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Today's 'Bland' Leaders Will Suffice, Thank You

To the Editor:

Where are the new torchbearers of ideas, asks retired administrator Henry F. Cotton ("The Old Order Changeth?" April 15, 1998). Mr. Cotton laments that the new generation of education leaders has no thinkers of the stature of the "Old Guard": Albert Shanker, Theodore R. Sizer, Madeline Hunter, John Saxon, Ernest L. Boyer, E.D. Hirsch Jr., and Mortimer J. Adler, among others. Today's leadership "can best be described as the bland leading the bland," he writes.

Mr. Cotton is unfair. Blandness is appropriate in an educational leader. What, after all, is the legacy of the rigorous intellects above in current practice? Consider one example. E.D. Hirsch's Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs To Know was a national best seller in the late 1980s. It sparked intense debate. What is its influence today?

Today's leaders are realists. Public education is impervious to big ideas. Why dedicate one's life to a grand idea if, whatever its merits, it is destined for obscurity? Bland leadership makes sense.

But there is one idea, which, put into play, would surely "enrich conversation in faculty rooms," as Mr. Cotton would wish, and at union headquarters, central offices, and state education departments. That idea is school choice: charter schools and vouchers. School vouchers would animate even the blandest of our bland leaders.

And why shouldn't they? Vouchers mean competition and accountability. They mean having to earn the trust of parents. They mean that ideas like those of Messrs. Hirsch, Sizer, Adler, and Saxon take on urgency. Ignoring those ideas, which has no consequences today, or making a bad choice among them, or executing that choice sloppily could have repercussions.

Who needs it? Let the ideas of the giants fade to obscurity. The new bland generation of leaders will suffice, thank you.

Tom Shuford
Bayville School
Bayville, N.Y.

Why Noneducators Fail in Top School Posts

To the Editor:

Within a period of weeks, San Diego's school system announced the selection of a "noneducator" as its new superintendent, while in Washington, the District of Columbia schools' "noneducator" superintendent announced his resignation ("San Diego's New Chief an Unlikely Pick," March 18, 1998; "D.C. Schools Chief Announces Resignation," April 1, 1998).

The rationale for looking outside of education for school system CEOs has a deceptive logic. It makes sense that the job of managing a total, coordinated system so that it functions both efficiently and effectively requires skills and understanding that one doesn't necessarily get from nurturing children's learning in a classroom. We want someone who can deal with outside pressures, so the system can do its work; and, at the same time, we want someone with skills to coordinate and align all the inside elements in ways that get the job done the way it is supposed to be done.

For some, whose frustration leads to a search for "saviors" outside education, it even makes sense that their primary value may be in the mind-sets they bring, which have not been captured by the "establishment" and therefore can offer new perspectives and insights.

Why then, do so many of these leaders not last? They appear no more sustainable than the changes they try to put into place. What, if anything, might be wrong with the logic that supports their hiring? A recent comment by management guru Peter Drucker suggests a fundamental flaw in that logic that may be contributing to the pattern of "failures" that these "superintendents from the outside" seem to experience.

In discussing the developing understanding of the role of the chief executive officer, he noted how the job was like running an opera: You have to fill the hall if all are to "survive." You also have to deal with "stars," supporting cast, and orchestra. And, more subtly, you have the score of a particular piece that defines certain fundamentals that make it that work, but you really are writing the opera the audience experiences while you are conducting it.

What Mr. Drucker did not add, because it seems like such a logical assumption, was that the organization would not hire a conductor who had never played an instrument, one whose understanding of the orchestra's "results" had come from experiences as a recipient of its music. Is there something that is essential to the job of enabling a diverse group of musicians to make beautiful music together that comes primarily from personal experiences making music?

One missing component might be the personal understanding of how each player individually contributes to the success or failure of the whole. They would not understand how one's passion and commitment can concentrate on individual performance and, at the same time, fit as part of a larger whole.

To what extent could this missing experience be contributing to the problems these new leaders face? Apparently, the lack of this critical understanding does not necessarily guarantee failure for the "external" superintendents, as retired U.S. Army Maj. Gen. John Stanford seems to be demonstrating in Seattle. But what he may lack in knowledge of how the instrument of "learning" is played, he apparently makes up in his knowledge of the players' needs--as his "love 'em and lead 'em" behavior suggests. ("Stanford's Illness Dampens Spirits in Seattle," April 15, 1998.)

