Published Online: April 4, 2001
Published in Print: April 4, 2001, as Letters



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Smaller Class Size, Then and Now

To the Editor:

In your Research feature article on "Sizing Up Small Classes," (Feb. 28, 2001), the admonition from University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee researcher Alex Molnar—"Reducing class size is the necessary precondition. Then you follow up with staff development"—was a sound recommendation then, and it continues to be.

"Then" was in 1955, when I co-wrote a monograph called "Class Size: The Multimillion-Dollar Question." (Today it would be called "The Multibillion- Dollar Question.") One of the conclusions of that research report was this:

"Where the teachers were aware of the reduced-class-size policy and had been asked to give definite attention to taking advantage of the better situation, results came more quickly and were more pronounced." Sounds like "follow up with staff development."

When will they ever learn?

Bernard McKenna
Naples, Fla.

Caring Affects Us Through a Lifetime

To the Editor:

As the principal of a high-minority-enrollment high school, I read with great interest "Needed: Caring Schools," by Joseph Sanacore (Commentary, March 7, 2001).

The state of New York is engaged in a high-stakes-testing initiative in which current 9th grade students will not graduate in four years unless they pass five mandated regents' examinations. While my colleagues and I are in favor of high expectations and accountability, we also are sensitive to the harsh realities that confront most students, and minority learners, in particular.

Mr. Sanacore's review of major societal changes sets the stage for understanding the negative impact these social changes can have on today's young people. His stance on the need for maintaining a broader understanding of students and the communities in which they live is extremely important for responding to the problem of underachievement that plagues minority student populations throughout the nation.

I view Mr. Sanacore's essay as a call to those in power to develop a deeper awareness of the large numbers of children at risk of failure and to provide these children with caring and substantive responses that touch their emotions, intellect, and overall well-being. Efforts that don't consider this broader view of human development are fragmented and will not have a lasting effect on learners' lives.

Mary Jones
St. Albans, N.Y.

An Educator's Oath

To the Editor:

After reading Joseph Sanacore's Commentary ("Needed: Caring Schools," Commentary, March 7, 2001), I would like to suggest as a sequel the following Educators' Oath and Declaration that are part of my recently completed book, Do No Harm: The End of the Unequal Education Opportunity in America.

The Educators' Oath:

In the exercise of my professional duties, I will make no rule, engage in no activity, practice, or methodology that either intentionally or by its own nature could prove to be vengeful or harmful to any student in my care.

The Charter School Declaration:

We hold these truths to be self-evident: Every child is born with an unquenchable thirst for learning and is entitled to the full and free satisfaction thereof from cradle to grave. The ultimate purpose of the knowledge and skills acquired from such learning shall be for the betterment of all humankind.

Herman Steinberg-Ohme
Palo Alto, Calif.

Bilingual Education: Whom To Believe?

To the Editor:

Concerning the U.S. General Accounting Office and bilingual education ("OCR Seen as Unbiased on Bilingual Ed. Issue," March 7, 2001): In the early 1980s, William J. Bennett, then the U.S. secretary of education, requested that the GAO do an audit of bilingual education practices. When the agency reported that bilingual education practices should continue to be funded, he made scathing attacks on the GAO. A few years ago, the National Academy of Sciences reported in its study on reducing reading difficulties in children that teaching students in their own language was an effective reading practice.

Whom is one to believe? Visit or consult the Center for Applied Linguistics, Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages, the Center for Language Minority Research, or other quality research organizations.

Frank Ohnesorgen
Hanford, Calif.

District 2: 'Results Speak for Themselves'

To the Editor:

As the acting superintendent for Community School District 2 in New York City, I am in a prime position to correct the egregious errors contained in your two Commentary pieces under the headline ("Two Views on Manhattan's District 2," Commentary, Feb. 28, 2001.)

I need not counter the extreme positions, written by a school volunteer and a parent, by listing the accomplishments of our district or defending the instructional choices that have enabled us to become a successful and sought-after district for students and teachers alike. The many communications I have received lead me to believe you will be hearing from other educators. I did find it rather surprising, however, to be criticized for being too progressive and too conservative on the very same page. I'm sure that most of your readers sensed the irony and questioned the authors' real understanding of how schools and classrooms throughout our district operate.

Many of the errors concern district mandates. Several months ago, for example, we held a literacy workshop in which staff developers were asked to respond to a list of "literacy myths."

These included such notions as “Every classroom must have a word wall,” and “Literacy must only be taught in the morning,” two of the “mandates” one author refers to. What she fails to mention is that these were a list of myths, not mandates. Somehow, the author found a copy of this staff- development prompt and chose to use it to prove our standardization of instruction.

