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What Teachers Could Use Is Collaborative Support

To the Editor:

The Commentary "Investing in Teaching," by Linda Darling-Hammond and Barnett Berry, May 27, 1998, pays little attention to what I think is a major oversight in this country's "investment" in teaching. While the essay advocates higher standards for teachers, harder exams, greater preparation, and cooperation between school districts and state education departments in promoting high-quality teaching via coordinated reforms, it misses an area that would benefit both teachers and their students by raising the quality of instruction: granting time for teachers to work together at their schools to improve teaching.

Despite several widely circulated documents about the importance of teachers' having the time necessary to think through, discuss, design, implement, and improve on reform ideas in their own classrooms with their particular students, U.S. teachers still have very little time to work together and collaborate on ways to use reform ideas. Teachers here spend far more hours in the classroom with their students than those of many other industrialized nations, and thus have far fewer hours to devote to the kind of collaboration that could affect what actually occurs in the classroom.

Gov. Pete Wilson of California recently signed legislation that wiped out the professional-development days that gave my own school's staff, for the first time, the weekly opportunity to come together to discuss ways to improve our school. Now we are left with even less time than before to work together.

Other professions dedicate substantial amounts of time to discussing and collaborating on the improvement of practice in the field. Doctors, for instance, have regular meetings at which they discuss the most recent medical research and its application to their own cases.

From my experience as a high school science teacher, I know that there is an abundance of untapped talent already at work in our classrooms. What we lack is sufficient time and a structure to do the kind of collaborative work necessary to address the improvement of educational quality in our schools. The work that does get done comes out of our own time, unpaid, and is often not well coordinated, due to its voluntary nature.

To see that some reforms are being designed to take advantage of the resources teachers bring to a school is heartening ("The Importance of 'Critical Friends': Reform Effort Gets Teachers Talking," May 27, 1998). But what teachers could use are district and state structures and legislative measures that support such collaboration and tap into the rich pool of talent already at work in the schools.

Stephanie Rico
San Diego, Calif.

'Heat' of Accountability Need Not Be a Negative

To the Editor:

Many of our principals and teachers here in Roane County, Tenn., also "feel the heat," as you put it in a recent article on accountability ("In Age of Accountability, Principals Feel the Heat," May 20, 1998). But this reaction is unnecessary if the "age of accountability" is viewed properly. One only has to assume that teachers, like over 90 percent of professionals everywhere, want to do a good job--and that principals, superintendents, and school board members need to help them do so. A personal experience may illustrate my point.

My granddaughter, along with her parents, moved from Travis Air Force Base in California to Oak Ridge, Tenn., in 1992. Katie entered the 2nd grade there while her father pursued an advanced degree at the University of Tennessee. Katie, her teachers learned, was considerably behind her classmates in reading. Naturally, her parents--and particularly her grandfather--were concerned. But the teachers worked with Katie, and she caught up with the class relatively soon.

Three years later, Katie and her parents moved back to Travis Air Force Base. As one might imagine, the parents were interested in what had happened earlier to Katie's reading instruction. It turned out that the entire state of California had a significant problem in that area. Recently, an article in The Reading Teacher (Vol. 51, No. 8, May 1998) reported that the California Department of Education's reading task force declared that "there is a crisis in California ... a majority of California's children cannot read at basic levels." The blame was put on the program for teaching reading used in the state's schools.

Clearly, whatever Katie's problem was, the wholesale problem with reading by the children in California was not the fault of the teachers. Early testing by the state should have revealed the problem.

Testing should be performed to reveal what the students have learned. The results should serve four purposes: to give this information to (1) the student, (2) the teacher, (3) the student's parents, and (4) the teacher's supervisor. In every class I have been in, the teacher tested frequently; until the end of the grading period, purposes 3 and 4 were not activated. The teacher and I usually collaborated on fixing problems. In my teaching days, I gave "brilliant" lectures in chemistry, only to learn through testing that my students had missed the point. I knew it wasn't their fault, and I adjusted my teaching.

I know two principals in Tennessee (and I'm sure there are many more) who do not feel anxiety about the results of the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program given here. After the results are known, one of the principals, at a middle school with the highest value-added results in the state, sits down with each teacher individually and asks how the results could be improved. The other, a relatively new principal at an elementary school, is following a similar program--and scores are going up.

Teachers, like other professionals, want to do a good job. One of the 1st grade teachers at the aforementioned elementary principal's school has particularly good results with her teaching of reading. She has an eclectic mix of methods, with a particularly heavy emphasis on phonics. Other teachers in the school, learning of her success, began clamoring for phonics material. There was no lashing, tongue or whip, to initiate this call for help.

The job of the principal, superintendent, and school board, working together, is to help the teachers do the excellent job they want to do. The testing is to reveal the areas of weakness, not to punish the principals or teachers.

James M. Leitnaker
School Board Member
Kingston, Tenn.

FCC Should Give Schools Less 'E-Rate' Bureaucracy

To the Editor:

If Kelloggs of Battle Creek tried to encourage cornflake sales the way the Federal Communications Commission is trying to encourage the use of telephone services in America's schools and libraries, outraged consumers and grocery store managers everywhere would probably already have stopped buying their products ("Funding for 'E-Rate' Discounts May Come Up Short, FCC Says," May 20, 1998).

In 1996, Congress mandated consumer discounts for all K-12 schools and public libraries on whatever telephone services they need for "educational purposes." Now, more than two years later, the FCC's discount rules look nothing like what Congress mandated.

