November/December 1994

This Issue
Vol. 06, Issue 03

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The school year is just getting under way at Georgetown Prep-aratory School in North Bethesda, Md., but Alejandro Hernandez has already started thinking about next year. Like many college-bound seniors, Alex faces a daunting task: finding the college that's right for him.

Thanks to a growing number of high-tech marketing tools, that chore--and completing the unnerving college application process--has just gotten a whole lot easier.

Larry and Heather, two upper elementary students at Hazelwood Elementary School in Louisville, Ky., are at the age when boys and girls do not pal around together. But today, both are working busily on a Venn diagram that shows how they are alike and how they are different.

One circle is labeled "Larry,'' and the other "Heather.'' On the outer edges of each, the two classmates have scribbled a few of their individual preferences. Heather has written that she likes cats. Larry's tastes run to sports. But the space where the circles intersect is crowded with entries: swimming, rap music, hot dogs, snakes, pizza, school, and the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers television show. There is no more room to write.

One of the more interesting ideas to emerge from the current school reform movement is that teachers should be more like coaches. The catchy--already shopworn--phrase is: "Be a guide on the side, not a sage on the stage.'' In context, that seems to mean that teachers shouldn't talk at students all the time but should point them in the right direction and encourage them. They should help students but press them to be responsible for their own learning.

But as this month's cover story (beginning on page 32) makes clear, real coaching--as in athletic coaching--is much more structured and authoritarian. Coaches are less like guides on the side than czars on the sideline. Still, teachers might find it instructive to study coaches like Dale Patton of Pekin, Ill., one of the football coaches featured in the article.

Small Pay Raise

The average teachers' salary last year was $35,813, up 2.3 percent from the previous year, according to a study released in October by the American Federation of Teachers. That was the smallest pay increase in the 35 years the AFT has analyzed salary trends. When adjusted for inflation, teachers' earnings actually decreased last year. That has happened only one other time since 1981. Connecticut posted the highest average teachers' salary at $50,389, while Mississippi's was the lowest at $25,153. The study was based on data from the U.S. and state departments of education.

The Hartford, Conn., public school system has turned itself over to a private company. The unprecedented agreement, approved by the Hartford school board in October, entrusts the for-profit, Minneapolis-based company Education Alternatives Inc. with managing the district's 32 schools and its annual budget of some $200 million.

"We are absolutely convinced that the current way of operating our schools does not work and cannot work,'' said Edward Carroll, a school board member who voted for the contract. The agreement, he said, will bring the district "some additional talent and resources and skills.'' He predicted that Hartford's pact with EAI "will be a model for the rest of the country.''

Pinedale, Wyo., will not soon forget the name Craig Madsen. That was the alias used by Kevin Carter, a free-lance police informant who posed as a student at Pinedale High School as part of a 1992 state drug investigation.

Although he was 23 at the time, Carter's boyish looks made it easy for him to blend in with his teenage classmates--perhaps too easy. A Pinedale family has filed a civil suit against Carter, charging that while he was on assignment at the high school, he had sex with a 17-year-old female family member and supplied alcohol and drugs to students.

Teachers who use classroom methods that are out of sync with how young children learn may be jeopardizing the gains many youngsters make in high-quality preschool programs.

According to a new report from the Southern Regional Education Board, preschools across the South, and the nation, are increasingly incorporating current knowledge on how young children learn into their programs. But many elementary schools, the report says, still use "outmoded'' teaching methods that are "inappropriate for the developmental levels of virtually all children in the 5- to 8-year-old group.''

Alicia Andrew thinks it would be "cool'' to go to school in the evening, instead of during the day. So cool, in fact, that the 9th grader from Glendale, Calif., took her babysitting money out of her savings account last year and traveled with others from her district to Lacey, Wash., where one such school already exists.

What she and the other members of the Glendale Unified School District task force saw in Lacey may be the solution to their district's burgeoning enrollment problems: Take an existing high school, hire a separate teaching staff and administration, and let students who prefer later hours go to school in the evening.

A new federal study has found that while school-based management may create a more flexible working environment for teachers and principals, its ultimate effect on student achievement is still unclear.

The two-year study by the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, looked at two American districts--Dade County, Fla., and Prince William County, Va.--and one Canadian district in Edmonton, Alberta.

One of the nation's most closely watched education reform experiments--the statewide overhaul of the Kentucky schools, is beginning to bear fruit, according to officials in that state.

Kentucky's 4th, 8th, and 12th graders demonstrated what the officials called "dramatic improvement'' on the 1993-94 version of the state's annual assessments. In all grades, the percentage of students performing at or above the proficient level in mathematics, reading, science, and social studies increased from the previous year. In reading, for instance, the percentage of 4th graders scoring at the proficient level shot up from 7 percent to 12 percent. At grade 12, the figure rose from 5 percent to 14 percent. "This significant improvement in the scores is a clear indication that Kentucky's education reform effort is working,'' said Thomas Boysen, the state commissioner of education. "The hard work of our teachers is paying off, and the beneficiaries are our children.''

November 30. Crafts.
The Association of Crafts and Creative Industries invites applications for the ACCI Create-a-Craft School Grant Program. More than $120,000 worth of materials, including instructional videotapes, project guides, and activity sheets, will be distributed to approximately 600 schools for the introduction of crafts projects. Eligible are all schools in the United States and Canada that are committed to encouraging student creativity through crafts. Contact: ACCI Create-a-Craft School Grant Program, 1100-H Brandywine Blvd., P.O. Box 2188, Zanesville, OH 43702-2188; (800) 294-5680.
  • December 1. Young Adult Reading.
Defining home and community has become a game of connect the dots for the citizens of Valmeyer, Ill. Built 90 years ago in a fertile valley along the Mississippi River, the tiny farm town was uprooted last year by the Midwest floods that left nearly 70,000 people homeless. Now, the entire town is packing up and moving to higher ground as part of a federal disaster-relief experiment.

