National Writing Project

Letters: Where Teachers Fail

By: Kevin Lavey, Stan Rains
Publication: The Quarterly, Vol. 22, No. 4
Date: Fall 2000

My wife, an English teacher, is subscribed to your magazine, having now completed two summers of training in the writing project program.

I am a former English teacher myself and am still quite interested in, particularly, the teaching of composition, still including serious writing projects in my computer classes. I discovered the research and instruction of the Bay Area Writing Project in the late ‘70s and found the precepts very useful in my career as a writing instructor.

However, I need to tell you how useless I find articles such as Kevin Lavey’s “Student Slayer: The Imposed Curriculum” [Summer 2000 issue]. Its whining negativity and self-righteous overstatement are precisely the things that made the English Journal in the ‘80s such a waste.

The most obvious defect in the article is that his approach masks the real problem: Mr. Lavey and his colleagues who will not take responsibility for their failures. Yes. His failures. Obviously if his students were not passing a skills-based test (and upper-level thinking skills are skills), he and his colleagues were not building it into their curriculum. I’m presuming that he’s been there a while, being a consultant and all. If the problem was that, for all those years of failure, students were coming out of the feeding elementary schools, why didn’t he and his colleagues go over to those schools, or call a meeting with the teachers there, and set up some curricular expectations? But, no, if my guessing is correct, Mr. Lavey’s approach had to do with bellyaching in the teacher’s lounge and well-chosen snidities at workshops.

Frankly, if, as he admits, his previous curricular efforts did his students no good—or the wrong good as evidenced by the test scores he cites—he deserved to lose control of his curriculum.

You have a fine publication working towards worthy ends. I’ve found quite a bit of useful thinking going on in your pages. Thank you for hearing me out.

Stan Raines

Brownsville, Texas


Kevin Lavey responds:

Mr. Raines and I appear to be philosophically opposed on matters of education. If I’m reading his response correctly, he feels that schools and teachers have an obligation to impose a set of skills and standards onto kids using a prescribed curriculum, while I feel that schools should cultivate a process of discovery that begins with students and the community.

I’ve seen kids come into middle school year after year with tremendous energy and intelligence that we, as a school, do not celebrate and encourage. Almost half of the kids who enter Baltimore City high schools don’t graduate. We have to examine why that is. Mr. Raines points to failures of teachers as the source of the students’ abysmal performance. I contend that the problem is broader than that. I think it’s the responsibility of the community, which includes policymakers, school administrators, teachers, parents, students, and everyone else with a vested interest in education to figure out what makes for a meaningful education.

Students’ inability to succeed in school is not a matter of teachers not doing their jobs. The pressure from above to raise test scores through an imposed curriculum is a powerful means of stealing authority from teachers and students alike. It diminishes creativity and inspires conformity. We teachers can work hard to engage our students within the parameters set down for us, but when a pedagogy rigidly values statistics above students, we should challenge it.

My debate with Mr. Raines recalls John Dewey. Those who would promote learning by doing and those who support top-down instruction have long been at odds. I don’t have the answers to the problems of education all worked out by any means. But in thinking about my own traditional Catholic education, I recognize that what went on in school was part of a collective value system that had its wellsprings in my folks’ religion and their community. The standards that were valued came out of an agreement, a contract so to speak, between the school and the community.

It seems to me that we have lost a vital link between the relevancy of the kids’ lives and what happens in schools. I’d like to see that relationship cultivated. I want to see our kids excel in school, and I think they can do that when they find meaning there.

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