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‘Old’ Computers Will Do Just Fine

To the Editor:

In her Commentary "Dumping Old Computers" (May 17, 2000) Helen Soulé states that the proposed New Millennium Classrooms Act is bad public policy and will increase technology costs to the very schools it seeks to help. The act would increase tax deductions to companies that donate computers up to 3 years old, while current law permits deductions for computers up to 2 years old. Ms. Soulé argues that this legislation would result in the donation of obsolete machines that will be incompatible with existing school technology plans, resulting in increased overall costs to schools.She also asserts that the greatest challenge is to assist teachers in integrating technology into school curricula, as well as the provision of technical support and the maintenance of technology infrastructure.

Although Ms. Soulé's argument may have some relevance for affluent districts with significant resources, the reality is that many schools, particularly those in rural and urban communities, lag far behind in access to technology. For these schools, the ability to tap into a pipeline of donated computers is one strategy for beginning to close the digital divide. Computers that are now 3 years old may no longer serve company needs, but in general they are of the Pentium-class generation and more than capable of supporting educational software adequate for meeting specific school needs, including Internet capability. Ms. Soulé takes an "all or nothing" position that would, in fact, contribute to the widening of the digital divide.

Schools are not required to accept all donated computers. In fact, as Ms. Soulé points out, districts would be well advised to pick and choose among donated computers to maximize resources. She is right, too, in claiming that the principal challenge we educators face is to integrate technology into the classroom and provide adequate system maintenance and technical support. Such issues become moot, however, if schools do not first possess the requisite equipment.

As we have demonstrated with the Urban Technology Project in North Philadelphia, a Learn and Serve America initiative and Tech Corps affiliate, donated equipment gives students the opportunity to learn by doing, allowing them to try their hand at maintaining systems and providing technical support to teachers, student peers, and even their families and other community members. As a result, our students possess marketable technology skills and a sophisticated understanding of their role in addressing the digital divide. It is unlikely that these students would have had the opportunity to learn by doing on the brand-new, or nearly new, state-of-the-art machines Ms. Soulé apparently feels are required to meet educational needs.

Donated computers have permitted North Philadelphia schools to rapidly increase the number of Internet-capable units in their classrooms, as well as to develop technology plans that include the participation of students in the provision of technical support and system maintenance. Most importantly, schools here have begun to implement fundamental curricular changes that use technology as a tool for promoting learning across content areas.

The UrbanTech model promotes school and community ownership of efforts to bridge the digital divide, a crucially important aspect of any attempt to integrate technology into urban education, regardless of whether the computers are donated or brand-new.

Edison Freire
Learn and Serve Master Teacher
Urban Technology Project
School District of Philadelphia
Philadelphia, Pa.

For Teens, Sex Ed. Was Not the Solution

To the Editor:

Susan N. Wilson, in her May 10, 2000, Commentary "A Better Sexuality Education Course Might Have Helped," really misses the point. You see, Amy Grossberg and Brian Peterson grew up in a land where expectant parents are told that a choice can be made about the fate of their baby.

They are taught to accept, and the law condones, acts that make it possible to destroy a child who is growing within his mother simply because his mother wishes to exercise a "choice." If Amy and Brian had sought an abortion prior to the birth of their child, no one would have accused them of anything, would they?

As Doug Most outlines in his book Always in Our Hearts, and Ms. Wilson has chosen to completely ignore in her references to that book, Brian did attempt on two occasions to secure an abortion for Amy. In fact, he took her directly to an abortion clinic; she refused to go inside.

The actions of these two teenage parents, in physically destroying their baby, are a reflection of the "education" they have received from our culture, education system, and legal system: Kill the child prior to birth and it is nothing more than an exercise of choice; kill it after birth and you will serve a little time in jail.

