"Should a school's announcements be used to ask kids to attend an antiwar rally?" a parent asked.
The announcement in question was made at Thomas S. Wootton High School a couple of weeks ago, and similar announcements were made in other county high schools as well: "Attention all students: Take action against the war in Iraq. Come to the countywide rally today at Four Corners, outside Blair High School, from 4 to 6 p.m."
The parent, who asked that I not use his name, went on to comment, "That seems a rather overt political action, as opposed to announcing a debate where both sides will be presented. This implies the school system has taken a position."
Not really. High schools have two kinds of announcements -- official school announcements, such as information about registration, sports events and so forth -- and student announcements. Any student group may ask that an announcement be read over the public address system, so long as it isn't obscene or an incitement to break a law or a school rule.
In this particular case, the announcement did not imply that the school or the school system has taken a position on the war, only that a group of students was inviting fellow students to a legal, political rally.
The exact issue of using the student announcement system to disseminate news of a political activity does not seem to have been ruled on by the Supreme Court, but that body has weighed in several times on the issue of students' free-speech rights. The most famous is from a 1969 case, Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, in which Justice Abe Fortas wrote for the majority, "It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate."
The case was one in which Des Moines school officials prohibited black armbands two days before they knew a small group of students would begin wearing them to protest the war in Vietnam. When they suspended students for wearing armbands, the students' parents took the school system to court and won.
The Supreme Court made clear, in Tinker and subsequent cases, that school officials have the right and obligation to maintain order and not permit disruptions. "This case does not concern speech or action that intrudes upon the work of the schools or the rights of other students," the decision said.
But, it went on, "In order for the state, in the person of school officials, to justify prohibition of a particular expression of opinion, it must be able to show that its action was caused by something more than a mere desire to avoid the discomfort and unpleasantness that always accompany an unpopular viewpoint."
In other words, welcome to democracy. I, for one, am happy to see high school students grappling with the large issues of the day. Too often they seem isolated in their own personal realities to react to what is going on around them.
Here's another, related, issue: What do you think when a teacher feels strongly about the war and discusses those views during class time?
(By the way, two good Web resources for Supreme Court cases are www.landmarkcases.org, by Street Law and the Supreme Court Historical Society, and one run by the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law on students' free-speech rights specifically, at www.law.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/conlaw/studentspeech.htm.)
Our third-grade daughter attends an elementary school in Montgomery County and, despite the challenges of overcrowding, we consider her teachers, principal and school staff to be outstanding.
However, there is one concern we have and I wonder if it is shared by other parents. While I have watched struggles over curriculum, testing, and class size, one basic part of the educational process seems to have been overlooked -- the amount of time teachers are in their classrooms.
Has the immeasurable value of the teacher-student relationship been lost as we have struggled through so many other issues?
Obviously, teachers want to be in their classrooms teaching as much as possible and loathe the interruption an absence may cause. But in the past two years, our daughter has spent dozens of days with substitute teachers. These substitutes are very competent, but they do not have the equivalent education, curriculum knowledge or understanding of each student's unique needs.
Perhaps, throughout the district, a culture has developed in which the teacher- student relationship has been devalued as we have been preoccupied with other priorities.
Coming from a family with generations of teachers, the last thing I want to do is limit any educator's freedom or imply that they are not committed. On the contrary, I hope our administrators will ensure that teachers are allowed to be with their classes every day possible, because there is no better conduit for learning than the special relationship that develops over time between a teacher and his or her students.
For years Montgomery County public schools trained teachers the same way most other school districts trained teachers. They would pull them out of the classroom and send them to the central office or a regional office to hear a highly paid consultant yap at them about some new fad that they were instructed to incorporate into their classrooms. Teachers would often be subjected to some distortion of John Dewey's ideas about curriculum or Howard Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences, or they would be told to stop being the "sage on the stage" in favor of being the "guide on the side," or whatever else caught the fancy of principals or central office staff.
On the occasions that teachers did hear something that they thought was useful and appropriate to their classroom, they would go back and try whatever they had heard about, often encountering unanticipated obstacles. Had teachers been able then to consult those who had provided the useful suggestions, the teachers might have been able to figure out how to overcome the obstacles and improve their practices. But by that point the consultants were long gone and the training ended up having wasted time.
Everyone who is serious about wanting to improve education recognizes that the old training model was worthless -- actually worse than that, because it disrupted student learning with no counterbalancing benefit.
That's not supposed to be happening anymore. Montgomery County has committed itself to "job embedded" professional development, which means teachers are supposed to get very specific help to improve their teaching in ways that don't disrupt their classrooms. For example, a teacher who is having trouble getting her kids to understand fractions might have a master teacher observe her classroom, make suggestions, teach a model lesson and be available for future consultations. That's the way it's supposed to work, anyway. When teachers do need to go for training outside their building, it is not supposed to take place during the school day.
When I read your letter to Mark Simon, president of the Montgomery County Education Association (the teachers union), he said, "There's been an explicit goal between MCEA and MCPS to shift training from pullout training to summer, evenings and so forth." In other words, teachers aren't supposed to be out of their classrooms for training.
But, he said, they may be meeting during the school day with their fellow teachers to improve instruction. To fill in for teachers during those meetings, Simon said, "there are school-level substitutes who provide much more continuity of instruction than day substitutes would. They are integrated into instruction."
School-level substitutes, unlike traditional ones, work consistently at one or two schools and become part of the staff.
You may want to ask your child's teacher why your child has had so many substitutes and what training they have had to make sure instruction continues even when the teacher is out of the room. You might like the answer more than you thought you would. And if you don't, you might want to have a conversation with the principal. Ask how the heavy use of substitutes fits in with the school's improvement plan and what monitoring is being done to make sure the children are not harmed by disruptions.
Homeroom appears every week in Montgomery Extra. Send questions, opinions and issues that you would like to see discussed to Homeroom, The Washington Post, 51 Monroe St., Suite 500, Rockville, Md. 20850. The fax number is 301-279-5665. Or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. To see previous columns, go to www.washingtonpost.com, click on the Education page and look for Homeroom under Education Columnists.