Letters to the Editor
To the Editor:
Joe Schneider writes in his June 9, 1993, Commentary, "Can the Schoolhouse Handle Systemic Reform?'', that "before we legislate systemic reform, let's insure that children's opportunity to learn isn't determined by the physical condition of the schools they attend.'' This disciple of Jonathan Kozol honestly believes that a state-of-the-art building coupled with on-site education, health, and social services (his idea of a holistic education) is systemic reform.
I have served in schools that had two gymnasiums, an Olympic-sized swimming pool, auto shops, computers galore, wall-to-wall carpeting, air conditioning, and every innovation you could think of, yet whose student achievement was abysmal. There were high dropout rates, low attendance, large suspension lists, and low standardized-test scores. Just as clothes do not make the man, the state-of-the-art schoolhouse does not make the student.
There are many very old, clean, and modest Catholic, public, and private schools in the inner cities of this nation serving poor and disadvantaged children well. It is school organization, degree of responsiveness, professionalism, and commitment that make schools effective.
If we want real systemic reform, then let us finally adopt the concept of educational freedom. Let parents become owners of their schools and watch what happens. Parents will insure that what is needed is provided.
Clearly, unhealthy or run-down schools should not be tolerated, but let's not equate traditional reform with systemic reform. Building new facilities or introducing new curricula or portfolios is only adjusting the existing system. Giving parents the ability to send their children to any school would be a sea change in our educational system.
Ronald T. Bowes
Director of Educational Planning
Diocese of Pittsburgh
To the Editor:
Superintendent of Schools Robert R. Spillane of Fairfax County, Va., generally does well in explaining why we need "student achievement standards,'' why we don't have them, and how to get them (Commentary, June 6, 1993). Thus, one can overlook his infrequent self-contradictions, for example, that schools should not "closely guard local control,'' nor resist "national and state interference,'' while at the same time they "need to be more involved in developing standards.''
Mr. Spillane fails to be convincing, nonetheless, when contending that once high academic standards are clearly set and uniformly enforced students en masse automatically will meet them. In short, he answers well the easy question, Can standards be raised if teachers are of a mind to do so?
However, it appears wishful thinking to assume, as he does, that simply setting high standards will cause instruction to improve so much that all classes of students suddenly will be able to satisfy them.
San Diego State University
San Diego, Calif.
To the Editor:
Two recent contributions to this page, by Gerald S. Coles ("Attention-Deficit Research: 'Leaps of Faith,' Not Logic,'' Letters, May 19, 1993) and John M. Throne ("A.D.H.D. Is a 'Disorder' Regardless of Its Origins,'' Letters, June 16, 1993) have combined to provide your readers with misinformation about attention-deficit disorders.
Professor Coles begins the cacophony of inaccuracy by stating that A.D.D. is not a disorder at all, simply a "harmful diagnostic and classification practice'' designed, presumably, to excuse children, parents, and educators from their failures. He states that "although many schoolchildren are distracted, etc., whether their behaviors constitute a 'disorder' remains a conjecture.''
I do not know of any researcher who has studied attention difficulties, myself included, who would suggest that all children who are "distracted'' in school have an attention-deficit disorder. To the contrary, for a child to be diagnosed as having A.D.D., he or she must display multiple and severe symptoms of inattention and impulsivity across a variety of settings. Furthermore, a diagnosis of A.D.D. requires that these symptoms must be evident for at least six months, and have an onset before age 7. Using these strict criteria, two decades of research has shown A.D.D. to affect only 3 percent to 5 percent of children under 18 years of age.
Mr. Throne then increases the volume of this cacophony of inaccuracy by supporting Professor Coles's position that A.D.D. does not have a neurobiological basis. Both he and Dr. Coles ignore the landmark study by researchers at the National Institute of Mental Health, published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1990, that documented the neurobiological underpinnings of A.D.D. through positron-emission-tomography, or PET, scanning of the brain.
In that study, researchers used high-resolution PET scanning to measure regional glucose metabolism in the brains of adults with A.D.D. (the brain normally derives almost all of its energy from the aerobic oxidation of glucose). The study confirmed reduced glucose metabolism in the brains of the adults with A.D.D., as compared with adults without A.D.D., precisely in those areas of the brain which are known to be involved in the control of attention, planning, and motor activity.
While the manifestations of A.D.D. may be grounded in the interplay between biological and psychosocial variables, the N.I.M.H. brain-metabolism studies, combined with other data including family-history studies and drug-response studies, have convinced most researchers that A.D.D. is a neurobiological disorder. In asserting otherwise, Dr. Coles and Mr. Throne would have us return to the days when children with A.D.D. were labeled "stupid,'' "lazy,'' or "troublemakers,'' instead of receiving the understanding and extra resources that any child with a disability deserves.