The antidote for such cruelty is not improved sex education; it is a national commitment to making sure young men and women are taught to respect the differences between right and wrong, good and evil, love and hate. Such a commitment does, however, require recognition that each human being is responsible for his actions and that decisions about what to do or not to do should be based on fact rather than the moral relativism that all too often rules in matters of human sexuality today.

Judie Brown
American Life League
Stafford, Va.

Is Writing Longhand 'A Thing of the Past'?

To the Editor:

As a parent and educator, I am compelled to raise an issue I have not heard addressed before. Prompted by your recent article "Technical Difficulties" (May 17, 2000), I must relate my own son's experience.

In 9th grade world history, my son is generally a low-B, high-C student. When he recently came home with an A on a document-based essay, I inquired what he attributed his success to? Did he particularly enjoy the subject matter? Did he study? Did he feel particularly prepared in some other way, like getting enough sleep for a change?

With no hesitation, my son told me that the reason he did so well on this test was that students were able to write this essay on the computer, which they had never before been able to do. Adept at word processing, my son finds it easier to get down his ideas and then put his thoughts in sequence, correcting grammar and adding supportive statements as he goes—all difficult tasks to complete when taking an essay test by hand.

Those of us who are adept at word processing understand this. I, for one, think differently when writing now than I did 25 years ago using an electric typewriter, with perhaps a one-line memory. Many other adults I've spoken with agree: Writing longhand is a thing of the past for us. Isn't our goal for our children to be computer adept? Some are. Computer-savvy children could be doing exemplary writing, if computers were available to them for test-taking.

Researchers, administrators, teachers, parents, take notice. This is the new millennium. Students weaned from "composition notebooks" onto computers are a new breed. Our students come with many strengths and weaknesses, and our goal should be to meet their needs and enable their best achievement. A computer-literate generation is dawning. There must be political and administrative help, as well as funding to support this new generation of computer users/thinkers. My son, for one, would then help raise our collective test scores.

Tina Rappaport
Project Associate for Development
Professional Development Laboratory
New York University
New York, N.Y.

Charters: Is It the School, or the Size?

To the Editor:

Your May 3, 2000, article about charter schools indirectly raises a problem that we shall encounter in trying to measure the outcomes of charter schools ("Charters, Vouchers Earning Mixed Report Card,"The Changing Face of Public Education).

You note that the average charter school in the United States has "just 137 students compared with the typical public school enrollment of 475." A growing body of research over the past 10 years has provided support for the claim that small schools lead to better outcomes for students, both in terms of academic achievement and social and emotional growth.

Clearly, charter schools today are mostly small schools (except for some charter schools in states such as California which have allowed a number of existing public schools to convert to charter status). Small schools research tells us that small charter schools should outperform larger conventional public schools. If they do, how will we know which variable in their nature has caused this outcome?

Unless we have research that disaggregates "small size" from "charter status," we may misunderstand the results and find causation in the wrong variable.

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

Digging Into Textbook Council's Background

To the Editor:

I was concerned to read your misleading coverage of a recent report from the American Textbook Council ("Analysis Finds Shallowness in Latest History Textbooks," April 26, 2000). Your article fails to give some important background on the American Textbook Council and its director, Gilbert T. Sewall, that is relevant to interpreting the report's findings.

The American Textbook Council is the recipient of funds from conservative foundations, such as the John M. Olin Foundation. One of the objectives of the council is to attack and reduce multicultural approaches to history in textbooks. To that end, Mr. Sewall cleverly conflates one very bad trend in textbooks with one very good trend. He criticizes the "dumbing down" of textbooks, the emphasis on graphics, the lessening of narrative, and the boring language. He then turns around and blames this on policies that promote multicultural content.

Mr. Sewall ignores the rigorous and scholarly work in the areas of multicultural history and social studies that, rather than dumbing down textbooks, would make them more accurate and sophisticated.

Upon reading a similar article in 1998 about the American Textbook Council's work ("Report Assails New Social Studies Texts," June 17, 1998), I called the council to get a copy of the report. Mr. Sewall answered the telephone himself. After taking down my name and address, he asked what my organization did. I mentioned that we supported artistic work from a variety of cultures. The report never arrived.

