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Web Letter

As an educator I am once again dismayed by the fact that the choice for education secretary is not a classroom teacher but a person who prefers to be anti-teacher union and believes that education is best served by having bonus programs built around standardized testing. For numerous years now it has been proven that standardized testing is not a true evaluation of learning. In fact, testing based on multiple-choice questions taken from trivial curriculum items does nothing but enrich the pockets of test-developing magnates. A true educator knows the invalidity of such approaches to education.

Furthermore, the incoming administration would be advancing education if it showed a support for workers' rights by writing legislation whereby those states that refuse to allow collective bargaining by teachers and other public employees are outlawed. For example, in 1959 North Carolina made it illegal for public employee unions to contract bargain. This has especially hurt the education profession in that state, as it allows public education to be tossed around as a political football by politicians who want simplistic answers to the educational shortcomings in their state.

Dennis J. Townsend

Charlotte, NC

Dec 23 2008 - 1:51pm

Web Letter

It's very odd that the Democratic leadership waited until after the GOP foreign and economic policy had all the positive effects of a 50-megaton nuke before they said those ideas maybe don't work.

I don't know what a comparable implosion would look like in public education, but will it take an equal decimation before Democrats say Republicans either don't know what they are talking about when it comes to education or that they are intentionally trying to destroy it?

The cornerstone of the GOP attack is the endless cycle of testing. If the same approach was used in healthcare, a nurse would come take your temperature every fifteen minutes, the doctor would be given no money to treat you, and if you didn't get well, the doctor and nurse would be fired and you would probably die.

The "teach to the test'' nonsense is also a form of micromanaging that tends to chase smart, creative people out of the public schools. Why bother to get a degree when they just want someone who can read a script like the guide on a tour bus?

Their other brilliant idea, merit pay, sounds great to anyone who has never worked in education. In some jobs, like sales, being paid on commission makes sense, but for teachers, there are too many variables: a very good teacher might be given or even ask for the kids who need the most help and therefore make the least progress. Should that teacher be paid less than someone who takes on only average to above-average kids?

Also, merit pay would mean administrators get to decide who gets rewarded for their work. Most administrators are mediocre teachers who promoted themselves out of the classroom by taking a few night classes. Smart, creative teachers will not be good suck-ups, nor will they stick around if that is what is required to be compensated for their jobs.

Probably the worst innovation of the right is treating education like a business. As we have seen this fall, corporations can't even run their businesses like a business. Why should we let then import that failed model to schools?

What is really galling is to see someone like Obama's pick for education secretary aping one of the ugliest tactics of business, mass layoffs, without realizing that when business does that, it has nothing to do with adjusting the quality of the product--it is a bookkeeping trick to goose the stock price. If you layoff teachers en masse, people will not want to come work in your district because administrators will rightly be seen as arbitrary and malicious.

Wouldn't it be nice if Democrats in Congress and even the White House had the courage to get ahead of the curve instead of acquiescing to GOP scams until they explode, and then getting around to doing what's right?

If they had ever bothered to ask teachers what they need to succeed, they'd get some pretty simple answers, most of which wouldn't necessarily cost more money:

* Smaller class sizes, and the more troubled the community, the smaller the classes.

* More autonomy for teachers. If you want to attract and keep smart, creative people, give them room to work. If you overly-script and micromanage the job, eventually you will attract exactly the kind of people who are good at that: mindless automatons. That's not how I would describe the best teachers I had growing up, would you?

* An effective system to deal with dangerous and disruptive students. If administrators limited themselves to this one function, they might actually help instead of hinder the education process. This is why private schools appear to be more effective than public ones--disruptive students can be ejected, and the threat of being permanently removed makes borderline kids behave.

* Make sure most of the money makes it into the classroom, not district offices for layers and layers of worthless bureaucrats or into the pockets of politicians' cronies for software, building and consulting contracts that teachers haven't asked for.

Will Democrats flush the steaming turd of GOP education reforms down the toilet before they drag down the public schools with them, like they did with foreign and economic policy?

