Letters To the Editor:
Joanne Yatvin's letter ("Reading Conflict Suggests Plot for 'Terrific Thriller,"' Nov. 11, 1987) ridiculing Patrick Groff's Commentary as only a plot for a movie failed to answer a single point made by Mr. Groff.
I can guess that Ms. Yatvin's vitriolic attack was triggered by Mr. Groff's statements that "teacher-education courses are deemed by any standard of excellence to be dismal failures," and that the "only effective way to improve the quality of reading-teacher education ... is to allow private-sector organizations to compete. ..."
Honest competition would sink the ship of miseducation at teachers' colleges. Gracious, Ms. Yatvin, have you not looked at the bottom line in the past 40 years? It shows dismal, failing results on all fronts of public education.
During the past 10 years, hundreds of teachers have written to tell me how they followed a transferred husband to a new town where reading was taught by the old-fashioned phonics-first-last-and-always method. They were crushed with shame for having once taught with the methods used in most public schools, but they rejoiced in the exhilarating victories of teaching all of their new students to read in a few months with phonics-first.
At least 85 percent of our present-day reading teachers do not know how to teach reading, and worse, they do not know that they do not know.
Will Capehart Brown Editor The Little Red Schoolhouse Federal Way, Wash.
A hearty note of congratulations to the National Council of Teachers of English for its thoughtful and courageous stand in the draft "report card on basal readers" ("Critique Terms Basal Readers Outmoded, Urges Spread of 'Real Book' Alternatives," Dec. 2, 1987).
At the same time, let's give a warm and well-deserved raspberry to the publishers of basal readers who, in their predictable and self-serving protective reaction, decried the council's findings. With more than 90 percent of our schools tied in to reading programs, the publishers are more than simply "entrenched," as the article stated; they have a fiscal stranglehold on the professional educators they purport to serve. Since such programs cost up to $35 per year per child to install and maintain, the thought that the ncte may be right must cause shudders to run through corporate offices.
Dick and Jane may have retired, but their progeny abound. The stultifying controlled vocabularies, limited sentence and paragraph length, and vacuous stories in most basal readers have probably done more to hinder literacy than all other causes combined. The failed pedagogy of whole-word or look-say reading denies the logical phonetic structure of language and its alphabetic representation in print.
Yet, the basals persist with misbegotten notions, glitzy artwork, endless workbooks, and a hard sell to school administrators.
The ncte's position should stand as a beacon to reason, a guidepost to the empowerment of teachers, and a paean to the intellect of our nation's classroom leaders.
Charles J. Micciche Superintendent Seekonk Public Schools Seekonk, Mass.
The Commentary by William C. Norris, founder of Control Data Corporation, is one more tiresome paean to the alleged bounty of computer-based education ("Computer-Based Education: A 'Key' to Reform," Nov. 18, 1987).
Mr. Norris calls for cbe as the principal mode of instruction in our schools, from the primary grades through the undergraduate level: "At hand is the technology to provide lower-cost, more accessible, and higher-quality education and training." The truth, however, is that computer-based solutions to education and training needs have been promoted since the early 1960's and have repeatedly failed to fulfill their promise, despite considerable expense and experiment.
The latest reviews of research on the effectiveness of computer-based instruction reveal a stunning lack of evidence for Mr. Norris's claims; the decidedly ambiguous results reflect the difficulties involved in proving the relative effectiveness of one instructional medium over another.
There really is no proven technology "waiting in the wings," as Mr. Norris and his fellow technologists of education would have us believe, nor is there any reason to expect one to arrive just around the corner. Yet the seductive "promise" of cbe saves its promoters, decade after decade, from having to concede the meagerness of their contribution. And so the myth of computer-based panaceas in education continues to survive.
In fact, the "innovative" cbe of the 1980's is for the most part nothing but old, tainted wine offered up in shiny new bottles (by many of the original vintners), saved from deserved oblivion by the fortuitous advent of the microcomputer, by recent public relations in artificial intelligence, and by a corporate campaign for economic competitiveness through high technology. Those few computer-based approaches that are new in the 1980's, such as the much-heralded "intelligent tutoring systems," are stuck, some would argue permanently, in the earliest phases of research.