This personal experience would seem to me to contradict the quote in your article that referred to Mr. Sewall as someone with "honest and scholarly concerns."

I urge you to provide more complete information on Mr. Sewall and the American Textbook Council.

Susan Sandler
Justice Matters Institute
San Francisco, Calif.

Principals as Paladins: Schools Need Administrators, Not ‘Educational Leaders’

To the Editor:

Tom Hoerr's Commentary on principals ("Doing Things Right, or Doing the Right Things?," May 10, 2000) looks like another article written to create a crisis that doesn't yet exist in order to promote a solution that isn't yet needed.

We've seen dozens of these articles in the last 15 years focusing on the "crisis" created by the mediocre teacher and the poor public school that threatens to destroy national security and the American way of life.

The difference in Mr. Hoerr's piece is that the principal is not shamefully characterized as mediocre. Instead, he's portrayed as a noble figure, overwhelmed by responsibility and lacking authority.

The answer is really much simpler than Mr. Hoerr suggests. Principals don't need more authority. They need less responsibility. They can stop pretending to be "instructional leaders." Instead, they can rediscover their roots and become administrators again.

Principals don't need to sign up for a professional finishing school. They need to stay home and support teachers in disciplinary measures, fix the machines, order supplies, fight for the resources needed in the classroom, and call parents to find out why their kids aren't in school. Principals need to do their jobs, so that teachers can focus on teaching.

Mr. Hoerr's idea that "good principals are teachers of teachers" misses the mark by a mile. Maybe he believes that, but teachers don't. They see administrators as people who consciously and deliberately choose to leave teaching. They get out because they aren't good at it, are tired of coaching, are burned out, or simply need more money to feed their families. Some have been out of the classroom for more than five years. Some haven't seen the inside of a classroom for more than 20 years. It is an insult to active, practicing teachers when these people publicly claim they are still teachers.

Moreover, teaching has changed. Principals who have been out of the classroom for more than five years have only a theoretical knowledge about recent methods. They filter the pain from their own classroom experience and then fondly recall pleasant memories of how teaching used to be. They've lost touch with the nuances of classroom instruction, large group discipline, and the pressure of crafting new and creative lessons. Most have never taught using the techniques and ideas that they are trying to explain to teachers. They are not credible. Teachers much prefer to be taught by fellow teachers who are in the thick of things and who share their everyday problems.

Instead of administrators spawning dozens of "faculty committees," as Mr. Hoerr suggests, teachers need fewer such committees. "Overwhelmed" principals are creating committees to solve administrative problems—or as our assistant superintendent describes it, to "share the workload." We need to stop wasting teacher time on beautification committees, clean school committees, or morale committees. Teachers need to say "no" to committees set up to make final-exam schedules or to manage student assemblies. These would not be necessary if administrators did their jobs.

Mr. Hoerr wants to create a new kind of principal. He is joined by many who, for a fee, stand ready to transform these useful, efficient, skilled administrators into some kind of multitalented, educational paladins who doggedly drag teachers down the dark corridor of the latest, predetermined school reform.

Schools need the competent administrator. Someone must take care of the minutiae of running the school smoothly. That's job enough for most administrators and too much for some. Teachers, in contrast, need to be free from "administrivia" to focus on classroom problems, to develop the skills and insights required for the real work of teaching, and to educate students.

Too many administrators want, like Mr. Hoerr, to redefine their schools' missions so that they can teach something interesting. The good administrator, though, is the one who does an excellent job of taking care of those things that aren't very interesting, but must be done. The excellent administrator is one who gets out of the way of the teachers and provides opportunities for them to solve the problems of educating children.

The poor administrator, on the other hand, is one who exploits his teachers by having them do administrative work while he is learning how to become an educational leader. The real danger is that by re- defining the role of administrators, as Mr. Hoerr proposes, we may change good administrators into poor ones.

