Letters To the Editor
History-Standards 'Intrigue' Does Not Explain Failure
To the Editor:
Why didn't the public accept the national history standards? What went wrong? According to your recent article, "The answer lies in a tale of political intrigue, missed opportunities, unheeded warning signs, power plays, and personal attacks" ("Playing Games With History," On Assignment, Nov. 15, 1995). The story tells us that the answer lies in the process, not substance. But the primary reason that the standards have been strenuously denounced is that they are seriously flawed.
First, the standards overemphasize the concepts of race, ethnicity, and gender and the role of the non-West while de-emphasizing the significance of liberal democracy, economic growth, religion, ideas, science, and technology, and the role of the West. Second, the standards are biased. They romanticize the non-West with celebratory language (the phrase "intrusive European migrants" describes the Ellis Island immigrants).
These biases are prevalent throughout the documents, in the standards themselves and in the examples of student activities. Recently, social scientists Robert Lerner, Althea Nagai, and myself compared occurrences of the theme of political freedom in the U.S. history document and found that race, ethnicity, and gender are emphasized twice as often as political freedom in the examples, but more than three times as often in the standards themselves. We also examined the use of the term "accomplishment" in the world-history document and found that this celebratory word is used approximately twice as often to describe the non-West compared to the West in both examples and in the standards themselves.
Many scholars, educators, and public officials including Herman Belz, Linda Chavez, John Patrick Diggins, Chester E. Finn Jr., Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, Joseph Lieberman, Forrest McDonald, Walter McDougall, Ronald Radosh, Albert Shanker, Gilbert Sewall, Wilcomb Washburn, and Ben Wattenberg, as well as Lynne V. Cheney, have denounced the standards. And so has President Clinton's secretary of education.
Even if your story about "intrigue" surrounding the standards was well founded--which I am sorry to say it is not--it would fail to deal with the central question. Will these standards improve the historical understanding of American students? Many people believe the answer is no.
John D. Fonte
Committee to Review National Standards
American Enterprise Institute
Calif.'s Reading Experiment Was 'Something of a Disaster'
To the Editor:
I respectfully suggest that Ken Goodman is incorrect in stating that "there is no reading crisis in California schools. ... There is considerable evidence that most California kids, like other American kids, are reading more and with better comprehension" ("Forced Choices in a Non-Crisis," Commentary, Nov. 15, 1995).
Surely Mr. Goodman has never read either the 1992 or the 1994 National Assessment of Educational Progress reading report with good comprehension.
The plain facts are that California 4th graders scored at the bottom of the barrel. They were next to the bottom, after Mississippi, in 1992; and in 1994 they were worse, scoring at the absolute bottom of all states compared. Not only did the whole state score at the bottom and considerably below the national average, but when NAEP looked at whites only, the California whites scored at the bottom of the whites in all other states, as did the Hispanics. Furthermore, the blacks in California scored below the blacks in most Southern states.
And what did California 4th graders excel in? Why in the use of "whole language." In the 1992 study, they scored number one of all states for classes placing heavy emphasis on whole language and on literature-based reading.
California also ranked number one in little or no emphasis placed on phonics.
Now this might not be a crisis in Ken Goodman's mind, but in the mind of most California citizens, its legislature, its task force on reading, its employers, it is a bona fide provable crisis carefully documented by the NAEP study, which is not just congressionally mandated and conducted by the U.S. Department of Education, but is the largest and most carefully controlled state-by-state comparison ever done.
Mr. Goodman is a persuasive writer and an elegant spokesperson for the whole-language movement, but he should not ignore facts. Even the now-deposed superintendent of public instruction in California, Bill Honig, has come to admit that the 1987 English-language-arts framework was in error in tossing out all "isolated skills" like spelling and phonics.
No educator or citizen in his right mind is opposed to having children read good literature or write creative stories, but not teaching spelling or phonics is something of a disaster. It is a shame that a huge state had to be led down the promise-strewn garden path of whole language instead of the disciplined struggle of teaching basic skills.
It must be a final thorn in the whole-language advocates' side to read in the NAEP report that California students did not read for fun on their own time any more than the national average or that they spend just as much time watching TV.
Laguna Beach, Calif.
The writer is a professor emeritus of Rutgers University in New Jersey.
Teacher Training Critique Shows Instructional Biases
To the Editor:
Patricia H. Hinchey's rendition of teacher education continues the long-standing habit in this field of blaming someone else when students or their parents challenge practices ("The Human Cost of Teacher Education's Reform," Commentary, Nov. 1, 1995). Many quality-management/education procedures would never allow the situation Ms. Hinchey describes to exist. Had she and other teacher-educators employed cooperative-learning techniques in most of their courses for the past 10-plus years, elementary and high school instruction would now be different.
Her description of a classroom and the students a professor of education faces ("... faces a combustible classroom. Enter herds of students ...") may describe Ms. Hinchey's approaches to instruction and her feelings toward students. You may remember that she describes the professor in her example as "interested in" certain approaches, which differentiates that professor from one who actually "uses" the listed approaches.
The instructional practices she reports as existing in the schools sending students to teacher training institutions were and are still used in most teacher education institutions. If you continue to do what you always did, you will always get what you got. Reform begins with you, now.
