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Will Local Empowerment Solve the Intractable?

To the Editor:

Professor James W. Guthrie of Vanderbilt University said in his recent Commentary that for America's schools to be as effective as the 21st century will surely demand, we must authorize teachers and principals and then hold them accountable for the results ("The Paradox of Educational Power," Oct. 15, 1997). He concludes: "No other education reform, no matter how well intended, well funded, or well publicized will prove as well founded."

In this same piece, Mr. Guthrie tells the reader that 25 percent of all public school enrollees attend classes in only 1 percent of the nation's school districts. And these, he says, "are overly large, bumbling bureaucracies lodged in our biggest cities." Altogether, 5 percent of the districts enroll 50 percent of the nation's children. This leaves 95 percent of the districts to educate half the children. And these districts, says Mr. Guthrie, "while by no means perfect, come closer to empowering principals and teachers."

With all due respect to James Guthrie--I'm familiar with most of his work over a long, distinguished career--equating district size with empowered principals and teachers simply doesn't wash. I'm sure he and I could come to a quick agreement on any number of small, medium, and large school districts we know that fit either his "bumbling bureaucracy" or "near perfect" definitions.

That aside, what about the wisdom of allowing school principals to select and evaluate their own staffs, to spend money as they see fit, to teach by whatever method suits their fancy, and then hold them accountable for producing results? I've read the book (Reinventing Public Education, by Mr. Guthrie, Paul Hill, and Larry Pierce); I know the argument.

Frankly, it has a lot of appeal. As Mr. Guthrie points out in his essay, right now a dissatisfied public tends to blame superintendents when schools appear to be failing at their job. Why not shift the responsibility to where it belongs?

But wait a minute. Do we hold the staff in the school serving poor children to the same standard as the principal and teachers in the school enrolling children from affluent families? How about schools with large numbers of non-English-speaking students? What about the 125-year-old school with one electrical outlet per classroom? Do we hold its principal and teachers to the same standards as those running new schools that feature Internet-connected computers sitting on every student's desk?

We know that schools serving large percentages of poor children tend to employ the youngest teachers, those teachers least likely to be teaching a subject they're certified to teach, and teachers who are most apt to quit after one year. Do we hold the principal accountable for this situation?

I have nothing against empowering principals and teachers. What bothers me is why anyone would think that approach is going to enable their schools to escape the bind that now entangles entire school systems, bureaucratic or near-perfect. That's the bind of addressing the nonacademic needs of large concentrations of poor children (substitute whatever label you wish; sick, hungry, and abused all come to mind, but poverty tends to be an underlying factor in my experience).

Poor children tend to be concentrated in poor schools with the poorest of everything, beginning with buildings and curriculum materials and instructional equipment. Some of these schools are blessed with excellent principals and are fortunate to have great teachers, the kind we all would quickly empower, knowing they would willingly be held accountable. But all too often, these schools neither attract nor hold the best faculty and principals.

All too often the districts that Mr. Guthrie says are the least effective and most bureaucratized (in other words, large and urban) are in fact those with the greatest number of schools serving the highest concentrations of poor children. Superintendents in these districts are trying a lot of different ways to free up principals and teachers to concentrate on the job of educating children who come to school burdened with a lot of barriers to learning. In a perfect world, we would hold the educators accountable. We would do it just as soon as we eliminated troublesome statutes, judicial rulings, and collective bargaining contracts.

I find myself in agreement with Mr. Guthrie's contention that modern reform proposals miss the point. But simply empowering principals and teachers and holding them accountable misses the point, too. If what we want is high-achieving students in every school, then we need to be prepared to provide every child with the opportunity to come to school ready to learn. Do that, and empowerment and accountability become moot issues because academic success will permeate the entire system.

Joe Schneider
Deputy Executive Director
American Association of School Administrators
Arlington, Va.

'Out of Touch' Teachers? Public Should Be So Lucky

To the Editor:

Sadly, the study described in your article "Professors' Attitudes Out of Sync, Study Finds," (Oct. 29, 1997.) again gives educators graphic evidence of just how disengaged the general public (and, therefore, also members of groups such as this opinion-research group) has become from education as a whole.

The role and mission of professors of education, as recognized by educational professionals at all levels, has never been to instruct future teachers concerning their content or topic area: That is the objective of the subject-matter professors within the typical future teacher's plan of study. In fact, it was refreshing to see that this poll's results indicated professors of education were very well in tune with their purpose: the instruction of future teachers in the process of learning.

We would hope that our fellow education professionals were gratified to see that the poll also indicated that progressive methods are being promoted, such as more-authentic, comprehensive assessment (portfolios) and the elimination of inappropriate competition (the No. 1 destroyer of student motivation). If these ideals are out of touch and unrealistic, then we certainly hope that we can continue to be out of touch and unrealistic, as we have both successfully incorporated them into our teaching practices.

