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To the Editor:

Letters I never bother to read include those beginning with "As you know ... '' Also testing my attention span are reports of research on teaching which, after five years of huffing and puffing, discover "students are the context which matters most to what teachers do in the classroom.'' ("By Asking Teachers About 'Context' of Work, Center Moves to the Cutting Edge of Research,'' Focus On, March 31, 1993).

I thought such muddle, lifted from your article on Stanford University's Center for Research on the Context of Secondary School Teaching would put readers of the study into a temporary trance. Instead, the research community seemed to see it as a cutting edge in methodology, riding atop the crest of a wave never before known to the policy world.

After a half century and a few billion "research'' dollars, teaching is found to be more meaningful if several students are around as it is taking place. This conjures up images of high-tech labs where sheathed human or robot arms enter enclosures supporting sterile environments. In the lab, however, the sheathing is done to protect the sterility of the contents in the enclosure, not the arms which invade it.

Through its funding policies, the federal education agency long has nurtured the isolation of research on teaching from teaching and teacher education. A common language for the investigator and those being investigated is thus unnecesary.

So we need not question why a high school teacher in Watts might see "episodic decontextualized injection,'' "multiple embedded contexts,'' or "strategic intersects'' helpful. The American Educational Research Association saw this study as provocative enough to merit more funds to "see if the findings were generalizable,'' presumably to the 10,000 districts and 48 states left unvisited by the Stanford center's staff.

Several weeks ago, the American Society of Newspaper Editors met in Baltimore. The lead paragraph in a New York Times story on the group's literacy committee noted its call for newspapers to challenge many of the rules that have governed journalism for generations. "Too many editors and writers habitually rely on approaches to writing that are daunting and difficult to understand for the reader. Year by year we keep boring and confusing our readers, driving them away.''

Efforts to lower the language barrier in education, however, remain secondary to the substance of the communication. The need to fund strategic, long-term activities is offset by the ease with which policies shift direction within and between Presidential administrations. This stifles planning as efficiency gives way to expediency. The political urgency to show that action is under way replaces the need for action based on the nation's schooling and manpower needs.

For example, New York City just announced it will have 37 new, special high schools by fall. The campaign for state superintendent in Wisconsin suggests that school choice may lie dormant but is not dead. Head Start faces a challenge of design. Public acceptance of national (or even federal) standards nears. We see an increasing interest in privatizing all or parts of public education to enhance our labor pool.

These and other trends portend extraordinary changes in and to public education. Each rose high in public interest long after this teaching-context study was conceived some seven years ago. Let us hope past performance is not the best predictor of future performance--in this case.

Jim Steffensen
Alexandria, Va.

To the Editor:

Alan Cromer's recommendations for reorganizing precollegiate education ("Getting More Out of Fewer School Years,'' Commentary, March 31, 1993) would necessitate too-early decisionmaking and career commitment by 13-year-olds and would have 16-year-olds entering college.

May I suggest for his review the organization pattern in effect while I was director general of a Montreal area school district? Grades K-6 were in elementary school. Grades 7-11 were in secondary schools, with each school dividing that five-year period into two cycles. Cycle I accommodated grades 7 and 8 with a general curriculum. Cycle II, with grades 9, 10, and 11, had common-core subjects (language, geography, history, mathematics, science) and more specialized offerings (business, vocational education , arts, etc.).

At the end of grade 11, a student "matriculated'' after successfully completing a series of "school-leaving examinations.'' For those students continuing their education there were two-year junior colleges, followed by three-year baccalaureate programs at universities.

In this system, fewer years of school did not engender early career decisions or immature college entrants.

Joshua Segal
Institute for the Advancement of
Mathematics and Science
Long Island University
Brooklyn, N.Y.

To the Editor:

The temporary teachers Steven Frankel suggests as a cost-cutting measure for schools would be about as popular as half-baked donuts ("There Are Better Ways To Cut Costs,'' Commentary, March 17, 1993).

The "popularity'' in industry of temporary workers is all on the employers' side. The "temps'' save them the cost of health-care and other benefits and free them from the burdens imposed by contracts, rules, and responsibility. Hiring temporary workers also rids the employer of training, firing, and litigation. But it creates for the American economy and U.S. workers a growing proportion of disposable positions.

As for Mr. Frankel's proposal to replace teachers with computers and software, I challenge both his math skills and his common sense in computing the resulting savings. He has not, for example, factored in the cost of research and development for the kind of broad, independent-study programs he envisions. Aside from that, he makes other gross assumptions that are incorrect: A traditional class is not 24 students; computers do not promote student interactions; and materials are not available or affordable in small districts racked by financial cutbacks.

In addition, expecting students to have an attention span for computerized instruction that can encompass 90 minutes of independent study per day is unrealistic. Perhaps Cost Cutters Inc., Mr. Frankel's Maryland business, can afford to adopt the philosophy that machines can equal people, but in the real world of education, a computer can never replace the live, nurturing, interactive adult.

As another cost-cutting tactic, Mr Frankel promotes the "Austin Plan,'' which eliminates music, physical-education, art, and reading specialists, counselors, and aides. Why, at a time when societal changes are so rapid and the problems of educating children so vast, would we want to deprive classroom teachers of vital support staff?

Mr. Frankel also would offer high school teachers the opportunity to teach an extra period. He says, "It is also a neat way of giving a teacher a 10 to 20 percent pay increase without increasing the teaching load beyond what elementary school teachers contend with every day.'' What a gift! He is referring to the number of hours worked, not to the 120 to 140 students seen daily by a high school teacher. And, he is playing off elementary against secondary, rather than facing the real issue of underfunding for education in general.

In short, this Commentary fosters a doublespeak that supports education in theory and rhetoric but does not allow teachers to create, develop, or inspire. If Mr. Frankel is trying, as he says, to "make lemonade when dealt lemons,'' then I say he has sucked out all the sugar--the pleasure of watching a child learn.

Connie Evans
Burnsville, Minn.

Vol. 12, Issue 30

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