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Teacher Shortages: The 'Unemployable'

To the Editor:

Re: John Merrow’s Commentary "The Teacher Shortage: Wrong Diagnosis, Phony Cures" (Oct. 6, 1999): There are many, many experienced teachers wanting jobs. However, school districts generally seek out and hire new teachers, rather than pay experienced teachers, since experienced teachers must be placed higher on the salary schedule, and thus are not attractive to cash-strapped districts. Most experienced, veteran teachers are afraid to relocate, because they know they might not be "marketable," no matter how superb their previous performance. In the area where I live, central Oregon, there are dozens of "unemployable" teachers with advanced degrees and remarkable résumés. And yet, in this same area, the local college supports a degree program to train new teachers. Go figure.

I never hear this particular issue discussed on programs addressing the teacher shortage, emergency certifications, and the like. There is a solution, and that is to raise the beginning salary of teachers and lessen the gap between those who are just starting and those with years of experience. In most other fields, one is hired for a position, not for a place on a salary schedule.

Judy Shellabarger
Redmond, Ore.

Don’t Blame Films, Blame the Teacher

To the Editor:

While I am a strong advocate of video use in the classroom, Carol Jago does address some salient issues in her call to cease film viewing ("To View or Not To View," Nov. 3, 1999).

Unfortunately, the problem is not with the limitations of film. It lies with educators who are not skilled in its presentation. Showing the movie after reading the text is a commonly misguided practice. Film cannot possibly capture literature’s breadth and scope. Consequently, it is a poor substitute for text, which the commonplace postviewing, compare-and-contrast essay amply addresses.

Film, however, merits inclusion in English classes. It is as relevant to curricula in our visual, media-driven age as literature. And it can, and should, be used in lieu of texts. To paraphrase the "Sunset Boulevard" screenplay: "People forget that films are written before they are made." We should be reading screenplays in English as we read theatrical plays. As literature attempts to paint mental images that serve as bases for student writing and comment, film’s images are aural and visual—which generate equally valid responses requiring similar levels of interpretive analyses.

Furthermore, some films don’t need a written text for comparison. I show 1994’s "Hoop Dreams" to my sophomore classes. The three hours spent watching the film generate far more hours of class discussion and writing activities. Students have intense feelings about the documentary’s characters and issues. Simply, I have yet to encounter a text that portrays the contemporary African-American experience as effectively and accurately as does "Hoop Dreams."

Alfred Hitchcock’s "Rear Window" is another widely popular film. His skill in montage and audience manipulation makes for equally contemplative essays and discussion, and is more accessible and exciting than Cornell Woolrich’s original story.

Finally, Ms. Jago errs in stating the release date of the film version of Great Expectations. It is 1946, not 1934. The memorable David Lean film marks the first screen appearance of Alec Guinness. I encourage Ms. Jago to adopt "great expectations" of student behavior in classes—regardless of text or film, the material and the instructor must be equally engaging.

Jeffrey J. Susla
English Department
Woodstock Academy
Woodstock, Conn.

Hornbeck’s ‘Moral Fervor’ Isolates Him

To the Editor:

It was striking that your article lauding Philadelphia schools Superintendent David W. Hornbeck ("Taking the High Road," Nov. 3, 1999) appeared in an issue that also contained an article entitled "Payroll Snarls Cause Anger, Frustration in Several Urban Districts" and a Commentary on "The Illusion of Paying Teachers for Student Performance." Mr. Hornbeck’s moral passion may be admirable but, as a recent editorial in the Philadelphia Inquirer pointed out, moral fervor sometimes interferes with real-world accomplishment. Mr. Hornbeck has created a world in which he and his moral mission are increasingly isolated from reality.

The reliability, efficacy, and even meaning of the "performance indicators" put in place in Philadelphia are questionable, at best. The Stanford Achievement Test-9th Edition is a test used in few urban districts. The rise in scores can be attributed to several factors, from inclusion of all children in the test-taking process to adjustment and even manipulation of individualized education plans. Rumors of massive "assistance" of whole classrooms are rife in the district. Teachers are understandably anxious to "teach to the test," since the test is a major component of the performance index.

Yet even as those who read only the numbers praise Mr. Hornbeck, many educators question the use of standardized tests to judge school performance. More revealing, and more important to real life, would be indices that measure the ability of graduates to get jobs or to attend institutions of higher learning after graduation.

