Letters to the Editor
To the Editor:
In a "Letter From a Special-Education Parent: Separate Is Not Equal,'' (Commentary, June 23, 1993), David Krantz bitterly attacks current special-education practices in his response to my co-authored article, "The Dumbing of Special Education'' (Commentary, May 26, 1993).
As David is a former student of mine, I am delighted to see that he listened to my advice to challenge the status quo, to advocate for children, and to use the media to help change public policy. However, he has not heeded my admonition to be a scientist-practitioner. This requires data-based decisionmaking and healthy skepticism about the panacea-mongers of education. He is not convincing about the evils of the medical model, the failings of the cascade model of special education, and the virtues of regular education, especially for "the so-called learning-disabled child.''
Special-education radical chic implies that eliminating labels that are associated with diagnosis will eliminate the underlying problem. Rather than dealing with the terribly complex ecological and psychoeducational diagnosis and treatment issues related to individual differences, self-proclaimed mavens of reform insist that learning problems are due to pedagogical inadequacies, rather than existing inside the child. From this either/or thinking flows politically correct rhetoric resplendent with an assortment of myths, half-truths, and downright falsehoods.
Mr. Krantz insists that most "knowledgeable scientists believe that the [neurological] explanation for learning disabilities is bogus.'' In fact, there is ample clinical evidence that many children with learning disabilities, often concomitant with attention-deficit disorders, do have neurological processing deficits. The discovery of these deficits, by careful differential diagnosis, is often a relief to parents and teachers who may have previously labeled a child lazy or oppositional. In my experience, most children are happy to learn they are not stupid, but need to learn in ways sometimes different than others.
To say that labels (diagnoses) are pejorative and don't have any value in intervention is not true. The problem is often that interventions (individual educational plans) are often not followed by teachers. Also, some psychologists and special educators slavishly turn to computer-generated interventions without ongoing assessment to determine if they are working. Diagnosis must always be modified as a function of efficacy of treatment.
The broad generalization that "no one bothers to collect evidence that these children are learning, or not'' is just not true. Each year re-evaluations are conducted, as required by law. Most states administer yearly basic-skills tests and general achievement tests to all children, including those with learning disabilities. If these data are not available, those responsible are breaking the law.
While The Magic Feather and other books castigate (often correctly) special education, it is delivery, not the model, which is flawed. I have seen my share of horror stories in both special and regular education. But remember that children are placed in special education because of poor teaching, inability to learn in homogenized classrooms, psychological and pedagogical rejection by regular teachers, and ridicule by peers. With diminishing resources for education in general, especially in inner cities and poor rural districts, it is foolish and dangerous to assume that the breakup of the current system will improve the lot of children with disabilities.
It is a myth that classification is generally a "life sentence.'' Unfortunately, it is true in some districts. But this is not the fault of the cascade model, but lousy administration.
I am surprised that David refers to the tests used by psychologists in classification as being of "questionable validity.'' Most of his career he has worked for companies which ply these assessment instruments.
It is dangerous to confuse social equity with the reality of individual differences in academic performance. Every human trait, including intelligence and achievement, is normally distributed. For instance, even though the I.Q. test may be "invalid'' in the eyes of those who think eliminating it would somehow erase the effects of poor parenting, poverty, racism, and injustice, it is still the best single predictor of academic achievement and later success in life.
Simplistic solutions such as eliminating tests and diagnosis may sound like methods of insuring social equity. The only answer is to eliminate inequity in our society. Then the need for special education will be greatly, but never fully reduced.
Irwin A. Hyman
To the Editor:
As a special-education administrator, I can relate with sympathy to David Krantz's complaints about the field. It is important, however, to acknowledge that special education has succeeded in making improvements in the quality of life and education of the physically disabled and seriously mentally disabled. When we think back to the services provided these children not so long ago--in basement rooms, with inadequate staff, limited therapies, little chance to learn and grow--there can be little argument that a true revolution has taken place.
The issue being addressed, however, relates to learning-disabled students and those with attention-deficit disorders. Both of these areas, as Mr. Krantz correctly points out, represent nebulous constructs. In practice, it is often impossible to differentiate between a bored student, an abused or merely upset student, a curriculum-disabled student, and any of the preceding labels.
