Letters to the Editor
I have spent 40 years around public high schools, which includes my own student experience, 30 years as a teacher/supervisor, and the last five years as a supervisor of student-teachers. It is difficult for me recognize the curricula and high schools that David Angus and Jeffrey Mirel construct from a study of transcripts ("High School Course-Taking and Educational Reform,'' Commentary, Nov. 17, 1993).
My own high school years covered 1942 to 1946, in a society far different from our own. The atmosphere in the high school was relaxed, almost lethargic by today's standards, and hardly academic. Yet in this period of "dilution,'' college-entrance students (about a third of a class of about l00) took four years of English and social studies, three years of math, three or four years of science, and two or three years of a foreign language, and most us went on to college.
Although we were predominantly ethnics whose parents never touched the threshold of the local high school, I never recall nefarious educators--then or at any time in my long career--"channeling'' people into inferior courses. (Where did the authors get this information? From transcripts?) I should also add that my mother, if she had persevered, would have graduated in 1919 as part of a class of 19. She and her six siblings, who also dropped out, always referred to the town's high school as "the yellow prison.'' Such were the golden years before 1928.
When I began my teaching career in 1959, a time that Mr. Angus and Mr. Mirel still lump in the period of "dilution'' and "unequal educational opportunity,'' it was nothing less than culture shock. I was taken aback by the curriculum reform under way and the upbeat and energetic attitude of both teachers and students toward academic subjects. That the curriculum had been upgraded was quite obvious. It was an amazing and exciting era for American high schools.
A few years later, my district established curriculum coordinators for the expressed purpose of further upgrading curriculum, seeking people with expertise in the academic disciplines. Some of the most rigorous materials and methodologies I have ever encountered were introduced in this period, and I can never recall a more receptive group of students. It was more than rhetoric; the curriculum did indeed change. I know, because I was the curriculum coordinator for social studies and introduced the materials in my own department and classes while working closely with coordinators in other disciplines.
And then, abruptly and forcefully, everything changed. The authors of your Commentary are unhappy with the pendulum metaphor, but I swung on something through three cycles that sure felt like a pendulum, even if it didn't always swing "between two distinct educational philosophies.'' Again, it was more than rhetoric as we again turned the curriculum topsy-turvy. Like so many schools we moved with great gusto into mini-courses and some freewheeling experimentations. Our transcripts reflected these changes, but perhaps someschools kept the same titles. One thing is certain: Whatever went on in high schools from 1968 to 1974 will never be determined from transcripts. The school culture changed not because workaday educators suddenly discovered egalitarianism but because the values of the greater society changed. One may lament the dilution that followed but it is arguable whether the school could have resisted these forces.
Some administrators tell me they did not have a choice. (Recall the shrill voices demanding "relevance'' and "deschooling.'') Since nothing is unambiguous in history, I must also record that I witnessed some of the most creative curriculum-making and teaching ever during this period. This was more than a "rhetorical swing'' in my judgment; it was a pivotal episode in American educational history.
After jumping over the years 1974 to 1982, the authors come up with the period since 1983 and A Nation at Risk as the great redemptive moment for American schools: All you have to do is mandate rigorous academic courses. They make it sound like the end of history! I welcomed this movement as a needed corrective to the excesses that had in some cases become sheer romanticism and irresponsibility. Incidentally, this swing of the pendulum did not begin in 1983 but 1974, when educators struggled to tighten up disciplinary and attendance policies and back-to-basics programs. It was reinforced powerfully by A Nation at Risk, not because this was a profound educational document (which it was not) but because it represented the anxiety of a society that saw itself rightfully or wrongfully in deep economic trouble. The "excellence'' movement is not immune to history; nor, for that matter, are Mr. Angus and Mr. Mirel.
Gerald Bracey's annual reports in the Phi Delta Kappan have documented the overall upgrading of curriculum since the 1940's that is evident to me as soon as I enter a high school and see those fabulous art exhibits in the corridor, observe an Advanced Placement European-history course, glance at a language-arts reading list, or listen to youngsters during a model United Nations conclave. (Most of these achievements can be traced back to the 1950's.)
What is troubling, as Mr. Bracey and others have noted, is that not enough students get seriously involved in the academic areas. This is the great challenge to public education, as Lawrence Cremin preached in his history-of-education classes for so many decades. Contemporary social problems have not made it any easier. The Angus and Mirel study of disembodied course-taking masks not only these social complexities that demand addressing but at the same time the accomplishments of American high schools.
