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'Techno-Enthusiast' Offers a Counter to Cuban Essay

To the Editor:

Oh dear, just when I hoped the old battle between the Luddites and the Geeks had cooled, I read "High-Tech Schools and Low-Tech Teaching," (May 21, 1997.)

Larry Cuban's Commentary misses the mark on two important points. The author believes that the college professors whose statistics he cites accurately represent the teaching profession as a whole, and he theorizes that teachers do not integrate technology into their classes for valid philosophical reasons.

Mr. Cuban reports that the Stanford University professors "only" use technology to prepare teaching materials, do research, exchange e-mail, write, and create interactive Web pages. Their failure to use content-specific courseware in class constitutes a failure of technology in education. Should Mr. Cuban suggest taking their computers and networks away from those folks, he would quickly find that technology has a big impact on their teaching, even if little is visible in the classroom itself.

K-12 educators, especially those in elementary schools, do use technology in class when they are trained to do so and have adequate resources and support. They do this for some simple reasons: It allows them to individualize instruction, to promote constructivist learning activities, to find appropriate on-line resources in resource-poor schools, and to motivate reluctant learners.

College teachers work with students of a homogeneous skill group who are voluntarily in class. Individualization, attention to learning styles, and accountability for student performance are not factors that tenure-protected postsecondary faculty worry much about. Professors are rewarded for publications (even poor ones), rather than for innovative or exemplary teaching.

Mr. Cuban gives three specious theories for the nonadoption of technology, which he seems to narrowly define as course-specific programmed learning: It harms the relationship between students and teachers; it is used to prepare students for the technology-intensive workplace; and it changes rapidly.

The best uses of technology in the classroom humanize education. More than any other factor, technology has served as a catalyst for change from teacher-centered to student-centered learning environments, from dependence on worksheets and textbooks to projects and discovery, and from recall to creativity. The technology that is best liked by students and has the biggest impact on the classroom is productivity-based: word-processor-enhanced process writing, database design, digital-research-tool use, multimedia creation, and video editing. All these tools promote the access, process, evaluation, and communication of information. If Mr. Cuban equates classroom technology with the old brand of drill-and-kill software, he needs to get into a K-12 classroom more often. They usually have people who think in them.

As a result of students' using technology to access and use information, there is a shift in the roles of teacher and student. Classrooms are less authoritarian, less dependent on extrinsic motivation, and more process-centered. The teacher is no longer the sole source of information, the final judge and jury of the "correct response." For college professors whose speciality is content, not pedagogy, this must seem quite threatening. They'd better get over it. Timely subject authority rests with the researcher who has mastered digital-literacy skills, and that researcher may as likely be a student as a teacher.

But somehow Mr. Cuban feels that teaching to create "caring, thoughtful students in a democracy" and teaching for the acquisition of technology skills to be used in a vocation are mutually exclusive. This technophile believes it is difficult to be an informed, active citizen anymore without having good technology skills. With public opinion increasingly being formed and displayed on the Internet, information literacy is vital to good decisionmaking. And information increasingly comes in digital formats.

Doug Johnson
District Media Supervisor
Mankato Public Schools
Mankato, Minn.

Clarification Is Needed on Author's 'Impartiality'

To the Editor:

Why is there no mention in Robert Slavin's Commentary ("How Title I Can (Still) Save America's Children," May 21, 1997), either in the text or in the author's notes, that Mr. Slavin himself is directly involved with Success for All for reading, one of the "programs on the proven list" for compensatory education in Washington state?

While the oversight does not invalidate the assertions that Mr. Slavin makes, it certainly does seem self-serving if the reader is also aware that the author is connected to a "proven program" that has first-year potential costs approaching $50,000 for a 400-student elementary school. At the very least, impartiality is suspect.

Cary M. Stitt
Kindergarten Teacher
Highline School District
Seattle, Wash.

Editor's Note: Mr. Slavin mentions in his text his connection to the Success for All program. The author's identification was written by the editors.

To Counter 'Relativism,' Separate School and State

To the Editor:

In his letter to the editor, Thomas J. Seitzinger Jr. recognizes an inherent difficulty of the common school in a diverse society, but he proposes perhaps the worst cure known to man: relativism ("Our Curriculum Wars Distort Truth's Multifaceted Nature," "Letters," May 21, 1997.)

Relativism holds that "there are no absolute truths." Rarely do relativists state their beliefs so plainly, because to do so invites the question, "How sure are you?" Of course, for them to respond "absolutely" is to be self-refuting; to hedge is to be unconvincing. Unlike math, history, or reading, relativism cannot be taught directly. No teacher ever said, "Do the even-numbered problems in chapter seven of your relativism textbook." The students would merely write, "It depends" as the answer for each.