The psychiatrist William Glasser has observed that most learning-disabled students are children who start school less prepared to learn than their classmates, experience reinforced failure, and continue to fall further behind. I would add to that students who are not engaged in education because it is frequently trivial and lacks meaning in their lives. Only a minute portion of students, in my experience, are truly disabled in the sense that they could not learn in a more receptive environment.
The growth in special education, particularly in the learning-disabled category, is not a sign that children are "broken,'' but rather that the current educational system is in a state of collapse. What special education (and to an extent remedial education) has done is allow schools to avoid the need to confront change.
The huge numbers of students not having their needs met by schools should be driving that change. But the energies that could go into doing that are now often diverted to labeling students and creating separate systems.
Regulations for special education are expanding exponentially through the intervention of legal and bureaucratic systems. There is a real danger that this highly codified bureaucratic system can impede progress in meaningful school reform.
The solutions proposed by Mr. Krantz--the integration of special and regular education and putting an end to the labeling of children--are right on target. They must, however, take place in the larger context of educational change.
Moving to full inclusion or looking for accountability from special education still presupposes the conceptual need for differentiation of students. Re-regulation is not the solution. The solution to the learning-disabled, attention-deficit-disorder conundrum lies with radical, systemic change in the format of education and extrication of legal and bureaucratic intervention by the federal government.
Legislation broadly guaranteeing equal access for all students is both necessary and valuable. The current massive intrusion by bureaucracy, lawyers, and advocacy groups that believe they can remedy students' individual needs through global, detailed legislation is counterproductive. The intrusive procedures required by regulation belong to another era, and only impede our efforts to educate students for the future.
New Paltz Central School District
New Paltz, N.Y.
To the Editor:
There are a few things I would like to make clear about the "stress abstinence'' bill in New Jersey ("'Stressing Abstinence' Are Fighting Words in Bill Debated in N.J.'s Legislative Arena,'' June 9, 1993). Your article may have unintentionally given the impression that this is a religious issue.
The article named all the Christian organizations in favor of the bill, but did not list any of the nonreligious groups, such as Parents United for Better Schools, Cumberland County Parents and Taxpayers, the League of American Families, and the many parents (like myself) who testified independent of any organization. This is a parental concern, not a religious one.
The article also mentioned a recent survey conducted by the Eagleton Institute for the Center for Educational Policy Analysis which claims that 87 percent of New Jerseyans support family-life curriculum in schools. Few people may realize, however, that this was not quite the fair representation one would expect of such a survey.
Of the 800 people polled, only 213 were parents. This was a survey concerning children, and yet 72.3 percent of those interviewed were not parents. In addition, anyone 18 years of age or older was considered an adult. This means that people as young as seniors in high school were part of the poll. So-called "overwhelming'' support is highly questionable under such polling practices.
Recently, I attended the World Medical Health Foundation conference on educational policy and H.I.V. prevention held at the University of Bridgeport. All the doctors and speakers present considered the optimum health message to be abstinence and monogamy between uninfected partners.
The most important thing educators can do in this life-and-death situation is be open to both sides of the argument and keep current. It is vital to listen to the facts and not the political agenda of any one special-interest group. The New Jersey bill would not eliminate contraceptive and condom education, but it would place the stress on "risk elimination'' rather than risk reduction.
Educators should not mislead their students by telling them that if they are going to have sex "then use a condom.'' This gives students a false sense of security. The message should be honest, that is: If you use a condom, know that you are still at risk for contracting H.I.V. and other sexually transmitted diseases.
One very recent study published in the journal Social Science and Medicine shows that condoms are only 69 percent effective in preventing the transmission of H.I.V. among heterosexual couples and that the rate could be as low as 46 percent.
One important concern of the study is that many people, even physicians, assume that condoms prevent H.I.V. transmission with the same degree of effectiveness they exhibit in preventing pregnancy. The author points out that many people do not understand the difference between prevention and risk-reduction. (Press releases on the study, "Meta-Analysis of Condom Effectiveness in Reducing Sexually Transmitted H.I.V.,'' may be obtained by calling (800) 228-1841.)
