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September 1, 1996
Vol. 54
No. 1


Shocked Over Treatment of Tribes

I am shocked that Ron Brandt's Overview and Jan Vondra's "Resolving Conflicts Over Values" (April 1996) recommend the use of the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center guidelines not only as an effective way to resolve fundamentalist criticism over educational methodology and programs but as a way "to treat all parties fairly."
The recommended process is not only grossly unfair, unethical, and threatening to public education, but the article also conveyed that copyright infringement is OK; that citing ill-founded statements against a respected, researched program is acceptable; and that excluding knowledgeable people is fine in order to reach "common ground."
I am the developer and author of the cooperative learning program, Tribes Learning Community (TLCTM). But I and thousands of educators who use Tribes were never invited to supply information about Tribes.
Remarkably, the Vondra article detailed how my copyrighted book Tribes, A Process for Social Development and Cooperative Learning (Santa Rosa, Calif.: CenterSource Publications, 1987) was edited and rewritten. She writes that the group eliminated the philosophy sections, "which present the author's view"—meaning one-half of the 240-page book, all of the educational concepts, references, and methodology. They also eliminated some activities, left some intact, and revised others, she writes. Next, they sought approval for this from the faculty, the PTA, and district administration. Finally, she reports that the program continues to operate under a new approved name: The 3 Rs—Respect, Responsibility, and Roadrunner Pride.
Their avowed commitment "to treat all parties fairly" failed. I resent that Educational Leadership permitted our program to be named and publicly ripped apart without informing us prior to publication. At a time when we all are working to create the best educational practices, justifying copyright infringement by "roadrunners" in the name of compromise is simply irresponsible and unethical.
—Jeanne Gibbs, CenterSource Systems, Sausalito, California

Tribes Creates Learning Communities

In "Resolving Conflicts Over Values," Jan Vondra recommends strategies that she believes schools should use in seeking compromise between parental values and school programs. Her process of communication makes sense, but it is unfortunate that she used an out-of-date edition of Tribes (1987). The 1995 program has been successfully implemented in hundreds of schools, including my own.
Five years ago, I became principal of an elementary school. The first day I received 28 complaints from parents about various matters. Some even threatened that if the school bus driver didn't slow down, they would "get a gun and blast out the tires of the bus." Teachers walked out of faculty meetings. And children were so distraught and angry that I told the superintendent that I was not sure I could stay at this school.
I did stay and our school has changed its entire culture. Student behavior has improved dramatically. Discipline referrals dropped by 84 percent in one year. Sixteen staff committees now operate independently, all with a different focus, all for the benefit of children.
To what do we attribute our success? To Tribes (1995). Our entire staff committed to Tribes training, where we learned how to provide a learning environment dedicated to caring, support, and the active participation of students and staff. Initially, we agreed on such behaviors as attentive listening, appreciations (no put downs), the right to pass (not participate) in sharing time, and mutual respect. Students and adults also agreed to participate in community circles in order to share ideas and solve problems.
From the beginning, we communicated the Tribes goals and processes to our parents. We have not received a single complaint. In fact, the PTA requested a workshop for parents.
I hope my letter gives you an understanding of the positive benefits and potential of Tribes. With the changes in families and society, support is something that children all over this country desperately need.
—Judith Fenton, Principal, South Whidbey Primary School, Langley, Washington

Jan Vondra Responds

I wrote my article not to criticize the Tribes program but to explain how our school district responded to community concerns about it. By including and working with the parents who had voiced the strongest objections to some parts of Tribes, we were able to implement a program that both our parents and teachers could support. The focus of the article was on the process of finding common ground in the midst of a controversial issue, with no intent to discredit a program that I know is successfully used in many parts of the country.
For the record, in 1993, the elementary school's Site Council purchased 35 copies of Tribes and paid for training 30 staff members. When parents questioned some of the activities, a committee of parents and teachers agreed to revise some of the exercises and eliminate others. The committee produced new handbooks for the 30 staff members.
—Jan Vondra, Assistant Superintendent, Snowline Joint Unified School District, Phelan, California

Editor's Note

Educational Leadership has received more than a dozen letters and phone calls from Tribes publishers and trainers, protesting the publication of "Resolving Conflicts Over Values." Educational Leadership believes it acted appropriately in publishing the article. Our purpose is to be a forum for civil and rational discourse about practices in schools. As a journal of record, we use names of schools and programs. Publication of articles does not imply endorsement of practices or programs used in schools featured in the magazine.
We invite responses concerning all articles and, with permission of the writer, will publish condensed letters to the editor.