William W. Goetz
To the Editor:
Paul D. Houston's Commentary, "California's Fire Next Time'' (Dec. 15, 1993), explains why Proposition 174 (on school choice) failed, but it also reinforces the need for this country to go to parental choice in education. Mr. Houston, like most of the educational establishment, places the provider of education over the needs of children. He writes, "Proposition 174 was the largest attack yet on the sanctity of common schools in this country.''
Those who support the right of parents to choose any school believe no school or system of schools is sacred. If schools are not meeting the needs of children, or if they are actually detrimental, they should close.
The purpose of government is to serve the people. The question here is whether a government financial monopoly is the best way to serve the children in California, or in any state. The evidence is very strong that choice, competition, and real accountability would be better. Higher education demonstrates this to be true.
Mr. Houston also writes that "the beauty of public schools is that they are for everyone.'' As a public school teacher for 22 years, I can assure you that is part of the system's problem. Public schools are not for everyone. Private or parochial schools are not for everyone. If you examine the research, you will discover some startling information. A recent study by the New York State Department of Education reveals, for example, that there proportionately are more poor, disadvantaged, at-risk children in Catholic schools than in public schools. The report goes on to show how much more effective the Catholic schools are with these children and what a detriment to them it would be to lose this service to the common good.
The time will come soon when we will all realize that having educated, moral, productive citizens is what is important and that placing the means ahead of the ends is poor public policy.
Ronald T. Bowes
Director of Educational Planning and Development
Diocese of Pittsburgh
To the Editor:
Ruth Mitchell's analysis of current strategies in writing instruction and assessment ("Write Where It Belongs,'' Commentary, Dec. 15, 1993) is spellbindingly stupid. Has the esteemed policy analyst ever witnessed an effective writing class?
Bad writing assignments remain unchecked in our classrooms and textbooks; bad writing by students is the consequence. Teachers, missing the elaboration and concreteness they expect from mature writing, complain of dull and vacuous paragraphs. No wonder: Plant a weed and a weed will appear.
Ms. Mitchell, contrary to massive evidence that my staff and I witness every day, naively dismisses the very kind of writing assignment that actually works: asking students to write about the things they know.
She's misguided in attacking self-descriptive essays, "how to'' essays, and expressive writing rooted in the experiences and feelings of one's own life: These are the perfect starting points for student writers. Why? Because they allow student writers what they need (what any writer needs): exquisitely close access to pertinent facts and details--facts from observation, facts of action and setting, facts of the heart. Teachers who frame assignments without this access doom themselves to dull and tedious grading sessions at the kitchen table.
R. James Stahl
Publisher and Editor
East Greenwich, R.I.
To the Editor:
Ruth Mitchell offers a self-styled "radical'' proposal for restructuring literacy instruction that is not so radical at all. In fact, her proposal is based on obsolete views of the nature of literature and writing and chooses its research support selectively.
During the past three decades, much of the research in literacy (the part ignored by Ms. Mitchell) points toward an integrated view of language that neither justifies nor argues for any discontinuity between expressive writing on the one hand and transactional on the other. The research also points away from other dichotomies and divisions implicit in Ms. Mitchell's argument: art versus disciplinary learning or "science,'' creative writing versus explanatory, imagination versus facts and information, literature versus all the other writing.
Her proposal to isolate creative writing and literature from the rest of the curriculum, and her assumption that English teachers would prefer it that way, also suggest her lack of familiarity with the kinds of English-teacher training and retraining programs under way at most major colleges and universities. Today's good English/language-arts teachers simply aren't the literary and creative-writing snobs Ms. Mitchell implies.
Here's an alternative proposal to hers: Instead of chopping up literacy, let's restore English (or language arts or whatever we choose to call it) to the status of a liberal art, meaning a subject whose primary function is to develop skills of expression and critical inquiry rather than simply to serve the needs of other fields and professions.
There will always be a place in the school curriculum where the central concern is human expression. Even if students came to college as fully competent writers, there would be a place for them to explore literature and expression as liberal arts. Even if they came to 4th grade at the top of the standardized tests, there would be room for them to explore language without worry about whether it gets them ready for the next grade or the next level, or the demands of literacy in other disciplines or in the workplace.
