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On 'Great Debate': No One Best Way

To the Editor:

Your April 21, 1999, special section on the long philosophical debate over "progressive" vs."traditional" education ("The Great Debate," April 21, 1999) illustrates the futility of seeking a single best approach to organizing learning.

There is no royal road to learning suitable for all students. They come from different backgrounds and have different needs. In particular, they have different learning styles. Some students learn best in a highly structured, subject-centered environment. Others learn best in an open, flexible, student- centered environment.

Students can acquire knowledge and skills if they are in a learning environment geared to their backgrounds, needs, and learning styles. Some charter schools provide such an environment. Public schools, if they hope to survive, must do so as well.

Carl O. Olson
Cary, N.C.

Is Retention Policy a Form of Abuse?

To the Editor:

The Commentary, by Robert M. Hauser, was yet another of a large number of attempts to inform educators of the impact of social-promotion-vs.-retention decisions ("What If We Ended Social Promotion?," April 7, 1999). Mr. Hauser's comments were in agreement with the very large number of research reports and policy recommendations offered by scholars who have studied the matter. Unfortunately, a majority of classroom teachers and policymakers continue to ignore the facts and prefer grade-level retention over social promotion.

Effective alternatives to either retention or social promotion return low-performing students to regular classes with their same-age classmates. The tested alternatives tend to be expensive and seldom convert low-ability students into average-ability students.

Educators need to accept the challenge to provide education fitted to each student's needs so that every student will optimize his or her learning. Fitted instruction must match students' level of learning, modality of learning, and rate of learning. It must take place with each student's same-age classmates.

Because of the large number of publications that have presented material similar to that contained in Mr. Hauser's Commentary, no educator or informed policymaker has an excuse for being unaware of the facts. Mr. Hauser was very kind to national, state, and local leaders who advocate dramatic increases in the number of students retained at grade level, calling them "well-meaning leaders." I have not been so kind-hearted. I refer to such persons as criminal child abusers because they know of the research studies and yet continue to press for abusive actions.

National recommendations made by U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley, then repeated by President Clinton, and similar plans proposed by or placed into operation by governors and state legislators in Florida, Texas, California, Oregon, and several other states clearly are attempts to inflict academic damage and lifelong torture on children of lower-income families.

Informed persons might wonder if the plans to increase retention rates are part of a strategy intended to ensure a large supply of young people to fill the increasing number of new jobs offering minimum-wage salaries. Why should children from low-income families be the focus of such an attack on American youth?

Robert R. Lange
Professor of Education
University of Central Florida
Orlando, Fla.

It's the Dynamic, Not the Place

To the Editor:

The recent interest in learning organizations may serve to resolve the errors experienced when implementing schoolwide reforms, as described in your article, "Following the Plan," April 14, 1999.

But instilling the notion of a "learning organization" also falls victim to implementation errors. A case in point: A learning organization is a dynamic, not a place, and not a culture. The dynamic creates a culture, which then resides in a place. The conceptual framework, then, of the learning organization is of a dynamic.

The dynamic at work is one of putting values into operation. Dialogue between professionals, which channels this dynamic, accomplishes that by bridging the gap between tacit knowledge and action. Dialogue shortens the time lapse between thought and action by providing clear knowledge. That generates action, then commitment.

Such a value-revealing technique removes some of the pathologies surrounding the poorly implemented schoolwide reform plans, and may serve as the professional-development vehicle for the 21st century.

Lisa L. Sharp
Ellensburg, Wash.

Setting Up a Straw Man on Hirsch's List

To the Editor:

The Commentary, "Deciding on 'Essential Knowledge,'" April 21, 1999, by Robert J. Marzano, John S. Kendall, and Barbara B. Gaddy creates a straw man to characterize E.D. Hirsch Jr.'s views on what knowledge every student should learn.

The authors say Mr. Hirsch values "familiarity of knowledge over the significance of what students should learn." In fact, Mr. Hirsch's argument is that increasing literacy (that is, the ability to read and understand written material on various subjects written on various levels of difficulty) crucially depends on students' knowledge of information, and that what information they need to know can be empirically determined. His list (which he has changed over the years and continues to change based on real-world experience and research) is an attempt to provide a blueprint for putting his theory into practice.

Mr. Hirsch's goal is not to make students "culturally literate" in the sense of knowing the items on the list; the point is to make them "literate" in the sense that we usually use this word, able to read. Knowing the items on the list is the means to literacy, not the goal of Mr. Hirsch's project. The test of his theory is how well students who are educated with "cultural literacy" learn to read--in general and in the various subjects they study.

