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‘Snake in the Woodpile’ or Elephants in Classroom?

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To the Editor:

In his recent Commentary, James H. Lytle says that the current level of school intervention brought about by the federal No Child Left Behind Act is unsupported by research, and that most of the fixes operate on the surface only ("The Snake in the ‘No Child Left Behind’ Woodpile," Feb. 7, 2007). He calls for delaying the implementation of the law’s sanctions.

There are two problems that need to be addressed. First, schools are not inert lab specimens to be dissected and casually examined under a microscope. They are living entities, full of energy, activity, and responsibility. Trying to change them is like having a doctor run alongside an electrician and operate on him when he is pulling wires. It can’t be done. Similarly, teachers should not be trained in school transformation during the school year, but during the summer.

The second problem is that classroom knowledge is incomplete and not widely disseminated. More is known about the “how to” craft skills of teaching today. But many teachers are still ill-informed.

Teaching is an art that requires intuition, insight, imagination, and a talent different from merely managing classrooms and disciplining students. Teachers must know how to inspire students; how to show them that they are human, important, and deserve respect; and how to select materials that capture the interest of the students while asking questions that provoke critical, insightful thinking.

To make significant gains, we need a new approach. During the summer, when teachers are not responsible for a class full of children, they must be paid to learn new skills and shown how to inspire students. They simply cannot do everything that has to be done in school and transform their professional skills at the same time.

Many teachers do this on their own, paying universities, workshop leaders, or professional educational experts to teach them. But this solution is haphazard and hit-or-miss. More can be done to improve the skills of practicing teachers, if the collective community that is so concerned about improvement would put its money into teachers and the classroom, instead of testing, expensive proposals, or wrecking-ball approaches.

Mr. Lytle is right in his criticism of No Child Left Behind’s impact. But he has not identified an effective solution.

Bill Harshbarger
Arcola, Ill.


To the Editor:

The problem of fulfilling the federal No Child Left Behind Act’s savage demands is not the “snake” described by James H. Lytle in the title of his Commentary. Rather, it’s a couple of elephants in the classroom.

The first elephant is that poor children are harder to teach than middle-class children. We all know this—why else would seasoned teachers choose middle-class schools?—and we know a lot of the reasons this is so. But President Bush insists that we compare these kids’ test scores with those of their middle-class counterparts. How absurd.

The second elephant is that schools with poor children get less money than middle-class schools. Just look at the 501(c)3 organizations middle-class parent associations have to set up to manage their extra funds. How unfair.

It’s not the lack of “deep work,” “reimagining,” or “research and development,” cited by Mr. Lytle, that holds us back. And it’s not that “no one currently knows how to accomplish” the necessary improvement. It’s that it will take longer than the administration’s timetable, and take way, way more money than even the smell of peanuts suggests.

Susan Harman
Oakland, Calif.

Vol. 26, Issue 25, Pages 33-34

Published in Print: February 28, 2007, as ‘Snake in the Woodpile’ or Elephants in Classroom?
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