Tragically, both those gathering and analyzing such poll data and the public at large have absolutely no idea of the typical educational program of a future teacher, and therefore cannot respect the time, effort, logic, and concept behind teacher preparation. Also tragically obvious is the fact that members of the public care so little about education beyond the media hype that they have not bothered to ask or find out about how teachers become teachers, how curriculum is chosen, why grading and assessment differ from what they experienced as children, and other questions.

What we continue to reap from this condition includes the placement of noneducators lacking in passion and vision for education in top educational leadership positions at the local, university, state, and federal levels; disrespect for the intelligence and dedication it takes to become an effective teacher; the reduction of budgets and staffs where it can ill be afforded; and plenty of illogical but politically correct mandates to "fix" things.

As experienced teachers and teacher-educators, we are as frustrated as anyone else when it comes to ways to get more non-educators involved in education. Rather than seeing only reports of disgruntled teachers' union representatives and the latest superintendent scandal, we would genuinely like for educators as a whole to effectively and proactively inform the public of exactly what we are about. But we truly believe that until the majority of the public becomes intrinsically motivated to at least attempt to better understand how education comes about in this nation, there is very little that educators can do to fend off wrongheaded reports telling us how we are somehow inferior.

Don R. Hotalling
Director of Personnel, Curriculum, and Special Services
Lamar Public Schools
Lamar, Colo.

Susan B. Hotalling
Lamar, Colo.

Math Reform Redux: Balance Is Needed

To the Editor:

I have been a high school mathematics teacher for 31 years, through the "new math" era as well as the "reform" era stimulated by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics standards. I am upset and frustrated by the current situation in math education. Opinion pieces such as the one by Tom Loveless in this publication ("The Second Great Math Rebellion," Oct. 15, 1997.), a similar one carried on the op-ed page of The New York Times (Aug. 8, 1997), and countless others in a variety of forums present a narrow, inflammatory perspective. They damn ideas that offer teachers creative ways to make mathematics more interesting and understandable to their students.

Good math teachers have always made math come alive for their students using real-life applications. Good math teachers have always used whatever is available (beans, sticks, calculators, computers) to enhance their students' understanding of concepts. Good math teachers have always encouraged their students to solve problems in ways that make sense to the students. Good math teachers have always worked to empower their students to solve problems that are not routine--the kind encountered in real life. Good math teachers have always realized that students actively involved in the learning process understand more than students who sit and listen to teacher lectures. Good math teachers have always realized the importance of communication between teacher and student and they correct student work meaningfully.

The NCTM standards document is, from my perspective, one that supports what good math teachers have always done and a wonderful tool to help guide those new to the profession. The problem is in the implementation of the standards, because overzealous administrators, supervisors, and teachers have tossed out the other part of the learning process. Students still need to learn algorithms for basic processes that work efficiently. They still need to learn (memorize, if you will) the basic facts necessary to progress in math. And they still need to practice the fundamental processes appropriate to whatever level of math they are taking.

The bottom line, as I see it, is that balance is needed--balance between the ideas put forth by the standards and the traditional concept of learning basic skills and working problems for practice.

To my math-teaching colleagues who may feel that these last two paragraphs are blasphemy, I ask you to reread the standards. I see no conflict between my position and this work. As with most other things in life, moderation is the best approach. Too much of a good thing (whether the good thing, in your mind, is "reform" math or "basic skills" math) is not what will work best for most students. Students' learning styles are as different as the students themselves, and so variety in teaching methods is the most effective way to reach all students.

Betsy Smith
Math Department Chair
Friends School
Baltimore, Md.

Reducing Teacher Problems To a 'Know Nothing' Dichotomy

To the Editor:

As usual, Chester E. Finn Jr. has identified some genuine problems in our field and, as usual, he has proceeded to reduce them to a simplistic either/or mentality that characterizes too much of the work of those who try to disguise a political agenda beneath "rational" arguments ("The Real Teacher Crisis," Oct. 29, 1997). As someone who was a public school classroom teacher for 22 years, a member of the American Federation of Teachers (New York State United Teachers, in fact), a founder of one of Massachusetts' first charter schools, and is now a clinical professor in a teacher education program, I think I am in a unique position to respond to Mr. Finn's latest observations of the national education scene.

Mr. Finn's recognition that policymakers, in fact, have a huge impact on what goes on in schools and classrooms is a critically important point that is all too often missed or misunderstood by the public at large. Beyond making that observation, however, Mr. Finn's piece epitomizes the position of the classic policy wonk who has spent little or no time in real classrooms with real students and teachers and relies on "studies," hearsay, and his own political leanings to determine what he has to say about the state of education. One-day "visitations" and little "tours" from superintendents and principals are hardly informative. How about spending five days teaching five classes a day, just once, Mr. Finn? That he can so glibly say "few U.S. classrooms lacked a warm adult body at the front of the room" betrays an insensitivity to children and the teaching profession.

