Letters to the Editor

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments

Nellie B. Quander Graduate Student in Education, George Mason University Past President, National Association of Elementary School Principals Alexandria, Va.

A recent article in Education Week reported views of the new secretary of education, William J. Bennett, regarding the role of higher standards in the education of economically and educationally disadvantaged students ("Bennett Maintains Higher Standards Benefit the Poor," Education Week, Feb. 20, 1985).

Mr. Bennett was quoted as saying, "Those who do not have the advantages of the wealthy ... are the people who need good teaching the most. They are the people who need standards the most, not for purposes of punishment, but for purposes of aspiration, for internalizing the standards."

There are probably few educators who would disagree with Mr. Bennett's contention that the economically and educationally disadvantaged need good teaching, but it is impossible to agree with his assumption that higher standards for these students will serve to raise their aspirations and their educational achievement levels, or that higher standards will improve the quality of their instruction.

Merely setting higher academic standards for poor and minority students will not bring academic excellence to these students because such standards are based on a misleading model about schooling in our nation. They divert the attention of educators toward superficial issues and away from the practices that make crucial differences in the education of students from low-socioeconomic-status (ses) families and minorities.

Educators should focus on the real problems that are impeding the education of low ses and minority students--problems that will not be resolved by merely setting higher standards for those students.

Higher standards set in an atmosphere where each student has an equal opportunity to succeed may, indeed, serve to raise the aspirations of all students and subsequently their academic achievement. But often our schools do not operate under a paradigm of equality and fairness for all.

In the past, education has been viewed by our society as offering an equal opportunity for success to all children. Education, however, cannot be separated from political power. Because the poor and ethnic minorities have had little political power, they have not fared well in our schools.

Numerous studies conducted in recent years by sociologists and educators support this. They have identified a number of variables that work against low ses and minority students, including teacher expectations, classroom practices, and school financing. The results of these studies should be considered before new standards are developed.

Our schools have not been successful in producing the same kind of academic success for poor students as for middle-class students. Numerous studies indicate that socioeconomic status is a major predictor of academic success. This is devastating to all poor children, but more devastating to blacks, Hispanics, and American Indians because a large percentage of their ethnic groups are poor.

The low academic achievement of poor and minority students is closely related to the low expectations of their teachers. Many studies found significant evidence that teachers tend to form expectations about their students' potential for achievement and about how they may be expected to behave. These expectations may be based on unfounded notions about students' ethnic backgrounds and these notions change the teacher's behavior in ways that deter the academic progress of students who may be poor or of an ethnic minority. Teachers' low expectations and changed instructional techniques often render their poor students helpless and put them in a position in which they cannot alter their academic fate. Such practices place the full responsibility for change on the students and not on the school.

Studies conducted for more than a decade have consistently shown that the average white student does better academically than the average black student and that the difference is signific Studies conducted for more than a decade have consistently shown that the average white student does better academically than the average black student and that the difference is significant. This may seem to suggest that blacks are innately less able than whites, but when other variables such as iq, ses, sex, and age are controlled, race emerges as a significant determinant of achievement in the classroom. This indicates that teachers' attitudes about students' academic abilities are tied to preconceptions about their ethnic backgrounds.

Instructional techniques, grading practices, grouping procedures, and the methods used to discipline students are among routines found to significantly influence academic achievement in ways that deter poor and minority students.

The Mid-Atlantic Center for Race Equity summarized research relating to low teacher expectations as follows: Teachers are likely to interact more with high achievers and ignore and interrupt low achievers more frequently; ask more and higher-level questions of high achievers and provide low achievers with questions that require simple recall; follow up with probing questions for high achievers and call on someone else if a low achiever is unable to provide a prompt, accurate response; provide a longer wait time for high achievers to respond to a question and cut off response time for low achievers who hesitate.

The center also reported that teachers seat high achievers closer to the teacher's usual position and cluster low achievers farther away; praise high achievers more often and criticize low achievers more frequently; provide supportive communications for high achievers and engage in dominating behaviors with low achievers; provide high achievers with detailed feedback and give less frequent, less accurate, and less precise feedback to low achievers; and demand more work and effort for high achievers and accept less from low achievers.

Poor students, who by Mr. Bennett's admission need the best instruction, frequently live in areas where their schools are funded at significantly lower levels than the schools of middle-class children. Despite the efforts of various legislative bodies and many judicial decisions designed to equalize the funding for public schools, significant disparities persist.

I have no doubt that Mr. Bennett is sincere in his desire to improve educational opportunities for poor and minority students. I suggest, however, that merely raising standards for students amounts to blaming the victim and tends to deny the existence of the special problems encountered by these students. Raising standards for students does not address the standards that must be set for our schools.

Rudy Pouch Director of Special Services Ellsworth-Kanopolis United School District #327 Ellsworth, Kan.

I'd like to make a few comments on a recent article about national testing for new teachers ("Study Panel Backs National Test for All New Teachers," Education Week, March 20, 1985).

Do we need yet another study? It would appear that almost all of the high-powered thinkers have again missed the boat or else have become a part of the incompetence they object to.

No, salaries will not produce a long-term solution, nor will a national licensing examination for teachers. The boat I feel many educators have missed is the "boat of control." A lack of discipine, or control, and a lack of respect for teachers and schools are the real monsters we must tame.

One can look back to lawsuits and Supreme Court rulings to see where the erosion began. Flimsy claims against teachers because students failed to learn to read or to learn a specific fact, claims of abuse when firm discipline was used, and parents' failure to admit that they are a part of the problem and their tendency to place the blame elsewhere have all contributed to the decline in control.