Relativism must be taught indirectly. Not only do relativists such as Mr. Seitzinger teach relativism, but any school that cannot point to a clear source for the character education it tries to impart also teaches relativism. Thus, a school composed of people who believe in some absolutes (for example, two plus two equals four; rape is wrong; the Nazi Holocaust was wrong) can still teach the students relativism. This is common in America's government-run, tax-funded schools today.

It happens in this way: Out of respect for the different sources of absolute beliefs (the Koran, the Bible, reason and natural law, and so forth) and a unwillingness to overtly undermine some parents by teaching a contrary set of absolutes, a school staff of absolutists will impart relativism to the children. The children naturally conclude from the lack of certitude about important truths that such truths must not exist or are unknowable. That is, they will infer relativism.

The drug education program known as DARE is an example of teaching relativism. The children are taught how to make decisions about drug use. They are not taught, "Drug abuse is wrong. Period. There is nothing to decide." To see how silly DARE is, imagine someone coming up with a "Theft Awareness Program" where children were never told that stealing is wrong, but were led through exercises where it was hoped that they would come to the conclusion that "theft won't work for me."

As is common among relativists in whatever their current faddish label (modernism, postmodernism, deconstructionism, etc.), Mr. Seitzinger has chosen clever, veiled, insidious language to try to give relativism an aura of truth and reason: "Young people need to know that all problems are multifaceted and that everyone interprets his or her surroundings individually. The imposition of excessive political beliefs within an education system will impede the development of these important proficiencies. Educators need to teach truth and theory through discrimination, diversity, and critical thinking. Public school should be the place where students study about differences, not take sides."

If you think this sounds pretty good, reread those sentences, applying them to the aforementioned arithmetic, rape, and Holocaust examples.

So what is the answer, in a pluralistic society, to imparting character virtues to children? The answer is right in front of us: We need to copy America's experience with religious diversity. We enjoy a high degree of religious harmony because an earlier generation undid government compulsion in church funding and attendance. It falls to our generation to undo government compulsion in school funding and attendance. In order for our diversity not to destroy us, we need the separation of school and state.

Marshall Fritz
Separation of School & State Alliance
Fresno, Calif.

Giving Theory of Evolution 'Special' Disparagement

To the Editor:

Regarding David Buckna's letter, "Science as Search for Truth: A Proposed 'Evolution' Policy," published in your issue of May 14, 1997 ("Letters,"): As fundamentalists so often do, Mr. Buckna gives himself away and mocks his own argument by contradicting himself.

"If science is a search for truth," Mr. Buckna writes, "no scientific theory should be allowed to freeze into dogma, immune from critical examination and evaluation." Then why is he plugging a "policy" that is directed entirely and uniquely at "evolutionary theory"? Why doesn't he insist that teachers must apply critical examination and evaluation to each and every theory that science offers? Why doesn't he insist that students and teachers must discuss "information" that "questions" every theoretical construct that science has erected?

The answer is clear. Mr. Buckna wants teachers to subject evolutionary concepts to special, disparaging treatment, so that students will get the false impression that "evolutionary theory" is somehow less respectable, less reliable, and less robust than other scientific theories.

There is nothing new about this tactic. Your readers will find that it was succinctly analyzed and debunked in the brief that 72 Nobel laureates sent to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1986, when the court was considering Louisiana's infamous "creation science" statute, which was ruled unconstitutional.

Mr. Buckna's letter also includes a plug for a new book by Phillip Johnson, a creationist lawyer who has written extensively to display his ignorance of science (and his absurd notions about biology in particular). Educators who would like to learn more about Mr. Johnson should contact the National Center for Science Education in Berkeley, Calif.

William J. Bennetta
The Textbook League
Sausalito, Calif.

California High School Has 'No D' Policy

To the Editor:

In "Out With the D's," ("Take Note," May 21, 1997), you note that a Hampstead, Md., high school's new grading system does not include D's, which encourages students to earn C's instead of just cruising by with D's. The article states that "as simple as it sounds, the high school's no-D's policy may be the nation's first, experts said."

East High School in Fortuna, Calif., is a continuation school in our district and has had a no-D policy since 1980, when I became principal. We have taken the policy a step further, in that we don't give F's either. We have a competency-based system and we believe that giving a student an F simply adds insult to injury. Students don't fail courses--they simply have not learned the material at a level of minimum competence that allows us to award them a C.