T. Fenn Rider
Mother of ADD Sufferer Knows Syndrome's Reality
To the Editor:
I would be more likely to agree with Thomas Armstrong's Commentary ("ADD as a Social Invention," Oct. 18, 1995) if the following were not part of my experience:
(1) Life with my 7-year-old, who exhibits the attention-deficit-disorder characteristics; (2) life with my 11-year-old son without these characteristics; (3) our family's stability (although stressors come at different development phases for each child) and basically good (by no means perfect) family functioning with ground rules and values consistent over the life span of the children; (4) my clinical training and experience in working as a counselor with adults and children; (5) consultation with several well-qualified psychologists who directly or indirectly observed my son with ADD symptoms; (6) both my husband's and my observations on the change in our son's behavior with central-nervous-system stimulant medication in which he is more focused, calm, present, on task, engaging, and cooperative.
Mr. Armstrong's suggestion that ADD may simply be a "social invention" doesn't correspond with studies that have indicated ADD is a neurological condition. Brain activity and metabolism, medication response, and family history have shown certain differences in those with the ADD diagnosis. For instance, adults with ADD utilize glucose, the brain's main energy source, at a lesser rate than adults without it in the areas of the brain involved in attention, impulsivity, and motor activity.
Thomas Armstrong asks, "Why, for example, does identification of ADD vary so widely from one social context to another? ... Studies reveal that up to 80 percent of the time, ADD cannot be identified in the physician's office, presumably because the one-to-one social context with a (frequently) male authority figure mediates against the occurrence of symptoms." The reference to male authority figures and their direct effect on children with the syndrome is not one of attention deficit, but of attention inconsistency, and most of those who have ADD can hyperfocus at times. The pediatrician's office does provide a structured, one-on-one, novel experience. Studies have shown that these factors mitigate ADD symptoms.
Look at these same children out on the playground--those who are extremely sensitive to noise and other forms of sensory overload, who have difficulty in impulse control and are prone to be hyperactive (all part of the neurological condition associated with ADD). Here kids are primarily on their own to chose when they're finished with their lunch so they can play. Then they do what they want to do, play the games they choose, figure out and implement their own rules, possibly mingle with children of several ages together at once--with minimal adult supervision or structure. What you see are some children coping a lot better than others. The ones who might look "on the edge" compared with most, in terms of their physical activity, heightened emotionality (frantic excitement, angry, irritable, tense, etc.), difficulty cooperating with others in games, or displaying aggressive behavior, are often those who more than others exhibit these traits and those who could have the ADD syndrome.
Mr. Armstrong summarizes, "It's possible that children who have been labeled ADD are the 'canaries in the mine' of modern-day education; they may be signaling us to transform our nation's classrooms into more dynamic, novel, and exciting learning environments." I agree that those with the ADD syndrome have much to contribute to society with their intuitiveness, enthusiasm, creativity, and usually high intelligence, and I am very supportive of high-quality and creative learning environments. However, I am confused by this statement.
Again, "novel" environments often do mitigate ADD symptoms. "Dynamic"? "Exciting"? What does this mean? A classroom with a lot of noise--kids talking all at once, mechanical noise, multiple projects under way, the teacher and/or classroom volunteer giving directions to various projects at the same time, noise from other kids in the hall--can certainly all be considered "exciting" and "dynamic." While some children may be able to self-regulate and screen out unwanted stimulation, others (such as those with ADD symptomotology) cannot. Instead, they can become over-stimulated and out of control, especially without a proper diagnosis and, often, prescribed medication.
Mill Valley, Calif.
On 'Workplace Education' Boils Down to Relevancy
To the Editor:
Wow! Talk about missing the boat!
At least Dennis L. Evans knows that four-year colleges and universities are elitist ("Education for the Workplace: Another Form of Elitism," Commentary, Nov. 8, 1995). In his Commentary, he asks a number of questions, rhetorical apparently, such as, "What happened to the notion of a sound, basic liberal education for all the children of all the people?" and "What's wrong with trying to prepare all children for a college education?" Mr. Evans ... the 1950s called ... they want their ideas back.
Preparing all children for college is a noble idea but not a realistic one. High school dropout rates in the 1950s were so high that the students left tended to be "college bound" types. Now, public school dropout rates have been cut drastically. A contributing factor is that students are beginning to be shown why they should learn. How everything relates to the world of work and what is required of a student to be employable. Granted, making young people good citizens is still very much needed, and there are students who do quite well in liberal education. But when you show the relevancy of curriculum to the workplace you are going to positively affect many more students.
Another question Mr. Evans poses: "Will it be vocational tracks for students deemed (doomed?) to be likely candidates for the workforce?" Doomed! Talk about elitism. The last university graduate I talked to said, "Would you like fries with that?"
Apparently, Mr. Evans has not looked under the hood of his car lately or pondered how they get all that information on those small disks. The answer is technicians. The workforce he has a disdain for is what drives this country's and the world's economy. Take a look at the employment trends: 1950--20 percent professional, 65 percent unskilled, and 15 percent skilled; 1991--20 percent professional, 55 percent skilled, and 25 percent unskilled; projected to 2000--20 percent professional, 65 percent skilled, and 15 percent unskilled. Notice a pattern here?
Professionals, who are the four-year college and university graduates, have no growth projected through 2000. Say, here is what I want for my kids: four (or more likely five) years of college debt, a four-year degree (but that's only for the 25 percent that do end up with a degree), a narrow career outlook, their car in my driveway, and their old room at home back in use.
We need to be honest with our children and the students we counsel. Yes, a liberal education is good, but if you want to get a job you need to have skills (job skills, people skills, math skills, communication skills). Competition is the name of the game in the job market. The more you can offer your future employer in the way of skills or experiences gained, the better chance you have of getting hired.
It all boils down to relevancy. We must present education and curriculum in a way that relates to life, careers, and the workplace. If we are going to educate all people, let us gear education to what everyone has in common: the workplace and their future careers.
Southeast Vocational Technical Center