As with most problems in education today, this is not an either-or condition. When a community decides to search outside the system for leadership, as in San Diego, Seattle, Minneapolis, Washington, and Milwaukee, what do these people need to know about the "nature" of the work of schools that they "don't know they don't know"?

Where might they look for a systemic, connected vision of how the work of each of the "players" comes together to produce the results by which the full system is judged?

Where might they look to find a leadership preparation program that understands this different nature of CEO-ness or system leadership--a role that, like orchestra conductor, requires drumming for different marchers? Just as the conductor knows that differences in the quality of the resulting music are created by the way he or she handles the "spaces" between the notes, so this new leader must know that the quality of the school system's results depends upon the ways he or she handles the "spaces" between its players.

Where are today's and tomorrow's leaders learning how to weave the interdependent connections that align all the players' efforts as they write and produce the music of learning the public wants to hear?

Lewis A. Rhodes
Silver Spring, Md.

The writer is a former associate executive director of the American Association of School Administrators in Arlington, Va.

Early Years Are 'Ideal Time' To Learn Second Language

To the Editor:

Your excellent April 8, 1998, article "Education Policymakers Embrace Brain Findings," provides an important overview of recent breakthroughs in brain research and their impact on public policy. Brain research also has particularly important ramifications for bilingual education.

Many current "bilingual education" programs encourage schools to teach English only gradually, deliberately spreading out much English instruction until students reach ages 10, 12, or even older. Indeed, bilingual programs can often drag on for five to seven years. Is this the best approach?

As your article mentions, Diane Chugani's research on brain chemistry shows that between the ages of 4 and 10, a child's brain is superactive, consuming twice as much glucose as an adult brain. This makes those years the ideal time to learn a second language.

Noteworthy research also comes from Patricia Kuhl of the University of Washington. Participating last April in a White House conference on early-childhood development hosted by President and Mrs. Clinton, Ms. Kuhl presented stunning new evidence to show how infants can acquire a second language quite easily during their preschool years.

Ms. Kuhl notes that by age 12 months or earlier, an infant has already made significant progress toward mapping the sound structure of its particular language. "So if we're going to expose children to second languages, it's best to do it early," concluded Ms. Kuhl.

It now appears that common sense and scientific research are on the same page; intensive English instruction works best for young children.

Don Soifer
Program Director
Alexis de Tocqueville Institution
Arlington, Va.

Defending Robert Slavin Against 'Radical Relativists'

To the Editor:

Herbert J. Walberg and Rebecca C. Greenberg's Commentary, "The Diogenes Factor," April 8, 1998, presents a point of view toward the research of Robert Slavin that our own research contradicts.

At the National Center to Improve the Tools of Educators, we are nearing the completion of a rigorous review of experimental studies in mathematics from about 1970 to the present, looking at only those that meet the most stringent research-design qualifications well established for psychological experimental-research projects. (The rigor of the review is such that several studies published by people in our own group failed to meet the research-design qualifications.)

We expect to end up with about 130 high-quality mathematics studies out of 956, but of the first 85 we identified, Robert Slavin was the senior author of three and a co-author of a fourth--a significant portion of only 85 high-quality studies. In one of those studies, he candidly reported no difference between a cooperative-learning intervention with individualized learning components, compared with individualized learning alone, a finding that would appear to contradict Mr. Slavin's approach to instruction. On the one hand, none of the four studies involved "Success for All" directly. However, key elements of Success for All appear to derive from this and other experimental research by Mr. Slavin and others.

Without doubt, researchers take their biases into experimental studies. For that reason, most educators with an empirical orientation don't look for truth, but for a preponderance of evidence. For that reason, research-design criteria have been established to minimize researcher bias as much as possible in human studies. Perhaps Mr. Walberg and Ms. Greenberg (and Richard Venezky and others they cite) are radical relativists who would like to abandon high-quality experimental studies in favor of ... what? At the very least, no alternatives are more objective and less subject to bias and prejudice.

We have no personal or institutional interests in Success for All (aside from its potential as an instructional program), and we are not affiliated with the work of Robert Slavin in any way. However, we are interested in the insights provided by a preponderance of high-quality experimental research, and in minimizing subjectivity to the greatest extent that's practical. We admire Robert Slavin--from a great distance--for his ability to consistently produce an astounding body of high-quality research.

