Letters to the Editor
As I read Iris C. Rotberg's description of the elitist educational system in China ("Elitism in Tiananmen Square," Commentary, Nov. 15, 1989), I felt a twinge of recognition.
As it does in China, tracking continues to be a characteristic of school organization in the United States.
A recent study indicated that, at some point, virtually all students are grouped by ability or tracked.
The result of such an approach is that blacks, native Americans, and Hispanics are overrepresented in remedial English and mathematics classes, and that Hispanics and blacks are underrepresented in academic tracks.
The Chinese key school has its counterpart not only in such specialized schools as Boston Latin and New York City's Stuyvesant, but also in wealthy suburban schools, in which children of the advantaged learn in classes one-half the size of inner-city classes and in which equipment, teacher expectations, and family support combine to prepare children for elite higher education.
Virtually all the students attending these "key schools" go to college, in stark contrast to those from schools in low socioeconomic areas.
Like their counterparts in China, the children in these schools receive the highest concentration of resources. They are taught by highly qualified personnel; in most cases, they go to schools surrounded by grass rather than concrete; books and computers are available in abundance; university entrance is facilitated by extra coaching if needed.
Chinese education may be exceptionally elitist. Our American schools are not without disturbing similarities.
Sidney Trubowitz Executive Director Westchester School Partnership State University of New York at Purchase Purchase, N.Y.
William Lutz puts himself among a small but valuable group of social observers who are alerting us to the abuse of language ("'Doublespeak' in Education," Commentary, Nov. 29, 1989).
We need people who will smack us in the face with our shortcomings in this area.
The next step is some good analysis of why so many people prefer abstract, dense, and sometimes misleading language to plain, simple English--and of what can be done about this phenomenon.
The problem starts in elementary school, where pupils learn to impress teachers with big, high-sounding words and phrases.
And it never gets better; in fact, it seems to worsen with educational level.
We need to stress prudence in the use of words as we encourage growth in vocabulary. We don't fault Charles Dickens for writing that one of his characters had "Bacchanalian propensities" instead of simply calling that character a drunkard because the author used that phrasing for a particular effect.
Education makes us comfortable with abstractions. That's good, but it can be dangerous, too.
Many of Mr. Lutz's examples result from a false abstraction--drawing the reader or listener away from the real world by creating an extra verbal layer. This forces people to act like archeologists and dig through debris to find what is hidden.
What counts most is that we strike at the mentality producing the inappropriate use of language and look for ways to counteract it.
We might begin by criticizing our own use of language as well as others'.
Eric P. Retzlaff Director of Press Relations Union College Schenectady, N.Y.
If, as you report, mixed-age classrooms are "gaining favor" ("First Stirrings of a New Trend: Multi-Age Classrooms Gain Favor," Dec. 6, 1989), elementary education is in for another rough decade.
Seventeen years ago, I taught for three years in a nongraded primary setting. Since that time, as both a public- and private-school administrator and teacher, I have wrestled with the pros and cons of mixed-age classrooms.
For most teachers, myself included, working with a three-year chronological span has proven unwieldy and unproductive.
Too many children fall between the cracks. Developmental differences in such groups will normally span four to five years, as will academic ranges.
Expanding these groups to four years, as is being advocated in California and elsewhere, will create classrooms with developmental ranges of six to eight years and even greater academic spans.
Most teachers today are hard pressed to reach the increasing needs of individual pupils within even a single grade range.
There is nowhere near enough child-development training in teacher-preparation programs at the undergraduate or graduate level, and inservice training to prepare for mixed-age groupings is almost nonexistent.
A few "model" programs, staffed by master teachers, may be able to carry off successful mixed-age groupings with wide age spans, but the potential danger is that these intensive efforts will create a "trend" that schools nationwide will attempt to follow without careful planning and phased training.
This, of course, is the lesson we should have learned from the 1960's and early 70's.
One major benefit from the examination of mixed-age groupings could come if schools would adopt a policy of requiring all teachers to work two years with the same group of children.
Such a plan, whether implemented through a two-year grouping or by moving teachers from grade to grade with a class, would do more to reform American education than any other single action.
When teachers truly know their children and children know that they are known, meaningful, individualized instruction becomes a reality.
Let's make it possible for children to progress at their own rates, but within groupings that most teachers can realistically handle.
Robert Wood Director Greenfield Center School Northeast Foundation for Children Greenfield, Mass.
I read with some amusement Gail Weldon's essay ("Children Need 'Fitness Education,"' Commentary, Dec. 6, 1989) about the fitness of children--or in this case, the lack thereof.
I heard the same lamentation about my generation when I was in the public-school systems of the 1950's and 60's.
We were described as the fattest, slowest, weakest, most out-of-shape generation this country had ever spawned.
A quarter of a century later, it is my generation that makes up the majority of runners, walkers, and serious bicyclists. And most of us who exercise, for whatever reasons, do not hold dear the memories of physical-education classes full of push-ups, sit-ups, pull-ups, and isometric exercises.
