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Leadership Pipeline Begins With Teachers

To the Editor:

I was pleased to see your article reporting that school reformers have turned their attention to ensuring strong and effective school leadership ("New Thinking on What Makes a Leader," Jan. 19, 2000). I agree that the quality of schools' leadership is the most important determinant of their success. In reading the article, however, I began to fear that the reform efforts could be misdirected, thus missing this opportunity to dramatically improve student achievement rates.

Some Teach For America alumni have started and are now leading schools that are attaining significant results in student achievement. What these individuals have in common is that they have the personal characteristics of effective leaders: critical-thinking ability and communications skills; achievement orientation and a strong sense of personal responsibility for having an impact; dedication to constant learning; ability to work well with others; and integrity.

Because of these traits, they were successful teachers who attained dramatic results in their own classrooms. As such, they have the ability, conviction, and moral authority to attract and lead a faculty of teachers who will do the same.

School systems will be effective in tackling the school leadership issue only if they make an all-out effort to recruit talented individuals with track records of leadership into teaching positions. To keep these high-potential people within their systems, districts will need to prepare and support them to attain results as teachers, provide a fast track to leadership positions, and work with states to simplify principal-certification laws. Then, by setting up a structure that holds school leaders accountable for results, enables them to share best practices, and provides them with feedback, districts will ensure that tomorrow's schools are run by some of the most talented leaders in the country.

We must not settle for anything short of transforming our school systems' approach to human resources—the way they recruit and support teachers, identify and cultivate school leaders, hold them accountable for results, and support their efforts to become more effective.

Improved, campus-based leadership-training programs will be a helpful resource, and a national board for principals wouldn't be a bad thing, but districts must recognize that the first step is to hire extremely talented teachers who have leadership ability. The second is to prepare and train these people well, and the third is to launch an all-out campaign to cultivate some of them for leadership positions.

Wendy Kopp
Founder and President
Teach For America and The New Teacher Project
New York, N.Y.

One Choice Mars 'Faces of Century'

To the Editor:

I was disgusted to read the final inclusion in your "Faces of a Century,"Lessons of a Century, Dec. 15, 1999. As I had read most of the compilation, I found myself wondering, "How could I one day make enough of a mark to be included in a future article about the faces of the 21st century?" When I reached the end and saw the names of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the two young Columbine High School shooters, I was saddened.

What message could that possibly send? I understand the inclusion of the incident, but why not choose to immortalize the victims? I, for one, believe that was a bad choice.

Lori Langford
Lithonia, Ga.

Instead of Retention, Try Immersion Units

To the Editor:

I was not surprised to see controversy over the retention issue already bubbling up in places like Chicago, New York City, and Los Angeles ("Study Looks at Retention Policy in Chicago," Jan. 12, 2000). The push for retention sounds good to politicians and educational decisionmakers—until they discover there is no commitment or appropriate planning for real solutions that will avoid either the monumental stacking of retainees or the need for costly alternative centers that many students feel are actually punishment houses.

Your article tells us that Chicago school officials are hanging their hats on summer-school, after- school, and extended-day programs—in other words, programs occurring at times when brains are tired. If students cannot read comprehensively or understand mathematical concepts, then waiting until their brains are tired to assist them will be only marginally successful, if at all. Title I has proved that for years.

What is not mentioned in most articles on retention is that schools must dramatically change the construction and scheduling of the traditional school day to help low performers—not wait until the school day is over to offer support.

I would have hoped to see Chicago officials establishing immersion units for 6th and 8th graders who read and compute too poorly to gain promotion. In these, the students would do nothing but study until they demonstrated enough mastery to move on to the next level.

Why not move such students to the next level and require them to enter immersion classes as technically "retained" but actually being served at a higher level? Such a move would be encouraging to the low-performing student and would save the school system millions of dollars now being spent on the alternative "punishment centers."

Retention is nothing more than stacking up students in particular grades. And the longer you retain without help during the school day, the higher will be the number who leave school as soon as they are legally able to drop out.

Pete Kreis
Program Consultant
Florida Department of Education
Tallahassee, Fla.

Software Gift Is 'Really an Albatross'

To the Editor:

I just read your article on the multimillion-dollar staff-development plan to be implemented in several states, a philanthropic initiative underwritten by Microsoft and Intel ("Intel, Microsoft To Launch Major Training Program for Teachers," Jan. 26, 2000).

Their generosity is reported with the understanding that teachers who "still use the Mac" will run into some problems, since the Office 2000 and Encarta 2000 software will run only on a Windows platform.

A gift with such strings attached is really an albatross, and I don't need the U. S. Department of Justice to prove that thesis.

True technology competence is related to the ability to move from one workstation to another with similar hardware and applications, given any operating system, and remain productive. The Macintosh has taught me all that and more, including DOS, Windows, the Internet and HTML, and a little networking. I've instilled that in students, too, and I never worried about Y2K.

Perhaps this gift is meant to assuage a suffering and guilty conscience while continuing to ensure a specific market share.

Consumer beware the corporate freebie that undermines true learning.

Ellen Harrison
Guyton, Ga.

School for Homeless Offers Inspiration

To the Editor:

Thank you for the wonderful article on the Thomas J. Pappas School serving homeless children in Phoenix ("Home Sweet School," Jan. 26, 2000). I found it inspirational. It served as a reminder that even the most difficult students are still just kids who will strive for happiness and success if they are given some support.

It was also great to read about a community working together, being flexible, and using common sense to tackle a complex problem. Everyone involved in education can benefit from more examples like this.

Sam Bosley
Osceola, Wis.

Essay on Service Grinds Political Ax

To the Editor:

It was with great trepidation that I read the Commentary, "Service Learning Required," Jan. 26, 2000. The authors, not content with taking for granted the value of mandatory "volunteerism," are arguing for its politicization.

They make the leap from requiring students, especially those in high school, to perform community service to translating those activities into political action. Just as important for a society as the properly interpreted separation of church and state is the separation between civil society and state. Civil society is what service learning is meant to promote by training youngsters to empathize with others, to help others, and to understand the concept of the common good.

My problem is with the authors' presumption that the causes of social problems such as homelessness can be understood and then acted upon by high school students. Social problems are incredibly complex and have continued to defy "solutions" wrought by an endless stream of well-intentioned (for the most part) reformers ever since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Who, then, will enlighten these kind-hearted high school students turned activists? Their teachers? Their counselors? The coordinators of service learning?

It is one thing to attempt to impart a moral commitment to helping others less fortunate. It is another thing altogether to mold young minds along ideological lines. This is a very dangerous path followed with horrendous results by the 20th century's most infamous political figures—Hitler, Stalin, and Mao.

Citizenship is a very precious and private matter. It can be encouraged in high school students by giving them a balanced view of their country's history, its economic system, and the incredible privilege they enjoy as citizens.

Gisèle Huff
San Rafael, Calif.

Credit California for New-Teacher Support

To the Editor:

I have been an educator in three states (Texas, Arkansas, and California), and I was surprised to see no mention of the California Beginning Teacher Support and Assessment Program, or BTSA, in "State of the States,"Quality Counts 2000: Who Should Teach?, Jan. 13, 2000.

This highly successful initiative places a veteran teacher with first- and second-year teachers in an effort to increase job satisfaction, as well as improve student achievement. The program has experienced phenomenal growth within the state and is currently being used as a model for other states. In my opinion, it is the most beneficial program I have seen in my many years in public education.

Based on the California Standards for the Teaching Profession, the program requires that "support providers" (or mentors) have extensive training prior to their work with beginning teachers.

In the BTSA office in our school district, everyone who holds a leadership position is required to read current educational journals and keep up with state and national news in the field. Since Education Week is among our required reading, I was amazed that the program was omitted from your report.

Donna Perry
BTSA Director
Anaheim Union High School District
Anaheim, Calif.

Digital Divide: A Case of Blaming the Victim?

To the Editor:

Henry Louis Gates Jr.'s premise that digital segregation will potentially rival the government-imposed segregation of the past in depriving African-Americans of educational growth and development is a warning that must be taken seriously ("Black to the Future," Jan. 12, 2000). As Mr. Gates points out, the widening cyber-divide between black and white Americans is not accounted for by economic status alone.

His strong argument of the Internet's value in instruction is undeniable, particularly his advocacy of its use to teach black history and culture; to connect students of African descent with the achievements of a brilliant past rarely surfacing in American classrooms; and to strengthen their sense of group- and self-worth.

Yet Mr. Gates' otherwise important and instructive essay becomes flawed when he accounts for the other-than-economic factors for this potentially dangerous digital divide. As on other occasions, such as his recent television documentary on Africa, Mr. Gates blames the victim for his victimization. He asserts that masses of African-American citizens, turned off by schools, instruction, and curricula that did not respect their humanity, have the responsibility for embracing education and for purchasing computers about which they have received little or no instruction.

He fails to take into account the number of inner-city schools that have few or no computers, or schools where computers are in closets in unopened packing crates, or schools that have computers that remain useless in the hands of untrained teachers. Even more important is the issue of African-American students who attend failing schools, where many teachers have low expectations of them, and who leave school with little desire to continue academic endeavors or to engage in intellectually challenging pursuits.

Mr. Gates is right. Economic factors alone do not separate black people from white people in the use of the Internet. The major separation factor is the instruction that takes place in schools. The responsibility for computer literacy lies not within the African-American community, but within the schools that the children attend. The blame must be placed where it belongs. Adequate numbers of computers in the hands of technologically trained teachers who respect and have high expectations for their students, together with the use of curricula that reflect the history and culture of the students and the community, will likely bridge the cyber-divide between black and white Americans.

Yet even Internet parity between black and white people is only part of the problem. Both groups need to achieve upwards of 70 percent access to be successful in the information age.

Donald H. Smith
Professor of Education, Emeritus
Baruch College, City University of New York
New York, N.Y.

Vol. 19, Issue 22, Pages 42-43

Published in Print: February 9, 2000, as Letters

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