Furthermore, Mr. Hornbeck has tied principals’ salaries to the performance index, although several elements of the index are out of the control of principals. For example, part of the index counts staff absences, but the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers contract allows for, and for complex reasons even encourages, staff absences, from "sick days" to long-term disability. Principals also have little control over hiring or firing personnel, but are wholly responsible for the productivity of their staff.

The resultant erosion of morale is not unique to principals. The massive failures of the new payroll computer system should not be seen as mere "glitches." These "glitches" have not affected the paychecks of Mr. Hornbeck or his central administrators. In the first weeks of the furor over the system, Mr. Hornbeck’s administration actually blamed secretaries and principals for the mess. Anyone who has seen the faces of teachers and classroom aides who have been trying, sometimes for months, to get wages owed them knows that little more than need for a job keeps these people working for a district that so easily dismisses their outrage. The committee charged with identifying a new payroll computer program resigned after Mr. Hornbeck disregarded its recommendation against purchase.

This scenario is but one example of the superintendent’s failure to consider the morale of those who work in his system, to revise his Children Achieving program in the face of reality, or to tolerate advisers who may disagree with him.

Any approach to the problems of a big urban school district such as Philadelphia requires flexibility, sensitivity, creativity, and the ability to assign responsibility in a realistic way. Moral fervor is admirable, but it is none of these.

Elizabeth Block
Philadelphia, Pa.

Women at the Top: A Personal View

To the Editor:

I clearly remember the first statewide superintendents' meeting I attended as a newly appointed (female) superintendent in 1994 ("Women Superintendents: Few and Far Between," Nov. 10, 1999). I was handed a name tag with a clip on the back, which was meant to be fastened to the male version of de rigueur dress: a suit jacket with lapels and left-hand chest pocket. Having chosen to wear a pocket-less and lapel-less jacket, I ended up clipping my name tag to my jacket near my shoulder at a very skewed angle. Small things such as this continue to remind me how male-dominated the profession was—and still is.The day after I was appointed, the huge newspaper headline read "Orange [the name of my resident town] woman replaces Shaw [the name of my predecessor]." My family and I joked about how fortunate it was that I did not reside in Lyme, Conn.; otherwise I would be "Lyme woman ... " I couldn't help but ask myself, "If I had been male, would the headline have read 'Orange man' ... ?" I think not.

As I enter my sixth year as superintendent of schools in the same district, I can credit many factors for my success: an extremely supportive husband, daughters, and father; a cadre of peers in the state ready to provide support and encouragement; a forward-thinking and risk-taking board of education that took a chance on hiring an assistant superintendent who had never been a principal; a current board that is very supportive as well; and, finally, my own strong work ethic, perseverance, and sense of humor.

As we approach the new millennium, I only hope that more women are willing to consider the superintendency, and that more boards of education are willing to hire them for the top jobs in education, because we make great leaders.

Alida D. Begina
Superintendent of Schools
Hamden, Conn.

Voucher Analysts Ask the Wrong Questions

To the Editor:

Alex Molnar’s Commentary ("Unfinished Business in Milwaukee," Nov. 17, 1999) repeats much of the criticism we have heard over and over of the voucher system in Milwaukee. One could take exception to many of his points, especially the almost completely refuted charges raised by People for the American Way and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People which to my understanding have not been substantiated by an investigation conducted by the state’s department of public instruction—and the completely ridiculous accusation that the vouchers are promoting racial imbalance in parochial schools. But I will refrain from debating these issues.

Unfortunately, Mr. Molnar seems to be caught up in trying to determine whether the private/parochial schools are providing a better or inferior education than that offered in the public schools. This often-repeated debate is absolutely pointless. The purpose of the vouchers is to provide the city’s low-income parents with options in education. What is significant is not that the education in one sphere is better. They both are good—and they both can stand improvement. What is obvious to even the casual observer in Milwaukee is that the vouchers offer parents a choice of schools that are different—and that is the real point.

What is happening in Milwaukee is a redefinition of public education into government schools, private schools, and religious schools. Each kind of school can offer the city’s children a quality education, but a different kind of education. The difference is the value systems that are an integral part of each of these components of public education. Low-income parents who want their children to have a value system promoted by government education continue to have that option, but those parents who want their children educated under a different set of values now have that choice in an economically feasible form as well.

We need to get over comparing the quality of education in the various systems and work together for a high-quality education in all of them. What we can celebrate in Milwaukee is a diversity in education that offers all families real choices in the educational arena. Let’s get that dynamic into the debate and celebrate our diversity of quality.

Stephen R. Bartelt
New Berlin, Wis.

Vol. 19, Issue 14, Pages 38, 40

Published in Print: December 1, 1999, as Letters

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