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'Inflammatory' Dropout Essay Overlooked Explanations

To the Editor:

With regard to Richard Fossey and Jim Garvin's Commentary, "Cooking the Books on Dropout Rates" (Feb. 22, 1995), one must question the range of possibilities the authors eliminated or overlooked to conclude that "official" reports on dropout rates grossly underestimate reality. Their choices for students' not finishing high school four years after entering 9th grade, if they didn't simply drop out, include: transferring to another district, entering private schools, or enrolling in adult education to obtain a General Educational Development diploma.

Once Mr. Fossey and Mr. Garvin establish that these three alternatives probably account for a very small proportion of those not graduating in four years, their Commentary turns toward blaming public school administrators at the state and local levels for misrepresenting the data.

Research we have conducted in Florida for the past several years on the "dropout population" presents rival hypotheses. We, too, are concerned with various figures portrayed in the media regarding dropout rates, as Florida routinely shares notoriety as having the highest dropout rate.

What are some of the other possibilities? Most obvious, and frequent, is that the students are still in high school. Yes, they did not complete the grade four years after entering 9th grade. But no, they are not gone. A variety of circumstances which do not always operate in the best interest of individual students (or society, for that matter) may cause students to retake courses, take extra courses, or extend time in high school to achieve credit requirements while also participating in band, athletics, and the like.

Much of this delay has been packaged under the label of "education reform." It has taken several years for some to realize that there has been a price to pay for reform elements--more credits, higher grade-point averages to graduate, etc. One of those costs has been students taking longer to graduate. (In one Florida dropout-prevention program alternative, 41 percent of the students continued to be enrolled in high school the next year, along with 8 percent who moved to adult-education programs. Only 12 percent of the high-risk students dropped out.)

Another factor is students leaving school but returning a semester or a year later. This may arise from pregnancy, illness, and the need to assist in supporting siblings or parents through employment. The frequency of these circumstances would astound those who have not been close observers of the constant, gradual shift taking place in American communities.

As Mr. Fossey and Mr. Garvin portray the high "dropout rates" for inner cities, they conveniently overlook two other drains on students not completing within four years--death and incarceration. Again, reality is more dramatic than fiction, and not even limited to big-city populations.

Yet another issue they overlook is early graduation. This represents the other end of the dropout spectrum--those who complete high school in 3-1/2 years or less and enter a postsecondary program may be included as those who did not finish within the magic four-year window, and thus are defined as dropouts.

While casting aspersions at the public education system for its K-12 dropout rate, these professors at Louisiana State University may consider looking in the mirror. One of the better-kept secrets is the rate at which university freshmen complete a baccalaureate program in four years--not more, not less.

L.S.U., like most other universities in the nation, may yearn for the 60 percent to 70 percent completion rate high schools currently endure. Data indicate that a growing proportion of college students nationwide take more than four years to graduate, often more than six years. A distinct minority of college students today complete schooling in four years.

Whether graduating from either high school or college in precisely four years is good or bad is a matter of perspective, insight, and understanding. American youths today--in homes with a 50 percent divorce rate, rampant poverty, single-parent births, and a host of societal (not educational) problems--face challenges that often demand adult responsibilities from children. They make choices which include postponing, not quitting, education. The adult-education graduation rate of those 25 years old and under in Florida has essentially matched or exceeded our dropout rate for the better part of a decade.

It seems the inflammatory language of Mr. Fossey and Mr. Garvin ("the condition of American youths can be likened to a forest fire that consumes a portion of tomorrow's workforce and moral citizenry") should be rekindled and directed in a more all-pervasive manner than focused exclusively at education administrators.

Certainly, leaving educa-tional programs for good is beneficial neither to individuals nor the society that must support them. But, alternative instructional strategies, including time shifting, are under way in meeting youths' personal commitments and requirements to survive in a non-nurturing, uncaring, and non-insightful community we call America.

Philip Gris‚
Associate Director
Center for Needs Assessment and Planning
The Florida State University
Tallahassee, Fla.

After-School Child Care Not Included in Study

To the Editor:

Your article on the research report detailing quality and cost issues uncovered in a study of child-care centers in four states ("Child-Care Study Finds Mediocre Level of Services," Feb. 8, 1995) makes no distinction among preschool, infant care, and school-age child-care programs. To a reader not knowledgeable about child-care programs, this would lead to the conclusion that all programs fit into this "mediocre" state of operation. That is not the case.

After-school child-care programs serve over two million children in 50,000 programs in the United States and, according to the latest study prepared by the U.S. Education Department, only one program in 12 found substantial dissatisfaction.

In California, after-school care is regulated by strict licensing requirements, thus assuring minimal standards for providing a healthy, safe environment. A higher percentage of all programs offer a wide range of enrichment activities, including arts and crafts, dramatic play, dance, music, storytelling, and theatrical activities that exceed the minimum standard.

Child care after school is much more diverse in program management and settings. However, all forms of child care bear a responsiveness to the needs of individual children and families.

