Letters to the Editor

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Two Very Different Views Of 'Altering Destinies'

To the Editor:

I applaud Gene I. Maeroff's "Altering Destinies," March 18, 1998. He mentioned many useful, government-supported programs with the hope that more of the same could be made available to disadvantaged kids.

I would recommend that funds be funneled heavily to the parents of children from infancy to age 5. Young parents are often highly motivated to do their best, but society isolates and neglects them. How about organizing parent-support groups in every neighborhood? These could be located in hospitals, churches, schools, and homes. Leadership could be provided by parents who have proved their success in raising children.

Such groups could reduce parental anxiety, anger, and depression. Parents could feel their rightful importance in creating the next generation. By learning empathic rather than adversarial child-rearing methods, they could develop the bonds that sustain kids through all kinds of external pressures. By organizing predictable home routines, they could stabilize children for necessary school routines. By spending a half hour a day of one-on-one uninterrupted time with each little one, talking, playing, reading, they could encourage children's intellectual development and zest for living and learning in general. Perhaps best of all, they could experience, albeit vicariously, a better childhood for themselves.

Rachel M. Lauer

Straus Thinking & Learning Center
Pace University
New York, N.Y.

To the Editor:

Gene I. Maeroff's Commentary is a strange mix of stultifying homilies like, "Such venues as the concert hall, the museum, and the ice rink should not be the haunts of the privileged few," and genuinely disgusting gospels of the corporate religion like "all children ... need activities during all of their waking hours, not just the traditional school day," and that the federal government can somehow "affect attitudes ... and inculcate habits."

I don't know where Mr. Maeroff's understanding of the American experiment came from, but from where I sit and after 30 years of teaching quite successfully in the public schools of New York City, I want to preach to him a lesson about what makes America different from the rest of the United Nations: Here, a great many of us don't think the poor need overseers to "ensure that their summers are fruitfully spent," or that any government program has ever been so successful it would warrant the horrifying liberties Mr. Maeroff allows himself when he says, "Program officials consider no part of a student's life off limits to them." His vision of utopia, like all utopias, is ghastly.

Mr. Maeroff is correct when he acknowledges that his suffocating "Destiny Alteration" program is "a logical extension in the road that the federal government has traveled for more than a generation," but wrong when he concludes that the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, with Title I as its centerpiece, has "helped those least able to help themselves." The esea created an engine of officialdom much more efficient than its predecessors in carrying out the original mission of corporate-compulsion schooling--creating a familyless proletariat, dumbing down its congregation, and binding the energies of the young until they surrender to the Destiny Alteration squad. It's a bad deal for poor kids and for the rest of us, too.

John Taylor Gatto

New York, N.Y.

Courts Sending Out Mixed Affirmative Action Messages

To the Editor:

The actions that Molly Broad, the president of the University of North Carolina, is taking "to shape up the system's race-based programs before the courts beat her to it," are based on an incomplete understanding of applicable law ("Colleges Retool Outreach Efforts As Affirmative Action Changes," March 18, 1998).

North Carolina is one of 19 states which operated racially segregated public colleges and, therefore, it has a legal obligation to disestablish its prior de jure segregated system. Accordingly, while it is important to consider the anti-affirmative action rulings of some courts of appeals, it is equally if not more important to adhere to the U.S. Supreme Court's 1992 decision in United States v. Fordice, in which the court held:

"If the state perpetuates policies and practices traceable to its prior de jure dual system that continue to have segregative effects--whether by influencing student-enrollment decisions or by fostering segregation in other facets of the university system--and such policies are without sound educational justification and can be practicably eliminated, the policies violate the [equal-protection] clause, even though the state has abolished the legal requirement that the races be educated separately and has established racially neutral policies not animated by a discriminatory purpose."

Admissions policies and practices are among the aspects of a system's operations that the court found are subject to the above-stated standard.

The court-approved settlement agreement between the University of North Carolina and the former U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare preceded Fordice and does not meet its requirements.

Ms. Broad also errs in viewing Regents of the University of California v. Bakke as a limitation in what the university may or must do to comply with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the U.S. Constitution. In a 1979 policy interpretation, HEW clarified the applicability of Bakke as follows:

"The limitations contained in Bakke apply only to institutions undertaking voluntary affirmative action. The decision has no bearing on the legal obligation of an institution which has been found, by a court, legislature, or administrative agency, to have discriminated on the basis of race, color, or national origin. Race-conscious procedures that are impermissible in voluntary affirmative action programs may be required to correct specific acts of past discrimination committed by an institution or other entity to which the institution is directly related."

