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Hornbeck Restores Faith In 'Power of Good Ideas'

To the Editor:

It may be true that David W. Hornbeck is one of the last of the truly brave school reformers ("Hornbeck To Push Ahead With Philadelphia Reforms," Feb. 15, 1995). The first task of any bureaucrat, politician, or superintendent is to do what it takes to preserve power and keep his or her job. Mr. Hornbeck seems unwilling to accept such a political neutering.

I was impressed by his refusal to put a price tag on reform, asking that any reforms first be weighed on their own merits. Resisting such a requirement for financial certitude is a moral endeavor. Some of the reforms that he will likely suggest may require additional financing. By addressing school-centered variables in effecting student performance, he encourages us to truly believe that all children can learn. It is the schools, not the students, that are disadvantaged and at risk. It is obvious, however, that Mr. Hornbeck will hold no young lives hostage in the name of financial wishful thinking.

As a graduate student in education, I am encouraged to see leaders like David Hornbeck who believe in the power of good ideas and are interested in equity rather than adequacy.

Howard B. Schaffer
New York, N.Y.

Ritalin Is No Replacement For Good Parenting, Teaching

To the Editor:

I was appalled to read your article indicating that 3 percent to 10 percent of our student population has attention-deficit disorder ("Experts, Educators Question A.D.D. Diagnoses," Feb. 22, 1995). In a 400-pupil elementary school, these figures mean that up to 40 students can be diagnosed with A.D.D. The ramifications include up to 40 students being labeled as unable to learn without drastic intervention and in need of a psychotropic drug.

Yes, I have seen miracles occur when a student who truly has A.D.D. takes the correct dosage of Ritalin. The results can be very dramatic, with the child finally being able to realize his full potential. However, in the past few years, I have seen this drug abused. Some doctors write a prescription at the request of a parent, without taking the time to check the facts. (I feel the 3 percent figure is much more accurate than the 10 percent figure.)

Our children deserve more from us than a couple of pills a day. Ritalin should not be a replacement for quality child care, parenting, or teaching.

Ralph E. Hicks
Executive Director of Special Education
Chicopee Public Schools
Chicopee, Mass.

Why Parents on the Right Doubt Public Educators

To the Editor:

In reading Gerald W. Bracey's "Education Politics: The Right's Data-Proof Ideologues" (Commentary, Jan. 25, 1995), I was struck by one inescapable fact: He has missed the point. He has become distracted by the ground clutter and failed to address the real problems of the political right.

The essay makes a good case for many members of the so-called right's having misused the available data, said misuse having allowed them to make a more solid case for their contention that the public schools are failing. However, from where I sit, the left is employing the same fallacious policy. I offer the following examples.

The northern Virginia county in which I teach has embraced "developmental appropriateness" as an underpinning of its restructured educational philosophy. When asked for the county's sources, the appropriate supervisor waved off the question. When pressed, three articles on developmentally appropriate instruction of 5-year-olds were produced.

I understand that pressing a third time was rude; however, knowing that data can be manipulated, I really wanted to read these articles, to see for myself. At this point, a member of the supervisor's staff explained that there was not much research available on the topic. Later, when parents and teachers questioned the legitimacy of planning a K-12 curriculum revision based on such limited research, we were told that these articles had proven the legitimacy of the county's approach.

A second example is the county's recent position on grammar instruction. Based on uncited research, the language-arts supervisor announced three years ago that grammar instruction prior to 9th grade had been shown to be developmentally inappropriate and, hence, ineffective. When documentation was requested, she failed to produce any.

Last fall, one of the supervisor's associates came to my school to help teachers implement the county's new curriculum. During our discussion, this professional attested that grammar instruction was useless; she had seen the studies proving it. When I took her to my room and showed her documentation that supported the linguistic approach to teaching grammar (as opposed to the somewhat ineffective traditional approach), she was shocked. She had never heard of linguistic grammar, let alone that it might actually serve to improve students' writing, reading, and listening skills. Unfortunately, this knowledge has not translated into a change in philosophy or its implementation.

The right's displeasure with the schools is based on two concerns: quality education and safety.

Parents are required by law to send their most precious "possessions," their children, to school--to environments that we adults would not tolerate. Harassment, sexual harassment, sexual assault, assault, assault and battery, extortion, intimidation, weapons possession, and drug possession and sale are everyday occurrences at too many of our large middle and high schools. And yet, school districts tell parents that children must learn to live in the real world. Is this indeed the real world?

Five years ago, I "temped" in the real world, in a 12-story office building for a major computer corporation. During my four-week tenure there, I saw the police once: A smoke alarm had gone off and the building had to be evacuated.

On the other hand, the middle school where I teach has had the police called out a minimum of once a week during most of the 4 -1/2 years I have worked there. This is the "real world" into which parents are required to send their children? Such conduct would not be tolerated in the corporate world. Why, then, is it allowed at the public school level and labeled the "real world"?

As to the second concern, quality education: Each September, I wonder how many of my incoming 6th graders do not have a 6th-grade reading equivalency. How many will read at the 5th-, 4th-, or 3rd-grade level? God forbid I should have another year like last year, when two students read at the high 2nd-grade level. Of the 25 students in that particular class, 17 were below the middle 5th-grade level in reading. (It should be noted that none of these children had identified learning disabilities.)

These students could not read, but they felt good about themselves. They had come through classes with cooperative learning and peer tutoring; they could get their thoughts down on paper, albeit without the benefits of correct grammar, spelling, and punctuation. They had been through years of developmentally appropriate instruction ... and were illiterate.

The people of the political right with whom I associate bear a striking difference from the children I teach today. Often when I mention that I teach English, these people apologize for their poor grammar. Many explain with a bit of embarrassment that they were unable to go to college, hence the mistakes. On the other hand, the students I teach have been so built up on feel-good philosophy that when errors are pointed out, they shrug and walk away, too ignorant to know they are illiterate.

As is the case with so many people, Mr. Bracey has correctly identified some errors made by the right, but he has failed to see beyond those mistakes and ask why. Why are they so angry? What has pushed them to this point? If both sides would relax the rhetoric and engage in conversation, perhaps reasonable solutions could be found.

Connie Schenkelberg
Dale City, Va.

To the Editor:

My question to both Gerald W. Bracey and Chester E. Finn Jr. is (Commentary, Jan 25, 1995): Isn't the education of our youth too important to the fate of the nation to get bogged down in partisan political attacks?

Mr. Bracey spices his editorial with ad hominem attacks on individuals he has debated (or would probably like to): " ... they have no intention of letting facts alter their opinions" and "the ideologues use them [data] deceitfully," and "the narrow conceits of the political right." He seems strangely proud of the "data" that he says show American youths are "close to average" in science and "mostly close to average" in mathematics compared with youths in the rest of the world. (What happened to the national education goal of "first in the world in math and science" just five years from now?)

Mr. Finn likewise resorts to a political attack on the "left-wing agenda" of "the Clintonites and their Congressional followers." While usefully pointing out that unequal results should not be presumed to necessarily mean discrimination, he fails to appreciate that unequivalent test populations for the National Assessment of Educational Progress can lead to misleading conclusions about the state of educational progress.

But perhaps the real problem is that you chose to let two commentators write about "Education Politics" in the first place.

Robert L. Earl
Arlington, Va.

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