Train Teachers to Provide Feedback

Your issue on Improving Professional Performance (March 1996) provided food for thought. But I am surprised that Bruce Joyce and Beverly Showers ("The Evolution of Peer Coaching") have omitted feedback from their staff development training model.
They note that "collaborative activity tends to disappear when peers offer feedback." Although I greatly admire the authors' work, I believe that they have dropped an element of their model simply because it was poorly implemented by educators. When trained in data collection, data analysis, and feedback techniques, teachers do collaborate over the improvement of practice. And after mastering skills needed, my students express delight at receiving nonevaluative feedback on their classroom practice.
—Barbara Nelson Pavan, Temple University, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Why We Should Not Eliminate Feedback

Joyce and Showers' focus on providing permanent structures for teachers' continuing professional development is critical to the reform movement and to the teaching profession. "The Evolution of Peer Coaching," however, presents significant departures from their earlier work. Before eliminating feedback from peer coaching, they should examine the contexts and nature of the feedback that caused the breakdown of collegiality.
Many teachers desire feedback—especially, affirmation that they are doing things right or are on the right track. This may be a trait of early stages of collegial relations, but evaluations and administrator feedback do not fulfill this need. Certainly feedback is a complex stimulus for change, and has the potential for positive and negative effects. It cannot be cursorily used, but it can significantly influence performance.
—Marcy Yoshida, Seattle, Washington

Who's Neglecting the Standards?

At a recent strategic planning meeting, our superintendent handed out copies of Allan H. Bloom's "What Are You Teaching My Son?" (April 1996). What intrigued me was your question at the end of the article about whether schools neglect high standards in favor of social issues. Recently our school board met to deal with a proposed change in the high school dress code. Many more parents showed up to protest the elimination of the wearing of shorts than showed up later in the week for the formation of an academic booster club. So much for their children's education. It reminds me of what H.L. Mencken said, "It is a sin to believe evil of others, but it is seldom a mistake."
—Seth Benson, English Teacher, Jenkins County High School, Millen, Georgia

Why Did You Ask the Wrong Question?

I must object to your request published with Allan Bloom's article (April 1996). The question was "Do the schools you know neglect high standards because they are more concerned with social issues?"
Why is the question framed to invite readers to tattle on districts that emphasize social issues? Couldn't you have also asked: Do you know of districts that sacrifice social issues to high standards? Do you know of districts that sacrifice both social issues and high standards? I can think of examples of all three. What was the point? Is Allan Bloom the editor of EL now?
—Jo Sullivan, Principal, Salem, Massachusetts

More Thinking Needed

I take issue with Allan H. Bloom's contention that schools are sacrificing factual learning to higher-order thinking. Has Bloom examined the tests given or questions asked in most classrooms?. Unfortunately, from the earliest grades on, higher-order thinking is usually ignored or downplayed. If he wants a more rigorous education for his son, he should be calling for more, not less, higher-order thinking.
His claim that youngsters need to build a base of facts before they can engage in higher-order thinking runs counter to the realities of learning. As a Marine officer, Bloom probably had to solve many problems without knowing all the facts. While he searched for and analyzed those facts, he was simultaneously engaged in thinking. To assert that we need all the facts before we think means little serious thinking is ever likely to occur.
A second point: Facts change. As useful as a storehouse of factual learning is, being skilled at finding and processing those facts is more useful. In fact, research indicates that when classrooms give explicit attention to the thinking operations needed to learn subject matter, students achieve higher grades on the subject matter than those who don't receive such instruction.
Bloom claims he wants his son to form his own views uncolored by specific political and social perspectives. It is precisely proficiency in higher-order thinking—not masses of facts—that best equips youngsters to deal constructively with influences from peers, the media, their teachers, and their own experiences.
When combined with appropriate factual learning, instruction in higher-order thinking will benefit not only Bloom's son, but all children, Bloom himself, and all of us. We need a serious commitment to teaching thinking to accomplish this goal.
—Barry K. Beyer, Professor Emeritus, George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia

Involve Children as Partners, Too

We read your April 1996 issue (Working Constructively with Families) with great interest, particularly the articles about how to attract and involve parents as partners in their children's learning.
In 16 years of experience in New York City schools, we have found that if children participate in planning family/school activities that are focused on the curriculum, not only does their parents' willingness to attend school events increase but also the quality of the adult discussion and investment is higher. Routinely including children acquaints parents with the curriculum and learning processes. What we call our "collaborative family/school climate-building activities" are central to a meaningful relationship between teacher and parent.
—Fran Schwartz, Egda Del Valle Delaney, Ifaat Qureshi, Howard M. Weiss, The Center for Family/School Collaboration, Ackerman Institute for Family Therapy, New York, New York

This article was published anonymously, or the author name was removed in the process of digital storage.

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