In the push for "condom awareness,'' many important health messages have become obscured if not completely ignored. Any H.I.V.-prevention policy should stress avoiding high-risk activities: having intercourse with anyone who is H.I.V. positive, having multiple sexual partners, engaging in anal intercourse.
These are messages seldom heard in health class because of the emphasis on condoms. Stressing abstinence is not synonymous with telling students what they can and cannot do; it merely means giving them the optimum health message.
Scotch Plains, N.J.
To the Editor:
Unfortunately, there is a serious mistake in the lead of your July 14, 1993, article on the U.S. General Accounting Office report about achievement standards for the National Assessment of Educational Progress--even though the story itself is generally fair and balanced ("G.A.O. Blasts Method for Reporting NAEP Results'').
Contrary to the phrase in quotation marks, the G.A.O. report never says that the standard-setting approach used by the National Assessment Governing Board is "fundamentally flawed.''
The report certainly does criticize the Governing Board. But the central point of its criticism is actually quite limited. As the title of the G.A.O. report indicates ("N.A.G.B.'s Approach Yields Misleading Interpretations''), it deals primarily with a question of reporting and interpretation--not with the broad issue of whether achievement standards can be set on the National Assessment of Educational Progress or the basic process for setting them.
A draft G.A.O. report in February contained much more sweeping criticism. We responded with our own reply (which the agency reprints), along with comments by the American College Testing program, which conducted our standard-setting for 1992, and by several testing experts.
In its final report, the G.A.O. fundamentally changed its position, acknowledging that the standards for 1992 "improved ... substantially'' and citing as its primary concern the validity of inferences drawn from NAEP results. Even this issue--whether students who reach various standards on NAEP actually can do what the standards describe--is well on its way to being resolved.
Your writer--inadvertently, I am sure--produced a quote that wasn't there. Fortunately, the board has found such errors to be rare in Education Week's coverage of its activities.
Mark D. Musick
National Assessment Governing Board
National Assessment of Educational Progress
Editor's Note: The phrase "fundamentally flawed'' appears in the draft report, not the final report. We regret the error.
To the Editor:
I write in response to William Simpson's letter to the editor ("Roots of Blacks' Underachievement: Society's 'White-Supremacist' Cast,'' Letters, June 23, 1993). Apparently, he wrote in response to your article summarizing and interpreting my research study ("Anthropologist's Study of 'Capital High School' Reveals Roots of Blacks' Underachievement,'' Focus On, June 9, 1993).
Mr. Simpson and I concur on only one of his assertions: the need to study the academic performance of African-American students in a geographically diverse school population. As Mr. Simpson suggests, I would relish the opportunity to study a "school in the South, in the Midwest ... , and in the far West.'' To date, I have not been able to do so because I have not been able to obtain adequate financial backing. In ethnographic research the anthropologist is the research instrument. Among other things, this means that research is labor intensive, entailing face-to-face communication and long-term (at least an academic year of) human interaction.
Mr. Simpson's second assertion--my failure to find the "genesis of black underachievement in the systematic, white-supremacist character of American society''--is not based on what he was able to infer from my writings. I did not begin my study by trying to find the "roots of blacks' underachievement.'' Rather, in the study I constructed, my primary goal was to problematize success: how, why, and at what cost African-American adolescents achieve it. Had Mr. Simpson read my writings, rather than assuming that your interpretation of my work was flawless, he would not have attributed this claim to me.
Neither, had he read any of my analyses of the Capital High study, would Mr. Simpson have concluded that I do not consider the import of racism in "the diminishment of the aspirations of African-American people.''
As a researcher, one of my primary concerns is the possibility of misinterpretation. A corollary consideration is that the readers of an interpretation of my work will conclude that it is an unblemished portrayal of my research and findings. The frequency of misinterpretation and readers' impoverished motivation to actually read what researchers wrote rather than what someone said they wrote suggests a dilemma for me and other researchers: Should we go public with our findings? Will they be misinterpreted? Will most readers accept--uncritically--the claims and interpretations of all published analyses? Will readers peruse the primary source(s), the authors' texts?