Almost all of our students have failed miserably in the traditional comprehensive school, but with this system we end up graduating about 85 percent of the students who transfer to us. Since all students are different, each one takes different periods of time to gain minimum proficiency. And we have found that most students work to get those A's and B's. We have students who graduate in less than four years, but we also have some who stay with us for five years or more. We would not consider ourselves to be successful if we were failing 30 percent of our students.

Dennis J. Hanson
Superintendent and Principal
Fortuna Union High School District
Fortuna, Calif.

Inclusion, Religious Freedom Should Extend to Muslims

To the Editor:

An educational scandal broke out last month when South Carolina state board of education member Henry Jordan let loose a volley of intolerant remarks directed against religious minorities ("State Journal," May 28, 1997). Dismissing possible opposition to his proposal to allow students to display the Ten Commandments in their schools, he commented, "Screw the Buddhists and kill the Muslims. ... And put that in the minutes." He added, "What I want to do is promote Christianity as the only true religion. This nation was founded to worship, honor, and glorify Jesus Christ, not Mohammed, not Buddha." He also described Islam and Buddhism as "cults."

I suppose it is good news that these remarks unleashed a "firestorm of criticism" on both a local and a national level. There were expressions of indignation and calls for Mr. Jordan's resignation, and political leaders distanced themselves from his comments. Finally, Mr. Jordan apologized "as much as I can." He acknowledged forthrightly, "I am embarrassed. I am ashamed. I regret it. ... I want to be forgiven."

Well and good. We can forgive human error and intemperance. But this incident reveals a pervasive cultural mood that cannot be so readily put behind us. Far too many Americans view the United States as a Christian or Judeo-Christian country in which Muslims and other religious communities are, by definition, regarded as alien to "American" culture. Those in a position of public responsibility should not get away with inciting hatred. Henry Jordan cannot be trusted with devising educational policy. Neither can anyone else who shares his attitudes.

Islam is now the fastest-growing religion in the United States, and Muslims are expected soon to be the second-largest religious community. Muslims make every effort to be included in the American mainstream. Yet they too often meet with mistrust and misunderstanding. They are stereotyped in the media as terrorists and fanatics. When there is a crisis that appears to be Middle East-related, Muslims (and Arab-Americans generally, whether Muslim or Christian) hunker down in anticipation of another barrage of threats, harassment, and hate crimes.

In recent years, mosques as well as churches and synagogues have been the targets of arson attacks. A mosque in South Carolina was burnt to the ground in 1995. The suspect arrested claimed that "Jesus told me to do it" because the mosque was a danger to his children.

We look to the schools and multicultural educators to take the lead in correcting the negative stereotypes children absorb from the popular culture. But sometimes educators are the problem, and even well-intentioned teachers have their blind spots.

The Middle East Scholars Association reviewed high school textbooks and found that "the presentation of Islam is so problematic that it is perhaps time for educators at the college level to send a red alert to their colleagues at the precollegiate level." Islam is too often portrayed as "an intolerant, militant faith whose adherents are unreasonable, violent, and lacking in compassion."

Teachers often tell students that Muslims worship "Allah," as if that referred to a deity distinct from the God of Christians and Jews. "Allah" is simply the Arabic word for God. When Arab Christians pray, they also pray to "Allah."

Perhaps we should begin to refer to the "Judeo-Christian-Muslim" tradition. Muslims regard Islam as the completion of a series of revelations that includes Adam, Moses, and Jesus as honored prophets. Islam respects Jews and Christians as "Peoples of the Book." And it was the influence of the science and philosophy of Arab-Islamic civilization that brought Europe out of the Dark Ages and stimulated the Renaissance. The Arab-Islamic world is also a constituent element of "Western" history.

Multicultural educators frequently ignore the existence of Arabs, Arab-Americans, and Muslims. They go on automatic pilot when using the official federal categories for white, black, Hispanic, Asian, and Native Americans. Arabs and Muslims are subsumed and rendered culturally invisible.

These problems have a daily impact in the classroom and schoolyard, where Muslim students run into numerous difficult situations. Many school systems are beginning to take note of Ramadan, but too often still schedule student testing on Islamic holidays when Muslim students want to be with their families. Muslims also have concerns about diet (no pepperoni pizza, please), modesty in dress, the acceptance of headcoverings for girls, and fasting during Ramadan.

It is time that educators, especially in university-level schools of education, take note. There is a problem they need to address. Let's make multicultural programs truly inclusive. The practical, everyday needs of Muslim students must be taken into consideration. Arab and Muslim Americans are also part of the mix in the proverbial "salad bowl." And we need teachers who will not graduate any more school-board-members-to-be whose sense of self as Americans is culturally provincial and arrogant.

Hala Maksoud
American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee
Washington, D.C.

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