Wade F. Horn
National Executive Director
Children and Adults with Attention
To the Editor:
As a long-time admirer of Gerald Bracey and all of his works, I am pained to have to take issue with him on his latest culinary creation ("Filet of School Reform, Sauce Diable,'' Commentary, June 16, 1993).
Mr. Bracey bemoans what he sees as a "pathology of envy'' among public school practitioners, a mental condition that prevents them from being interested in and adopting new ideas that other school people have invented and are successfully practicing. He cites two examples--the Key School in Indianapolis and Central Park East Secondary School in East Harlem.
Having visited both schools and thus both witnessed and been a part of what I was told was an inundation of visitors, I find it difficult to consume Mr. Bracey's thesis, even if it were to be sauced with hollandaise rather than diable.
Even more to the point, however, is the experience we have been having over the past four or so years at the Clement Gregory McDonough City Magnet School in Lowell, Mass., the nation's first full-fledged "micro-society'' school. This school, based upon ideas first put forward by George H. Richmond, is a school in which our 360 students from kindergarten through grade 8 design and operate their own democratic, free-market society in school. They have their own democratically designed constitution setting up a unicameral legislature, an elected executive branch, a judicial branch, a full-fledged economy with its own banks and currency, a large publishing operation with newspapers, magazines, etc., and a science/high-tech strand.
Since the school was first featured on PBS's "Learning in America'' series three years ago and subsequently reported on by the "MacNeil/Lehrer News Hour,'' ABC's "World News Tonight,'' and Time, hundreds of school people from virtually every state in the union have either written for descriptive material or traveled to Lowell to visit--or both. The school has been officially cloned four times with our assistance--in Pepperell, Mass.; Yonkers, N.Y.; Newburgh, N.Y.; and New York City's Community School District 1, and other school districts that have visited are in the process of starting versions. In fact, the demands on the school staff have been so heavy that we have had to limit visitors to one visiting day per month and we have had to charge for informational materials and for visits to help cover costs.
The demand for information and assistance has been such that George Richmond has founded a national, nonprofit institution called Micro-Society Inc. to help in both the informational and staff-development processes. A national workshop is being held this month in New York City.
All this strongly suggests to me that the problem is not that school people are consumed and thus immobilized by envy or that they do not want to learn about the good achievements of others. It is, rather, that our school systems are by and large carefully designed to make sure that their principals and teachers do not have the time or the funding necessary to pursue their strong interest in innovations that are going on elsewhere.
How many school systems have large budgets available for staff development in any form, but especially for extensive staff travel, for substitutes to take the place of the teachers winging around the country on our rapacious airlines, and then the funding necessary for curriculum development and the starting of radically different kinds of schools? Damn few, in my experience.
The funding necessary for this kind of activity is, of course, only part of the recipe for Julia Child-class radical improvement in our public schools. Of at least equal importance is a commitment on the part of central administration and the local school board not simply to allow but actually to encourage and promote the idea that teachers, principals--and parents--should be empowered to explore and experiment and create those radically different and more effective schools.
Without these two necessities--funding and commitment--it will not make much difference whether our school reform has a diable or bearnaise sauce on it. It will still be the same old spinach, and we can all say the hell with it.
Senior Field Consultant
Institute for Responsive Education
To the Editor:
I enjoyed Gerald Bracey's metaphorical analysis of the challenges to school reform, "Filet of School Reform, Sauce Diable.'' I have personally witnessed what he refers to as "the pathology of envy'' and it is indeed unfortunate. And, although envy is a valid force, it is only one of several impeding the progress of school transformation.
In his culinary comparisons, for example, Mr. Bracey overlooked two compelling factors unique to his business example. First, if a business fails to remain competitive by ignoring its competitors and its market or by failing to improve quality, it will go out of business. Public education is not driven by this kind of competition. For this reason, schools don't go out of business (though at some point they may).
Second, the chefs in Mr. Bracey's example have more than just a professional interest in the culinary creations of others; they know that if they fail to satisfy both owners and customers, they are likely to lose their positions. Public education is so security-driven these days that it is actually riskier to try something new than to maintain the status quo.
Moreover, there exist no widely used assessments in education that are as authentic as the palates of the discriminating diner. Bottom line, no one gets fired for failing to do something new and wonderful just because it would cause education to succeed at higher levels. A restaurant owner has great flexibility in hiring and firing when the cuisine fails to satisfy; school administrators do not.
There is, however, one force that transcends all the others. In fact, all the others are really only its symptoms. This is the vastly underrated power we find in resistance to change. Most of the change efforts we see today are slowed or fail altogether not because they lack merit but because they are overcome by the enormous energy expended in resisting change. Envy, unfortunately, is just one of the many ways this resistance manifests itself. Until we move to assist individuals and organizations to mediate change, the reality of disseminating the things that work will escape us. Buonappetito (for those who enjoy Italian metaphors).
Spring Valley, Calif.