Letters to the Editor

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To the Editor:

I would like to comment on the ideas in the Commentary of the Aug. 5, 1987, issue ("Who Should Be Schools' Instructional Leaders?") and on two letters on the subject of teachers running in the same issue (''Let Teachers Run a School? Two Administrators Disagree On Minnesota Experiment").

The mental model we have of a school and the vocabulary we use can both reflect and mold our thinking about schools.

One model of a good school may include an administrator who is seen in the role of "captain of the ship." The principal of such a school may have a reputation for running a "tight ship," with clear orders and regulations going down a chain of command and reports coming up the chain. The principal will not only have control within the school but will have control of relations with the public and parents. In this model, teachers are often referred to as "certificated personnel" or as members of a given bargaining unit.

Another model has only teachers and students as the essential members of the school organization, with a wide variety of relationships with parents, the community, and the out-of-school administration. In such a school, administrative duties can be shared; some may be assigned to a head or principal teacher who always considers his profession that of teaching and not administrating.

The model of the teacher varies as do these two models of schools. One picture is that of a young person with a good way with children and the required credentials who will teach for a while and then pursue another career. This picture may also include the older teacher who, looking forward to retirement, does no more than is required to keep a tenured position. The efficiency of such teachers may well depend on a firm administrator.

At the other end of the spectrum we may picture the mature professional teacher with advanced degrees and a variety of special talents. Such teachers may have far more education and experience than the average person with administrative credentials and a position of power.

If we are not clear as to the model of a school or the model of a teacher that we have in mind, we will not settle or even understand the issue of whether schools will be better controlled by teachers or by administrators.

I prefer to think of "teacher" as the essential professional status in education.

David Dibble
Orientation and Mobility Teacher
Oakland, Calif.

To the Editor:

In your issue of Aug. 5, 1987, letters from Jon A. Lokensgard and Dick Berthold referred to the Minnesota experiment in which a committee of teachers has replaced the principal.

If anyone else is contemplating such an experiment, may I offer the following suggestions?

First, while the elimination of a principal would place too heavy an administrative load on teachers and would forfeit the advantages of focused leadership, the role of the principal must be changed if we are serious about improving public education.

In the process of making this change, the school board should begin by making sure the school is staffed with the best teachers available. They should be philosophically compatible, flexible, and eager to take the initiative for educational improvement.

This teaching staff should hire the principal, subject to school-board approval. The principal should then work as the employee of the teaching staff. The staff should outline his duties and determine policy, and then allow the principal to function as the leader. At the end of his contract, either the teachers or the board could remove him.

Such a management plan would accomplish several important goals. By giving teachers the authority to make decisions, this plan would improve the status of teaching. The plan also provides incentive for the teachers to improve their skills and to focus on the needs of the whole school.

Such a system would allow reasonable stability, which would enable teachers to improve their performance over a period of years. Teachers could make a commitment to a course of action with reasonable expectations of pursuing it to a successful conclusion.

Of primary importance, the school program would be their own, with the advice of the community and the approval of the school board, rather than the pet project of some administrator.

The nature of the principal's job would change from directing the work of others to providing leadership and staff support.

Why don't we turn to teachers for higher standards in our schools?

Fred Gibson
Coachella Valley Unified School District
Thermal, Calif.

To the Editor:

I read with interest the debate between Linda Darling-Hammond and Ted Elsberg (Aug. 5, 1987). Both experts should listen to what the other is saying.

Perhaps the real problem in education is that few educators are willing to listen to their co-workers. In my two years as an administrator, I have found that teachers have a vast wealth of knowledge and that if I listen to what they have to say, I might just learn something. In return, I hope the teachers I have worked with have learned something from me. If not, I have failed.

In my view, participative management is like a basketball team. In the huddle, the team members give input on what is happening on the court. The coach sitting on the sideline has a different perspective. To gain the winning edge, the team members and the coach have to listen to one another.

I want to know what the teachers I work with are thinking and what they have to say. Most teachers are professionals and are interested in improving the learning environment in which they work.

On the other hand, from my research, I must agree with Mr. Elsberg on the importance of the principal. The success of the school rests with the competence of the principal, the educational leader at the building level.

Both Ms. Darling-Hammond and Mr. Elsberg have established strong points, but unless both sides are willing to listen, no one will benefit from their knowledge.

Robert C. Fyfe
Graduate Student
University of Southern Mississippi
Hattiesburg, Miss.

To the Editor:

Your article "Is There a Teacher Shortage? It's Anyone's Guess" (June 24, 1987) certainly highlighted the paucity of information for making reliable estimates of teacher supply and demand. It was a well-researched piece that performed a useful service for your readers--with one exception.