Perhaps because he realizes that there is no clear evidence for the effectiveness of cbe, Mr. Norris's only argument for its efficacy is his reference to the "explosion in the rate of its implementation by industry." Industrywide enthusiasm for cbe, however, would hardly be a valid indicator of its effectiveness; the corporate-training establishment is even more susceptible to unwarranted technological solutions than are the schools.
But in fact no such explosion is taking place in industry, according to Training magazine's most recent survey of corporate computer-based training, reported in October 1987. Although the percentage of companies using some form of computer-based training is higher than in earlier surveys, the total amount of training being done with computers is still "small," say the authors of the survey.
Mr. Norris's reference to the supposed requirements of international economic competition, which call for a "transformation" of our society into one that "more efficiently expands the creation and transfer of knowledge," is merely a rhetorical smokescreen for a self-serving agenda.
So, too, are his references to higher teacher salaries, which are an attempt to capitalize on the current enthusiasm for reforms of the teaching profession. It is ridiculous to suggest, as Mr. Norris does, that "money saved from improved efficiency could be used to raise teachers' salaries." There are no instances in which workers' salaries have been increased as a result of the efficiencies of new technologies; rather, some of their jobs are eliminated and others deskilled.
Teachers stand to lose far more than they gain from an ill-advised embrace of questionable technologies that are expected to serve as the trappings of professionalism.
Your readers do not deserve to be burdened by the tired and fraudulent refrains of a still-primitive educational technology masquerading as a sophisticated answer to the problems of American education or the American economy.
Douglas D. Noble University of Rochester State University of New York, Brockport Rochester, N.Y.
William C. Norris's vision of the value of computer-based education presents educators with a potent challenge.
Mr. Norris's zeal for a technological fix for the problems of schools is understandable from a man whose company has done as much as any organization to promote the use of cbe It's been estimated that Control Data Corporation has spent about $1 billion in this area since it started developing its plato system.
Mr. Norris's vision remains far from reality, however, because it overlooks the complex nature of education, both as a social institution and as a human growth process.
In fact, the educational characteristics of computers do not necessarily mesh with modern educational institutions and the societal purposes they serve.
What are the educational structures with which cbe must be reconciled? The most important is labeled by Mr. Norris as "inefficient methods of instruction." By this he means group instruction. Advocates of cbe often characterize group instruction in a pejorative way because computers cannot instruct groups as humans can: Computer-based education must be individualized instruction.
But Mr. Norris dismisses group instruction too easily. In the first place, the fundamental technology of school is the classroom. Not only an old and simple technology, it has been a generally successful one.
How much group-based education can--or should--be turned over to computers?
Suppose that we could neatly distill education into the categories of cognitive, affective, and psychomotor learning. Surely we would reserve the affective and psychomotor domains to ourselves, leaving the cognitive, or a part of it, to the computer. But what part? How much of the social component of learning can be extracted from the cognitive domain? How true is it, as Erasmus said, that "a boy is often drawn to a subject first for his master's sake, and afterwards for its own"?
Much of a student's school time, too, is spent not simply on the mastery of academic subjects but on the development of social skills. The human interactions that occur in group settings make it possible for students not only to learn mathematics and grammar, but also to fit in, to be a part of a group.
A less visible element of traditional schooling that advocates of cbe must address concerns the teacher's role as a certifier of learning. Teachers witness the extent to which learning occurs, and testify to what they have seen by issuing grades and other recommendations. How confident can we be that machines will reliably witness and testify?
Mr. Norris says that "the expansion of cbe does not imply a diminished role for the teacher." Yet how can it not? Most school districts typically spend 80 to 85 percent of their monies for salaries, with the remaining 15 to 20 percent mostly going toward maintenance and supplies. Little is left to spend on new technology. Small wonder that so much of the present computer equipment in schools has been purchased with state or federal categorical funds or private grants. If these nonlocal funding sources hold the line or begin to decline, the only way to find money for computers will be to reduce staff size and promise gains in productivity.
Indeed, proponents of cbe must answer the concerns of educators about job security. Computer companies and computer educators may gain from the spread of technology, but other educators will find it justifiably threatening. The only way (other than raising taxes) to make more public funds available for computer education is to do the same work we do now with fewer people.
As long as visions of cbe's benefits fail to recognize the nature of educational processes and the social realities of educational institutions, computer education will remain at sea.