Those who work in institutes and government agencies spend far too much time looking at deceiving statistics like student-teacher ratios being 17-to-1 and believing that's the reality. Anyone who works in a school--or can do simple arithmetic--knows that the social studies class with 28 and the Latin class with six becomes 17-to-1 statistically (real statistics from one school I worked in). And anyone who has seen the results of schools' using smaller classes does, indeed, see significantly improved student performance--though Mr. Finn feels no need to provide any evidence for his statement that smaller class size is an "ineffectual remedy for improved student performance."

While I agree that we can vastly improve the quality of the teachers we prepare in this country, why must Mr. Finn make it an either/or argument of quality vs. quantity? His remark about the profession's "self-interested" protection of "credentialed educators" might raise legitimate questions about how we credential people (seat time vs. performance goals), but I'd like to know the last time he went to an uncredentialed doctor or lawyer?

As usual, Mr. Finn is supporting an agenda that proposes we tear down the public school system, the teacher education programs, and replace them with--what? Undoubtedly "core curriculum" and other Hirsch-Bennett-Ravitch-Cheney, et al., proposals. That Mr. Finn scoffs at children not being able to find places on a map without mentioning that many of their parents can't either (see the chapter entitled "What Our 47-Year-Olds Know" in Benjamin Barber's An Aristocracy for Everyone) is the kind of typically glib, Chicken Little remark that doesn't address the genuine issue he first raises.

What substantive ways can Mr. Finn recommend that we improve the quality of teacher education? What would improve the credentialing in the profession to elevate it to the level of doctors, lawyers, and architects?

I agree that there are problems out there with quality, with relationships with unions, with poor preparation of too many people in general (not just in teaching, thank you). But using his whole Commentary to attack federal spending and taking cheap shots at those he disagrees with politically, while distilling yet another highly complex educational problem into a simplistic either/or formula, is not advancing the discourse or helping us improve the situation. Maybe getting out into the schools, rather than reading data inside the Beltway, would result in more useful help to all of us who are "out there" and genuinely want to create better environments for all our children and their teachers.

Bil Johnson
Clinical Professor of Social Studies/History
Brown University
Providence, R.I.

To the Editor:

With his latest Commentary, the indefatigable Chester E. Finn Jr. has anointed himself as the chief spokesman for yet another group. This time, it's the "anyone can teach" crowd.

Mixing a modicum of fact with much fiction, Mr. Finn uses a broad brush to paint scarlet all sorts of culprits ranging from teachers' unions to schools of education, and from class-size-reduction legislation to the certification of teachers, all of which he indicts for either overstating the teacher shortage or contributing to the "real crisis" in teaching quality. He dismisses warnings of demographers and national statistics regarding the crisis in the availability of teachers with the cavalier acknowledgment that "granted, some buildings are crowded." Blithely he suggests that the solution to this manufactured "teacher deficit" rests, at least in part, with using part-timers and retirees "who may be lured back [to teaching] by the right jobs."

I find even more incredible, as I am sure the nation's teachers would, his claim that the national pupil-teacher ratio has been reduced over the past 40 years to where it is now "17-to-1." Where are those classrooms of 17 students? And even more a mystery is where are the classrooms with only one or two students to average out with the 34 or 35 that seem to be prevalent in the classrooms of schools where I have worked?

But beyond his legerdemain with figures and his blas‚ rejection of concerns related to the quantity of teachers, Mr. Finn's scatter-gun indictment of teacher training and teacher quality shows him at his fanciful best. He can't resist getting in some plugs for his hobbyhorse of charter schools by claiming that "people keen to teach in them are all but tearing down the doors." If that is true, perhaps it is because those "people" realize that they can get jobs in charter schools without inconvenient impediments such as prior training and certification.

But it is precisely such prior training and certification that Mr. Finn, with his 1990s version of "know-nothingism," is attacking. Despite available facts to the contrary, he claims that teachers can't teach because "they did not study the subjects they are supposed to impart to youngsters ... they studied 'education' instead." Such rhetoric is old, tired, and untrue. In reality, using my state of California as an example, there is no such thing here as an "education major"; prospective teachers must have a four-year college degree in an academic discipline and must prove their subject-matter competency on examinations far more difficult than the "old edition of the New York state regents' test" Mr. Finn refers to in his anecdote about poor teacher quality in that state.

Enamored as he is with "alternatives" or ways to get around state certification of teachers, I am sure that Mr. Finn can find some way to explain away the fact that 60 percent of those who enter the nation's teaching force without prior training and certification leave within their first three years. I'm sure that he will blame this attrition rate on teachers' unions, or school principals, or teacher-educators, or maybe all of them joined in some grand conspiracy. But perhaps those ill-prepared individuals haven't really left teaching, they may have merely moved over to enter the doors of Mr. Finn's charter schools.

I do agree with Mr. Finn that there is a "real teacher crisis" and that it does involve the quality of teaching. But contrary to his protestations, I would suggest that this crisis in quality has been created by those, such as Mr. Finn, who continue their attacks on teaching standards and thus further promote the know-nothing notion that anyone can teach and that training and certification are irrelevant.

Dennis L. Evans
Department of Education
University of California, Irvine
Irvine, Calif.

Vol. 17, Issue 13

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