According to your article, the child-care study in question reported that adults in the programs studied provided little warmth and support. But after-school programs, overall, remain a powerful force in shaping a child's behavior, and developing self concept and consideration for others.

A story on the different types of child-care providers and, more importantly, on national concern for adequate after-school care, would be greatly appreciated.

Frank J. McKendall
Director
Stone Soup Child Care Programs
Encino, Calif.

On Special Education's 'Gatekeepers'

To the Editor:

Miriam K. Freedman's "The Elevator Theory of Special Education" (Commentary, Feb. 15, 1995) ought to be required reading for members of Congress.

Those of us who have worked in the classroom and with parents know too well that a false science of diagnosis and remediation has changed the culture of our schools. To say it has diverted vital resources from good classroom teaching to fund an army of parasites and specialists is to underestimate the case. It has bled the schools white.

It was Benno C. Schmidt Jr., the former president of Yale University now heading the Edison Project, who said, to his credit, that American education is the triumph of therapy. And it was in your own pages that Gerald W. Bracey ("Data-Proof Ideologues," Commentary, Jan. 25, 1995) observed that only in America do teachers constitute fewer than half of schools' employees.

Bruce E. Buxton
Headmaster
Falmouth Academy
Falmouth, Mass.

To the Editor:

As one who has spent the last 40 years as a college professor, teacher of the deaf and multi-handicapped, speech-language therapist, and diagnostician and evaluator of children with psycholinguistic-language-reading-processing disabilities, it was disheartening to read Miriam K. Freedman's Commentary. Why the bias against parents who have the right as well as the responsibility to obtain specific diagnosis and evaluation to provide the appropriate remedies?

Ms. Freedman's mean-spirited, contemptuous dismissal of professional evaluators as money-grubbing charlatans who provide parents with whatever handicapping "label" they want to hear is indicative of the bias she brings to bear on the subject.

She rails against the medical model. Yet, in the 50-year history of research into the neurological processes and causes of dyslexia and related language-processing disabilities, it has been the medical model that has prevailed and proved effective.

It comes as no surprise to me that Ms. Freedman currently is an attorney in private practice representing public schools in the special-education field. Having served as a consultant and witness for learning-disabled children at a number of administrative hearings she presided over as a hearing officer (if memory serves, approximately 10), I bore the brunt of her anger and hostility. Attitudes like those she exhibited have turned administrative hearings into adversarial battles, where attorneys focus on disparaging and demeaning witnesses (as the needs of the child are lost in the process). Attorneys are there to "win," because winning not only avoids spending money for remediating a disability, but also averts establishing a precedent, which heaven forbid might encourage other parents to seek aid.

Ms. Freedman implies the existence of a conspiracy between parents looking for a disability label for their children and diagnosticians all too willing to oblige. The professional approach to proper diagnosis (label?) and treatment, as based on the medical model, is not haphazard, as Ms. Freedman suggests in her distorted interpretation of diagnostic practices, nor do appropriate diagnoses result in lowered expectations. Quite the contrary.

It would be laughable, were it not so pathetic, that Ms. Freedman repeats the tired old canard that "often, labels have replaced 'motivation,' 'hard work,' and 'effort.'" (If the man with the artificial leg would try harder, he could run faster.)

Ms. Freedman believes that "we are encouraging [children with disabilities] to believe that something is wrong with them." Instead, she wants such children taught to their "differences, per se," and without attending to their "deficits."

What does this mean? That a dyslexic child who is moved through the elementary years with a two- to three-year lag in reading-comprehension skills will be passed along through the middle school and high school, only to end up with a greater lag, or with functional illiteracy, at graduation?

Parents have a right and a responsibility to obtain the most specific diagnosis and evaluation for their child. As for the professionals in the field, it would be useful to follow the advice of the British-born neurologist Oliver Sacks, who abides by the injunction: "Ask not what disease the person has, but rather what person the disease has."

Clara R. Maslow
Concord, Mass.

To the Editor:

It is high time for parents of kids with disabilities to speak up loud and clear. Special education is under serious attack.

Miriam K. Freedman wants to do away with it entirely: no assessments, no "inclusion," no "gatekeepers," no labels. As a superintendent, I have experienced firsthand some constituents' frustrations toward the special-education budget. Some desire to use the money in other areas where we'll get "more bang for the buck" than in serving the needs of our kids with disabilities. As a teacher in the 1970's, I expelled kids from my classes who reacted inappropriately to normal stimuli of reward and punishment, kids whom I did not understand. The normal motivations and inspirations did not produce hard work from them, or any real effort. The normal personality mechanics simply weren't there. My understanding of human nature was incomplete, shallow, and based upon a naive "all children can learn" belief. At the time, I believed that I could reach any kid with firmness, caring, and perseverance.