Barry McGhan Instructional Computer Specialist Flint Community Schools Flint, Mich.
William C. Norris's discussion of computer-based education was as clear and succinct a presentation of that subject as I have seen. I think he is incorrect, however, on a single major point: his suggestion that the use of computers in educational administration will "drastically chop administrative costs." Administrators shouldn't take much hope from his words.
Computers have been applied widely in business for many years now; careful observers have realized that computerization almost never cuts costs as much as it increases productivity. Computerizing grade reporting, attendance, and scheduling may well cut overtime--though teachers aren't paid overtime for the frantic weekend they periodically spend calculating their grades--but it will not save much money, if any, in the long run.
Rather, it will free teachers to be teachers rather than bookkeepers, and it will free office staff to attend to the thousand other things from which routine paperwork kept them before.
The integration of this technology into education is one of the most exciting opportunities we have. But one of the things that makes it challenging is the fact that it costs money without really saving any. Educators public and private will need to face these facts from the beginning, unless they want the task of explaining to their boards why the promised savings never materialized.
Dan Olinger Project Director, Microcomputer Services Bob Jones University Press Greenville, S.C.
Jerrold L. Snyder's letter objecting to your publication of William C. Norris's Commentary ("'Interest' of Control Data in Education Scrutinized," Dec. 9, 1987) unwittingly illustrates the limitations inherent in the old-fashioned idea of strict separation between the goals of industry and those of education.
The most telling phrase in Mr. Snyder's letter likens corporate participation with education to inviting wolves into the henhouse. While this image may indeed represent the way many educators have looked at corporate involvement in education, this interpretation disempowers all concerned.
Today, many companies are realizing that a new spirit of cooperation between industry and education is required if we are to address some of the ills so often delineated on the pages of your publication. While those of us in business cannot belie our intention to keep our enterprises afloat, and, yes, to turn a profit, we also understand that we must offer products and services that enhance a school's ability to deliver on its promise to the community.
Why continue to view educators as helpless egg-layers and business people as bare-toothed canines? After all, we in industry have children, read the journals, and spend time in school. Don't we have the right to take a personal interest in the educational system--not to impose our will, but to create useful partnerships?
Mr. Snyder accuses Mr. Norris's former company, Control Data, of attempting to profit from solving the problems of education. But if corporate involvement with educators should result in true solutions, what's the problem? What if the wolf and hen turn out to be siblings of the same species--siblings upon whom the viability of the entire barnyard may utterly depend?
Pierrette Montroy Manager, Educational Communications Autodesk Inc. Sausalito, Calif.
Your report suggesting that I "countered" U.S. Secretary of Education William J. Bennett at a recent conference on acquired immune deficiency syndrome ("Bennett Defends His Stance on aids," Nov. 25, 1987) totally misinterpreted what I said.
In the conference you reported on, Secretary Bennett emphasized the importance of sexual abstinence and rejection of the lethal myth that teen-agers should rely on condoms as a means of ensuring "safe sex."
Far from "countering" Secretary Bennett, I concurred with his statements that various groups with differing politics were coming closer and closer together. Shortly afterward, when I addressed the conference, I made points similar to his from my perspective as a physician of sexual medicine and a specialist in behavior change.
According to your account, after Mr. Bennett stated in his speech that support for widespread testing and education with an emphasis on abstinence is growing, I "countered" with the argument that the Secretary's approach was "too narrow." Nothing could be further from the truth. I argued as Mr. Bennett did that reliance on the condom is a form of self-delusion and that this method should be used only as a last resort--only after educators and health-care workers have first made every effort to encourage abstinence.
You also implied that I was picking an argument with Secretary Bennett when I said that using condoms and having fewer partners reduces the risk; but you overlooked all the reasons I gave for insisting these methods are unacceptably risky and that sensible people should avoid them in the first place. Since that is exactly what Secretary Bennett had just said, it is baffling that anyone could interpret it to "counter" his speech, when it so obviously underscored it.
The major purpose of my talk was to point out how the divergent sides have come closer and closer to common ground.
Against the common enemy of aids we all need to join together instead of dissipating our energies fighting against each other. It is unfortunate that your publication would create the impression of a conflict between allies when none exists.
Theresa L. Crenshaw, M.D. San Diego, Calif.