No place did you mention that the Center for Education Statistics has surveys under way that will remedy this longstanding data deficiency.

You might easily have cross-referenced your own article that described our plans, "Federal Statistics Center Plans New Surveys on Teacher Staffing, Mobility, Attrition," on page 15 of the same issue.

Emerson J. Elliott
Center for Education Statistics
U.S. Education Department
Washington, D.C.

To the Editor:

A front-page article in your Extra Edition, "'Summit Meeting' of Leading English Teachers Calls for Reforms in Instruction at All Levels,'' leads me to respond to the idea that "teachers should place less emphasis on the content of instruction, and more on the way students read, write, and think."

As the article points out, this appears to run counter to recent criticisms by educators such as E.D. Hirsch Jr. Agreeing with Mr. Hirsch, I believe that instruction based on the idea that content is not important is a very significant--if not the most significant--contributor to the decline in reading ability over the past several years and the gap in reading ability between socioeconomically advantaged and disadvantaged young people.

Mr. Hirsch is right that a common core of knowledge is necessary to read beyond an elementary (perhaps 3rd-grade) level and that children deficient in this core of content fall behind their peers who have it. His book cites research on reading by experts such as Jeanne Chall to support this contention.

Mr. Hirsch has largely avoided discussing how schools should convey this core knowledge to children, but he does not support "teaching a list" or a "trivial pursuit" approach. Rather, he would like to see teachers and other educators find exciting ways to convey this knowledge--interesting discussions, stories, pictures, plays, video, etc. He has also not called for a "core curriculum" of books that all students should read and, in fact, has carried on a running debate on this subject with U.S. Secretary of Education William J. Bennett, who does support a core curriculum.

A concern for equity and for the vigor of our democracy demands that the schools do all they can to convey to all children the information they need in order to read about and understand the issues of the day.

Robert R. Spillane
Division Superintendent
Fairfax County Public Schools
Fairfax, Va.

To the Editor:

In response to the letter from Kenny and Diane Brown ("Developmental-Placement Procedures Based Upon An 'Outmoded' Theory," June 17, 1987), I am prompted to share what our community is doing to address the needs of children entering our public school system for the first time.

The West Haven, Conn., Board of Education approved in December the phasing in by elementary schools of a developmental-assessment program. Our readiness-testing and developmental-placement policies are designed not to "exclude, retain, and track" young children, but, rather, to help the professional staff better define a program suited to children's needs.

A team that includes a guidance counselor, nurse, school administrator, Gesell Developmental Screening examiner, and parent assesses the strengths and weaknesses of children who are old enough for school. The role of the parents, without whose consent placement is not made, is critical.

Our early-childhood structure will include developmental kindergarten, kindergarten, and transitional programs, in order to provide flexibility of advancement, not retention. At our model school, the nongraded "family cluster" spans the traditional kindergarten through 2nd grade. Our programs focus on experiential and language-based activities, and are guided by Piagetian principles of learning.

Developmental placement is not an outmoded technique but one that embodies parents' intuitive understanding that every child is unique. We, as professionals, need to recognize that we should not expect all children in a particular class to begin a given year at the same point and end the year together at another point along our preconceived "grow and know" line.

Rosalea V. Donahue
Gesell Examiner and Chapter 1 Reading Teacher
Savin Rock Community School
West Haven, Conn.

To the Editor:

I commend you for your special report on "The Call for Choice" (June 24, 1987) and for your article on alternative schools ("Experts Divided on Alternative Schools," April 22, 1987).

A basic problem in the field is the existence of at least three definitions of alternative education, reflecting major differences in educational philosophy. One holds that "alternative education" is an accommodation to "bad kids" and is therefore an inferior type of education. Another definition refers to options and choices, especially for pupils and parents, but also for educators. A third associates it with "alternative lifestyles."

In California, where the second definition is the official one, alternative education encompasses fundamental, structured schools on the one hand and experience-based, open schools on the other--with many types in the middle. All are characterized by voluntarism in public education and share in the power that comes with the free exercise of choice.

We are deeply concerned about views of alternative schools as accomodations or special programs for incorrigible youths. Such outlooks fail to recognize several bodies of research-based information. These data include the findings about learning styles, mastery learning, competency-based assessment, and direct instruction. Many of the issues addressed by "educational reform" will signify nothing if they do not incorporate an understanding of this information regarding individual differences.

L.P. Hartzler
Alternative Education Unit
California Department of Education
Sacramento, Calif.

Vol. 07, Issue 02

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