Published Online: October 29, 1997

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Greeting 'New Unionism' With Open Arms

To the Editor:

As "old NEA staff" cheerleading the "new unionism," I am perplexed by your article "Old NEA Staff Could Impede New Unionism" (Oct. 8, 1997). Bad facts make bad law, and a couple of bad strikes make for bad generalization. Most UniServ staff I know work in harmony with National Education Association leaders, and two strikes by staff members of NEA state affiliates are the exception, not the norm. Besides, everyone knows UniServ is highly decentralized, hardly "bureaucratic." An Ottawa, Kan., 1st grade teacher is my immediate supervisor, not some Washington bureaucrat.

My 16 years with UniServ have been a time of exciting change. When President Bob Chase unveiled the NEA's "new unionism" last February, many of us felt it was about time. At last, a national leader who endorses the changes many of us have been promoting for years. Much of our job satisfaction has come from being on the cutting edge of education innovation while constantly reinventing our job descriptions. It's nice to see this is now NEA policy.

Every day an NEA member asks me to become an expert on some new initiative, program, plan, or regulation. Yesterday it was inclusion and child abuse; today it's sexual harassment and peer assistance. Often my expertise finds a superintendent inviting me to train an all-staff in-service at no cost to the district. Many of the initiatives reported in Education Week become weekend research projects for UniServ staff.

Contrary to assertions by Mike Antonucci and Myron Lieberman, NEA power no longer comes from mere collective bargaining prowess, but rather from our substantial research database and extremely well-trained staff. Since most of us were classroom teachers, albeit a bit more aggressive than average, NEA training events are rigorous. We won't countenance sloppy research or invalid data, let alone lame presentations. UniServ programs result in solid, useful tools that empower all classroom teachers.

Attacking staff salaries is just the latest anti-union tactic designed to promote internal NEA and American Federation of Teachers dissension. When I left teaching after 15 years, nine of which were in apprenticeship for UniServ, I knew that I was sacrificing family time along with weekends, and those summers off. On a per-hour basis, I make about the same money as I did teaching.

But more important, UniServ spends most of those hours outdoing $100- to $150-an-hour school board attorneys. Less experienced private-sector human resources staff members with lower qualifications and training are fabulously compensated. My salary-benefit summary is published annually for members' review, and they still treat me with mutual respect. This is a nonissue.

Four years ago, I voted with my union to strike our employer. Just three hours short of the deadline, we settled. Needless to say, feelings on both sides were intense, but an interesting thing happened. We healed ourselves. It wasn't easy, but joint committees forced the parties to reconcile, and we staff members are back to devoting our lives to the welfare of our members. It was just a family squabble, much as it is in Ohio and Louisiana.

Our contract is up next year, and we may reach that awful impasse once again. If we need to strike, I'll support it because I feel staff unions must model the behavior we expect from our affiliates. As President Chase has said, the new unionism doesn't mean abandoning the best of the old unionism. We will join him in making the NEA "better."

Steve Lopes
Sunflower UniServ Director
Kansas NEA
Ottawa, Kan.

Test Scores Don't Reveal Quality of Teaching

To the Editor:

In a recent letter, Patrick Groff defends norm-referenced testing and drill-and-kill teaching by claiming that California's NAEP scores provided evidence for our policy swing back to phonics-only instruction ("Testing's Power To Change Curricula Depends on View," Letters, Oct. 1, 1997). In fact, the National Assessment of Educational Progress tests were just an excuse for the test and textbook publishers (who are the same people), the far-righties, and the learning-disabled to pressure the state into seriously threatening teachers' professionalism and academic freedom, as well as our students' opportunity to learn.

California's NAEP scores correlate with: the poverty of our children--as do all test scores (one in four California students is officially poor); our very high numbers of limited-English speakers (one out of four); our low per-pupil spending (we are 41st in the country); our big classes (before last year's class-size reduction, we were last); and our school librarians (we are last again). Tests say little about how well a child reads, and nothing about what kind of instruction she has received; instead, they tell us how well she takes tests. If you want to know how a child reads, sit down and read with her.