That's not to say that literacy instruction should be mere expressivism; nor should it ignore the basic skills of spelling, grammar, and the like; nor should it be taught in a vacuum where students write only for themselves rather than for real audiences. But as long as language study is dichotomized--the art part and the real-world part--children's language instruction will be fragmented and, as a result, less effective than it could be through a holistic pedagogy.
Ruth Mitchell seems largely unaware of how the best English teachers teach nowadays. Her Solomon-like, ax-wielding proposal would destroy the research-based progress of the past several decades while adding nothing new, since, during that same time, many teachers in the disciplines have taken seriously the call for language across the curriculum and are already teaching it in their classrooms, just as English teachers have advocated.
Professor of Rhetoric and Composition
University of Nevada
To the Editor:
With respect to Ruth Mitchell's claim that as matters stand student writing lacks purpose, content, and appeals to an audience:
Having taught English and written composition in school, college, and university, I've assumed, first, that the course has only a single goal--the ability to write everyday exposition and argument for educated general readers--and, second, that the only content possible is the student's experience and ideas. I can write about physics only if the content has become part of my experience.
As to Ms. Mitchell's proposal about making every teacher a teacher of writing: Teaching history, physics, or whatever does entail teaching the reading and writing distinctive to those disciplines. Nevertheless, most problems of students' writing have to do with conventions of the writing system--spelling, punctuation, grammatical agreement, and so on. That's why the handbooks on composition that I've seen devote most space to these conventions.
It's unrealistic to suppose that teachers of biology or math have the training or inclination to identify, correct, and teach the uses of the conventions, let alone spend time on matters of unity, coherence, and emphasis. Writers of exposition and argument in whatever the subject face problems raised by these aspects of writing.
A hard and exacting art to teach, written composition requires teachers trained and committed to the task.
To The Editor:
In Ruth Mitchell's proposal, the teaching of all writing, except that which she categorizes as expressive, would fall into the hands of history, science, geography, mathematics, and health teachers. This is, as Ms. Mitchell understates, "not a small change,'' and in order for this new approach to curriculum to succeed, all teachers will need to rethink their own pedagogical and methodological approaches to their own subject matter. While she is quick to point out that "teachers in other academic disciplines will have to be prepared to accept the responsibility for teaching the rhetoric of their own subjects,'' she fails to illustrate just how this type of preparation will be accomplished.
How do teachers become prepared to teach, not the subject matter of their field, but its rhetoric? Is Ms. Mitchell assuming that someone who can teach the intricacies of physical science or history can also teach students how to write about those subjects? It would seem obvious that the type of preparation she admits as necessary to her revised curriculum would involve teachers becoming skilled in the methodology and pedagogy of teaching composition and "writing skills.'' In order to be effective teachers of writing, these history and geometry teachers would need to be familiar with the rhetoric of the writing teacher and, in essence, become writing teachers themselves.
It seems strange that at the same time Ms. Mitchell is proposing that all teachers become teachers of writing, English teachers who are trained in the rhetoric of the writing classroom should ignore their training and confine themselves to "their subject matter'' (namely, literature).
Ms. Mitchell makes two fundamental errors when she states that most English teachers "went into English teaching because they loved literature, not because they wanted to teach reading and writing.'' Besides the obvious fact that she cannot speak for "most'' English teachers, her sweeping evaluation of English teachers makes them appear to be provincial and pretentious by implying that the primary reason for entering the profession has more to do with a love of books than a love of teaching. Ms. Mitchell has taken it upon herself to not only narrowly define the "subject matter'' of the English classroom in a way which excludes most forms of written English, she has defined the English teacher as a selfish pedagogue who has no time for such mundane things as the teaching of reading and writing.
If Ms. Mitchell firmly believes that most English teachers entered the profession without a desire to teach reading and writing, why does she automatically assume that those teachers of other subjects who will have the responsibility to teach reading and writing under her plan possess this desire? If an English teacher doesn't want to teach reading and writing, why should a history teacher or a science teacher?
What Ms. Mitchell seems to be advocating is not a reform in curriculum advantageous to students, but one definitely designed to benefit those English teachers who simply do not like to teach writing and composition.
Andrew P. Williams
Vol. 13, Issue 17