Michael J. Dixon

Santa Monica, CA

Dec 17 2008 - 6:40am

Web Letter

One absurd thing about American education is that teachers, who do the essential work of schooling, are not at the table when it comes to developing education policy. Teachers also appear to be mysteriously absent from the national debate on education in general, despite many spurious declarations that teachers are part of some sort of education monopoly. Teachers do not make education policy, despite the size and the lobbying efforts of our two largest unions. Consequently, we are stuck with education policy based on conceit, false claims and a privatization agenda, all created by non-educators. Yet teachers get the blame if something goes wrong. The fact that working classroom teachers are not involved in policy-making decisions regarding education is one reason that school reform schemes go wrong. For example, it has been said that "no one in the field had sufficient courage or credibility" to argue against No Child Left Behind. Teachers are literally in the field, but had no significant part in the development of No Child Left Behind, our national unions notwithstanding. Many teachers have spoken out against No Child Left Behind, so the courage is there. However, our beloved country does not afford teachers much credibility.

Authentic education reform takes commitment, effort and time; it should involve teachers at every level. Standardized tests may have their place, but they represent a limited means of measuring progress. Proclaiming that a school has failed because some of the kids did not make certain scores on the test seems cruel, unproductive and wrong. Setting up a testing program is not authentic education reform. Reform should be concerned primarily with improving instruction and the content of the curriculum, and should be on a twelve-year cycle, starting with either preschool or kindergarten.

The core work in schooling happens in the classroom. The states and our various school districts should support the processes that occur in our classrooms. Education policy often appears based on lawmakers’ personal recollections of their own schooling, which generally have no relevance to what schools are like these days. There are also many bureaucratic school administrators with limited teaching experience and limited vision who latch on to pet programs and initiatives of questionable merit, then impose them on the schools without the input of the teachers, who get stuck with having to implement the new programs. Teachers should be involved in the development of education policy because we have a closer working relationship with our children and their families than most other groups in the country. We understand the learning needs of our children, believe in reasonable academic standards and are committed to helping our children become intelligent, informed, prosperous citizens.

Teacher involvement would add an essential perspective to discussions regarding how best to provide schooling for our children. However, if teachers got involved with school reform policy, they would have to be teachers who are honest, not intimidated by the political rank of others, not afraid to speak to power, not sycophantic and not addicted to hierarchy. Hey, I teach sixth grade at an elementary school in central California, and I would do it in a heartbeat if someone asked, but they never do. For that matter, No Child Left Behind is ideology-based opportunity program for the testing industry, textbook publishers and education consulting agencies. Think about it. Who has gained the most from No Child Left Behind? It has not been children, teachers, schools or school districts.

Paul Rigmaiden

Modesto, CA

Dec 16 2008 - 6:40am

Web Letter

I would like to bring up two points, one addressing a web letter and another the article. In Mr. Gendler's letter, he mentioned watching a teacher trying to link a comic book to something educational. Of course, it was a failure, no matter the justification or results. This is one of the major problems with education: quality teachers. Success for a student at school cannot be achieved without a teacher who understands the material he or she is teaching as well as basic educational principals. As a first-year teacher I realize that I am in the "stupid" category--there are plenty of things I don't know yet and won't for some time. However, I can say I feel confident that I know that the material I am teaching is of importance. While I am not an English teacher, I would never in my wildest dreams assign a comic book or even put a comic in my curriculum.

In order to get quality teachers, however, we need to increase the incentives to actually become a teacher. When faced with a choice between starting teaching at $30k a year, or starting in a business career at $50-60k, many will probably choose the latter. However, if we were to increase the money going towards schools, not only for improvement but for salary increases, you could create more interest in the field. More interest then creates competition, which means the best of the best will successfully graduate and become teachers. Those that don't can then be encouraged to find a new field of study. While this sounds cruel keep in mind that education should be a field where only the best are working--no one should want a second-rate teacher who doesn't know what they are doing teaching their children.

I am so very glad that President-elect Obama has chosen to make education reform a part of his agenda. I hope that it does not just stop at creating better schools and updating older ones--while a facility is of importance, it is who is running those schools that matters. If we were to take just 1 or 2 percent from our defensive budget--not enough to cripple our military or leave us vulnerable to harm--and use it instead towards education, I am sure we would see things start to improve in our system. While in some cases standardized testing is useful, I also would like to see us move toward teaching children knowledge instead of trying to get them to memorize details. Nothing is more important to our nation's future security than a population that can reason and solve problems, both simple and complex.