Education Week's translation of my findings is a case in point. You offer an excellent summary of the goals of my research. For that I am indeed thankful. You also present a compelling argument regarding the reported findings. Nevertheless, the central problem in your translation of my work is as follows: The analysis focuses on underachievement rather than success at Capital High.
This is not a minor inconsistency. It represents a major restructuring of the focus of my study. I framed my proposed study in such a way that I made the students who were academically successful the epicenter of the project. The study's title, in fact, embodies its goals: "Black Students' School Success Study.''
I chose this focus because I wanted to empirically document the following: (1) the existence of high-achieving African-American adolescents in the Washington, D.C., public schools (the media's inordinate focus on black students' academic failure often leads to a distorted perception of the range of academic performance within this population group); (2) how and why these students seek school success; and (3) the psychological costs affiliated with academic excellence.
Indeed, the plethora of studies purporting to explain African-American adolescents' academic failure juxtaposed with the paucity of studies detailing black adolescents' academic success compelled me to study "Black Students' School Success.''
I am delighted to have had my study reviewed in such an influential publication. At the same time, however, I am concerned about how the review was framed. My apprehension is evoked by the possibility that my motives and goals will be misunderstood. I am therefore at risk: seeking to balance the public's right to know with my desire to minimize misinterpretations. The incendiary nature of text construction coupled with the possibility of readers who will not read my (as opposed to a reviewer's interpretation of my) work creates a profusion of potential faux pas.
Thus, Mr. Simpson's misunderstanding of my research goals and conclusions.
Department of Anthropology
New Brunswick, N.J.
To the Editor:
Your article entitled "RJR Nabisco Foundation Asks Idealists to Dream of 21st-Century Schools'' (July 14, 1993) chronicled yet another attempt by the tobacco industry to divert attention from its real agenda by sponsoring school-reform debates such as the recent China Breakers Conference.
RJR Nabisco Corporation, via its connection to the cigarette maker R.J. Reynolds Inc., is the force behind the Camel Joe cartoon campaign, which is designed, it could be argued, to attract children to smoking. By offering caps, sweatshirts, earrings, dartboards, posters, and many more kids' items (which can only be obtained by redeeming "Camel Cash'' coupons attached to packs of Camels),RJR Nabisco probably has successfully attracted and addicted more youths to smoking.
I wonder how thrilled the RJR foundation's president, Roger Semerad, and its spokesman, David Sandor, would have been had the conference participants begun "idealizing'' about a smoke-free America, or if New Stanley Elementary School students had chosen tobacco control as their outcome-based curriculum project.
If the purpose of school reform is to ultimately enhance student welfare, then RJR Nabisco's efforts to ingratiate itself in the eyes of the public should be seen for the smokescreen it is.
Michael J. Cleary
Department of Allied Health
Slippery Rock University
Slippery Rock, Pa.
To the Editor:
Thank you for excellent coverage of the Southern Regional Education Board's High Schools That Work program during a year of tremendous growth and progress in helping more than 300 high schools in 19 states raise the achievement of career-bound students. Two articles in your June 23, 1993 issue were particularly good in interpreting what the program is doing and intends to do in partnership with states and schools ("S.R.E.B. Project Helps Schools Blur Line Between Vocational and Academic Tracks,'' "6 Reform Principles for Vocational Education Outlined,'' June 23, 1993).
We want to point out an important omission: Our explosion in size and services since October 1992 is due in large part to a $2.7 million, six-year grant from the DeWitt Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund. The grant is the largest single investment ever made by the fund in support of vocational education and school-to-work transition. We view this funding as a major vote of confidence for the potential of career-bound students to be successful lifelong workers and learners.
High Schools That Work Program
Southern Regional Education Board
To the Editor:
No doubt by now you have received many communications informing Nancy S. Grasmick ("Learning Through Service,'' Commentary, April 7, 1993) that it was Edison, not Einstein, who said, "Genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.''
Joseph C. Bronars Jr.