Mr. Hirsch is empirically minded and constantly in touch with top cognitive psychologists on the latest findings in learning theory. He also advises a foundation that helps many "Core Knowledge schools" throughout the country implement his theory, which is constantly being tested in the real world of classrooms.

Given Mr. Hirsch's goal and the work he has done to implement it and prove his theory, the answer to the authors' question about his list--"Does it contain the right information?"--cannot be answered by looking to see if you think the items on it are important. The question can only be answered by finding out if the ongoing experiment in Core Knowledge schools--to produce students who are more "literate" in the usual sense of that word--is successful.

Paul Regnier
Washington, D.C.

Personnel Unarmed

To the Editor:

As the children, parents, and community members of Jefferson County, Colo., struggled for their lives and their mental health, our office received hundreds of inquiries about school security from across the nation. Among the many requests for information, I was continually asked why this happened and how similar occurrences could be prevented elsewhere. ("A Colo. Community Looks for Answers After Deadly Attack," April 28, 1999.) While responding to these questions, I have felt strong, but mixed, emotions as I recall having provided the same answers to the same questions after each of the school shootings last school year.

Although public attention to school safety withered between the time of the Springfield, Ore., incident up to the Columbine High School tragedy, the stark reality is that serious threats to school security have been occurring daily across this nation. Hostage situations, shots fired, guns and other weapons confiscated, and many other incidents have not captured America's continued dialogue and action, since they have not culminated in mass murders. In fact, in some areas we have seen the political spin on the topic grow as the memories of last year's incidents have faded.

We know that there are a variety of social and economic factors that motivate children to commit violent acts. We know that our schools reflect our broader communities, including the violence they experience. And we also know that our schools, while not intentionally creating this violence, must take some risk-reduction measures to ensure student and staff safety.

Our experience, however, has consistently reinforced the fact that we send our school personnel to work each day unarmed in terms of training and support for addressing school-security and crisis-preparedness issues. Educators receive little to no training in undergraduate and graduate school on recognizing and managing concealed weapons, drug sales, gang presence, homemade bombs and bomb threats, technology-related offenses, and other emerging terrorist-like threats crossing the schoolhouse doors. In addition, while educators receive little on-the-job training and resources to address these issues, schools' support-staff members (such as bus drivers, secretaries, and custodians) receive even less training and preparation.

Our schools have traditionally approached school safety through prevention and intervention programs such as curricula, conflict-resolution programs, counseling, and related services. While these and other education programs are critical to our mission of shaping long-term student behavior, we have failed in many cases to also focus on providing a secure environment for these strategies to be safely implemented. Ironically, if we learned anything in college, it was that Abraham Maslow's "hierarchy of needs" identified our immediate safety as our first and foremost concern.

Professional school security is often falsely taken to mean fortress-like approaches and dramatic increases in costs. Yet the most effective approaches consist of a balance of strategies associated with security-related policies and procedures, staff-development training and awareness, security assessments of school sites, and the development, testing, and training of staff members on crisis-preparedness guidelines. In knowing that a stranger's walk through a fast-food restaurant will produce more responses of "Good morning, may I help you?" than a walk through many of our schools, I can assure you that we are far from reaching the minimal level of basic security needed to provide even the lowest level of a true security presence.

Many progressive school officials have indeed moved forward with assessing their school security and preparing crisis guidelines. Others, unfortunately, still believe "it can't happen here."

Kenneth S. Trump
President and CEO
National School Safety and Security Services
Cleveland, Ohio

Operant Conditioning

To the Editor:

An important question should be examined in the wake of the tragedy in Colorado: "What was going on inside the brains of the two boys who committed this terrible crime?"

Not only should Americans point the finger at violent television as a reason for copycat violence, they should also examine the effects of computers and computer games on the human brain. I am no expert, but I know that the computer is an operant-conditioning machine, and no less than the late Harvard University psychologist B.F. Skinner, the father of operant conditioning, referred to it as his "box." Operant conditioning bypasses the brain, with all the important functions that distinguish man from an animal: memory, conscience, imagination, insight, and intuition, functions by which human beings know absolutes and truths.