Professional development is a key component of life in District 2, and we are always reflecting on our practice. I found the list of myths to be a significant as well as humorous way for staff developers to clarify their thinking on literacy practice. I trust that the author would have delighted in the professional conversations that took place as each myth was dispelled and staff developers shared the many ways that teachers are accomplishing their assessment-driven literacy goals. (If any readers would like a copy of our Top-Ten Literacy Myths, they should contact our district.)

Similarly, mandates are created or misconstrued in the essay about PS 198, a school that the state education department calls a “registration-review success story” because it is the most improved former “school under registration review” in terms of academic performance. The school volunteer who wrote this essay is absolutely wrong, for example, when she states that rugs are mandatory. Also incorrect are the assertions that children are grouped by reading level (books may be leveled but not children), and that phonics is not taught in that school.

She also suggests that progressive education requires school to be “leisurely” and “unstructured.” I can assure you that schools do not come off the state’s SURR list within one year by casual instruction.

If the authors of these two Commentaries had chosen to ask me about literacy mandates in our district, I would have made the following comments:

All children should have teachers who are well-equipped to provide ongoing assessment of their literacy needs and expert instruction to meet those needs. This expert instruction takes place one-on-one, in small groups, and in whole- class gatherings. All students should have access to high-quality literature and big blocks of time in which to read and write. All children should have regular and predictable opportunities to read along, to read alone, to be read to, and to respond to appropriate and engaging materials.

We spend a great deal of money training teachers in District 2 because our educators are considered decisionmakers, not technicians. Our mandates are reasonable, our classrooms are rigorous, and our results speak for themselves.

Shelley Harwayne
Acting Superintendent
Community School District 2
New York, N.Y.

A ‘Brave New World’ From Retro Revolutionaries

To the Editor:

I was fascinated to learn from the essay by William J. Bennett and David Gelernter ("Improving Education With Technology," Commentary, March 14, 2001.) that technology will be the new vehicle for school choice.

Last year, 28 states considered voucher legislation, but not one passed new legislation. California's and Michigan's failed voter initiatives have dispirited the choice advocates. The courts found that Florida's and Ohio's voucher programs were unconstitutional, though the rulings are under appeal. President Bush has refrained from mentioning the word "voucher."

The voucher movement has stalled, and its advocates are divided about where to direct their energies. Some propose tax credits; others seek new resources for charter schools. Now it appears that computers can silently bring about the school choice revolution.

The online schools proposed by Mr. Bennett and Mr. Gelernter will lessen the importance of qualified teachers. Children can be set up in centers housing hundreds of computers, with only limited supervision. Technical colleges and rural public schools already provide instruction in this manner. Without the need for professionals, the teachers' unions will lose their monopoly over decisionmaking. Private firms hawking their own brand of instruction will step in. Charter schools and home schooling will explode. Religious schools will be relieved from the burden of paying lay teachers livable salaries.

While I do not oppose increasing choice in schools, especially in urban areas, I do not believe that a software program can ever replace the teacher. A computer cannot provide Socratic dialogue, it cannot answer creative questions, nor can it interject interesting tangents and personal anecdotes in a lesson. Children will also lose the competition and camaraderie found in a classroom. A life of isolation in front of a computer strikes me as a very sad fate for our children.

I hope that liberals and conservatives alike understand the limits of computers before rushing into this brave new world.

Laura McKenna
Doctoral Candidate
City University of New York Graduate Center
New York, N.Y.

To the Editor:

William J. Bennett and David Gelernter claim to have joined the technology revolution, but still sound much like the skeptics they used to be. While acknowledging the awesome power of the Internet, they still talk about "teaching material" having to "stand on its own without computers or technology to jazz it up."

David Thornburg, an educational technology icon, would disagree. According to Mr. Thornburg, computers should change not only how you teach, but also what you teach. After all, you don't sit in a five-star restaurant expecting to be served a McDonald's meal.

To the authors' statement that "it's the content that counts, not the computer," I would say this: Being educated is more than the ability to master the computer or the content; it is about acquiring essential life skills to sensibly apply knowledge in a real-world context—something that technology facilitates.

Mr. Bennett and Mr. Gelernter sound more like traditionalists than revolutionaries when they insist that a child's education should be a tangible thing, so that "parents must be able to see, step by step, exactly what education their children are getting." This view pays homage to the testing craze while devaluing the intangible aspects of learning, such as critical and creative thinking and self-esteem.

The revolution can benefit from big names like Mr. Bennett and Mr. Gelernter, but only if they understand that all the old rules have changed—not just the ones they are comfortable with changing.

Prakash Nair
Urban Educational Facilities for the 21st Century
Forest Hills, N.Y.

Vol. 20, Issue 29, Pages 40-41

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