Bob Dixon
Director of Publisher Relations
National Center to Improve theTools of Educators
University of Oregon
Eugene, Ore.

To the Editor:

Sadly, your article "Muddle in the Middle," April 15, 1998, anachronistically identifies the middle school as an institution whose "emphasis has been squarely on creating nurturing environments for 10- to 14-year-olds, who often floundered in junior versions of high schools."

Those who truly understand the intellectual as well as socio-emotional and physical needs and nature of the young adolescent have always recognized that these developmental aspects are inextricably linked. These are the educators and the schools who truly have had an impact on the learning needs of middle school students. The perception that the middle school is dominated by an overnurturing and nonacademic environment has imperiled--and apparently continues to imperil--the academically effective initiatives of the middle school reform movement.

Most disturbing to me was the inclusion deep within your article of an incomplete reference to a major study that has linked the effective, comprehensive implementation of the Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development's "Turning Points" recommendations to academic achievement for young adolescents. You quote Ken McEwin, who suggests that the middle school model is fine, but warns that "we need to implement it more thoroughly and carefully and universally." This point is often lost by communities, educators, and parents who desire a quick fix for educational problems. But effective middle schools require a full understanding and commitment by all. This should have been your article's focus.

The body of research tying comprehensive middle school programs and practice to higher student achievement has been expanding. An article that asks why there are still so many districts that fail to implement such a program also would have been worthwhile. Instead of putting middle school educators on the defensive, such an article might invigorate debate in schools and communities that have ignored the research or have implemented only those middle school concepts that are politically or financially palatable.

Kenneth Mitchell
Robert E. Bell Middle School
Chappaqua, N.Y.

The writer is the director of research for the New York State Middle School Association in Pleasantville, N.Y.

To the Editor:

Shortly after graduating from the University of Houston's college of education with an elementary education specialization in reading, I found myself fleeing from my first position at a local elementary school into a 6th grade classroom in an inner-city Houston middle school.

Was I prepared for it? Not at all. Middle schoolers are a different breed--even the "big" 8th graders. Once, I faced a burly, peach-fuzz-faced 14-year-old gang member who towered over me and demanded to know why I had given him only one sticker on his paper when another boy had gotten two. (I quickly added another to his paper, which satisfied him and amused me.)

Not much later in my career (but after "discovering" the National Middle School Association), I returned to the university and demanded to know why there were no middle school methods courses. If a child is going to spend a quarter of his school years in a middle school setting, I reasoned, there should be some specialized preparation for his teachers. Not one to sit around and merely complain, I went straight to the top--the dean in charge of curriculum and instruction for my alma mater. Making my case as simply and plainly as possible and speaking as one who, by then, had several years' experience in the middle school trenches, I naively thought I would soon be helping my university structure some courses for this exact purpose. Instead, the answer I received was that there was just "no demand" for such courses. I was shocked, disheartened, and disillusioned, to say the least.

Although one could argue that 6th graders still belong in elementary school (as perhaps 9th graders still belong in middle school), whatever side of the issue one is on, it's undeniable that teachers need specific preparation to teach this special group of children. My own reading background taught me much about how children learn to read but nothing about what to do with them once they know how. Reading with a 6-year-old is nothing close to the experience of reading with a 6th grader. I was lost and flew by the seat of my pants until I found Nancie Atwell's book In the Middle, which completely changed my entire method of teaching and reminded me why I had gotten into this profession in the first place (because I loved school and wanted others to also).

But I am only one of many teachers who found themselves in a middle school classroom after preparing for one in an elementary school, and I cannot tell you how I and my similarly prepared colleagues clashed with those who had prepared to teach in a high school setting. I want to underscore that, too often, "secondary" means "high school"; middle schoolers and their teachers are left to drift and muddle as best they can. Thankfully, I taught under the leadership of a principal who not only understood the middle school child, but championed the middle school concept and the teachers who wanted to improve upon it, and we were able to implement such features as the block schedule well in advance of their becoming the norm in our district.

Yes, there is a long way to go before middle schools are considered as excellent as some of the elementaries that feed into them, but I am absolutely certain that the first step toward this end is adequate, appropriate, and sustained preparation of middle school teachers. I am here to tell you (and that shortsighted dean) that yes, there is a demand.

Jan Mitchell
Houston, Texas

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