Mattoon High School
Arcola, Ill.

Qualitative Data and The Eye of the Beholder

To the Editor:

Tony Wagner’s Commentary (“Beyond Testing: The 7 Disciplines for Strengthening Instruction,” Nov. 12, 2003) unfortunately raises as many questions as it satisfactorily answers. Prominent in this respect is his contention that “qualitative data ... as well as quantitative data” must be used in order “to understand students’ and recent graduates’ experience of school.”

To illustrate the validity of his conclusion, Mr. Wagner points out a school superintendent who “chose a single piece of data to disseminate throughout the community: the number of students who read at grade level by 4th grade.” In using this example, Mr. Wagner unwittingly concedes that no reputable qualitative data are usable for the superintendent’s purpose.

Nonetheless, he persists with the notion that “gathering and sharing qualitative data can often create more urgency for change than numbers alone.” This is only true when the qualitative evidence complements an ideology already held by those to whom it is transmitted.

Thus, to assume, as Mr. Wagner does, that this procedure represents a disciplined manner in which to enhance teaching is, to say the least, eccentric.

Patrick Groff
Professor of Education Emeritus
San Diego State University
San Diego, Calif.

Evaluating Ed. Schools: What’s Wrong (or Right) Depends On Your Point of View

To the Editor:

Re: “Education School Courses Faulted as Intellectually Thin” (Nov. 12, 2003):

I would argue that the problem with schools of education is not that they are teaching courses that consider diversity and promote constructivist philosophy, but that they are too often teaching such courses very poorly, and in a way that is disconnected from the reality of most schools. Many of the prospective teachers I see in education classes write constructivist lesson plans for their education classes, with no intent whatsoever of using them in a real classroom. This kind of disconnect encourages cynicism and distrust of the kinds of teaching methods that would greatly improve American education.

The best and most useful classes in my own program have been those taught by professors who state their philosophy upfront (usually constructivist, with occasional behaviorist modifications). After putting this perspective out for everyone to evaluate and challenge, they then teach the concepts and skills we’ll need to be effective teachers, and point out the roadblocks that an extremely behaviorist school system will throw up to prevent innovative and engaging teaching and learning. My best education professors are not subversives, but merely pragmatic optimists who see all education as inherently political and welcome debate on matters of minute policy as well as grand philosophy.

Are schools of education perfect? Hardly. And schools of education that recognize the scientific side of teaching know that there are many ways they need to improve the effectiveness of their graduates. But schools of education will never improve by trying to ignore the subjective, political, and philosophical aspects of the profession. By requiring students to see both the objective and subjective sides of the profession—and to examine both critically—schools of education will flourish and improve, as the best have been doing for decades.

Matthew Martin
College of William and Mary
Williamsburg, Va.

To the Editor:

I am enrolled in an administrative-services credential program at my local state university. Given that the majority of my classmates will become administrators in urban schools, I find it disheartening that their assumptions about minority cultures and languages are rarely challenged by the literature we read or by intellectually stimulating discussion in class.

Also rarely a part of our reading or class discussion are current debates over such weighty topics as the widening achievement gap between affluent and white students and those who are living in poverty, learning English as a second language, or are students of color.

Though my teaching- credential program was somewhat better, it was of little help in preparing me to face the complex needs of urban young people. My “theory of action"— progressive pedagogy that seeks to empower, rather than to cure deficits—has been shaped by my classroom experiences of working with urban youths and, later, with teacher leaders and researchers as a professional developer around literacy issues in various public schools.

It is discouraging to see future school administrators given so few opportunities to reflect on their assumptions and on their roles in supporting a power structure that devalues and marginalizes some students and their families.

Catalina Rico
San Mateo County Office of Education
San Mateo, Calif.

To the Editor:

Research documents that the highest predictor of student performance is the teacher’s knowledge of and skill in effective practice. Combined with effective professional development, effective teacher practice has a greater impact on learning than does poverty.

While philosophy, history, psychology, and public policy are an important foundation, it is vital that teachers gain knowledge of research-based, effective instructional strategies and content knowledge. These skills are essential to override the impact of poverty.

Few schools of education focus on how human beings learn, and how educators can facilitate greater learning and application of knowledge.

Mary Berliner Cabral
Marian Wright Edelman Institute
San Francisco State University
San Francisco, Calif.

To the Editor:

Schools of education may be falling short of the ideal, but they do provide future teachers with some experiences that will help them when they face a real classroom situation for the first time. Internships for future teachers that pair them for a specified time with experienced teachers are particularly valuable.

In Texas, our state board of education is attempting to solve the teacher shortage by certifying anyone who has a degree and can pass an exam in the subject to be taught—without benefit of teacher training. As a counselor who listens to the concerns of students and parents, I can easily identify which teachers have not had the benefit of training in how to manage a class of students.

Sam Bullock
Deer Park, Texas

To the Editor:

Education schools have become the latest whipping boys of conservatives, who would be quite content if such schools taught ideology—as long as that ideology were one aligned with their own. That such schools are often fraught with what they perceive as evil, left-wing ideologues has made conservatives dismiss the notion that teachers need more than content and classroom-management courses (of course, these criticisms often come from people who have not taught K-12).

As someone who went through the University of Michigan’s graduate school of education not that long ago, I can certainly find fault, but I do not buy in to the conservative assault upon such programs.

I am disappointed at the political correctness that informs some professors’ classrooms, the kowtowing to the sensitivities of some students to controversial or difficult ideas to such an extent that anyone expressing such views, or expressing any view in an “aggressive” manner, is often chastised.

In my view, education is precisely about being made uncomfortable and having one’s assumptions challenged. To the extent that any professor or program supports cushioning students from opposing viewpoints and protects them from having to really examine their own preconceptions, everyone is shortchanged.

Still, I’m hardly convinced that were the conservatives in charge of schools of education, all would be well, with open, fair exchanges of views. My experience suggests that, given the chance and the power, conservatives are at least as likely as anyone else to exert their influence to suppress, ridicule, and marginalize opposing views and to resist having their assumptions examined too closely.

It’s hard to believe that only liberal views are “political,” or that implicit politics of the right is not actually politics.

Michael Paul Goldenberg
Ann Arbor, Mich.

To the Editor:

Researcher David M.Steiner’s conclusions on teacher-preparation programs, presented in your Nov. 12, 2003, article on “intellectually thin” courses in education schools, are in my opinion based on inadequate and weak research. After 15 years as a teacher-educator and an ethnographer, I would recommend that he add a critical-theory component to this study regarding the culture of teacher education.

Josephine Agnew
Childhood Development Center
Truman State University
Kirksville, Mo.

To the Editor:

Education school faculties may be judged by what they do not do well, or at all: They do not teach aspirant educators how to construct effective units and lessons of study. They do not teach how the cognitive sciences inform teaching strategies. They do not teach how classes of often resistant and/or disruptive students might be effectively managed over time.

Too often, education faculties are swept up in waves of enthusiasms for such unsupported doctrines as “multiple intelligences,” “cooperative learning,” “new math,” “new, new math,” and (remember?) “open classrooms.”

It takes years for a talented, committed, and observant novice in the classroom to hone his or her skills toward effective teaching that can be best evaluated by cumulative learning by students. The time devoted by schools of education to fatuous imitations of social theory and to the inculcation of politically correct attitudes toward schools as “social justice” crucibles is a waste of resources and of what talent exists.

I have known during my career exceptional people and programs that carry on valuable work at schools of education. But they also, by their utter exceptionality, prove the rule. Too many such schools of education and their faculties serve as jobs programs for practitioners without real expertise, and for scholars sans scholarship.

John Burruto
Amherst, Mass.


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