Letters to the Editor
Your article on the U.S. Education Department's school-recognition program ("Low-Profile Reviews Can Lead to High Honors for Schools,'' May 20, 1987), struck a nerve, since the application of our high school was rejected at the national level.
Our concern is based on two points. The first is the decision of someone to place public and private schools in the same competition, although in Ohio, for example, the state's minimum academic standards are different for public and private schools.
Secondly, we were able to obtain copies of the applications of some of the finalists, and were appalled at the comparison of those applications with our own, which we felt was vastly superior.
Just as the article indicated, there are a lot of us out in the field who are wondering just what criteria are being used to select the finalists.
My letters to Secretary of Education William J. Bennett and other officials in the department have gone unanswered.
And even though my phone calls resulted in promises of explanation in the next week or so, four months have now passed and no answer has been given.
Until specific criteria are determined, fewer and fewer schools will submit the time-consuming applications.
Walter R. Sheffield
Fairview High School
Fairview Park, Ohio
Susan Ohanian, a bright and dedicated teacher and most engaging writer, stumbles badly in her angry attack on E.D. Hirsch Jr.'s work on cultural literacy ("Finding a 'Loony List' While Searching for Literacy,'' Talking Back, May 6, 1987).
Granted, Ms. Ohanian often hits the target with her amusing cracks about items on Mr. Hirsch's list; but why does she omit to mention that Mr. Hirsch himself has called the list "provisional'' and has invited his readers to challenge and refine it? That the draft list can be picked apart and improved upon (as Mr. Hirsch has fully acknowledged) in no way discredits the effort to codify America's cultural vocabulary as an important aid to raising standards of literacy.
I hope Mr. Hirsch will take to heart many of Ms. Ohanian's quarrels with individual list items; but I also hope your readers will not be misled by her tendency to misrepresent his overall enterprise.
For the most part, Ms. Ohanian simply mocks the list, chortling over such items as "Hiawatha'' and the Marianas Trench, but between laughs she occasionally catches her breath to imply some serious general charges. Had she spent more time with the main body of the book before skipping to the appendix, she would have found that most of these charges are anticipated and disposed of in the opening chapters.
Anyone who has read those chapters carefully knows that Mr. Hirsch doesn't think that the list contains everything that's worth knowing; nor does he contend that a shallow, name-dropping knowledge is a proper substitute for the real thing. He doesn't seek to immortalize our forebears' mental baggage in a list that is fixed for all time, and he doesn't recommend teaching the same, inflexible literacy curriculum in every school across the nation.
Moreover, he conclusively disposes of the silly canard that imparting cultural literacy to all will perpetuate a dominant white, male power structure. (I presume this is what Ms. Ohanian meant by her remark about "an underlying political agenda nobody talks about.'' Since she doesn't talk about it either, we can only guess what dark purpose she thinks she's uncovered here).
Undertaken in the right spirit, a critique of Mr. Hirsch's list is exactly what's needed to ensure that his promising idea achieves a worthy fulfillment; but the critic has an obligation to understand the entire book and to reflect its purposes fully and honestly.
The Forum statement "Rights Without Labels'' (May 27, 1987), by the National Coalition of Advocates for Students, the National Association of School Psychologists, and the National Association of Social Workers Inc. is an excellent document on child advocacy and special education. Nevertheless, two related points require comment.
First, too many children, usually labeled "learning-disabled,'' are placed in special-education settings, when instead they should receive remedial instruction within a regular education program. Thus, for such students, the type of special-education program into which they are placed is not the main problem. It is the stigma of "special'' education itself.
Second, since the special-education population has been massively expanded by the inclusion of the alleged mildly handicapped, attention and funds have been diverted from moderately and severely handicapped youngsters, resulting in their receiving a much less than ideal education.
When these main policy problems are rectified, the other concerns addressed in the "Rights Without Labels'' manifesto will be much less problematic.
Scott B. Sigmon
Psychoeducational Research Organization
Advocacy Consultation Therapy