The FCC first announced it would make $2.25 billion per year in discounts available to America's schools and libraries. Like the marketing scams that read, "You've already won," this announcement was received warmly, but with some skepticism, in the education community. And then, the FCC produced its complicated discount rules and even more complicated application process that requires grant-type applications from every school and library in America--for every purchase, every single phone service they intend to buy.

Early this year, the FCC got over 40,000 individual applications, which the agency hasn't yet managed to process. And, so far, no schools or libraries have received any FCC funds or discounted services from America's telecommunications providers. The only thing the FCC has managed to do so far is build up expectations and applicant frustration, generate a mountain of unnecessary paperwork, and create Beltway-bandit jobs with top-management salaries twice that of the president for former FCC bureaucrats who wrote the ridiculous rules that they are not "administering."

According to its own May 8, 1998, report to Congress, the FCC thinks it's doing a great job of implementing the congressionally mandated telecommunications discounts for schools and libraries. Fortunately, the Congress doesn't agree. And, thank heaven for Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz.; Conrad Burns, R-Mont.; and Ted Stevens, R-Alaska; and for Reps. Thomas J. Bliley Jr., R-Va., and John D. Dingell, D-Mich., who are insisting on a simpler discount process without the FCC's illegal universal-service discount-management corporations--emerging bureaucracies that operate in circumvention of all federal laws intended to prevent fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement in the administration of public funds (personnel hiring practices, the Competition in Contracting Act, and so on).

What schools and libraries need from the Federal Communications Commission is less bureaucracy and simple rules requiring point-of-sale discounts from telecommunications providers as mandated by the Congress in the plain language (Section 254) of the Telecommunications Act of 1996.

Dennis L. Bybee
Founding President
International Society for Technology in Education
Alexandria, Va.

On Scientific Literacy And Curricular Balance

To the Editor:

In her letter responding to my Commentary on the scientific illiteracy of our elementary school students, Deborah Meier accuses me of wanting a science curriculum that would "dig us deeper into our ignorance" ("More Teachers, Smaller Classes: Are These Our First Priority?" April 1, 1998; "Letters: A Closer Look at Schooling Reveals 'Perpetual Ignorance,'" May 13, 1998).

According to her reading of my essay, I am opposed to "process," "scientific inquiry," "scientific thinking," and "critical habits of mind," and in favor of standardized assessments and a science curriculum devoted to "names," "dates," "book reports," and correct spelling. Regrettably, Ms. Meier did not construct a meaning for my essay that was consistent with what I actually wrote. I never discussed process, assessments, scientific inquiry, or dates at all, nor did I try to outline a science curriculum.

What I did say, based on the acute state of ignorance and misinformation I found in Massachusetts 5th graders' free-writing about an inventor of their choice, was that our children need models of intellectual curiosity and perseverance in their reading materials, familiarity with the significant scientific and technological breakthroughs of the past several hundred years, and an understanding of such natural phenomena as electricity, lightning, or gravity and how they differ from an invention.

Ironically, the science curriculum that Ms. Meier outlines is the one that would "dig us deeper into our ignorance." She clearly does not favor a curriculum that helps students acquire accurate knowledge of real scientists, real scientific discoveries, and real scientific concepts. Indeed, she implies that she sees nothing wrong with ignorance by claiming that most people were just as ignorant years ago.

Ms. Meier approvingly cites a study by Dale Whittington, reported in the Winter 1991 issue of the American Educational Research Association's Research Journal, which she believes shows that 17-year-olds in the 1930s and the 1950s were as ignorant as today's 17-year-old students are. However, Ms. Whittington's study proved no such thing. Although she claimed to have matched the content of the test questions over the years, Ms. Whittington produced no examples of identical questions to allow a reader to judge the validity of her conclusions. Nor did she show that the students she compared over the years were actually comparable.

But even if this one study had proved that students yesterday were no less ignorant than students today, does that mean we should be satisfied with ignorance today? Ms. Meier seems to think so. She declares she is not interested in teaching children "facts" because the facts their teachers typically want to teach them today are, in her judgment, outdated. She professes to believe that the world has changed so fast that what teachers may think are "bedrock, essential facts" are really not. Strange. The scientists that I talk to still see crucial distinctions between lightning and lightning rods and between sunlight and light bulbs.

Ms. Meier believes that what students really need to know is how to think "scientifically." But she doesn't explain how they can think scientifically if they have no facts or concepts in their heads. She also wants students to figure out how scientists have "come to their particular ideas." But it is not clear how students can do so if they do not know who some scientists are, what they have explored, how they have explored it, and why. She is explicitly against students' doing "book reports on important men."

What is at stake in this exchange of views is the question of curricular balance. Ms. Meier wants a curriculum that excludes substantive knowledge, focusing only on "inquiry" or "process." I want a curriculum that includes both inquiry and substantive knowledge. Both are necessary if we want students to learn how to ask good questions and to think critically about the information they find, read, or hear. Productive inquiry and critical thinking are based on knowledge, not ignorance, and a science curriculum that encourages either in an intellectual vacuum does not advance the cause of informed and active citizenship.

Sandra Stotsky
Research Associate
Harvard Graduate School of Education
Cambridge, Mass.

Vol. 17, Issue 40, Pages 47, 49 51

Published in Print: June 17, 1998, as Letters to the Editor

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