"Experts" such as Ms. Weldon have forgotten the basic tenet that children--of all ages--need to play.
So forget your rice bags forweight training; what good is weight training for pre- and early adolescents, anyway? Just let the teacher choose sides, roll out the balls, and let the kids play.
Five minutes of instruction followed by 30 minutes of hard play, three times a week or more, will do more to improve the cardiovascular condition of children than an endless, tedious series of "body-building'' exercises as prescribed by Ms. Weldon.
After a visit to my daughter's physical-education class, I can say that those teachers still have not learned the lesson that was so obvious to my contemporaries and me 25 years ago: Children will continue to do what is enjoyable and avoid what is boring and insufferable.
Robert P. Jordan Iowa City, Iowa
Arthur E. Wise is on to something ("Calling for 'National Institutes of Education,"' Commentary, Oct. 18, 1989).
Just imagine a comprehensive, systematic way of providing education through a productive function, with "national institutes" focusing on research based in field studies and feeding that research into training programs at universities to inform practitioners.
Practitioners would do the in vivo testing of new models of teaching and learning, casting off approaches that did not work and reforming their strategies by documenting what worked best for a particular group of students.
It's probably too rational, too systematic, and too functionally productive to negate the post-Reagan cynicism about whether the federal government should be involved at all in public education.
The feds certainly pontificate about what they would like to see, but until many more federal dollars are infused in the way Mr. Wise suggests, the words from the White House mirror vain efforts at a political sleight of hand.
Thomas P. Johnson Associate Superintendent School Board of Broward County Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
The problems related in your article, "Private Placement of Spec.-Ed. Students Straps Districts" (Nov. 22, 1989), were visible in the early 1960's to the late Bergen County (N.J.) Superintendent of Schools, Archie Hay.
Initially, he encouraged the 70 districts in his county to organize into 7 regions to offer the required services for their special-needs students.
Each district provided one or more classes to which others in the region could also send students.
Costs and visibility of pupil progress were and still are shared.
These programs greatly reduce the need for private placements, even though some parents, through Individualized Education Programs, demand them.
Even more effective against the high cost of private placements for the handicapped was the creation of County Special Services School Districts in New Jersey.
This legislation, passed in 1971, allows public-school districts to be established by counties to provide all the services available in private facilities, including residences.
Today, 6 of the state's 21 counties have such districts.
Having been a leader in this effort, I can point to the successes of those who were transferred from private placements and could now reside at home. More important, graduates who had severe handicaps have attained the highest level of skill possible for them.
Such results demonstrate that public education can provide for the special needs of the disabled.
Norman A. Bleshman Boynton Beach, Fla.
I was pleased when I came to the section referring to our district in your article on distance learning ("Schools' Interest in Learning by Satellite Surges," Nov. 29, 1989).
Having been responsible for conceiving the educational specifications for our magnet foreign-language schools' use of satellite dishes, I was a bit perplexed by Carter D. Ward's statement about "cultural induction."
I would like to clarify what we do with our program capabilities.
Nine schools are equipped with the dishes and utilize programming in four languages--French, German, Spanish, and English.
Our foreign-language program offers immersion education as well as the more traditional forms of instruction to over 2,200 urban youngsters.
Students have access to programs in classroom and after-class settings. They see Canadian programs and benefit from the cultural apercus transmitted by broadcasts.
Immersion education is content-based instruction. Not only is the language a "byproduct" of the instruction, but the program itself--newscast, cartoon, or children's show--is a valuable expansion of the student's linguistic and listening-comprehension skills.
We have, as a result, students who know about the Berlin Wall because their geography lesson, in German, focused on the events of these historical days as surely as the lens locked on the people celebrating atop the wall.
A final thought about the use of satellites from an urban as well as a disciplinary perspective: Content-based, interpersonal subjects such as immersion language programs should not be considered activities that can be successfully transmitted through distance-learning media--both because of "people" reasons and because of the impossibility of hav0ling students remain "passively active" for the number of hours of daily instruction that are required.
We are grateful for having the opportunity to connect languages with the visuals that successful productions provide. They do more than "induction."
Paul A. Garcia Curriculum Coordinator Foreign Languages Kansas City, Mo.
Your article on the fast-growing trend of distance learning gave readers a taste of the future.
Western Illinois University's involvement with the ti-in United Star Network and the federal Star Schools funding program has been aided dramatically by the cooperation and enthusiasm we have seen in the Illinois school systems.
The Illinois State Board of Education has worked hard to handle the issues relative to teacher certification as we move ahead on distance learning.
The state's General Assembly approved funding for the university to provide programs geared to Illinois schools and to help defray the cost of a permanent satellite uplink located on the campus.
The federal grant program enabled the university and the state board to provide 77 downlink equipment sites. Nine other districts have purchased their own satellite receivers.
We have seen cooperation from rural electric cooperatives, local businesses, and civic groups to help schools purchase this type of equipment.
We are encouraged by the possibilities for the future.
David R. Taylor Dean, College of Education Western Illinois University Macomb, Ill.