Bill Harshbarger
American History Teacher
Mattoon High School
Mattoon, Ill.

Recent Ed. History: Many Maps, But Few Desinations

To the Editor:

William A. Proefriedt raises some interesting questions at both the beginning and the end of his Commentary ("Doing Educational History," May 24, 2000). His point is that educators need to examine the changes in educational practice and philosophy that have taken place over the history of their careers. "A wise teacher," he avers, "will note the historical changes occurring on her own watch."I'm not sure, however, that answers to the questions posed at the end of his Commentary will be as important as the answer to a question he raised with his students at the beginning: "Toward what ends were students to undergo schooling?"

I submit that we haven't got a clue today about what those ends are, yet we continue to try to devise the means to get there.

Society doesn't know what it wants of schools (no particular curriculum exists). States don't know what they want schools to produce (look at the proliferation of proficiency tests). Communities aren't sure where schools are headed (see the inability to pass local tax measures). School boards are usually in the dark (no particular policies are common). Superintendents often can't articulate any particular goal or set of goals (and they change districts so often, what does it matter?). Teachers make up their own aims for what they do when the doors to their classroom are closed. Parents don't know why they send kids to school (witness the increase in the number of parents willing to pull their kids out of school for vacations or other "educational experiences"), and kids ... well, they just roll from teacher to teacher, school to school, course to course, test to test, item to item, and hope to survive in the long run.

The saying used to be: If you don't know where you are going, any road will get you there. That's a little too affirmative for me. I'd suggest, instead: If you don't know where you are going, no road is wide enough, straight enough, or long enough to get you there.

Educators in these past few years have been focused too much on creating new and interesting maps, but without meaningful destinations. Haven't we been wandering long enough?

When I started in the profession 30 years ago, the goal was to get a high school diploma. Other goals (to get a job, get into college, get along with your neighbor, get with it) were secondary. We kept score on progress toward that goal by passing from grade to grade and, when we hit high school, by accumulating credits. We accumulated credits by passing classes. We passed classes by attending, doing homework, passing tests, and so on.

The end was clear, the means to attain it were clear. If we were taught to think, to learn some particular item, to accomplish some particular task, it was done as part of the path toward the goal. We were all headed to graduation day. Each leg of the journey, each class, had to be conquered to build that bank of credits that would send one out into the exciting world of adulthood.

Then we discovered (it must have been in a fast- food restaurant) that kids couldn't make change for a dollar. They couldn't read, write, cipher, or think coherently. They had attained the goal of the diploma, but they hadn't learned anything on the journey. So the goal changed. It was not as important to obtain a diploma as it was to learn something.

Then, we muddied the waters even further. We wanted them to learn how to live. We wanted them to learn values (not too many values, just enough). We wanted them to "just say no" to drugs, alcohol, tobacco, and firearms. We wanted them to learn safe sex, or no sex, or sex after marriage. We just piled it on.

Today, I submit, we don't know what we want students to learn. We've got some general feelings that they ought to be able to read (at what depth, we don't know), and they ought to be able to work with numbers (to what purpose, we're not sure). We want them to be able to climb out of poverty, if they're in it (we can't be sure how that's going to be). We want them to live as equals in a land of equals (that's a real tough one). And perhaps not all of us can even agree on these goals.

I'd like, then, to extend Mr. Proefriedt's treatise just a little. Not only should "we" look about ourselves at the world we have created, but also at the world we are creating for our children. Then we should put our heads together and agree on the goals of the precollege education system. Once we have the destination(s) in mind, we can look further to see where our kids are, and design appropriate routes that will take them there.

Until we've done that, we're just wandering in circles.

Dave Majesky
Director of Special Programs
Lorain City School District
Lorain, Ohio

Vol. 19, Issue 39, Pages 35-36

Published in Print: June 7, 2000, as Letters

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