Readers Respond to Our Winter 2015 Issue


Taking the Middle Ground

I appreciated the article by Mike Rose about the failures of testing (“School Reform Fails the Test”) in the Winter 2015 issue. Having spent 10 years as a primary school teacher and more than 25 years as a school chief financial officer, I have a perspective on current educational reforms.

As a new teacher, I was shown my classroom and told, “Best of luck.” I was on my own; no curriculum guide, no idea of scope and sequence into which I would fold my efforts. I was under no pressure to produce any particular results. Veteran teachers decried the effects of television upon the young—an example of blaming lack of student achievement on forces beyond pedagogical control.

I was also teaching at the time of the unionization of teachers in my state (Ohio). Teachers, with some justification, demanded better compensation and contractually defined working conditions. Yet, the needs of students and respect for teachers were casualties.

I did not witness boards of education in serious discussion about overall academic achievement until the imposition of high-stakes testing. Discussions were most likely to be about sports, cafeterias, and busing. The superintendent with whom I worked in the late 1980s warned that coming legislated accountability would swing the emphasis away from many unquantifiable education goals and create the problems Rose describes.

I argue that it is time to focus on an equilibrium position for educational reform. Schooling—especially for the primary student—must provide a toolkit of skills. Schools and teachers must be held accountable for providing the requisite skills, despite the societal impediments. Lack of accountability provides for those who would avoid responsibility. Go ahead and teach to the test. If it’s worth testing, it’s worth teaching.

But we must also recognize the limitations of testing. Where testing is inappropriate, we must focus the testing, rather than eliminate accountability. We must learn to recognize and value educational experiences, the rewards for which bloom over time and defy testing metrics. Even (especially?) in kindergarten, as William M. Chace recommends in the same issue (“What I Have Taught—and Learned”), a teacher must help a student’s intellectual curiosity “take flight.” We must provide  time and opportunity to teachers at all levels for “improvisational magic” and find a way to reward their efforts.

J. K. Byrne

Garrettsville, Ohio


The technocratic, top-down solutions mentioned by Mike Rose are going to keep creative talent out of the teaching profession. Imposed standardization is taking over. I chose early retirement rather than give in to the cutting-edge “best practice” of canned lesson plans and quizzes transferred from online sites to classroom smart boards.

John S. Harris

from our website


Rose’s interesting article seems to ignore perhaps the most important part of the problem—what happens outside of the classroom. We want to close the inequality gap through schools, but broader trends in the culture work strongly against this: entertainment and social media, and the decline of stable families that give students structure and allow them to thrive. A major factor in language skills is how much students read (and what they read) at home (even if their parents don’t speak good English). Do they have a habit of reading, and keep the TV, video games, and Internet off? This is a much harder problem to deal with than either school reformers or their critics realize, but perhaps they just think little can be done about it.


from our website

Marginal Riches

If marginal notes of approbation be the currency of essay writing, William M. Chace (What I Have Taught—and Learned) should be a very wealthy man. Having just closed out a 40-year teaching career when I read his insightful article, I found myself annotating (with copious exclamation marks) nearly every word and profoundly thought-provoking sentence. Thank you for his eloquent addition to the eternally ongoing education debate.

Thomas A. Bogar

Silver Spring, Maryland

Ignoring the Basics?

Anthony Grafton and James Grossman’s praise for research projects as gateways to thinking skills (“Habits of Mind”) bypasses the fact that large numbers of collegians lack sufficient literacy skills to benefit from such enterprises.

Among colleges students are many who, while perhaps able to decode what they read, cannot write imitatively at the same level as their sources. “First you read, then you write,” Emerson once noted, but from my experiences as an adjunct instructor of freshman English in three nonselective colleges, one private and two public, I conclude that reading has become skimming, at best. I therefore lament the emphasis on research projects and papers as a diversion and avoidance. If anything, the curricular requirement for a capstone research paper, now so prevalent in freshman English courses, ignores the needs of students who cannot express themselves consistently or comfortably in acceptable English. Style manuals and bibliographies do not teach how to write.

As an experiment, I instructed one class to write a practice job application letter. The results were woeful. As the country now contemplates more college for more students, the current thinking that more college years will lead to higher levels of employment strikes me as quixotic at best. Research may work well for Princetonians, but not so well for large numbers of others.

Thomas Rodd Jr.

Bradford, New Hampshire


Anthony Grafton and James Grossman respond: Thomas Rodd Jr. writes: “Research may work well for Princetonians, but not so well for large numbers of others.” Please note that none of the examples of undergraduate research we cite come from Princeton or any other Ivy League institution.

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Our Readers may send letters to The American Scholar, 1606 New Hampshire Avenue, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20009; or e-mail them to Please include a daytime telephone number. Letters may be edited for length or clarity.


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