Books: Readings

January 08, 1992 6 min read

Americans live with a “false sense of sufficient literacy,” according to the authors of “Literacy: An Overview By 14 Experts.” Leon Botstein, President of Bard College, expands on that premise in the excerpt below.

Today, the listener who regards himself or herself “literate” in music and able to recognize a work of Beethoven and follow it can do so because of repeated hearings through recording, without any reference to a printed text. At best, a very few lay persons can still follow a score (usually single lines), retrospectively, while hearing music, but without being able to anticipate sound or meaning as a result of reading notation alone. Reading music, in this sense is reactive and passive ....

It is an analogous transformation of the conception of ordinary literacy since the early 19th century that justifies the claim that we live, to some extent, not only with a problem of illiteracy in the traditional sense but in a “Potemkin Village” of literacy. A substantial percentage of our citizens possess fragments of skills of literacy that seem sufficient for them to survive painlessly. This constitutes the most difficult barrier to reform, since this condition of self satisfaction mirrors the idea that to be literate is, in some sense, now merely a matter of passive recognitions.

A new definition of reading has become dominant, one divorced from writing. It is as if decoding were an autonomous, simple skill, detached from an individual’s capacity to create written language. The definition of reading as encoding has become circumscribed and deracinated.

Owing to the stress on reading skills in their contemporary definitions, literacy has become an act of passive response, a skill of reaction, documentation, and adjustment, all on a very rudimentary level. From the start of schooling, reading is taught without a parallel emphasis on teaching writing. The child, then, never reads as a writer or a potential writer. Therefore, the capacity to ask questions about what is written, to frame a critical perspective on the use of language of others, is severely limited.

The individual who does not employ writing (or has no memory of doing so) as an active dimension of self-discovery, rumination, description, and observation as well as argument cannot bridge the gap between the spoken and the written word, an essential skill in a political culture based on law and the elevation of written documentation as evidence of action, thought, and truth. The linguistic construct of reality, transmitted through journalism, in print and on television, becomes much harder to appropriate, challenge, and resist.

Literacy: An Overview by 14 Experts, edited by Stephen R. Graubard, published by Hill & Wang, a division of Farrar, Straus & Giroux Inc.; 2 79 pp., $25 cloth, $12.95 paper. Copyright 1991. All rights reserved.

Requiring master’s degrees for teachers, a reform advanced by such teacher-education coalitions as the Holmes Group, is a “fruitless policy,” according to the authors of Who Will Teach: Policies That Matter. The five authors, educators and social scientists led by Richard J. Murnane of Harvard University, have backed by innovative statistical methods the professional lives of more than 50,000 college graduates to discover how prospective, current, and former teachers respond to the incentives and disincentives they face. Many of the reform movement’s teacher incentives have a positive impact on career decisions, they conclude, but the required master’s degree is not one of them:

Mandating master’s degrees will not help to staff the schools with skilled teachers. What such a policy does do is raise the cost of becoming a teacher. Prospective teachers must not only pay for an additional year’s tuition but, under the Holmes Group proposal, must also forgo a year’s salary. Together, these costs total $20,000 to $30,000, a burden likely to deter many talented college graduates from trying teaching.

These costs might be justified, of course, if a mandatory master’s degree dramatically improved teachers’ effectiveness. But the evidence is quite the opposite. In a comprehensive review, Eric Hanushek examined 106 studies that compared the effectiveness (usually measured by students’ test-score gains) of teachers with master’s degrees and those who held only bachelor’s degrees. Of these studies, 95 studies showed no difference in effectiveness; 6 showed that teachers with master’s degrees were more effective, on average; and 5 found that teachers without master’s degrees were more effective.

The Holmes Group might respond by arguing that the clinical master’s-degree programs it envisions would offer more effective training than traditional master’s-degree programs have provided. Although we agree that participation in a clinical master’s program of high quality can enhance prospective teachers’ skills, this is not sufficient justification for a Master’s degree requirement .... [P]rospective teachers can acquire critical skills in a variety of ways. Because many of the alternatives impose fewer costs on prospective teachers than a full-time year of postgraduate study, they are likely to attract more talented college graduates into teaching.

Mandatory master’s degrees also create the wrong incentives for training institutions. Even the Holmes Group proposal would stifle innovation. Implementation would lead to a list of specifications that graduate programs must satisfy in order to have their graduates eligible for licensure. Administrators of schools of education would design programs with two goals in mind: first, meeting the specifications, and second, making the program sufficiently convenient in order to attract students. Concern with these goals would overwhelm what should be the primary concern: designing a creative program that enhances participants’ skills.

Who Will Teach, by Richard Murnane, Judith D. Singer. John B. Willett, James J. Kemple & Randall J. Olsen. Harvard University Press, 79 Garden St., Cambridge, Mass. 02138. 185 pp., $22.95 cloth. Copyright 1991 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved.

Schools must work to create a positive “moral culture,” writes the developmental psychologist Thomas Lickona in Educating for Character: How Our Schools Can Teach Respect and Responsibility. He offers strategies for fostering such a “culture of excellence,” which in his view comprises leadership, compassion, achievement, and morale. In the following excerpt, he argues that the committed and effective school principal is the cornerstone of any success/values-education program:

An effective principal is typically involved in all of the activities common to values-education success stories: creating a council or steering committee that identifies the school’s target values and provides ongoing leadership for implementing the program; setting up workshops, sharing sessions, curriculum-development time, resource centers, and other opportunities for school staff to develop skills as moral educators; involving all staff--including aides, secretaries, cafeteria workers, custodians, and bus drivers-in sessions that introduce them to the goals and strategies of the values program and show them how everyone has a role to play; eliciting the support and participation of parents; and modeling the school’s espoused values through the principal’s interactions with staff, students, and parents.

Effective principals also have vision. In a study of school-leadership styles, University of Texas at Austin researchers asked principals, “What is your vision for this school--your long-range goals and expectations?” Without hesitation, effective principals began to list their goals for their schools. When less effective principals were asked the same question, they usually responded with a long pause and a vague statement such as, “I think we have a good school, and I’d like to keep it that way.”

In this study, when a principal had a vision of a school’s future, teachers were likely to describe the school as a good place for both students and teachers. By contrast, teachers working under less effective principals seldom spoke of their school or of their own work with enthusiasm or excitement.

Educating for Character, by Thomas Lickona. Bantam Books, 666 Fifth Ave, New York, N.Y. 10103. 480 pp., $22.50 cloth. Copyright 1991 by Thomas Lickona. All rights reserved.

A version of this article appeared in the January 08, 1992 edition of Education Week as Books: Readings


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