Clearly, the courts are sending mixed and sometimes conflicting messages about what colleges and universities may or must do to advance the participation of minorities in their institutions and to comply with the law. Sooner or later the Supreme Court will have to provide further direction on this matter. In the meantime, university officials, such as Ms. Broad, should take all relevant legal precedent into account as they proceed to carry out these very important responsibilities.

Burton M. Taylor

Bethesda, Md.

Reformers Can't Lose Sight of the Middle School Model

To the Editor:

Joellen Killion and Stephanie Hirsh clearly identify the problem facing our middle-grades students: They are falling through the gigantic crack in a system blind to their distinctive needs ("A Crack in the Middle," March 18, 1998). However, their Commentary fails to as clearly address the steps necessary to remedy the situation. From my standpoint, as the middle school principal at an independent pre-K-through-grade 12 school, the approach to improving the quality of early adolescents' education must have three parts: (1) hire qualified teachers; (2) teach the material effectively; and (3) ensure that teachers are supported and monitored through constant discussion.

The authors touch upon the first point by saying "these middle school specialists are still in short supply." Perhaps this is the case, or perhaps we just need to nail down what we are looking for. At our school, we used to hire middle-grades teachers based on content background alone so that they could cross over between middle and high school classes. Now our goal is to hire teachers who have degrees in their content areas as well as in child development or education. Middle school children are most engaged in the learning process when forced to think about a new perspective, or to prove or disprove an idea, or to make a conceptual leap--and teachers with strong content backgrounds are able to challenge their students in this way.

Equally important, as we have learned, is that teachers have an understanding of early-adolescent issues and are therefore able to recognize the unique needs of middle school students. Exceptional teachers who bring both backgrounds to their work are able to communicate abstract concepts by designing dynamic and challenging projects.

In order to teach the material effectively, we need to keep the middle school movement's model in sight, distinct from both the K-8 model and the junior high school model. Grouping the middle grades with elementary children gives early adolescents the social and emotional support they need, but fails to challenge them academically. And classifying them as "junior" high schoolers presents challenging content, but fails to support their developmental needs at this difficult transitional phase. Somewhere between the elementary grades and the high school grades, students make the jump from concrete learners to abstract learners. Effective middle school teachers are able to recognize that their students are at varying developmental levels, and therefore tailor their classroom activities to each individual learner, offering a hands-on, experiential approach to challenging subject matter.

As the Commentary hints, faculty development must be a constant priority. Regional and national conferences are helpful, but at our school internal discussion has also been constructive. Thanks to a professional-development grant we received this year, we were able to put together a task force of our teachers representing every K-12 age group. The main activity of the 20 members of the committee is discussing the most effective teaching methods in order to eventually write a handbook on teaching and learning for the entire school.

This handbook may not contain the answers to every ill Ms. Killion and Ms. Hirsh describe, but at the very least teachers will be examining their methods and the developmental context within which they affect their students.

Debra Sampey

Middle School Principal
The Latin School of Chicago
Chicago, Ill.

'Merrow Report' Misquoted in Test-Basher Analysis

To the Editor:

It's too bad Richard P. Phelps doesn't practice what he preaches when it comes to accuracy in reporting ("Test-Basher Arithmetic," March 11, 1998).

In accusing "The Merrow Report" of being "duped" by inflated estimates of testing in public schools, he writes: "Last summer, public television's 'Merrow Report' broadcast a show entitled 'Testing, Testing, Testing' in which it was asserted to be a fact [my emphasis] that U.S. students face from 140 million to 400 million standardized tests each year, which amounts to from three to nine standardized tests per year per student."

Mr. Phelps has a strange way of quoting people. Here's what we really said: "Divide the number of standardized tests given in public schools last year--140 million--by the student population--45 million--and you get roughly three standardized tests per year per child. Three tests (per year, per child) is just an average, and averages can be misleading. In fact, some schools and some children are tested far more often than others, usually depending on age and income."

The figure of 400 million tests is never mentioned in our program. Why? Because we were aware of the counting methods used and opted for the more conservative number: 140 million.