Use of computer programming (simulation and virtual reality) to train individuals to fly an airplane, perform surgery, and so forth serve a useful purpose. But the same simulation/virtual-reality computer programming, when comprising war-game videos that allow the individual to engage in killing in a bloody and violent atmosphere, can, if played over and over again, desensitize the individual to the evil act of killing. The player, like a programmed robot, may find it increasingly easy to carry this distorted vision of reality outside into other areas of his life, such as a school building or playground. If that individual happens to be full of hatred, it doesn't take much imagination to figure out what "programmed" action he or she may want to take in order to vent the hatred and frustration.

The use of computer-assisted instruction in school, which unfortunately has been accepted as an alternative to traditional education, should also be of some concern to those seeking an answer to school violence.

The same operant conditioning, upon which school programs for all disciplines is based, can be used for training an individual to perform. Skinner said, "I could make a pigeon a high achiever by reinforcing (rewarding) it on a proper schedule" and "What is reinforced (rewarded) will be repeated." Such "training" is not education in the traditional sense. With traditional education, a student is capable of transferring what he learns to other areas of his life, at some future time. He can store the information for future use; it is in his brain where it is able to be reflected upon, where his soul, memory, and conscience are able to influence the information and decisions he makes.

Not so with operant conditioning, where no such transfer occurs. Children who spend their school years being trained in this manner can be expected to experience a certain frustration and dehumanization in their behavior, since the creative functions of the brain are being constantly cut off. Operant-conditioning experiments on animals have caused similar frustration and violent behavior.

Unless we examine the use and effect of video games and of 12 years of computer use in the classroom that stresses operant conditioning, we may experience more Littletons. Is it too far-fetched to assume that he who is trained like an animal may just end up behaving like one?

Charlotte T. Iserbyt
Bath, Maine

The writer, a former senior policy adviser to the U.S. Department of Education's office of educational research and improvement, is the author of the forthcoming book The Deliberate Dumbing Down of America: A Chronological Paper Trail.

A Principal's Insights

To the Editor:

As I watched the tragedy at Columbine High School unfold, I found to my dismay that I knew what the outcome would be. I knew that the perpetrators would be outcast students who were filled with anger and hatred. I knew they would blame others--students, teachers, administrators--for their problems. I also knew their parents would not be bad people, only neglectful parents. And I knew that in the aftermath, others would say that these students gave many warnings.

I didn't know this because I'm clairvoyant. I knew it simply because I see it every day in my job as a high school principal. I have had death threats from students and been vandalized. It has become an occupational hazard. No one who has spent much time in schools can have been completely surprised by what happened, only by its terrible magnitude.

Every school has students who blame everyone else for their shortcomings. They resent those students who work hard to accomplish something and experience success. They believe these students have "sold out" to the establishment. They don't have the courage or the perseverance to accomplish the same things themselves, so they take out their frustrations on those who do. Occasionally, a teacher will inspire these students to try, and they will realize that they, too, can achieve something positive. But all too often, they, like these killers at Columbine, would rather spew hatred and envy at those who achieve. Yes, I see these students every day.

Kids can be cruel to each other. Many schools have bullies who verbally or physically terrorize weaker students. This has always been the case, but the difference today is that many teachers and administrators are afraid to intervene. They are afraid because a good percentage of the time they intervene, they will become the targets of hatred--from both the kids and their parents. Parents who don't have the courage to discipline and teach their kids respect are often resentful of administrators and teachers who do.

I remain optimistic, however, because I see so many good kids. I see so many of them rise above abusive parents, neglectful parents, or no parents at all. I see some who spend more time raising their parents than their parents spend with them. I see others who are respectful and try their best with limited talent and limited success. They have no idea how inspiring they can be to a tired or frustrated teacher or principal. This is why we do what we do.

Even as our jobs assume potential dangers we never envisioned when entering the field, we persevere, trying to teach kids about life in a society that doesn't seem to value it. Often, what we say flies in the face of what our students see and hear every day--in the movies, on TV, in their video games and their music, and even at home. If I have anger in the aftermath of the Columbine shootings, it is for parents who don't take the time to realize that there is no greater occupation than to raise a child well.

I will honor the memory of the victims of this tragedy by continuing to teach respect and honor and love. And I will stand up to the bullies and the thieves and the liars in our midst so that the decent kids can go to school in a safe and comfortable environment. And if this gets me fired or makes me the target of someone's anger, then so be it. What a way to go.

Chuck Schmidt
Mission Valley High School
Eskridge, Kan.

Vol. 18, Issue 34, Pages 44-45

Published in Print: May 5, 1999, as Letters

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