In the Press

June 24, 1987 10 min read

Despite the presence of sex-education courses in schools, American youths continue to be sexually active because schools fail to teach the virtue of abstinence, U.S. Secretary of Education William J. Bennett argues in the July 3 issue of National Review.

“I do not suggest that sex education has caused the increase in sexual activity among young people; but clearly it has not prevented it,’' Mr. Bennett writes in “Why Johnny Can’t Abstain.’'

Quoting from materials “commonly used in many schools,’' Mr. Bennett concludes that sex-education classes, rather than teach what is right and wrong, tend to stress that students should feel “comfortable’’ with decisions regarding sex. While such courses should teach “the relevant physiology, what used to be called the ‘facts of life,’'' they should also place those facts in a moral context, he contends.

A proper sex-education course, the Secretary says, should emphasize sexual restraint, the complicated emotions involved in sex, and the responsibilities of parenthood.

“If sex-education courses are prepared to deal with reality in all its complexity, with the hard truths of the human condition, then they are welcome in our schools,’' Mr. Bennett concludes.

“But if sex-education courses are not prepared to tell the truth, if instead they want to simplify or distort or omit certain aspects of these realities in this very important realm of human life, then we should let them go out of business.’'

Some may call him “Crazy Joe,’' but when it comes to running Eastside High School in the tough, inner-city environs of Paterson, N.J., Joe Clark’s word is law, according to an approving profile in the Sunday magazine of The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Mr. Clark, a bullhorn-toting principal with a zeal for discipline, is depicted, in his own words, as “the savior’’ of Eastside and its largely black and Hispanic student body.

The article this spring is not the only media attention Mr. Clark has received in recent months. His tough-talking, aggressive leadership was also featured on the television program “60 Minutes.’'

Frank Rossi, the author of the Inquirer article, follows Mr. Clark through the course of a normal day, as he stalks Eastside’s halls, directing traffic, questioning errant students and dispensing stuffed teddy bears--paid for out of his own pocket--that are rewards for good conduct.

Since assuming the top post at the school five years ago, Mr. Clark is credited with cleaning up Eastside’s drug-ridden, violent image. But at the same time, he has been widely criticized for his outspoken opinions on a variety of subjects.

The Inquirer offers a sampling of Mr. Clark’s views, such as his belief that the nation’s black and Hispanic communities will “probably self-destruct’’ before the end of the century, and his unwillingness to let students’ rights stand in the way of his war on drugs.

“In my school,’' he is quoted as saying, “I’m the Constitution.’'

American educators may be placing undue emphasis on the nation’s dropout problem, potentially at the expense of important school reforms, argues Chester E. Finn Jr., the U.S. Education Department’s assistant secretary for educational research and improvement.

Writing in the spring issue of The Public Interest, Mr. Finn maintains that the “dropout problem’’ may not be as bad as many Americans think. The national dropout rate of 25 percent, he points out, has held steady for many years. But, in stark contrast to that rate, 86 percent of the young people questioned by U.S. census takers said they had completed their high-school education, Mr. Finn says. This is partly because most high-school dropouts later realize their error and return to school or take a high-school-equivalency exam, he says.

“Thus, it is incorrect to view dropping out as a static or permanent condition in the United States,’' he writes. “We might view ourselves in a rather different light if we visualized just one young American in seven failing to acquire a secondary education than when we understand it to be one dropout in four.’'

He also points out that few states have adopted one simple approach to the problem: requiring that all students earn a high-school diploma.

“So long as high-school attendance is optional, so long as attendance through age 18 is required in few places, and so long as enforcement of existing attendance laws is lackadaisical, we surely convey the message that high-school completion is not one of our societal absolutes,’' he writes.

And school-based strategies to solve the problem may be doing more harm than good, according to Mr. Finn.

In the first place, he contends, such strategies--many of which assume that the schools are the cause of students’ leaving--cannot adequately address the larger societal ills that may be as much to blame.

“We need to be wary of diagnoses that associate dropping out with academic failure or frustration in school, a linkage apt to be used as an argument against education reform itself, specifically against the across-the-board lifting of standards that is the central theme of the contemporary ‘excellence movement,’'' Mr. Finn argues.

That kind of thinking, he says, may lead educators to identify a new “sheltered class’’ in the schools: the potential dropout. And educators may seek to lower the standards of “excellence’’ in order to meet their needs, he suggests.

“It is probably best to assure that school is both interesting and challenging from 1st grade onward and that every diploma carries value,’' Mr. Finn concludes, “and then leave it primarily to individuals to gauge whether or not the reward is worth the effort to obtain it.’'

In addition to Mr. Finn’s article, “The High-School Dropout Puzzle,’' the spring issue of the journal also features two other articles that deal with teen-agers.

In “The Violent Deaths of American Youth,’' the researchers Michael R. Greenberg, George W. Carey, and Frank J. Popper discuss geographical and societal differences in the patterns of violence among young people.

And in “Should We Discourage Teen-Age Marriage?’' Maris A. Vinovskis and P. Lindsay Chase-Lansdale question the wisdom of the current tendency to discourage pregnant teen-agers from marrying.

