TV’s Good Side, Changing Faces, and Helping Hands

By Scott J. Cech — March 01, 2006 3 min read
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In the wake of recent, assumption-shattering studies showing that fat isn’t necessarily bad for you, and that calcium supplements don’t help most women prevent bone fragility, another, equally sacrosanct truism was felled this week: the belief that TV rots kids’ brains. According to Jesse M. Shapiro, a research fellow at the University of Chicago, there was “very little difference and if anything, a slight positive advantage” in academic test scores for children who grew up watching TV at an early age, versus those who did not. He and the report’s co-author, assistant professor Matthew Gentzkow, studied data from the late 1940s and early 1950s, when some places got TV service years ahead of others, and correlated it with nationwide test scores from 1965. The report’s reception was, as could be expected, not entirely free of static. Elizabeth A. Vandewater, director of the Center for Research on Interactive Technology, Television and Children, pointed out that, regardless of TV’s purported academic benefits, the research ignored evidence that “violent [TV] content is related to antisocial aggressive behavior.”

Tying teacher pay to test scores—another supposed tonic to educational excellence—is also getting a thumbs down, this time from voters in the Sunshine State. By more than a 2-to-1 margin, Florida voters surveyed by Quinnipiac University disapproved of Governor Jeb Bush’s plan to link educator compensation to student performance on the statewide standardized test known as the FCAT. Democrats, independents, and even a majority of Republican respondents didn’t care for the notion embodied in Bush’s “E-Comp” proposal. Karen Tuttle, a 33-year-old 4th grade teacher in Naples, is among those decrying the focus on tests, and not because her salary at the A-rated Pelican Marsh Elementary would likely suffer. “We measure student success by … how well they can bubble in a bubble,” Tuttle complains. “You can only make a worksheet so interesting.”

Here’s something more interesting than worksheets: In rural Eagleswood Township, New Jersey, there’s been deluge of parent and media attention focused on a 71-year-old teacher named Lily McBeth, who until recently taught at Eagleswood Elementary School as a man. The local school board recently approved the educator, who underwent a sex-change operation last year, to begin substitute teaching under her new name. “You saw democracy in action,” McBeth said after the vote. Some parents had other words to describe the decision. “I will not allow you to put my kids in a petri dish and hope it all turns out fine,” said Mark Schnepp, who placed an ad in a local newspaper urging parents to show up for the meeting.

Democracy was also responsible for the defeat of widely watched state bill casting doubt on the theory of evolution. The Utah House of Representatives shot down a proposal that would have required teachers to issue a disclaimer to students averring that not all scientists concur about evolution and the origin of species. The vote was considered significant because Utah is a highly Republican state, and its Legislature is dominated by members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. “If the creationists can’t win in a state as conservative as Utah, they’ve got an uphill battle,” says Joe Conn, a spokesman for Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Casey Luskin, a representative of the Discovery Institute, a Seattle group that has promoted the ideas of intelligent design, described the vote as “a loss for scientific education.”

One loss that teachers at Santee, California’s, Chet F. Harritt Elementary School aren’t mourning is that of the hours and hours of prep work they used to do. Much of the pre-class pasting, scissoring, and copying of classroom materials that used to gobble big chunks of Harritt educators’ waking lives has been willingly taken up by volunteers known collectively as “The Breakfast Club.” “I find that they are totally helpful,” says Crystal Matushek, a 1st grade teacher, of the group of parents, grandparents, and community members who get together one morning a week at child-sized tables to pitch in. They’ve taken up the slack for teacher aides who’ve been laid off over the last five years due to budget cuts. Mel Horn and his wife have been part of the Breakfast Club for 12 years—ever since their granddaughter, who recently graduated from college, attended the school. “Teachers are overworked,” the 81-year-old Horn observes. “We help them so they can devote more time to teaching and not mundane projects.”


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