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September 05, 2001 4 min read

Marianne B. Cinaglia makes an observant and necessary point in “Riding the Reform Rapids” (Commentary, Aug. 8, 2001). I now have this quote from her essay on the wall of my cubicle here at Indiana University: “Because most teachers believe they are performing satisfactorily considering the milieu in which their particular schools function, the chances for change are minimal unless attitudes about what is important shift.”

To the Editor:

Marianne B. Cinaglia makes an observant and necessary point in “Riding the Reform Rapids” (Commentary, Aug. 8, 2001). I now have this quote from her essay on the wall of my cubicle here at Indiana University: “Because most teachers believe they are performing satisfactorily considering the milieu in which their particular schools function, the chances for change are minimal unless attitudes about what is important shift.”

The standards debate and other school reform initiatives that are receiving so much attention in the press need to be informed by this point. When the educational establishment stands up and says, “We are going to change our product and improve its quality,” someone else has to stand up and say, “Wait, doesn’t that mean that we have to change our processes?”

The standards movement does not stand a chance of success if standardized testing is going to be the measure of success. A change as necessary as improving the quality of education needs to be supported by more than pontification and stiff penalties. Teachers need tools to support the process of helping each child to master a rigorous set of skills called for in the standards. Teachers need to be treated as professionals who have valuable professional opinions about how best to present the content of the standards. Teachers need to be expected to assess progress toward the standards and benchmarks. Teachers need to be supported in this assessment effort so that each child can be helped to an accurate understanding of what he can or cannot do.

As Ms. Cinaglia points out, “attitudes about what is important” need to shift before we can expect real change. Until teachers are supported in helping each child understand what it is he can or cannot do, the rhetoric about standards and turning out world-class students will remain empty blather about an unattainable goal.

John Keller

Bloomington, Ind.

To the Editor:

Marianne B. Cinaglia’s analysis is a step toward insightful understanding of why the university has only a marginal effect on teaching practice. But it falls short. First, she is mistaken about the “goal” of our present school reform. She says it is to “educate productive citizens for the 21st-century economy.” Who says? Big business? Why does big business get to make this decision? Are there no other goals for education?

Second, she is right that change will be slow in education but not for the reason she states. It’s not that teachers are so difficult to change—her example of the jovial 30-year teacher who modeled his career on his predecessor’s is extraordinarily weak—but that teachers have the final responsibility to educate students and can’t go chasing after every new theory that flies out of the university.

Ms. Cinaglia must surely recognize that many of her colleagues’ theories—serious and important at the time that they were proclaimed—have landed on the junk pile of educational thought. Teachers have been burned by innovation and, wisely, they are cautious about endorsing a new idea. They are especially cautious when the proponent is a zealot whose faith in the purity of his idea clouds his understanding of the harsh realities of the classroom.

Third, it all takes money. And Ms. Cinaglia’s approach will be time-consuming and expensive and, most likely, piled on top of the other teacher responsibilities that threaten to erode the good work of all teachers. And if anything is clear in the big-business reform agenda, it is that they don’t intend to spend more money on schools.

Finally, Ms. Cinaglia needs to overcome the reform tendency to subordinate the teachers. Treating them as “students” is the wrong step. If the practitioners are not equals in the process, if their insight and understanding are not valued equally with the knowledge of the researcher and the insight of the university proselytes, then change will take even longer. No experienced educator appreciates being treated as a novice and having her knowledge discounted or trivialized.

All that said, Ms. Cinaglia’s solution to the problem of change has merit. It will take time. It must involve a closer connection between the university and the classroom. And the blend of theory with teacher induction and professional development is appropriate. If she can pull all this off without costing the teachers time and money and without piling more jobs on top of teachers who are already overburdened with data collecting and a certificate paper chase, her idea should be considered.

But if it means adding even 10 minutes more work per week solely to promote the professional reputation of some remote, unpublished, born-again professor of education, we’re not interested.

Bill Harshbarger

Arcola, Ill.

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