Since then, one of my children developed a serious mental disorder, rapidly becoming unmanageable at home, skipping school, sleeping all day, and exhibiting other odd behaviors. The district and parents mishandled the situation with make-up work, lectures, "tough love," detention, loss of privileges, hard consequences at home for misbehavior, blaming parents, blaming spouses, etc.

Finally, we stumbled across a child advocate from the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, and with that person's help succeeded in getting an accurate diagnosis of the boy's condition. The disorder was easily cleared up in a few months with appropriate medication. His self-destructive, bizarre behavior has ceased, but in the meantime, he has lost six years of what would have been high school and college time.

Do I think special-education programs should be eliminated? No, I rather think that the gatekeepers need to have some increased expectations and support for screening 100 percent of the kids for undiagnosed and untreated mental-psychiatric and learning-system variations.

The one-size-fits-all, cookie-cutter, "hard work," Jack Armstrong All- American boy, good old-fashioned "back to basics" education never was very good for all kids. Now we are shooting for "all children can learn." If people like Ms. Freedman succeed in eliminating the "gatekeepers," then money that should have been spent on appropriate diagnosis and special services for the disabled will instead be spent on popular programs for the highly skilled--basketball, music, football, etc. These embellishments serve the 70 percent of kids on the top end of the normal distribution curve of mental and emotional focus.

The 30 percent at the other end will be pushed out as they have always been--suffering no "pernicious effects" of the gatekeeper, thank you--labeled not as learning-disabled, severely emotionally disturbed, behaviorally disordered, but instead as "just plain bad" kids who "didn't put out enough effort" or "didn't work hard," were "space cadets," or "weren't motivated by their bad family life" and "just couldn't cut it." (In other words, let's just write them off, let them do their drugs, crime, alcohol, whatever.)

Enough simplistic answers for complex social problems! Canceling special-education legislation is not the answer to poorly implemented special-education programs. Child advocacy and public outrage are what we need. To the extent that Ms. Freedman's Commentary feeds that outrage, it has performed a valuable service.

Tom Ryan
Superintendent
Aleutians East Borough School District
Sand Point, Alaska

To the Editor:

I felt as if I were thinking out loud as I read Miriam Freedman's Commentary. All of us have different strengths and weaknesses and probably could get, as the Commentary suggests, a diagnosis for ourselves if we tried.

Most of these difficulties, however, could be addressed by good teaching instead of by yielding to the current compulsion to find some legal means of getting whatever a child needs. All parents and administrators should be advocates for children, and children should not need to be diagnosed as having something wrong with them to have the proper conditions for learning and personal growth.

Obviously, no one would want to deprive any child of what he or she needs; but it is time to examine how dollars are being spent and to question whether they are helping children or hurting them. Inconsistencies in diagnoses and the socioeconomic correlations noted in the Freedman Commentary should alarm the public. It has been my experience in many different school systems that parents will frequently attempt to get a particular learning-disorder diagnosis for their child in order to mask other emotional or family-related issues. The student is then eligible for special education but does not really get the help that he or she and the family need.

As Ms. Freedman mentions, weaknesses can be turned into strengths, and the focus on all children should be what they can do, not what they can't. All students can benefit from smaller classes and more individualized attention, and most of all from a positive image of themselves. Students will not benefit from labels that excuse them from doing well. The increasing costs of these diagnoses are frightening, not because they deplete our financial resources, but because they deplete our real resources, our children.

Maureen Szal
Principal
Thurston Middle School
Westwood, Mass.

To the Editor:

Is there a school district that would respond to a regular educator's request for support services without that teacher's proving the necessity? And how does one justify such a request? Is it not logical to take a closer look at the child whose speech may be interfering with communication and learning (referral to the speech pathologist?), or the child whose behavior is out of control, causing disruption in the classroom on a daily basis (referral to the neurologist--possible attention-deficit disorder/hyperactivity?), or the child who can't decode letters and struggles to get a name at the top of a page (referral to the special educator?).

It is not a mystery that the professional educator, after much deliberation and observation and discussion, refers the child to the proper diagnostician who makes the official recommendation for appropriate supports for the child.

It is also not uncommon for different labels to apply at different times. When you have an emotionally disturbed student, there may be a learning disability hiding behind the tantrums.

I have found it not to be true, as Miriam K. Freedman suggests, that our special-needs children experience simple learning differences. The child referred to special education has had some need that has made it difficult for him or her to be part of the regular education system.

We special educators work every day to get such children back to the mainstream. And we most certainly look to and for these students' strengths to build upon. Over time, given the myriad of life experiences thrown at us all, each student will struggle with learning, expression, communications, and talents. Special-needs children are no different, but their difficulties don't come and go so easily.

Personally, I hate labels, but I also must acknowledge the need for them. At meetings, I, as a special educator, speak of students' deficits, which is truth. In my classroom, however, the other truth is lived on a daily basis. That truth is the respect and care we special educators give to each student, without focusing on the precise label in the child's file.

Karen Bartoletti
Special-Education Teacher
Ulster County boces
Head Start Center
Ellenville, N.Y.

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