Ground was broken on a new site in June, but the town's churches, stores, and other landmarks exist only as numbered dots on a map of what will become Valmeyer. The school will be built on dot number 25, in the center of the new town.

My colleagues often ask me, "How do you decide which kids' books are the best?'' Good question. I'm a pushover for good illustration and prose. Unfortunately, of the more than 2,000 children's books I read each year, I find that far too many are disappointing in one or both of these areas. The great ones, however, I remember, reread, and sometimes even dream about.

Still, a book does not really succeed unless it works for its intended audience--children. The students at my K-5 school are more than happy to act as my guinea pigs. I read aloud to them, talk with them about books, and solicit their reactions. Here, then, are the 25 titles that have generated the most favorable reviews from my guinea pigs--and from me--over the past year.

You would think that the man hurling himself from the witness stand and crumpling to the courtroom floor was having some kind of seizure. Knowing the circumstances--that he is testifying at the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, the man who personally sent him to Auschwitz--you would think his reaction was triggered by some awful memory. By the sight of the renowned mass murderer. By the thought of millions killed.

But the 35 teachers sitting in the darkened room watching "The Devil Is a Gentleman,'' a 1983 60 Minutes production, learn that the convulsions were prompted by an even more terrifying realization. "It's not a God!'' the Holocaust survivor says of Eichmann. "It's not a Hitler! It's not Adolf Eichmann! It's me!''

In my opinion, when Brian Bown decided not to observe Georgia's new moment-of-silence law ["Current Events,'' October], he was being a disruptive person and a bad influence on all students. Bown needs to take a basic training course in Marine boot camp. Perhaps there he would learn the meaning of self-discipline, although from observing his attitude I doubt it.

I would like to commend the Gwinnett County Board of Education for relieving Bown of his duties as a teacher. [See "The Ax Falls,'' page 13.]

For so long, it seemed like common sense. Children of different abilities required different teachers, different texts, different classrooms, different speeds and approaches. Tailoring the education to the child was simply a matter of efficacy, and, over the past three decades, the idea has spawned an array of pullout courses--for the slow student, the advanced student, the limited-English speaker. Such courses were often dubbed "special.'' This approach, once so lauded, now goes by a more ominous name: tracking.

Among tough river towns, Pekin, Ill., has a reputation for being one of the toughest--the kind of place where saying the wrong thing can get you into a fight. Located on the east banks of the Illinois River across from archrival Peoria, Pekin is most notoriously known as a former stronghold of the Ku Klux Klan. Even now, there are occasional reports of nightriders and cross-burnings, and many blacks won't venture there after dark. Until the mid-1970s, Pekin High School's nickname was the politically incorrect "Chinks.'' Now, it's the "Dragons,'' but at Friday night football games you can still see older fans wearing sweat shirts declaring, "Proud to be a Chink,'' or "Proud to be a Chinklet.'' The dropout rate at the high school is 25 percent, and students say the Gangster Disciples--a crack-cocaine ring of Chicago origin--has made inroads at the school.

On the afternoon of Ott. 16, 1989, Jonathan Morton, an 8th grade student at McLaughlin Middle School in the central Florida town of Lake Wales, was hurrying to catch the bus when he heard a noise coming from the boys' bathroom. He went inside to investigate and found a friend, 13-year-old Shawn Wyke, in the process of tying his football jersey to the rail above one of the stall doors. "I asked him what he was doing,'' Jonathan testified in a deposition taken in 1993, "and he started arguing with me and stuff, and I kind of, you know, let him have it because I caught on to what he was doing.''
They arrive in droves, or maybe it just seems like droves when four or five teenage mothers come to school at one time, clutching their bottles and diaper bags, eager to show off their adorable offspring. On this particular fall day, one of the girls catches sight of me from down the hall. She grins and waves and then begins striding in my direction. I pretend I don't see her and duck into the men's washroom. I take my time scrubbing my hands and combing what's left of my hair. After about seven minutes, I figure it's safe. I open the door. Drat! She's standing there waiting for me, holding a squirmy 2-month-old dressed in a powder-blue jumpsuit.

"Mr. Dizney?'' she ventures. "I'm Debbie. Remember me?''

In late September, thousands of students in Singapore sat down to take 90-minute tests in mathematics and science. Although they may not have known it at the time, the students were kicking off what many are calling the largest, most complex international study of students' mathematics and science achievement ever undertaken.

The Third International Mathematics and Science Study, sponsored by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (which goes by the initials IEA), will involve more than 50 countries and 1 million students worldwide. The cost of simply administering the exam to the 20,000-plus students who will be taking it in this country is expected to top $3.5 million this year alone.

At a national meeting of school teachers recently, participants were asked their views on physical contact with students--not corporal punishment, mind you, but rather the reassuring hand-on-the-shoulder contact that connects one human being, literally and figuratively, with another.

"You're careful about touching a student in any way, even an instructional way,'' said an art teacher from Montana. "You don't have any physical contact.'' A Louisiana teacher reported that, in unavoidable situations where he finds himself alone with a student, he will now "open the door wider. I sit more in the middle of the room.''

November 16.
Live from the Warner Theatre in Washington, D.C., The Disney Channel broadcasts the fifth annual "American Teacher Awards.'' The two-and-a-half-hour special profiles 36 outstanding elementary and secondary school teachers across the nation, who were chosen through student essays about how they made a difference in their students' lives. Celebrities will present awards in 12 categories; the teachers themselves will then select one among them as Outstanding Teacher of 1994. Air time: 7 p.m. (EST).