When control left the classroom and school, so did some of the desire to push for excellence or do more than was required. Some teachers just did their jobs, hoping that the majority of students might learn and achieve. Yes, it's sad that a professional would fall into that trap, but after trying so long to seek excellence, one tends to bend under the pressure. When just touching a student can lead to charges of "battery," the human, caring side of education tends to suffer and ultimately the students suffer.

There must be a wedding of parents and schools, a return to some of the lost, time-proven standards and rules that made education great. Oh yes, I have heard how teachers and schools have "lost" respect, but one would have to look more closely at the factors leading to the decline in discipline to find the causes of that loss. That's yet another study.

We don't need another panel, study group, or commission. We do need to fund education, to return to some basic rules of conduct for students and teachers, and to get on with the job at hand--educating young people.

Dennis G. Kelly Director, Lab Schools Illinois State University Normal, Ill.

I read with some interest your feature story outlining the Governor's Center for Educational Innovation and Technology in Virginia ("The Varina Mission: Testing Reform for Others," Education Week, March 27, 1985). In particular, I found John I. Goodlad's remarks about laboratory schools quite interesting.

It is apparent that Mr. Goodlad's experiences with lab schools were confined to California some years ago. The laboratory movement is not dead or fearful of its future.

There are more than 120 laboratory schools all over the country. Rather than being unclear of their appropriate function, they have chosen to diversify and have changed to meet the needs of their students and communities. There is no single model of a laboratory school. Some are demonstration sites for teaching techniques, some are research centers, and others provide the setting for training future teachers.

It would seem to me that an inherent strength of American education has been the avoidance of a single model of teaching, learning, or schooling. I applaud Gov. Charles S. Robb's courage in trying something new and different, even if it is costly.

I would also invite Mr. Goodlad to visit laboratory schools in the near future to see first-hand some of the positive, exciting things that are happening in education today.

Rudolf Flesch Author Dobbs Ferry, N.Y.

The Commentary by Dianne Sirna Mancus and Curtis K. Carlson ("Political Philosophy and Reading Make a Dangerous Mix," Education Week, Feb. 27, 1985) has been brought to my attention. Since it mentions me as the author of Why Johnny Can't Read in the same breath with such political right-wingers as the Rev. Jerry Falwell, Phyllis Schlafly, and Mel and Norma Gabler, whose general views I sharply disagree with, I'd like to offer a brief reply.

My books, Why Johnny Can't Read (1955) and Why Johnny Still Can't Read (1981), deal with the wholly unscientific methods of teaching reading used in most of our public and private schools. The scientific method is systematic phonics. Its superiority has been proven in 124 studies since 1911.

The methods used in our schools are not only ineffective but actually harmful. They are the reason why an estimated one-third of American adults cannot read safety warnings, want ads, or street signs. They are also the reason for the millions of children labeled dyslexic or learning-disabled.

Even those who can read are trained to guess the meaning of unfamiliar words when they first see them in print. They are baffled by such words as "egregious," "etiology," or "subsume," and can't tell the difference between others such as "portend" and "pretend." Their grasp of English stays limited and their education is stunted.

This is the reason why our educational achievements are dropping and we're falling behind countries like Japan, Russia, Germany, and France.

Joan D. Abrams Superintendent of School The Public Schools of Red Bank Red Bank, N.J.

I read your recent article on substitute teachers ("Substitutes: The 'Other' Teacher Shortage," Education Week, April 3, 1985).It was very well written and informative. Obtaining substitutes has long been a problem in Red Bank, as well as in the other districts in the state. However, there are several things we do to try to overcome the problem.

Teachers must have lesson plans available for unexpected absences. When it is known that they will be out of the class, more elaborate preparations must be made.

We have a substitute handbook that not only gives information about the school plant but also has an orientation to mastery learning, our major strategy for instructional delivery.

Principals or their surrogates make it a point to meet new substitutes for the purpose of orienting them.

Substitutes are provided with a form on which they provide feedback about their problems. Information is shared with the regular classroom teacher and with the administration.

We have what I believe to be a most innovative policy for the payment of substitutes. Its purpose is to develop a cadre of experienced people who are committed to the Red Bank Borough school system. As of Sept. 1, 1984, substitutes who have served in continuous years receive, beginning on their 100th day of service, $45 per day, instead of $35 or $40. After completing 180 days of service in continuous years, they receive $50 per day.

I do know that because of the promise of up to $50 a day we have several people who make us the first choice for their services. No doubt as regular substitute pay rises, the longevity stipend will be raised, too.

Richard E. Duffy Representative for Federal Assistance United States Catholic Conference Washington, D.C.

I was appalled to read the item about John D. Klenk, the Education Department official who was forced to cancel his speech before a group of Louisiana educators because he would not delete references to tuition tax credits and education vouchers ("E.D. Official Cancels Speech in Face of Censorship Demand," Education Week, April 3, 1985).

I thought that educated people, especially teachers, had open and inquiring minds, that they were willing to explore and discuss new concepts and ideas, and that they were supposed to teach about and respect fundamental American rights such as freedom of speech. But I guess Louisiana's affiliate of the National Education Association is afraid to hear and discuss new ideas that legitimately recognize the natural right of parents to choose an education suitable for their children and that will economically empower them to freely exercise that right.

Remember, teachers of the Louisiana Association of Educators, the words of Justice Louis D. Brandeis: "Men feared witches and burned women. It is the function of speech to free persons from the bondage of irrational fears."

Vol. 04, Issue 31

Notice: We recently upgraded our comments. (Learn more here.) If you are logged in as a subscriber or registered user and already have a Display Name on edweek.org, you can post comments. If you do not already have a Display Name, please create one here.
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories