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Public Schools and 'Distinctive Choices'

To the Editor:

I congratulate Education Week on all four of the Commentaries in the Feb. 23, 2000, issue. But I would like specifically to mention two of them that seem to me to be not only of great importance but closely related. These are "School Choice: Beyond the Numbers" by Joseph P. Viteritti and "The Need for More Alternative Schools" by Robert DeBlois.

In most respects, Mr. Viteritti's essay powerfully and admirably lays out the case for school choice. But I am afraid that it also falls into the unfortunate and all-too-common pit of essentially defining such choice as a choice between, on the one hand, vouchers for students—and especially low-income and minority students—to attend private or parochial schools (and/or the ability of parents to send their children to publicly supported charter schools) or, on the other hand, the forced attendance of those children at poorly performing local district public schools.

What the essay did not sufficiently stress, however, is the opportunity described by Mr. DeBlois of offering distinctive, high-quality choices within our public school districts. In New York City and in many other urban districts, these schools are called alternatives. In Boston, however, they are called "pilot" or "Horace Mann" schools. In almost all cases, these are schools, as Mr. DeBlois points out, that operate as in-district charters. They are small, safe, caring schools that have the philosophical, curricular, staffing, and fiscal autonomy to develop their own unique approaches to schooling. They can be elementary, middle, or high schools, and most of them are created as new schools (indeed, Deborah Meier, who pioneered the movement in New York City's Community School District 4, is now running a pilot elementary school in Boston).

It is the provision of such schools for all students, rather than vouchers or charters, that may well be the most compelling answer to the problems that beset not only our urban districts but our American system of public education.

Evans Clinchy
Senior Consultant
Institute for Responsive Education
Northeastern University
Boston, Mass.

Vouchers Fragment School Populations

To the Editor:

Joseph P. Viteritti's Commentary ("School Choice: Beyond the Numbers," Feb. 23, 2000) all too conveniently overlooks the many serious problems with school voucher plans.

They would certainly fragment our school population along religious, class, ethnic, and other lines. The U.S. Department of Education's 1998 report "Barriers, Benefits, and Costs of Using Private Schools to Alleviate Overcrowding in Public Schools" (requested by a voucher-friendly Republican U.S. Congress) showed clearly that the overwhelming majority of nonpublic schools would accept public funding through vouchers, but would be unwilling to abandon selective admissions or pervasively sectarian curricula.

In the long run, school population fragmentation would increase costs (just think of all the bus runs for dozens of different brands of nonpublic school) and erode community relations. We don't need any more Northern Irelands or Yugoslavias.

Mr. Viteritti ignores the serious constitutional problems with vouchers, as well as the fact that between 1967 and 1998 voters in 22 statewide referenda from coast to coast rejected vouchers or their analogues by an average vote of 2-to-1.

He also ignores the fact that many public schools are failing because of the effects of still-widespread poverty (nearly a quarter of public school kids are in families below the poverty level) and seriously inadequate and inequitably distributed funding.

Mr. Viteritti is clearly indifferent or hostile to the idea of free, democratic, high-quality public education for all children, with those who prefer nonpublic school paying their own bills.

Edd Doerr
Executive Director
Americans for Religious Liberty
Silver Spring, Md.

Foreign Languages: Fearing a Cutback

To the Editor:

Suffice it to say that any essay that begins by comparing the learning of a foreign language with learning to drive a car should have been rejected out of hand ("Is There a 'Child Advantage' in Learning Foreign Languages?" Commentary, Feb. 9, 2000).

In fairness to the essay's author, Brad Marshall, his primary intent in writing this piece probably was to show that one can learn a foreign language and achieve a satisfying level of proficiency in that language even if one does not have the opportunity to study the language as a child. It's a good point. Those of us who teach foreign languages to college students who did not study a foreign language in high school (much less in elementary school) work hard to convince our students that it is not too late for them to learn a second language.

In our work with older adolescents and young adults, however, we do not feel the need to trash elementary school foreign-language programs or tell students they should be grateful they had no exposure to a foreign language before they came to college. This simply isn't true. Just as students master other disciplines by working with them throughout elementary, middle, and secondary school courses, they learn more about a foreign language the longer they have an opportunity to study it.

As someone with more than 30 years' experience in the field who has seen a gradual and gratifying change in the way foreign languages are included in the curriculum of many school districts, what appalled me about this Commentary was its possible impact on children.

I could envision school administrators eager for an excuse not to include foreign languages in their elementary curriculum. Would this be the "evidence" they needed? Why introduce a foreign language to 2nd and 3rd graders when "research" published in Education Week shows that it is better to wait until 9th grade to begin foreign-language instruction?

Karen Hardy Cárdenas
Professor of Spanish and Methodology Instructor
South Dakota State University
Brookings, S.D.

Editor's Note: In his Commentary, Mr. Marshall did not suggest that later instruction in foreign languages was superior to early instruction—or in fact that early instruction was not to be desired. His essay was an argument suggesting that adults are not as disadvantaged in learning foreign languages as may previously have been assumed. The essay was adapted from a longer research article published in TESOL Quarterly ("Three Misconceptions About Second Language Learning").

Educating Teachers: 'Sweeping Judgments and Generalizations'

To the Editor:

Martin L. Gross is an adept and skillful writer, which is unfortunate because his skill easily enables him to create circular arguments and make inaccurate and misleading statements ("Does the Route to Teaching Need a Fresh Start?" Commentary, Feb. 16, 2000). His essay is a collection of false facts, anecdotal evidence, and mistruths constructed to further an anti-teacher-education agenda. The following highlight and counter some of his grossest misrepresentations:

  • Most teachers enter the profession directly after high school. The fact is that education schools are housed within colleges and universities. High school graduates must first gain admission to the institution, and then after two years of successful collegiate coursework (with a B-minus minimum average), apply for admission to the teacher-preparation program. They have to complete courses and requirements set by the university and the state.
  • Students intending to enter teaching score lower on standardized tests than other students. The Educational Testing Service study to which Mr. Gross is referring shows that students actually entering teacher education programs score just as high on the SAT as do other students.
  • Private schools get better teachers because they do not hire certified teachers. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, a majority of teachers working in private schools are state-certified.
  • In almost every state, teachers seeking specialty training take fewer credits in their specialty areas than do ordinary college students; and, in teacher education, take a "thin, eccentric curriculum." NCES statistics show that a majority of teachers with specialty training have at least a major in their specialties. Prospective secondary school teachers must complete an academic major in the arts and sciences, and take the same courses as every other arts and sciences student. In addition, students must complete a minor in teacher education and then take an independent licensing exam, ultimately requiring more rigorous study than is required of most majors. A large portion of the credits required in education schools are in clinical lab settings, where the student is actually in a public school either observing or leading academic classes.
  • Only a small minority of K-12 teachers are prepared to teach through postgraduate studies. According to a recent Center for Education Information survey, nearly 30 percent of individuals currently studying to be teachers began doing so after receiving at least a bachelor's degree.

    There are hundreds of graduate-level teacher-preparation programs. The American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education has promoted postbaccalaureate preparation since the 1980s, and so have other teaching organizations, including the National Commission on Teaching & America's Future.

  • New Jersey graduates can begin teaching immediately with a short training course. Four-fifths of beginning teachers in New Jersey in 1999 came from traditional, university-based teacher-preparation programs. Teachers in the alternative-certification route are required to take 200 hours of coursework in methodology and pedagogy, while teaching.

Mr. Gross' perceptions of international education programs are just as inaccurate. He lauds the structure in Germany, without mentioning that even as Germany heads one way, countries like Britain and France are heading in other directions. He also neatly lumps training for prospective secondary and elementary teachers together. This is misleading because few other countries train elementary and secondary teachers together.

And before he disavows education psychology, Mr. Gross may also want to review the content of teacher education programs in Western European countries. It is easy to select anecdotal and isolated examples of educational structures in other nations for play against our own system. Unfortunately, such casual comparisons are of questionable value. Educational systems around the world are as diverse and varied as the countries and cultures in which they exist. To be of any value, international comparisons must be viewed within each country's societal context and cannot be viewed in isolation.

Clearly, much of the content in Mr. Gross' Commentary is compromised. The truth is that the teachers currently coming out of schools, colleges, and departments of education are exceptionally well-prepared. He may want to consider the Third International Mathematics and Science Study comparisons and speculate why America's 4th grade students, the very students whose teachers have spent the most time in teacher-preparation programs, scored higher than those of almost every other industrialized nation.