Why didn't we cite Mr. Phelps' estimate of 42 million as given in the U.S. General Accounting Office report he considers more accurate? Because Mr. Phelps himself undercuts the estimate. He was the project manager of that report. Here's a quote from it:

"Of course, the study has some limitations, too. It covers one year only--the 1990-91 school year--and we only surveyed public schools. We did not gather information on all testing, or even on all standardized testing, nor did we make firsthand observations to check survey answers, and so any effort on our part to portray the total testing burden on elementary and secondary students (or its cost) from the estimates our respondents gave can only be roughly approximate. We were not able to collect much data pertaining to assessment methods that testing officials often do not consider to be tests, the most prominent example being student portfolios."

But Mr. Phelps left that disclaimer out of his Commentary. Now who's duping whom?

John D. Tulenko

"The Merrow Report"
Learning Matters Inc.
New York, N.Y.

On Technology: Mistaking Skepticism for Backlash

To the Editor:

It is strange that some educational-technology proponents react so emotionally to reasoned skepticism about their claims ("Educational-Technology Boosters Feeling Stung by Media Backlash," March 18, 1998). One would think their religious beliefs were under attack, not that a vigorous public policy debate was beginning.

The Atlantic Monthly's article "The Computer Delusion" is joined by investigative articles and editorials in the San Jose Mercury News, The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, USA Today, The Sacramento Bee, and other news media which are questioning the hyperbole now found in the claims of many educational-technology companies and enthusiasts.

We should all be willing to demand data before committing $100 billion for equipment that, in some cases, may be irrelevant or obsolete before it is installed.

William L. Rukeyser

Learning in the Real World
Woodland, Calif.

History Teaching's Loss May Be Coaching's Gain

To the Editor:

The March 18, 1998, issue contained two on-target letters refuting Diane Ravitch's Commentary bemoaning the number of unqualified history teachers ("On History-Teacher Analysis: Simplification, Politicization," March 18, 1998).

Adding to their arguments, I believe the late Barbara Tuchman, the Pulitzer Prize-winning history writer, majored in literature. This letter, though, comes from the realities of high school.

The old line, "All the history teachers in Texas have the same first name--Coach," is, sadly, more true than some may want to believe. Budget constraints dictate that most schools hire an inexperienced social studies teacher who is willing to coach three or four sports over a seasoned, well-educated history teacher. The reality is history teachers are a dime a dozen, but eager coaches aren't. It is extremely rare, unfortunately, for a high school or middle school to have a history opening without a coaching job tied to it.

While there are certainly gifted, well-educated history teachers in the coaching ranks, my experience in seven districts in a quarter-century in education tells me that rarely is the case. Compounding this problem is the number of midcareer former coaches who became social studies teachers only because they wanted to coach. Even though they never enjoyed teaching, they're now making too much money to leave the profession.

I would hate to lose high school sports, but history teaching will improve only when athletic programs leave the schools and begin to be run by communities. Until that time, the situation that Ms. Ravitch laments will not change.

David Stickrod

Curriculum Director and Former Coach
Loess Hills Area Education Agency
Council Bluffs, Iowa

On-Line Teacher Data is an Invasion of Privacy

To the Editor:

In response to "Teacher Data On-Line in Minn.," March 4, 1998, I am appalled. Minnesota has put every teacher at risk for assault, harassment, and burglary. Whether good or bad, tough or easy, teachers are targeted by students today. With their addresses available to anyone and everyone, the state's department of children, families, and learning has set them up. Everyone knows where they are between the hours of 7 a.m. and 4 p.m., Monday through Friday; plenty of time to clean them out. Teachers can forget about feeling safe and secure at home ever again.

Another invasion of privacy is the publicizing of teachers' Social Security numbers, which are listed and often used as identifying numbers on our license certificates, providing access into our personal business and financial accounts.

School districts have every right to check for current and legally licensed teachers through the proper channels. And the school you cite is at fault for not checking out the arrested teacher's license, record, and references.

My own state of Arizona may not be perfect, but each individual district does check to make sure that individual teacher certificates are current and legal. We are fingerprinted and checked for past criminal behavior, and our references are checked by our principals. But our personal information is not made public without cause, nor should it be.

What's next, Minnesota--publicizing teachers' personal information on the Internet without their permission, or that of lawmakers and politicians, news people, police officers, and any other public servants? If so, these officials may as well leave the keys to their cars on the counter near the open, unlocked front door with a very large, "Welcome, come on in and take it all" mat.

Tena Anderson
Mesa, Ariz.

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