October 1994

This Issue
Vol. 06, Issue 02

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If all goes according to plan, Education Alternatives Inc., a Minneapolis-based profit-seeking company, will soon be managing the Hartford, Conn., school district. In early September, the school board and company officials agreed on the basics of a contract but still needed to work out some details, according to school board member Kathy Evans. The tentative agreement would give EAI control over the district's $171 million budget and $29 million in federal grants, but not $37 million in pension funds. The firm would pay district expenses with its own money in return for a monthly reimbursement and would shoulder any cost overruns. A state superior court judge removed one obstacle to the agreement in August, dismissing a lawsuit by the Hartford Federation of Teachers challenging the contract-bidding process. The publicly traded EAI currently manages a handful of public schools for the Baltimore City school system.
The national organization that plans to certify expert teachers has only just begun field-testing its assessments, but already a number of states and school districts are offering financial rewards or other incentives for teachers who seek the special status.

Iowa, Mississippi, New Mexico, and North Carolina are among the states that have cleared time for staff development or set aside money to help teachers undergo the voluntary assessments that the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards will soon be offering. Several states have also loosened course work requirements for teachers who successfully complete the board's evaluation process.

Angered by the removal of two professional associations from the federally financed project to set national standards for English, some teachers have threatened to ignore the standards eventually drafted for that subject.

In March, the U.S. Education Department refused to extend its contract with the National Council of Teachers of English and the International Reading Association after 18 months of work. Department officials cited what they said was a lack of progress and other deficiencies for terminating the relationship with the two organizations.

The latest batch of SAT and ACT test results contains both good and bad news. The good news is that the gap between the scores of men and women is gradually narrowing. The bad news is that while the scores of women are rising, those of men are slipping.

Thanks to the gains by women, the average math score on the SAT, now officially known as the Scholastic Assessment Test, and the composite mean score on the American College Testing Assessment rose this year. Testing officials attributed the rise to more women taking advanced mathematics and science courses.

Students are doing better in mathematics and science than they did a decade ago, but their reading and writing skills are mixed, according to the latest findings from the National Assessment of Educational Progress. In general, the findings show that student achievement is about the same as it was in the early 1970s.

NAEP has been tracking student performance in the core academic subjects for more than 20 years. The new report is based on tests administered in 1992 to about 31,000 students in three distinct age groups.

You would never know by looking at the John Swett School that groundbreaking work is going on inside. A high chain-link fence surrounds the half-dozen or so portable classrooms that make up the Oakland, Calif., elementary school. The compound is completely paved, and bare pipes run along the sheltered walkways that connect the buildings. From a little distance, the enclosure looks more like an isolated army base than a school. Only the jungle gym, strewn with yellow police tape, betrays its true identity.

From time to time, Nancy Powell looks for research that she can use in the mathematics and computer courses she teaches at Bloomington (Ill.) High School. Sometimes, she finds ideas that are worth trying. And sometimes, she looks at what she finds and wonders where it came from.

Powell's experience is not unusual. Educators complain that researchers often ask the wrong questions, produce studies that are of little practical use, and write articles so full of jargon that they are barely comprehensible to non-researchers. Powell, in fact, may be more charitable toward research in her field than most; many of her colleagues, she says, do not bother reading the journals at all.

DEADLINES

Following is a list of application deadlines for grants, fellowships, and honors available to individuals. Asterisks (

  • ) denote new entries.
Following is a list of selected resources teachers may find useful.

Activity Book.

"Take away the hate, the fights, the rumors, and racial discrimination, and this would be a great school.''

When Gary Orfield was a graduate student at the University of Chicago in the late 1960s, he remembers sitting in a history class and hearing John Hope Franklin describe how white liberals had abandoned the cause of Reconstruction in the years following the Civil War. The noted historian talked about how the numbers of blacks holding elective office quickly declined after that and how Jim Crow laws began to take hold.

"If that ever happens in this country again,'' Orfield remembers thinking, "I'm going to do the other thing.''