Our legislature did not "declare whole-language teaching illegal"--not quite. It has tried to defund Reading Recovery; to specify who gives the literacy training that was the quid for the quo of reduced class size; to censor the ideological content of university courses for new and aspiring teachers; and to pay for only those beginning-reading materials that severely limit the strategies children can use to get meaning from text.

It's not an accident that the friends of tests are the friends of phonics. They share the belief that education is simply teaching children rules, and that it can be assessed without ever asking a child why she chose that predigested rote answer. Whole language, in contrast, provides beginning readers and writers with a broad range of strategies--including phonics--for getting meaning from print. Taking away all of these other supports is like taking away the crutch, cast, wheelchair, cane, ramps, physical therapy, and friends' arms from someone with a broken leg, and asking her just to hobble. One must hear a 7-year-old try to sound out "thought" to appreciate the inefficiency of phonics-only instruction.

Anecdotal data imply that what is making a difference is our mandated reduced-class size. We are approaching the ratios (20-to-1) in K-3 that most of the country has long had, giving us the luxury of teaching reading the very best way: an adult sharing her strategies with a couple of children as she reads aloud to them, known technically as The Lap Method.

Susan Harman
Resource Specialist
Lake Elementary School
San Pablo, Calif.

Personal Attacks Detract From Critical Debate

To the Editor:

As a great fan of Education Week I was pleased that you covered our recent Boston report, but disappointed that the story included a personal attack by Abigail Thernstrom that I was not given a chance to respond to ("Orfield Report Praises Boston Transfer Program," Oct. 8, 1997). The same thing happened before in a story including an attack by Christine Rossell. Since I think that personal shouting matches distract from the very serious issues we are working on, I never respond in kind.

Ms. Thernstrom, Ms. Rossell, and Linda Chavez, whom President Reagan appointed to turn around the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, have a center devoted to attacking many of the civil rights policies of the last two generations. That is their right, but they often engage in ad hominem attacks.

In this particular case, Ms. Thernstrom combined her personal attack with criticism of our report for not addressing issues it never claimed to address. The report did provide very important new data on many issues that have long been debated about the Boston area's city-suburban desegregation program, such as the background of the families, the amount of discrimination they perceive, whether they participate in suburban schools, whether they would come back to city schools, and many other issues.

I think that the issues we are working on deserve full and frank debate. All studies have their limitations that should be critically discussed. I hope that we can keep the discussion on the actual issues and that your paper will not encourage strategies of personal smears. I hope that we can debate methods and findings, not engage in name-calling which adds nothing to understanding and is intended to marginalize researchers and points of view.

Gary Orfield
Professor of Education and Social Policy
Graduate School of Education
Harvard University
Cambridge, Mass.

By Any Standards, History Text Is Flawed

To the Editor:

In "Glimmer of History Standards Shows Up in Latest Textbooks" (Oct. 8, 1997), you reported that a schoolbook titled United States History: In the Course of Human Events had been roundly condemned in a review that ran in The Textbook Letter. You then offered a comment by Matthew T. Downey, identified as one of the authors of In the Course of Human Events. Mr. Downey said that "attacks" on that book were attempts to denigrate some so-called "national standards" in history, issued in 1994 by some people at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Mr. Downey is either woefully misinformed or is indulging in self-serving fantasies. He should look at my own review of In the Course of Human Events, as printed in The Textbook Letter, and he should note two points:

First, though the review is some 3,000 words long, it makes no mention whatsoever of any "national standards."

Second, the review is given to showing that In the Course of Human Events repeatedly deals in falsehoods, distortions, ideological double talk, the reinforcing of racist stereotypes, and the dissemination of fake "history" which promotes social and political notions espoused by the far left. This book is an abomination and a fraud in its own right--with or without any "national standards."

In a quotation that appears later in your article, Mr. Downey says: "You have to go the extra mile to pay attention to the institutions that are not so obvious." Which "institutions" does he have in mind? The book that he seeks to defend is certainly rich in trickery, political preaching, pseudoscience, and anti-intellectualism, but I never before have heard anyone refer to these things as "institutions."

Educators who would like to read all the reviews of In the Course of Human Events that ran in The Textbook Letter will find them at the Textbook League's site on the World Wide Web: www.csulb.edu/~ttl/west127.htm.

William J. Bennetta
President
The Textbook League
Sausalito, Calif.

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