Dan Edie

Washington, IL

Dec 15 2008 - 4:52pm

Web Letter

Interesting article. I am not going to dispute what Nelson Smith points out as errors; however, as a California school employee myself, I can certainly say that we spend more time than necessary testing as opposed to more time on teaching. In my own experience, the article is correct in our overemphasis on "fill-in-the-bubble standardized testing" and yes, there is an overemphasis on simply "memorizing facts" and figures. My own nephew, who was accepted to UCLA last year, is a testament to this. He still will not pick up a book unless it is for class! (Of course, after some of those rigorous courses, you may not want to pick up a book for a while.) And as monetary rewards go, it is interesting to note that in our district here in Chula Vista, computer programming classes are not offered, yet OC kids (that's Orange County, California, for those of you in Peoria) do have computer program courses at the high school level, so by the time they enter college or a university, they are already one-up on students from economically less afluent districts that do not offer these, as is the case with my nephew, who though a 4.2 GPA student in high school, is getting his butt kicked in those UCLA computer programming courses. Why? Money. It's that simple.

John Molina

Chula Vista , CA

Dec 15 2008 - 1:32pm

Web Letter

This is one area where I've always had trouble swallowing the standard platform of the left, and this article is filled with nothing but empty platitudes. Clearly the author expects Nation readers to instinctively scowl at the mention of that awful standardized testing that seeks to suppress all those wonderful "more authentic" forms of teaching that he does not see fit to describe in any sort of detail.

Mr. Kohn alludes to challenging the status quo of "lectures, worksheets, quizzes, grades, homework, punitive discipline and competition." Again, no mention is made of viable alternatives, not to mention the fact that if children plan on going to college on planet Earth, they will have to deal with exactly all of these things. Absent any detail, I can only imagine that what the author has in mind is something like that episode of Arrested Development when the girl comes home and announces that she got a giraffe in spelling.

In fact, standardized logic and comprehension tests are the polar opposite of "rote memorization of facts." And what exactly is wrong with a national standard? Are we suggesting that kids in poorer areas have less need of certain reading or math skills? During the brief time I spent with the America Reads program here in NYC, I watched a teacher waste two entire class periods showing students The Death of Superman in order to spend five minutes afterward comparing Superman to an Egyptian pharaoh. I could see he was making it up as he went along. If this is the sort of "authentic teaching" that would be threatened by top-down curriculum standards, they can't come soon enough.

Equally absurd is the dismissal of Michelle Rhee as "antiprogressive," as if this spuriously assigned label automatically invalidates all of someone's views and work. I was actually pretty impressed with her after reading the profile in the New York Times. I think she hit the nail on the head when she said something to the effect that creative teaching is all well and good, but if you have third-graders who don't know how to read, then you're doing it wrong. And despite the effort to portray her as some kind of Bush lackey, she's clearly stated that she does not think vouchers are the solution.

To me this article reeks of the kind of thinking that "if Republicans support it, it must be bad," regardless of what all signs point to in reality. Acknowledging that there are severe, immediate problems with the public school system does not mean that you are a voucher fiend or that you share Ron Paul's position on public education. But so far all I've been hearing from the progressive side is that teachers know best and we just need to let them keep doing their thing while paying them more.

Alex Gendler

New York, NY

Dec 15 2008 - 12:48pm

Web Letter

A thank you to Alfie Kohn for his mention of the ongoing petition to get Dr. Darling Hammond named secretary of education. At the time he wrote his article, he did not know that we had closed the petition to turn in signatures to the Obama transition team and have since re-opened the petition at the following address: http://www.petitiononline.com/2Hammond/petition.html.

Over 2,600 signatures were hand-delivered to the Obama transition headquarters in Chicago and we intend on delivering many more soon. Thank you.

Dave Atias

Rochester, NY

Dec 14 2008 - 10:02pm

Web Letter

Mr. Cohn's other views about "reform" aside, I want to correct his sideswipe at public charter schools, many of which he says "are run by for-profit companies." In fact, of the 4,600 charter schools now operating, perhaps 10 percent are managed by for-profit companies... and not "run by," since it is the board of the school, not the company, that holds the charter and contracts for management services. (Arizona is the only significant exception to this rule, whrere companies can obtain a charter directly.)

And by the way, let's note for the record that Linda Darling-Hammond is herself a founder of two high-performing charter schools.

Nelson Smith

Washington, DC

Dec 12 2008 - 9:56am

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