Don't Get Personal

Yes, schools are "dangerous places'' ["Connections,'' September], and Rodney Wilson's stand at Mehlville High School ["Getting Personal,'' September] is one reason why. Parents who entrust their children to public schools expect that an agreed- upon curriculum will be taught and that the community's moral standard will be upheld. Thus, Karen Harbeck is correct when she says teachers don't have a license to expatiate upon their personal lives. That right was lost when the baby-boomer generation could not decide, as a whole, what is "right'' and what is "wrong.'' Thus, there is no "community'' moral standard, and any statement of personal morality by a teacher is going to offend someone.

Jimmel Warren, an 8-year-old with deep brown eyes and a shy grin, leans on the counter in the front office of Milwaukee's James Fenimore Cooper Elementary School, shifting his lanky frame from one foot to the other. He is one of two new 2nd graders--the other is a girl--enrolling at Cooper on this May day, less than three weeks before the end of the school year.

The best class I ever taught was the one I ruined. It was a class of seven junior girls, all of them animated, intelligent, ambitious. Some were friends and some were not, but they had, in an almost literal sense, what's called "chemistry.'' I'd give them a book or writing assignment and all sorts of interesting reactions would occur. I'd walk into the classroom, and they'd be arguing about whether Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter was an early feminist or whether Macbeth was a self-pitying murdering fool and not--as they thought they were supposed to think--some sort of tragic hero. The exchanges were alternately curt, contemplative, and sardonic; their fingers were always walking through the text to find the passage that would provide corroborating evidence.

In the argot of astronautics, the bland phrase "multi-axis simulator'' masks the ruthless efficiency of a device designed to test the limits of human endurance. Not surprisingly, taking a spin in a machine that approximates the sensation of tumbling in a wayward spacecraft is something of a rite of passage at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center's Space Camp in Huntsville, Ala.

To the sadistic delight of bystanders, the rider climbs into a caged platform suspended in the center of an enormous, three-ringed metal gyroscope. Though locked in place to allow riders to mount and dismount, the entire assembly is rigged so that the seated occupant swivels smoothly, swiftly, and randomly in any direction through a 360-degree arc.

'What's a homie?'' Anthony Jackson asks his 5th grade class at the 99th Street Accelerated School, a complex of beige stucco buildings and cement playgrounds on the outskirts of the Watts section of Los Angeles.

"A friend,'' his students answer in unison.

Passing through Tennessee earlier this year, truck driver Donnie Schaff dropped a postcard of a guitar-playing pig dressed in cowboy garb into a mailbox. Underneath the picture, the caption read, "Nashville Cowboy.'' A few days later, a class of 4th graders at Al Tahoe Elementary School in South Lake Tahoe, Calif., was squealing with delight.

As the students' official "Trucker Buddy,'' Schaff regularly sends the class cards and letters from stops along his route. In fact, the 4th graders' correspondence with "Donnie'' has become an integral part of their school lives.

October 3.

As part of its Archaeology series, The Learning Channel airs "The Struggle of the Angkor,'' hosted by actor John Rhys-Davies. This half-hour program looks at recent efforts to preserve the 124-square-mile network of ancient ruins located in the jungle of Northwest Cambodia. Air time: 8 p.m. (EDT).

I remember the day I learned about a power that real teachers have, a power that I call The Voice. I was a naive student teacher caught up in the mad swirl of my first recess duty. If I didn't enforce the playground rules, every 3rd grader in the school would know I was a fake--a student just like them, only taller. "Please don't challenge me'' was written all over my fresh-from-the-dormitory face.
During my first five years of teaching, I shunned the teachers' lounge. I'd always heard that faculty rooms were snake pits where poisonous gossip spreads. I chose to eat my lunch, instead, with a colleague in her room or mine.

But at my current school, I've taken to hanging out in the faculty room, largely because my classroom is right next door and the copy machine and refrigerator are there. As a result, I've come to see the lounge as a place where my colleagues and I continue our educations, both as teachers and as human beings.