Child care for children less than 2 years old is both a fast-growing and controversial business, notes Betty Holcomb in a recent article in New York magazine.

In “Where’s Mommy?’' Ms. Holcomb points out that child care is “a key source of stress for today’s working parents.’' With almost half of all working mothers “back on the job before their child’s first birthday’'--twice the rate recorded in 1970--more working parents are facing the dilemma not only of finding suitable day care, she says, but also of convincing themselves that putting their infants in group care is the proper thing to do.

And, she notes, although some experts argue that children who are placed in group day care at too young an age will experience problems with close personal relationships later in life, others contend that such care, if administered properly, can benefit young children by promoting their development.

Citing a number of authorities, Ms. Holcomb writes in the April 13 article that, “because group day-care programs are almost all very new, it’s hard to predict their long-term effect on children,’' especially those who receive such care from the time they are infants.

In the late 1960’s, she says, “studies reported that day care was a healthy way of coping.’' And in 1978, Jay Belsky, a Pennsylvania State University psychologist, released an influential study that said day care is not necessarily harmful to infants and toddlers.

But these studies, she points out, later drew criticism from experts who pointed to more recent evidence indicating that children less than a year old “suffer when taken out of their mother’s care.’'

Even Mr. Belsky has changed his opinion, Ms. Holcomb notes, and now contends that “infants separated from their mothers before their first birthday are more likely to be insecure as infants and aggressive and uncooperative during their preschool and elementary-school years.’'

It is no wonder that working parents are “perplexed’’ about what to do with their young children, given the lack of consensus even among experts,’' Edward Zigler, the Sterling Professor of Psychology at Yale University, is quoted as saying.

According to Ms. Holcomb, the debate over the benefits and drawbacks of child care has resurfaced largely because of a “shift back to older values’’ during the Reagan Administration.

She quotes Mr. Belsky as saying that with so many studies offering conflicting points of view about group child care, scientists, like politicians, often only cite research and studies that best support their own theories and arguments.

Today’s school readers create “an unrealistic image of a society where all the battles are in the past, where racism is history, and where women and minorities have nothing left to strive for,’' writes the education historian Diane Ravitch in the May 17 issue of The New York Times Book Review.

“The only real problems, it seems, result from poor interpersonal relations,’' she continues.

Comparing today’s “dumbed-down’’ readers with the 19th century’s McGuffey’s Eclectic Readers, she concludes that the earlier books had a far higher intellectual content.

Furthermore, she says, the “intellectual level of the teacher guides is, if anything, even lower than that of the children’s textbooks.

They tell the teacher exactly what to say, which questions to ask, and which answers are correct. They summarize each story, on the assumption that the teacher cannot understand the material without the guide’s assistance.’'

Writing that “the golden age of the school reader began to fade in the 1920’s, with the introduction of standardized testing,’' Ms. Ravitch goes on to say that in “the modern utilitarian era, the content of the readers changed rapidly: myths, fairy tales, fables, legends, and other classic elements were dropped in favor of informational material and realistic stories about boys and girls. This trend reached it apogee in the 1930’s with the introduction of the totally nonliterary Dick and Jane readers.’'

Although the “abandonment’’ of the fairy-tale genre went virtually unnoticed until Bruno Bettelheim published Uses of Enchantment in 1976, Ms. Ravitch notes that the response of some publishers to his criticisms now has been to include “a few myths and fairy tales at each grade level.’'

Ms. Ravitch concludes that television may indeed have made books obsolete, as some have argued, “but unless we expose children to the best literature of both present and past--the poems and stories that they would want to read even if they didn’t have to--then [television] will win an uncontested victory.’'

After having asked themselves in the early 1980’s, “Why don’t more young Americans take science courses, come to understand science, go on to have careers in science?’' the staff of Science Books & Films concluded that one answer might lie in high-school textbooks. They decided, therefore, to conduct a “comprehensive evaluation of high-school texts, working [their] way through the curriculum from biology to physics.’'

In the May/June 1987 issue of the magazine, published by The American Association for the Advancement of Science, Kit Johnston, the editor, says she faced the “next logical step,’' evaluating and ranking science textbooks used in middle schools.

In doing this, Ms. Johnston says, she found that the goals for middle-school science were “far less clear than the goals for high-school science.’'

In the article “Middle School Science Texts: What’s Wrong That Could Be Made Right?’' a round-table discussion is presented.

The eight panelists and Ms. Johnston, serving as moderator, consider such questions as, “Good Texts: Do They Exist?’' “Can Texts Correct Misconceptions?’' “Why Students Are Turned Off,’' “What Can Teachers Do To Help Students Comprehend Texts?’' and “Principles To Consider During Text Selection.’'

Writing that “texts aren’t the only materials available to middle-school science students,’' Ms. Johnston appends a selected bibliography of trade books in the physical sciences, suitable for students, that are “especially useful as supplemental reading’’ to the article.

A version of this article appeared in the August 04, 1987 edition of Education Week as In the Press