Students coming out of American high schools are attending college in record numbers; and SAT verbal scores are at a 10-year high, while math scores are at a 28-year high. Students taking the ACT have increased their scores every year for the past 10 years. Such successes could not occur without well-trained and talented teachers, and hard-working students.

We must stop perpetuating the half-truths and myths contained in Mr. Gross' essay and instead recognize the successes of our educational system, and work to sustain and improve education through realistic, verifiable, research-based policies and programs.

David Imig
President and CEO
American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education
Washington, D.C.

To the Editor:

I will concede Martin L. Gross' point that some schools of education have low admission standards, and I will concede that some schools of education have an "eccentric curriculum." What I find interesting is that an obviously learned individual goes from those premises to the conclusion that we should "close all undergraduate schools of education."

Interesting. The way to deal with a problem is to eliminate all vestiges of the current structure. Is Mr. Gross really that confident that all programs are that inferior? My real concern with his line of reasoning surfaced when he used one state example (Connecticut) to show that math teachers in education have far less coursework than math majors with liberal arts degrees.

At my university, the math curriculum for education and arts and sciences math majors is virtually the same, and I know that the University of Dayton is not unique in Ohio. It seems to me that Connecticut and Pennsylvania have a "standards" problem if they excuse students from what Mr. Gross describes as the "difficult calculus courses."

The problem with sweeping judgments and generalizations is that they result in fallacious logic. Where Mr. Gross and I might reach common ground is with creating lots of alternative tracks to the classroom. Let school districts then responsibly hire as they please, and over time we will find out whose approach is best. Of course, while adults argue, the lives of young people will be affected, often adversely, by those like Mr. Gross who want to offer a simple solution to an extraordinarily complex problem.

Thomas J. Lasley
School of Education and Allied Professions
University of Dayton
Dayton, Ohio

To the Editor:

Martin L. Gross gets one thing right. If we want to have professional schoolteachers in the United States, then we need to prepare them as we do other professionals. This means that we need to do away with undergraduate teacher-preparation programs, just as Mr. Gross argues.

For new teachers to grasp what we want them to know, they need to complete an undergraduate program in the arts, sciences, or humanities, with appropriate academic work in each of these three areas. Then they need to complete a graduate teacher-preparation program, balanced equally between academic study and school experience, with a coherent connection between what these new teachers are learning in their graduate courses and the work of the teachers whom they observe and who mentor them in schools.

Mr. Gross would have us mourn that a summa cum laude graduate of Yale in history cannot legally teach history in his or her public high school. I went to Yale for four years, and I can recall several members of the Yale history department who knew their subjects extremely well but couldn't teach their way out of a paper bag. And I would not have wanted any of them to teach history in my local high school. These were distinguished, much-published professors, not just summa cum laude graduates. Knowledge of a discipline is not the same set as the knowledge and skill required to teach young people effectively. Anyone who has taught knows this deeply.

How long will it take us as a culture to finally understand that, despite the inadequacies of teacher education in the past and present, teaching is an extremely complex and demanding professional activity, and that beginning teachers need the best professional, graduate-level preparation?

David Marshak
Associate Professor
School of Education
Seattle University
Seattle, Wash.

To the Editor:

Martin L. Gross' Commentary regarding teacher education was on the money. We would have better-educated teachers if they completed an arts and sciences undergraduate degree followed by postgraduate work in instructional methods and practice teaching.

The big problem is salaries. We cannot expect future teachers to undergo five or six years of higher education in order to be employed in a profession that pays less than most occupations employing four-year college graduates.

Brian Peterson
Associate Professor of History
Florida International University
Miami, Fla.

To the Editor:

I have to wonder if Martin L. Gross has ever taught in a large public school. A few days in real teaching conditions would change his mind about knowing how to teach.

The best teacher has a strong background in content, in addition to knowing how to get students to learn. Anyone can teach bright, well-motivated students. Only teachers can motivate the majority of students, who need a purpose and a controlled learning environment before they will participate in their own development.

I recommend that Education Week save valuable space for writers with knowledge of the teaching craft. Mr. Gross is not among them.

John Welsh
Calexico, Calif.

Vol. 19, Issue 26, Pages 44-45

Published in Print: March 8, 2000, as Letters

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